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William Holmes McGuffey
Scots-American Educator

William Holmes McGuffey (September 23, 1800 – May 4, 1873) was a college professor and president who is best known for writing the McGuffey Readers, the first widely used series of elementary school-level textbooks. More than 120 million copies of McGuffey Readers were sold between 1836 and 1960, placing its sales in a category with the Bible and Webster's Dictionary.

McGuffey left Washington College in 1826 to become a professor of ancient languages at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. In 1832, he was transferred to the chair of moral philosophy.

In 1829, he was licensed as a minister in the Presbyterian Church at Bethel Chapel. He preached frequently during the remainder of his life.

Truman and Smith, a Cincinnati publisher, wanted to publish a series of four graded readers for schoolchildren. Based upon a recommendation from Harriet Beecher Stowe, they hired McGuffey. His brother Alexander Hamilton McGuffey wrote the fifth and sixth readers for the McGuffey Readers series. His books sold over 120 million copies and still continue to be used for homeschooling.

In 1836, he left Miami to become president of Cincinnati College, where he also served as a distinguished teacher and lecturer. He left Cincinnati in 1839 to become the 4th president of Ohio University, which he left in 1843 to become president of what was then called the Woodward Free Grammar School in Cincinnati, one of the country's earliest public schools.

From 1843 to 1845, he was a professor in Woodward College in Cincinnati. While in Cincinnati he began the preparation of an "Eclectic" series of readers and spellers, which became popular, and have been many times revised and reissued. From 1845 till his death, he occupied the chair of moral philosophy and political economy in the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, Virginia.

The earliest documented history of the McGuffey family begins in the spring of 1774 in Wigtownshire, Scotland, a “bleak jut of bog and moorland that separates the Irish Sea and the North Channel,” according to Alice McGuffey Ruggles, a granddaughter of Alexander McGuffey, William’s brother, in her Story of the McGuffeys.

The McGuffeys probably belonged originally to the fighting MacFie clan, who once ranged the mountains of northwest Scotland, but they had long since drifted to the south, becoming industrious Lowland farmers and artisans, deeply committed to the faith of the Covenanters, but consistently persecuted for their religious beliefs.
William McGuffey, known as “Scotch Billy,” the grandfather of William Holmes McGuffey, and his wife, Ann McKittrick McGuffey, decided to emigrate to the American colonies after England passed the infamous “Enclosure Acts,” depriving farmers of the “Commons,” land that they depended upon to earn a decent living.

A cobbler and farmer by trade, “Scotch Billy” was educated and read all the books he could acquire; he was also an ardent Calvinist. The story may be apocryphal, but a McGuffey descendant relates how Ann McKittrick met her future husband by barring an inn door with a crane from the fireplace to prevent British officers from entering to impress the young Scotsman into service in the Seven Years’ War against the French. After Billy and his friends made their escape, he renewed his acquaintance with the spirited girl and later married her.

With three young children—Alexander, eight; Catherine, six; and Elizabeth, four—the young family scraped together their savings, packed up their belongings, and set sail for America, landing in Philadelphia. They bought a farm in Chanceford Township, York County, Pennsylvania, where they had relatives,6 but before their first crop was up, Billy enlisted in the American revolutionary army in the war against the British.

Left alone to run the farm with her three children, Ann rose to the occasion. Since a highway ran in front of the McGuffey home, “soldiers, rangers from beyond the mountains, and more than once General Washington himself stopped in for rest and refreshment.” In fact, Alexander, then a boy of about nine, remembered feeding General Washington’s white horse as he was passing through.

After Billy returned from fighting in the Revolutionary War, he was disillusioned that the struggling new government could not pay its soldiers for their services. Having borrowed on his land and being behind in his payments, he was quick to take advantage of the government’s offer of cheap land in western Pennsylvania—more specifically in Finley Township, on the Wheeling Creek, Washington County.

Selling their York County farm for $500, a good price in those days, Billy and his family joined the endless stream of Scots-Irish settlers pouring into the western wilderness. Since 1768, when Washington County, in western Pennsylvania, was ceded to the province by the Indians, thousands of devout Presbyterians moved into the new territory.

According to Dr. Minnich, writing in the Miami University Bulletin:

In 1782, 114 of these early settlers drew up the famous religious agreement, which reveals the profound sentiment of piety among these early Scotch-Irish Presbyterians in Washington County: ‘We, and each of us, whose names are underwritten, being chiefly the inhabitants of the Western frontier of Washington County, considering the many abounding evils in our own hearts and lives, as also the open and secret violation of the holy law of God, which dishonors His name and defiles and ruins our country; such as ignorance, unbelief, hardness of heart, contempt of God in His ordinances, law, and gospel (in particular in setting our hearts upon the creature in one line or another more than on God), breach of His Sabbath, disobedience to parents, back-bitings, entertaining bad thoughts, and receiving groundless evil reports of others, unfaithfulness to God for His mercies, profaning His name, uncleanness, lascivious songs, filthy discourse, promiscuous dancing, drunkenness, defraud, deceit, over-reaching in bargains, gaming, horse racing, cock fighting, shooting for prizes, lying, covetousness, discontent, fretting against the dispensations of God’s providence, unfaithfulness for God (in suffering sin to remain on our neighbor unreproved), denying God in the neglect of family and secret worship, catechizing and instruction of our children and servants or slaves, vexatious wranglings, and law suits, together with innumerable evils, provoking God to send down heavy judgments on our land, and to with-hold or withdraw His gracious presence, and unfit our soul for enjoying any solid happiness, which we desire to acknowledge with shame and sorrow of heart before God, and do in the strength of God and depending on His grace for support, solemnly promise (to our powers, according to our various places and stations) to engage against both in ourselves and others, as providence shall give us opportunity, and prudence direct.

Such was the deep religious fervor of the devout Scots-Irish settlers in Washington County, where Billy McGuffey was bringing his family and where his famous grandson, William Holmes McGuffey, would be born.

But the migration along the trail that early pioneers had forged through the Cumberland Gap a year after Billy and Ann had left Scotland would not be without tragedy for the family. As Mrs. Ruggles reported, halfway across the mountains, Elizabeth McGuffey, the youngest daughter, sickened one night and died. “They wrapped her in canvas and buried her at sunup . . . under a high bank of laurel and maidenhead fern. Her father marked a pine tree so that someday he could come back and get her . . . but Ann knew well enough that there would be no coming back ... the cavalcade moved on.”

It was in the summer of 1789 that the McGuffeys, along with their fellow travelers of similar background and religion, finally reached their destination. Again, as Mrs. Ruggles wrote:

By frontier custom the older settlers helped newcomers build their cabins. Billy’s neighbors went deep into the forest, felled trees, and hauled them back on ‘skids.’ Others selected straightgrained wood and hewed rough clapboards for the roof. Billy and ‘Sandy’ (Alexander, his son) laid aside the largest trunks and with their broad axes split ‘puncheons’ for the floor. To prepare the lumber for the cabin took one day.

