American Essence

The Educator Who Shaped the Destiny and Morality of a Nation

BY Jeff Minick TIMEMarch 16, 2023 PRINT

Passionate teachers can light a flame in their students that will burn long into the future. Few of them, however, can claim to have helped shape the destiny and moral character of a nation.

Beginning in 1835, in conjunction with the Cincinnati publishing firm Truman and Smith, professor William Holmes McGuffey (1800–1873) wrote four readers for the primary grades, or grammar school as many then called it. In addition to reading, grammar, spelling, writing, and elocution, these primers taught Judeo-Christian values, lessons in morality and character building, and the importance of hard work and education.

And they sold by the box-load across the country, so much so that by the end of the century more than 100 million copiesof “McGuffey’s Readers” had passed into the hands of schoolchildren. Frequently edited and increasingly secularized, the “Readers” remained in some classrooms into the 20th century. Even today, the books remain in print, used by some private academies and homeschoolers.

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William Holmes McGuffey, professor and administrator, wrote four readers for the primary grades, which taught generations of American children essential reading and writing skills as well as lessons in morality and the importance of hard work, individualism, and freedom. (Biba Kayewich for American Essence)

In their heyday, these textbooks educated countless students, influencing Americans like William Howard Taft, Andrew Carnegie, and the Wright brothers. As Donna Braden relates in “William Holmes McGuffey and His Popular Readers,” when “President Theodore Roosevelt claimed that he did not wish to be a ‘Meddlesome Matty,’ everyone knew what he meant. He was referring to a character in McGuffey’s fourth reader who snooped and meddled in other people’s affairs.”

So, who was this man, largely forgotten today, who bestowed on generations of Americans reading and writing skills, a code of morality, and a fervent belief in individualism and freedom?

A Child of the Frontier

Like so many people of his time who left their imprint on the culture—Abraham Lincoln is perhaps the most famous example—McGuffey was a child of the frontier. Born in a log cabin in Western Pennsylvania and the second of 11 children, he, at a young age, moved with his family to Ohio. His Scots-Irish heritage embedded in him a fierce belief in Calvinism and the importance of education, banners that guided McGuffey his entire life. From his father, he gained a thirst for adventure and the idea that a man should make his own way in the world, while his mother, who taught him reading, writing, and arithmetic, encouraged him in his formal education. She arranged a tutor for him in ancient languages and enrolled him in a private academy in Youngstown, Ohio, 6 miles from their home. Even in his adolescence, McGuffey was an excellent learner endowed with a prodigious memory, proven by his ability to learn by heart entire books of the Bible.

At age 14, with the blessing and encouragement of his teacher, McGuffey opened a subscription school, where 48 students paid to sit in his classroom. Lacking textbooks, they brought their Bibles to the classroom for reading purposes. In these humble circumstances, McGuffey frequently worked 11 hours a day six days a week to ensure they were receiving a good education.

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William Holmes McGuffey Birthplace (Eclectic Readers)

In addition to teaching, for the next several years McGuffey helped with the family farm and attended Washington College, a Presbyterian school in Pennsylvania. Eventually, he completed his education at Ohio’s newly founded Miami University, where he joined the faculty as an instructor in classical languages and taught for 10 years. It was here that he wrote his four progressive readers, a series with increasingly difficult material that was later supplemented with two more volumes by his brother Alexander.

Meanwhile, in 1829, McGuffey also became a Presbyterian minister, and though he remained a college professor, he preached periodically for the remainder of his life. After serving at several other academic institutions, McGuffey joined the University of Virginia in Charlottesville in 1845 as a professor of moral philosophy, a position he held until his death.

The Man Behind the Accomplishments

Though this brief account of McGuffey’s life may seem to reveal a hardened moralist, such was not the case. He was a loving husband who cared for his first wife during the illness that led to her death. Known as “Old Guff” to his Virginia students, he was “athletic, loved children, had a sparkling sense of humor, and enjoyed a good joke.” During the hard times of the Civil War and afterward, he gained a reputation for helping Charlottesville’s poor and African Americans.

His life illuminates all the forces that created this maker of American virtues. His parents, his teachers, his experiences in the rough-hewn schools of Western Pennsylvania and Ohio, his readings from the Bible and Shakespeare, his studies of the Greek and Roman classics—all contributed to the formation of William McGuffey.

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The Eclectic Readers (also known as the McGuffey Readers) were a series of textbooks for grades one to six that were widely used in American schools from the mid-19th century to the early 20th century. (Rob Shenk (CC BY-SA 2.0, by-sa/2.0))

Despite his obscurity today, memorials to his accomplishments remain. Henry Ford, a passionate advocate of the “Readers,” rebuilt the log cabin of McGuffey’s birth in his Greenfield Village in Dearborn, Michigan. Several buildings around the country, including Miami’s College of Education and an arts center in Charlottesville, are named in his honor.

But the greatest of McGuffey’s monuments are his “Readers.” Their impact was deep and profound, which raises this question: Might not our educators and writers of curricula benefit our students, and indeed our culture, by taking a look at the design and meaning of the “Readers” and incorporating those concepts into our modern textbooks?

This article was originally published in American Essence magazine.

Jeff Minick has four children and a growing platoon of grandchildren. For 20 years, he taught history, literature, and Latin to seminars of homeschooling students in Asheville, N.C. He is the author of two novels, “Amanda Bell” and “Dust On Their Wings,” and two works of nonfiction, “Learning As I Go” and “Movies Make The Man.” Today, he lives and writes in Front Royal, Va.
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