On the second day all hands joined in raising the house and roofing it. On the third day they made tables and chairs, a clapboard door, and a large bedstead formed by forked poles fastened into the floor and walls with wide boards laid across them . . . later a large outside ‘stack chimney’ of stones and clay would be built. . . . On the fourth day Ann and Catherine, who had been sleeping in a lean-to of branches and blankets, moved in.

Billy McGuffey must have prospered on his new farm because Mrs. Ruggles cited family records indicating that he sold his first holding for $600, bought another, and then built a bigger house. By that time, young Alexander, or “Sandy,” was in his early twenties— tall and rangy with a reputation for being the fastest runner in the area as well as a crack shot—and chafed at the monotony of farming. As a boy, he had thrilled to his father’s stories of the amazing feats of Daniel Boone, Simon Kenton, and Lewis Wetzel, and now he yearned to repeat their exploits as an Indian scout.

In later years, Sandy must have told the story of his many skirmishes and narrow escapes from the Indians to Daniel Drake of Cincinnati, whose daughter would later marry Sandy’s son and namesake, Alexander McGuffey. Drake, in turn, repeated the tale to his grandson and thus the legend of Sandy’s Indian-fighting exploits grew.

In 1790 Sandy McGuffey and his friend, young Duncan McArthur, three years his junior, who would later become governor of Ohio, enlisted in the service of Samuel Brady, a brother to General Hugh Brady, to serve as spies in the Indian wars. Like Sandy, Duncan came from a tough-fibered Scots lineage. His mother, a Campbell, had died young, leaving eight small children. His widowed father then migrated with his brood from Duchess County, New York, settling at Fort Pitt. While still in his early teens, Duncan worked as a wagoner, “leading the long lines of pack horses carrying salt, iron, gunpowder, pots and kettles, and the precious rum to the frontier.” Known as a fearsome lot, the wagoners taught young Duncan the resourcefulness he would later need as he and Sandy confronted the Indians in sometimes hand-to-hand combat.

Assuming that the “Sandy McGuffey, Indian Scout” story, like all legends, has been somewhat fictionalized through the many retellings, it still bears mention, if only to give some idea of the courageous, fearless young man who would later father William Holmes McGuffey.

In a previously unpublished manuscript, Harriet McGuffey Love, a descendant, told the story in detail:

The two (Sandy and Duncan) had been selected by Samuel Brady, and the choice was the result of a competitive examination in which the contestants had not always known that they were even under observation.

The many applicants for the position were finally cut down to five young men, who were required to run races, hunt deer, and shoot at a mark. Not satisfied with these tests, Brady sent the five into the woods for Indians, and then dispatched older spies, dressed like savages, to skulk through the forest to find out which of the applicants would stand to their guns and which would retreat. The results of both the open and secret tests proved young McGuffey and McArthur the winners. They spent the first year scouting around Wheeling, West Virginia, hunting deer and bear.

During the summer of 1791 they had more dangerous service to perform, as they were sent with Captain Boggs and an expedition across the Ohio River into what is now Belmont County, Ohio. At the forks of the little Captina River, the Indians attacked the whites, killing Captain Boggs, who was in advance of his men. McGuffey and McArthur then took to cover, returning the fire of the invisible enemy. The savages, when they found out that they were outnumbered by the whites three-to-one, broke for cover, but with the exception of their leaders, all escaped. Five savages pursued McArthur and McGuffey, with the latter running up the hill from the creek, and when he reached the top, his pursuers were so near that he stopped, pointing his empty gun at them. They dropped into the grass while he made his escape.

At the conclusion of the campaign, some of the Indians who took part in the attack came to Wheeling. One of them shook hands with McGuffey, introducing himself as one of the three who had chased him up the hill. Still in doubt as to their comparative fleetness, the two ran a race on the spot, with McGuffey winning.

In the year of this engagement, Brady, McArthur, and McGuffey made an expedition across what is now the state of Ohio to Cold Spring, near Sandusky, where they discovered the preparation being made to attack General St. Clair. Deciding that the American commander should be informed of his danger, they started back on the trail of one of the Indian parties. Since they were surrounded by the savages, they were afraid to shoot game, so choked their little dogs to death and lived on their flesh. On the third day they reached St. Clair, but despite the warning, he chose to move ahead, suffering a humiliating defeat on the Wabash River.

Through the next sumer the Indians were extremely troublesome and the spies guarded the settlements from Pennsylvania to Virginia. General “Mad” Anthony Wayne was coming with a part of his army, finally encamping at Economy, 16 miles below Pittsburgh, where McGuffey visited him.

As history documents, the Ireaty or Greenville, signed by General Wayne and the representatives of the ^twelve tribes of warring Indians, established a permanent peace in the Ohio Valley a year after Wayne’s victory at the Battle of Fallen Timbers in August 1794.

With his adventurous, Indian-fighting days behind him, Sandy McGuffey returned home to the comparative monotony of his parents’ pioneer existence, probably wondering what the future held for him.

That question was soon settled in the person of Anna Holmes, the eighteen-year-old daughter of Henry and Jane Roney Holmes, who had settled in Finley Township about nine years before the McGuffeys. “Rural Grove,” the Holmes’s four hundred-acre farm, boasted the only two-story house in the area, and the family was considered well-off, by pioneer staldards.

Henry Holmes, an Englishman, had married Jane Roney, an Irish girl, in Ireland, and family records indicate that their daughter Anna might have been born there. Jane’s brother Hercules Roney, who accompanied the pair to the New World, lived up to his name, soon becoming a legend for his strength and bravery in the Indian wars.

According to Mrs. Ruggles’s account, Anna was a high-spirited girl with chestnut hair and blue-gray eyes, keenly interested in reading and furthering her education. Pursued by the young McGuffey, fresh from his Indian-scouting exploits, the two were married at "Rural Grove” shortly before Christmas 1797.

The wedding must have been an unusually festive affair, with guests coming from miles around, feasting on roast venison, wild turkey, vegetables, fruit juices, johnnycake with maple syrup and honey, and wonders (the frontier brand of crullers), all washed down with jugs of milk, cider, and sweetened water.

Recreating the scene as it might have happened, Mrs. Ruggles relates that after gorging themselves at the Roney’s cabin, the guests later proceeded to the McGuffey’s home where Mrs. McGuffey and her daughter Catherine served another enormous meal. Since Sandy and his bride were to make their home at “Rural Grove,” the younger guests and the Holmes family later escorted them back for the final festivities, the “infare.”

In Mrs. Ruggles’s words, “The fire was built up, the lard lamps trimmed, and they [the guests] played games and practical jokes. Uncle Hercules Roney got out the old fiddle he had brought from Ulster for square dancing ... at midnight, apples and wonders and cider were passed around for the last time. Candles were lighted by the women in the upper story, and the big bed was warmed; and Sandy carried his tall bride up the ladder . . . the trap door closed with a bang.”

Observing that in less sober circles, the closing of the trapdoor might have been a signal for a wild outburst of “carousing and noise, of cheers and jeers, of horseplay, and the beating of iron kettles until daybreak,” Mrs. Ruggles determined that “Covenanters had more delicate manners.”

Three children were born to Anna and Sandy while they lived with her parents: Jane, the oldest, on 9 February 1799, named for Anna’s mother; William Holmes, on 23 September 1800, named for both Sandy’s father and his mother’s family; and Henry on 9 May 1802, named for his mother’s father. Jane, the oldest daughter, would later marry twice, first to Joseph Stewart and after his death to David Young. She died on 9 July 1852 and is buried in the Greenwood Cemetery, New Castle, Pennsylvania.

Since our concern is with William Holmes, the second child (and with his younger brother Alexander, sixteen years his junior), a brief account of the life of his brother Henry should suffice. Educated also at Washington College like both William and Alexander, Henry studied medicine in New Castle, Pennsylvania, and married Nancy Dickson, the daughter of a prominent local family, when he was twenty and she was twenty-one. The couple first moved to Claysville, a few miles from New Castle, where their first two children died at birth but five others survived. Their next move, in 1836, was to Boone County, Kentucky, where Henry taught school and practiced medicine. Their last three children were born there. In 1857, the family moved to Colmer, Illinois, where Nancy died in 1864. Soon after, Henry married Laura Berry and moved to St. Mary’s, Illinois, where he died in 1877 at the age of seventy-five. He is buried in St. Mary’s.

It should also be noted here that Catherine, Sandy McGuffey’s only sibling, married James Little, a Revolutionary War soldier, in 1791. They were the parents of only one child, Margaret, who married Henry Henry in 1808. The Littles spent their entire married life in Finley Township, Washington County, Pennsylvania, where James died in October 1814. After his death, Catherine moved to Ohio in 1819, accompanied by her daughter and family, and then to Waterloo Township, Fayette County, Indiana, where she died on 4 October 1855. She is buried in Robison’s Chapel Cemetery in Fayette County. A large group of McGuffey descendents living in the Indiana area trace their lineage to Catherine McGuffey Little, who arrived from Scotland with her parents, William and Ann McKittrick McGuffey, her brother, Alexander (“Sandy”), and sister, Elizabeth, to begin life in the New World.

Sandy McGuffey, his wife, and three small children lived with his wife’s parents, but he must have burned with the desire to purchase his own piece of land. He probably heard with delight that Congress had passed the Harrison Act on 10 May 1800, reducing the minimum number of acres a pioneer might purchase in the Ohio Country from 640 to 320. At two dollars an acre with a down payment of fifty cents per acre, he knew that land for a home and farm could be had for a downpayment of $160, with five years to pay the $480 balance.

He might also have been approached by agents of the Connecticut Land Company, speculators who had purchased the whole of the Connecticut Western Reserve in Ohio, three million acres, and were offering it for sale. Dr. Minnich, in his biography of William Holmes McGuffey, wrote:

Her agents (of the Connecticut Land Company) were traveling everywhere, displaying specimens of the rich soil and other advantages of the Mahoning Valley and ‘New Connecticut.’ Daniel Coit had bought (from the company) a whole township in the northern tier of the former Trumbull County, which later became Coitsville Township, Mahoning County. Specimens of this soil were shown all over Washington County, Pennsylvania, and to this township of solid forest Alexander (Sandj) McGuffey was lured in 1802. He purchased about 165 acres from Gard and Elizabeth Green for $500, less than the government price under the Harrison Act. His purchase was doubtless on the long-time land contract plan. He received his deed in 1814.

The story of Sandy’s relocation to Coitsville Township, told to her granddaughters by Harriet McGuffey Love, his last surviving daughter, varies slightly from Dr. Minnich’s version and may also be debatable. As she told it, Sandy took out a claim for 130 acres in Coitsville Township, five miles east of Youngstown, Ohio, when he was an Indian scout for General Wayne, calling it “Gravel Hill Farm” because the property incorporated a large hill of white gravel.

Before bringing his wife and three children into the wilderness, he cleared away the land and partially completed a log cabin; then he returned for his family. On the trip to their new home, in 1803, Jane and William rode in baskets strapped across the back of a horse, which was led by their father, while Anna, his wife, riding another horse, carried the baby, Henry, in her arms. When they arrived at the half-completed windowless cabin, Sandy built a fire of pine-knots in the fireplace, arousing a somnambulant snake that lazily slithered across the floor.\

Five more children were born on Gravel Hill Farm: Anna, Katherine, Elizabeth (Betsy), Asenath,25 and Alexander Hamilton. After Anna died in 1829 at the age of fifty-three, worn out by the hardships of the frontier and childbearing, Sandy married Mary Dickey, a widow twenty-five years his junior, who bore him three more daughters, Harriet, Margaret, and Nancy, for a total of eleven children.

Some versions of the family history have the grandparents, William and Ann McKittrick McGuffey, accompanying Sandy and his family to northeastern Ohio, but Mrs. Love maintains that they arrived several years later.

Some controversy also arose concerning the actual site of William Holmes McGuffey’s birthplace in Washington County when Henry Ford, the industrialist and an ardent admirer of the Readers, decided in 1933 to move the structure to Greenfield Village, Dearborn, Michigan. Ford’s agents finally substantiated that the old “Henry Holmes Farm,” owned by a Mr. and Mrs. Blaney, was the actual site, not another that was also claiming recognition.

William Holmes McGuffey grew up in the wilderness of northeastern Ohio, assuming the duties that befell the oldest son of the family, working beside his father on the farm, splitting logs for firewood and building fences—a life of unremitting toil. Nor were the women and girls of the household spared, since merely keeping food on the table was a daylong chore. From early records we learn that the cabins were crude and primitive, often without windows, door, or chimney. As the pioneer’s lot improved, he would add a fireplace with a crane and rudimentary cooking utensils, but the trusty rifle and ax were always nearby in case of attack from animals or stray Indians who perhaps had not heard of the Treaty of Greenville.

Early settlers in the vast Western Reserve territory of Ohio gleaned nearly all their food, fuel, and clothing from the forest, streams, and their small plot of cleared land. Since this area of Ohio still experiences hot, sultry summers and formidable winters with temperatures often hovering around the zero mark or below, one can only admire the hardy survival instinct of those early pioneers, among them the McGuffeys. For example, a Trumbull County historian describes a particularly severe winter:

On the morning of February 3rd, 1818, when the sun arose, the eastern horizon was covered with blood-red clouds, varigated with somber drapings, giving unmistakable evidence that a storm was close at hand. Soon it began to snow, moderately at first but increasing as the day passed, a snowfall with but little wind, but when night came the earth was deeply covered with snow. With night came Old Boreas with his unearthly moans and hurricane fury, and pelting blinding snow, making night hideous for man or beast that was without shelter, but adding much to the happiness of those within sheltering walls and around the blazing, cheerful fires in our pioneer cabins, contrasting their situation with that of being out in that dreadful war of elements that was raging without . . . when morning came the storm had spent its fury, and the snow had ceased to fall. But such a sight as presented itself to our vision! The earth was covered four feet deep. No stumps, no fence, no logs were to be seen on the newly cleared fields. All was as smooth as the surface of a calm lake and presented a most desolate appearance.

Despite the constant rigors of farm life, Anna Holmes McGuffey was extremely ambitious that her sons, particularly William, who displayed an early precocity, should get an education. With only a rudimentary education herself, she taught the children all she knew during those long winter nights, tracing the letters and figures in the ashes of the fireplace, then erasing them and beginning again. All of McGuffey’s early biographers point to the strong influence of his mother in inspiring him to further his education. The fact that her early training fell on fertile ground was attested to by Dr. Minnich, noting: “He [William] committed to memory all literature that came in his possession. At the age of 21 he could repeat many of the books of the Bible complete. He could repeat verbatim sermons which he heard but a single time. Conversations and names of persons and places were always accurately remembered.”

Henrietta McGuffey, one of William’s surviving daughters, who would later become Mrs. A. D. Hepburn, wrote in her unpublished Autobiography: “Father had the usual education that boys of that country get, but of course it was not much. He was fond of studying and reading. He used to walk miles to borrow books from the schoolmaster or the minister and would read at night by the firelight, stretched out on the floor. He was 18 years old before he ever saw a slate.” His father also made him an adjustable candlestand for his nighttime reading, one of the items that can be seen in the McGuffey cabin in Henry Ford’s Greenfield Village.

It was probably due to Anna’s urgings that Sandy and his father cleared the five- or six-mile road from Coitsville into Youngstown (now McGuffey Road) to enable William and his older sister, Jane, to attend Reverend William Wick’s school in Youngstown after she had taught the children ail she knew. Well-educated, Reverend Wick was born on Long Island, New York on 27 June 1768. His family moved to Ten Mile, Washington County, Pennsylvania, lending credence to family records,30 indicating that he was a longtime friend of the McGuffeys and perhaps one of the reasons why the family chose to settle in the Coitsville area. Licensed to preach by the Ohio Presbytery in 1797, he was ordained and installed pastor of the Hopewell and Neshannack churches, Lawrence County, Pennsylvania, before becoming a half-time pastor at Youngstown, Ohio. He also may have been the pastor of the Deer Creek Church where the family regularly attended services. Reverend Wick’s death on 19 March 1815 at forty-seven years of age, when William was fifteen probably ended William’s formal education, if it could be called that, in the Youngstown area.

A family record noted that William and Jane “took their trundlebeds and some provisions to the home of Reverend Wick, returning home for the weekends”—evidently in the winter months when William was not needed to assist his father on the farm.
An excerpt from The History of Trumbull and Mahoning Counties, Ohio, by H. C. Williams, appears to substantiate the fact that young Wiliam Holmes McGuffey also attended a subscription school in the Coitsville area:

His [William’s] mother, an excellent woman, used to delight in recounting the hardships she endured during the first years of their residence here and how she used to place William in a sugar trough while she assisted her husband in clearing the farm. William received his common school education in Coitsville, the writer of these sketches being one of his schoolmates. Our school house was a cabin of round logs, situated at the corner of the farms now occupied by Thomas Brownlee, Rev. H. S. Boyd, Al Wilson, and Ambrose Shields. William McGuffey afterward taught school in this same place.

The Youngstown McGuffey Society is currently attempting to reconstruct on its original site the log cabin school that William attended.

It was a common practice in McGuffey’s youth for young men with barely a minimal education to start a “subscription school” when they accumulated the desired number of students from the frontier to make it profitable for them. It was discouraging work, however, because most frontier parents were ignorant and indifferent toward education, and the children were wild and unruly. McGuffey himself would later lead the drive to establish free public education in both Ohio and Virginia and would also spearhead the teachers movement that eventually became the National Education Association (NEA).

By his fourteenth birthday, however, “Master McGuffey” agreed to “hold a four-month session of school on Lot 4 West Union (now Calcutta, Ohio), and to tutor all pupils coming from 23 families at two dollars each per term, commencing the first Monday of September, 1814, Anno Domino.” The signers of the contract promised to deliver forty-eight pupils.

Teaching in subscription schools must have been discouraging for William since both he and his mother were determined that he should further his education and eventually become a Presbyterian minister. But where was the money to come from? Although his father was willing to spare him from farm chores just as his own father had released him to scout for Indians, extra money was simply not available for sending his son to college, bright as he might be.

According to the story that appears in family records and biographies but was disputed by Dr. Edward McGuffey, Alexander’s son and William’s nephew,33 providence intervened in the person of kindly Rev. Thomas Hughes, who was touring the countryside looking for “likely lads” to attend his school, Greersburg Academy, in Darlington, Pennsylvania.

Reverend Hughes, pastor of Mount Pleasant Presbyterian Church in Greersburg [now called Darlington], built a log cabin on his lot in 1799 to be used “for school purposes.” The “Erie Presbytery,” holding its annual meeting at the church in 1802, resolved to give their support in building an academy there and to solicit financial aid among the other churches in their district. By 1806, largely due to Reverend Hughes’s fund-raising methods, the stone academy was built, serving first as a seminary for young men entering the ministry and later as a general classical academy.

One late summer night in 1818, as Reverend Hughes was riding past the McGuffey home in Trumbull County, he heard William’s mother praying fervently that God might find a way to provide her son with a college education. Deeply affected by the mother’s ardent prayer, Reverend Hughes returned the next morning to offer William the opportunity to attend the academy, living in the good pastor’s home and “choring” his expenses. He earned his room and board by working about the minister’s house, garden, and church, probably eating the seventy-five cents per week academy menu that included: breakfast, coffee and bread with butter; dinner, bread and meat or potatoes; and supper, bread and milk.

Although he was furthering his education at the academy, William soon realized that he would need a more in-depth course of study if he were ever to bring to fruition both his mother’s and his ambitions for his future. In 1820, when he applied for the position of headmaster for a new school in Warren, Ohio, he failed the examination, which was compiled by two members of the Board of Examiners. Both were Yale graduates, who evidently succeeded in posing questions that were beyond his range of education.

Undaunted, McGuffey would say in later years that his failure was really a blessing in disguise since it firmed his determination to look beyond a career as a village schoolmaster and to get his degree at an accredited college.

In addition to his mother’s immeasurable influence, three Presbyterian ministers were to play an inestimable role in shaping young McGuffey’s life. First, Reverend Wick of 'Youngstown, who first recognized his brilliance, introducing him to Latin at a tender age and whetting his appetite for further knowledge of languages—subjects he was later to teach as a college professor at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio; Reverend Thomas Hughes, the benevolent minister who provided him with the opportunity to escape the limiting confines of his father’s frontier farm; and finally, Reverend Andrew Wylie, the young (barely thirty) president of Washington College where McGuffey would finally earn his bachelor’s degree in 1826— a year after he started to teach at Miami University.

Already twenty, McGuffey was aware of the obstacles before him. It would probably take him at least six years to earn his degree since he had no money and would have to earn it by teaching in the country schools and by farming, which he hated. But, still stinging from humiliation at failing the Warren examination and remembering his mother’s constant admonition to “aim high—second bests aren’t worthwhile, ” he decided that it was worth the effort.

Washington College, strongly Presbyterian, had opened as an academy in 1789, the year Billy McGuffey and thousands of other Scots-Irish settlers had brought their families west. Incorporated as a college in 1806, it soon began to rival the older Jefferson College only seven miles away. [The two were united as Washington and Jefferson College in 1865.]

At Washington College, William studied Latin, Greek, Hebrew, ancient history, and philosophy. Mrs. Ruggles, in her family-oriented biography, wrote:

“Whatever William studied, he attacked with characteristic thoroughness and made completely his own. For years he had known entire books of the Bible by heart. But it was impossible to memorize all the classics in four languages. So when he had no money to buy a needed book, he copied out the contents of a borrowed volume, word for word, and bound the pages by hand.” A copy of William’s Hebrew grammar, written painstakingly by hand, is still in the possession of Washington and Jefferson College.

Even more important than his college courses, perhaps, was the friendship he developed with young Reverend Wylie, who was to exert a strong, lasting influence on the fledgling scholar. A Scots-Irishman like himself, Reverend Wylie was an excellent teacher with a fine sense of humor, much respected for his tolerance and patience. After teaching classes all day, he would hold conferences with his students in the evenings, considering the molding of young men more important than raising funds for the college.

“To this inspiring teacher, for he was a great teacher as well as a college executive, was due much of McGuffey’s success in his early career,” Dr. Minnich stated unequivocally in his McGuffey biography.

After a successful service of twelve years as president of Washington College, Reverend Wylie resigned to succeed the Reverend Matthew Brown, first president of Indiana College (Indiana University since 1838), serving in that capacity until his death in 1851. McGuffey seldom made an important move without consulting Reverend Wylie, including asking him for advice before marrying his first wife, Harriet Spining.

To help defray his college expenses, McGuffey was teaching in a private school in Paris, Kentucky, where some offshoots of the family lived, when the Reverend Robert Hamilton Bishop, the first President of Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, heard of his teaching prowess. Visiting young McGuffey’s classroom in an abandoned smokehouse, Reverend Bishop was so impressed with the young man’s brilliance that he immediately offered him the position of professor of ancient languages at Miami University at a salary of $600 per year.

Thoroughly perplexed about his course of action since he was still an undergraduate at Washington College, McGuffey, according to family records, returned to Coitsville for the funeral of his grandmother, Anna McKittrick McGuffey, who died on 6 February 1826, and discussed the matter with his mother, his first mentor. She advised him to accept the post, provided that he didn’t forget his promise to be ordained eventually as a Presbyterian minister.

That he kept his promise to his mother is proved by a record indicating that he was ordained on 29 March 1829, but it was too late for his mother to ever hear him preach since she died at the family homestead earlier that year.

While he was at home, the family also decided that his young brother Alexander, then only ten, should accompany him to Miami. Mrs. Ruggles, in her memoirs, suggested that perhaps Anna, his mother, knew the nature of her illness and could no longer cope with the impetuous, brilliant boy. He would do far better under the tutelage of his older brother.

After McGuffey decided to accept the Miami post, he received a letter from his good friend Reverend Wylie, dated 11 February 1826:

Upon the whole, I am inclined to think that you acted wisely in going to Oxford. You had raked up all the information to be found here, and the prospect, afforded you there, of being useful, and at the same time preparing yourself for extended usefulness in the future, while your funds may be accumulating instead of diminishing, I consider singularly felicitous. I did wish you very much to remain and graduate regularly with us, and afterwards to settle in some situation within striking distance of me, and in a more civilized land of the world. But I know it must not be according to my mind, and I wish you to be where you will be most useful and happy.

Late in 1825 or shortly after the Christmas holidays, as Dr. Minnich surmised, although family records place the date in February, 1826, McGuffey, with young Alexander beside him, set off on horseback to begin the nearly three hundred-mile journey to Miami. With their saddlebags loaded with his college books—copies of Livy, Horace, The Memorabilia, and the Greek and Hebrew texts of the Bible—the two travelers probably took the shortest route to the newly opened National Road near Columbus and then headed west near Dayton where they found roads leading through Middletown to Oxford.

Washington College conferred the degree of bachelor of arts with high honors on McGuffey, in absentia, at the close of the 1826 school year.

So began the illustrious college teaching career of the man whose name would be immortalized as the author of the famed Readers, although McGuffey himself was never particularly impressed by his accomplishment.

When McGuffey and his brother arrived in Oxford they found “a pioneer village with only a few log and frame houses and a lone brick house on South Main Street near South (Collins) Street. On the stump-dotted campus stood ‘the college edifice,’ and a few steps west of it was the president’s house. The original part of the house had been a two-room log schoolhouse, built in 1811. In 1818, a second story had been added for the Reverend James Hughs [sic], head of the Miami Preparatory School. For President Bishop the whole house had been weatherboarded, two frame rooms added, and painted red. McGuffey found a room in the old McCullough tavern at the corner of East Park and High Street where the Byrne drugstore now stands.”

Hardly a year before, Dr. Bishop (the honorary title had just been bestowed on him by Princeton University) had become the first president of Miami University. A Scotsman like McGuffey, Dr. Bishop was a young Edinburgh College student in 1801 when he happened to meet an American churchman on a street corner who was recruiting Presbyterian ministers for careers in America. As a result of their conversation, he and his young bride sailed for America in the fall of 1802. Assigned to the Presbytery of Kentucky, then the “extreme of the far West,” he arrived in Ohio precisely at the hour of its statehood.

After preaching to frontier congregations in Kentucky and southwestern Ohio for a year, he became a professor of moral philosophy, logic, criticism, and belles lettres at Transylvania College in Lexington, Kentucky, the oldest college west of the Alleghenies and at that time the literary center of the West. During his twenty years there he also taught natural philosophy, history, mathematics, and astronomy—a rigorous schedule—and his students remembered him as an excellent teacher. Jefferson Davis, one of his students who would later become president of the Confederate States, recalled Dr. Bishop as a man “of large attainments and very varied knowledge.” He was revered far and wide, obviously for his learning, his magnetism, and his profound and lofty earnestness. No one, apparently, who ever studied with him ever forgot him.

Miami University had not opened its doors officially when Dr. Bishop accepted the Board of Trustees’s invitation to become its first president. Arriving on 14 September 1824 to give his formal acceptance, he looked at the president’s house, an old log school now sporting a second story, and suggested that it be whitewashed and a sitting room be added. When he returned in October with his family in a two-horse wagon, he found the house freshly covered with weatherboard and painted red; it also had a stable nearby. His family, including his wife, eight children ranging in age from three to nineteen, and Nellie, a former Kentucky slave girl working out her freedom, soon filled the house to overflowing.

The university opened on 1 November 1824—after newspaper advertisements announced two sessions, November through March and May through September. Tuition was $10 per session in the college and $5 in the grammar school, board was $1 a week, and rooms were free except for a $5 servant’s fee. In all, the twenty enrolled students could expect to pay $93 for the year, although those lacking funds were given the opportunity to “work off” some of their expenses.

Coming from diverse backgrounds and without uniform education, the first Miami class ranged in age “from 10-year-old boys to stalwart young men of 30.” They included four seniors, three sophomores, five freshmen, and eight grammar school students. By the end of the year, the original twenty students had expanded to sixty-eight, as news of the college opening spread through the pioneer hinterland.

Each class studied together, lived together, and were subject to the same regulations: “Every student, except at recitation or lecture, shall remain in his room during study hours, which shall be regulated by the faculty.” The daily schedule began with a study period at 5 a.m., and except for meals, followed by two “exercise periods,” students were assigned to study and recitation until the evening prayers.

Considering the atmosphere of the town, the teeming excitement of raw-boned pioneers living on the farthest boundaries of the West in the 1820s, it is no small wonder that some of the new students would rebel against the college’s strict authority. As President Bishop himself wrote in the university’s magazine, the Literary Register, in October 1828:

To a person who has never witnessed it, the tide of emigration which sets in regularly every fall would be incredible. The Indiana Journal says that from 25 to 30 families pass through Indianapolis daily, on their way to the Wabash and other western settlements in that state. We have not had an opportunity of counting the average number of families that pass through this place daily; but it seems to us that from morning to night moving wagons are hardly out of sight. They form an almost continuous line with their wagons, their stock, and their children, jogging along at their leisure with great cheerfulness.

Oxford itself, a village of five hundred people at the time Dr. Bishop wrote, was comprised mainly of immigrants from England, Scotland, Ireland, and the Atlantic coast. Havighurst wrote in The Miami Years:

Oxford [in 1825] was a frontier town ringed by the stubborn forest. The township maps showed a few creeks winding through wild land marked only by scattered sawmills, gristmills, Indian mounds. For the village’s . . . residents there were six stores, three taverns, a harness shop, a tanyard, a livery stable, some log and some frame houses. All spring the Oxford air was hazed with smoke from the clearings; sometimes candles were lit at noon because the sky was dark from brush and forest fires. The High Street merchants sold axes, ox-yokes, log chains, grubbing hoes. The town had a few well-bred families; the rest were a raffish lot. More than a muddy campus separated town and college.

Observing that in Ralph Waldo Emerson’s words, “An institution is the lengthened shadow of one man,” Havighurst believed that “one man” in Miami University’s past was Dr. Robert Hamilton Bishop. Although the Board of Trustees removed him from office in 1841, largely because of differences over the slavery issue and matters of student discipline, the students, northern and southern alike, shared “a universal and most intense feeling of admiration and revering esteem” for him.

According to Havighurst, “this tall, lean, early rising, porridgeeating, religious, argumentative but tolerant man had a sense of humor to balance his sense of duty. That balance gave him ease, directness, and simplicity. College students, for all their lack, can detect pretension. In this man they sensed a simple greatness, and they honored him. It has never been easy to please a college faculty or a student body. Bishop endured many troubles, but he had the trust and admiration of his students.”

After the turmoil at Miami, Dr. Bishop, together with the liberal, rather earthy Professor John Witherspoon Scott, who usually sided with him on the slavery issue against William Holmes McGuffey and Albert T. Bledsoe, an outspoken states’ rights supporter, went to teach at Cary’s Academy, newly organized as Farmer’s College, a few miles from Cincinnati. Here Dr. Bishop spent the remainder of his life in peace and comparative harmony, dying in 1855 after a brief illness.

Arriving in Oxford by horseback with young Alec (promptly nicknamed “Red” by his Miami classmates), the twenty-five-year-old McGuffey must have thought it an idyllic place, with its whitewashed buildings outlined against the ever-encroaching forest and boys lounging around the campus well. He could not envision the political and theological controversies that would swirl about his head, often pitting him headlong against the kindly Dr. Bishop who first discovered his talent while he was teaching his subscription students in the abandoned smokehouse in Kentucky. The university, however, would provide McGuffey with his most productive years, the place where he compiled the original Readers and where he first made his mark as an extraordinary teacher and preacher.

In appearance, “the new professor was above medium height with a compact body, swarthy complexion, coarse dark hair thinned by an attack of fever, piercing blue eyes, his smoothly shaven face plainly showing his rugged Scottish ancestry. He had a wide mouth, prominent nose, and a high, broad forehead.”

Another version of his appearance is given by Henry Vail, a later editor of the McGuffey Readers, who remembered him personally:

Dr. McGuffey was a man of medium stature and compact figure. His forehead was broad and full; his eyes clear and expressive. His features were of the strongly Scotch type. He was a ready speaker, a popular lecturer on educational topics, and an able preacher. He was admirable in conversation. His observation of men was accurate, and his study of character close.

Reporting in the “Miami Alumni Reminiscences,” Charles Anderson, one of McGuffey’s students at Miami, wrote:

I can, even now, very clearly recall the dress, appearance, and gait of Professor McGuffey as he entered or left the chapel or his classroom (southwest corner of the second floor), or walked to and from his newly-founded family nest, at the southeast corner of the Hamilton Road, diagonally from the southern campus gate. The fashions of clothes, as of other institutions, have often and greatly changed since those “primitive” days. If anyone now cares to know the Professor’s apparel, it was somewhat thus: A silk stove-pipe hat; a complete suit of a certain stuff, called Bombazine, black in color, and usually a cane^composed his every-day costume. A black broadcloth coat was his Sunday or pulpit apparel. ... I think he always wore the clerical white cambrick cravat, instead of the large black “stock” of patent leather . . . when it is added that he was most habitually and characteristically neat in his person and apparel, this reminiscence ought to suffice.

That Professor McGuffey attempted to convey a picture of restrained elegance is indicated in his daughter Henrietta’s personal memoirs. In addition to his demanding college schedule, he would take turns with other Miami professors, preaching in the college chapel on Sundays. When his services weren’t required there he would walk or ride to nearby rural congregations. He believed that country preaching was invaluable training in elocution, which he stressed, and he urged his students to do the same.

While preaching in neighboring Darrtown, Henrietta wrote, her father was rebuked by the church elders, who told him that they liked his preaching, but didn’t care for his “stylishness.” They complained that he wore “a silk coat” and kept “a fine horse and buggy.” The Reverend McGuffey explained that it was for his wife’s purposes, that she wasn’t strong and couldn’t accompany him to church services without the carriage. As for the “silk” coat, he pointed out that he was sure that they, the elders, had two suits of clothes, one for everyday and one for Sunday, while he had only one. He also had them feel the coarse texture of the material, adding that the coat only looked shiny. According to the story that Henrietta remembered her father telling many times, the discomfited elders had nothing more to say about the equipage and the “silk” coat.

Another personal recollection of McGuffey came from a Dr. Thornton, who delivered the memorial address at the dedication of the McGuffey Public School building at Charlottesville, Virginia. Having spent the last twenty-eight years of his life as a professor at the University of Virginia, McGuffey was also instrumental in helping to establish the state’s public education system there as he had done earlier in Ohio. Dr. Thornton said:

Among my earliest recollections of The University of Virginia is the figure of Dr. William Holmes McGuffey. He was a man so ugly as not to be readily forgotten; a huge mouth, a portentious nose, sandy reddish grey hair, worn so long that it curled up a little above his ears, a vast forehead heightened by baldness, keen eyes that snapped and twinkled at you. His dress was wonderfully neat, but the most old fashioned I ever saw outside of a museum. For his Sunday morning lectures to his class in Bible Studies he would array himself in a dark blue coat with brass buttons, cut somewhat like the evening dress coat of the present day and known from its shape as a ‘shadbellied’ coat. Around his neck was a high linen collar surrounded by a voluminous black silk stock. When Professor Francis H. Smith first saw him he wore knee breeches with black silk stockings and low shoes fastened with shining buckles. In my time he had reconciled himself to trousers, but it seemed to me that this was his only concession to modernity. When that mouth of his broadened into a smile he looked to me like some genial monster. When he scowled even the young devils in his classroom believed and trembled.

Miss Katherine Stewart, who was eight years old when her grandfather died, insists that from memory and conversations with McGuffey’s daughters that he had black hair and not the sandy, reddish hair in Dr. Thornton’s account. It was Alexander, the young brother who accompanied him to Miami University, who favored his father, Alexander or “Sandy,” not only in complexion, but in his tall, lithe figure.

Young “Red”, as he was called, soon distinguished himself as a great tree climber and broad jumper on the campus, as well as an outstanding swimmer in Four Mile Creek. A brilliant student, noted for his declaiming and debating ability, he graduated from Miami University at sixteen.10 In October 1836, he began teaching English and ancient languages at Woodward College in Cincinnati while studying at the Cincinnati Law School. Passing the Ohio bar in 1839, he established his law office in Cincinnati when he was twenty-three years old, and eventually he became dean of the Cincinnati Law School.

Steeped in classical literature, proficient in seven languages, including Sanskrit, Alexander would be a natural choice to assist his brother in the compilation of the first four Readers. In 1844, he himself prepared McGuffey's Rhetorical Guide: Or Fifth Reader of the Eclectic Series Containing Extracts in Prose and Poetry, assisted by Dr. T. S. Pinneo, an editor for the W. B. Smith and Company, the publisher.

In 1839, in addition to setting up his own law practice, Alexander married Elizabeth Drake, daughter of Dr. Daniel Drake, head of the department of medicine at Cincinnati College and a social and intellectual leader in the community. William Holmes McGuffey’s daughters later remembered that they were left at home while their parents attended the wedding, and they had a wonderful time sliding down the arm of a haircloth sofa while wondering what was going on at the social event of the year. After Elizabeth’s death, which occurred soon after the birth of her ninth child, Alexander at fifty married the young and beautiful Caroline Rich of Massachusetts, the daughter of Samuel Heath Rich, a shipowner involved in trade with China. She would bear him six more children although several died in infancy.

Always stylishly dressed, Alexander in later years was an imposing figure—six feet tall with white hair and a neatly trimmed beard and moustache. He died on 3 June 1896 at the age of eighty in his elegant home, “Sunbright,” at 300 Southern Avenue in Mount Auburn, a fashionable suburb of Cincinnati, surrounded by children and grandchildren from both his marriages.11 He outlived his brother William by twenty-three years.

Alice McGuffey Ruggles, his granddaughter, said of him: “It rather bored him to talk about the Readers. He always regarded his share in their production as a bit of literary hack work done to oblige his brother. He used to say that at least ten millionaires had been made out of the books. But he never needed money. Many of the millionaires were his good friends and some of them were his life-long clients.”

While Alexander pursued his own illustrious career as a lawyer, William would never desert the teaching profession, which consumed his interest for the rest of his life.

At Miami University, McGuffey joined a small but able faculty, including President Bishop, who taught logic and moral philosophy, and John Annan, a Dickinson College graduate, who was professor of mathematics. McGuffey was replacing William Sparrow, educated at Trinity College, Ireland, who formerly held the chair of ancient languages and had accepted the post of vice president of Kenyon College.

Although William E. Smith in his book About the McGuffey's had William taking a room in the old McCullough Tavern when he first arrived in Oxford, Havighurst contended that he, and probably young Alexander, took a room next to Professor Annan on the second floor of the college building. According to Havighurst’s account, shortly after his arrival, the brick cupola of the roof collapsed, sending an anxious William to the window, but workmen told him not to jump.

During spring vacation in 1827, Havighurst also noted, McGuffey and Annan rode horseback through Butler County, along the newly constructed ditch of the Miami and Erie Canal, and upon their return they busied themselves by chopping and burning out stumps on the south campus. Much work remained to make the college a more habitable place.

But clearing the campus grounds must not have been the only concern of William Holmes McGuffey that spring, since family records indicate that he was married to Harriet Spining,14 daughter of Judge Isaac Spining, at “Woodside,” the family’s Dayton home, on 3 April 1827.

Until he came to Oxford, McGuffey’s interests had centered on getting an education, working on the farm, and teaching to earn the money to get his degree. Now, fairly secure in his college position, he finally felt free to enlarge his personal horizons. He had met Harriet at the home of her brother Charles, an Oxford merchant, whom she was visiting.

After she returned to Woodside, she and McGuffey must have corresponded extensively, because Dr. Minnich told the charming story that her young swain’s letters to her, although addressed to her brother, always had his middle initial underlined, indicating that they were for her eyes only. It was not customary in those days for a young man to address letters to his fiancee in her own name.

The Spinings were a prominent Dayton family, tracing their ancestry to 1637 when the first members of the family came to America with John Davenport. Harriet’s father, Isaac, and mother, Catherine Pierson Spining, joined the westward migration from New Jersey when they bought land in the Symmes Purchase, five miles up the Ohio River from Cincinnati before Dayton was settled. Her mother came from a distinguished family of ministers and educators, one of them a founder of Yale University and its first president. Her father, Judge Spining, was a notable figure in Day ton and Montgomery County politics, owning more than nine hundred acres of land that later became the site of Wright-Patterson Air Force Base. He held court in a log courthouse on Jefferson Street in Dayton.

Henrietta McGuffey, in her memoirs, wrote that her mother, Harriet Spining McGuffey, was a “beautiful and intelligent girl, modest, and deeply religious. Her dark brown hair lay in waves, the long curls held in place with small tortoise-shell combs. She had a straight, delicate nose, gray eyes, and a beautiful small mouth ” Since it was the custom in those days for married women to wear caps and William admired them on her, Harriet wore one the rest of her life— plain ones for every day and highly decorative ones for dress. Shortly after they were married, McGuffey had his wife’s portrait painted in oils, and her ever-present cap, decorated with “full lace frills and large bows of pink ribbon,” frames her face.

After their marriage, McGuffey and" his wife boarded in the only brick house on Oxford’s main street, owned by John Dollahan. As she was accustomed to keeping house for her brother, Harriet’s health soon began to fail with the inactivity. McGuffey was advised by Dr. James R. Hughes, a nephew of the Reverend Thomas Hughes who had provided the means for him to attend the Darlington “Old Stone Academy,” to set up housekeeping for themselves to keep Harriet occupied.

In accordance with Dr. Hughes’s advice, McGuffey purchased a frame house in 1829 on a four-acre tract of land (outlot 9) on Spring Street. A county tax duplicate noted that he paid a twenty-four-cent tax on a horse and cow—no doubt “Charley,” the horse that was mentioned earlier. Since it was not uncommon to attach a new house onto an old one in those days, McGuffey soon began making arrangements (probably with financial aid from his father-in-law, Judge Spining) for a much larger brick house to be built on the site. The new residence, assessed at $1,800 on a Butler County tax duplicate in 1834, was considered the finest in town at that time. McGuffey obviously intended to provide his wife with a style of living to which she had been accustomed but certainly far removed from his own austere background.

W. E. Smith, a curator of the McGuffey Museum in Oxford, described the house:

It was built with a portico on the north and a long two-storied gallery on the east with an eastern entrance. From this entrance ran the steep and narrow enclosed stairway, with its own hand rail. The house was painted a bright red, the same color as the president’s “mansion house” on the campus. From the portico it was only about 200 yards to the “college edifice,” where McGuffey taught in the south-west corner of the second floor.

The interior of the McGuffey house was plain, dignified, and substantial, with a touch of elegance here and there. Some of the beautiful old “Christian” doors remain on the second floor. Each of the six rooms had a fireplace. J. B. Murrell, local cabinetmaker, made the built-in cupboards with glass doors for the upper shelves and wooden doors for the lower. The olive-green walls with the stenciled border of dark green, in the present dining room, have been restored. It is said to be the room in which McGuffey did his experimental teaching of children. Murrell, the cabinetmaker, also made the famous octagonal revolving table designed by Professor McGuffey. Its eight drawers held his classified materials for his famous Readers. That old table was left behind when the McGuffeys left Oxford in 1836; it has been in use in some room on the campus ever since.

Four of William and Harriet’s five children were born in their Oxford home: Mary Haines, 30 January 1830; Henrietta, 10 July 1832; William Holmes, 1 October 1834; and Charles Spining, 8 November 1838. Edward Mansfield was born 18 May 1839 in Cincinnati. Only his two daughters survived. All three of his sons died early in life: William Holmes lived only fourteen days; Edward Mansfield died shortly after their arrival in Athens, Ohio, in 1839; and Charles Spining, who lived to be thirteen, died in Burlington, Vermont, in 1851 and is buried beside his mother in Woodlawn Cemetery, Dayton. Harriet died in 1850, at the age of forty-seven, in the Dayton house where she was married.

Mary Haines McGuffey married Dr. Walker Stewart of Dayton, a physician, while Henrietta married Dr. Andrew Dousa Hepburn, president of Miami University in 1872-73, where for many years he chaired the department of English.

Mary Haines McGuffey married Dr. Walker Stewart of Dayton, a physician, while Henrietta married Dr. Andrew Dousa Hepburn, president of Miami University in 1872-73, where for many years he chaired the department of English.

McGuffey’s nearly eleven years at Miami University were probably his most productive. In addition to his growing family, he was expanding in every area of his life and was soon gaining a statewide reputation as a dedicated teacher and public speaker, intensely involved in establishing a public education system for Ohio. Merging into the intellectual milieu of Cincinnati (only about thirty-six miles from Oxford), then the great urban center of the Middle West, McGuffey soon joined a group of men whose far-reaching intelligence and vision would classify them as “giants” in any age. Among them were Dr. Daniel Drake from New Jersey, an outstanding physician who also was interested in expanding the educational horizons of pioneer children; Edward D. Mansfield, author, editor, and leader in every civic and educational movement; Samuel Lewis, lawyer, philanthropist, educator, the first state educational officer of Ohio, and Superintendent of Common Schools, 1837-39; Albert Pickett, author of a series of school readers and principal of Pickett’s Female Seminary; and Joseph Ray, author of Ray’s series of arithmetics, companion text to the McGuffey Readers. Add the names of William Holmes McGuffey and his brother Alexander to the list, and it indeed represents a formidable brain trust.

The eminent Beecher family also became part of the intellectual ferment in Cincinnati when Lyman Beecher and his children arrived in 1832. He was president-elect of the newly established Lane Seminary; his son, Henry Ward, was already gaining fame as an accomplished preacher; and his daughter Catherine, still bereaved by the loss of her fiance in a hurricane at sea, discontinued her work with the Female Institute for Girls in Hartford, Connecticut, and came west with her father. Since her fame as an educator and author had preceded her, she was soon prevailed upon to open the Western Female Institute in Cincinnati, and she also became involved in the local educational movement.

Another daughter, Harriet, who married Professor Calvin E. Stowe of Lane Seminary, gained a measure of immortality with her book, Uncle Tom's Cabin, adding impetus to the snowballing abolitionist movement in the North. President Abraham Lincoln, on meeting her during the Civil War, was supposed to have said, “So this is the little lady who started this big war!” In 1836, the same year as their marriage, her husband was sent to Germany by the Ohio General Assembly to study the school system there, as state lawmakers moved irrevocably closer to establishing a public school system in Ohio.

These intellectual visionaries, including McGuffey, organized the first important teachers’ association in the United States, calling it a “College of Teachers,” meeting regularly in Cincinnati. The organization was later known as the Western Literary Institute and was the forerunner of the now immensely politically powerful National Education Association (NEA). McGuffey, one of the most prominent members of the organization, addressed the group many times on the massive problems facing educators as they tried to mold a system to meet the needs of pioneer children coming from different nationalities, speaking various dialects, and often from homes where the parents were illiterate.

Although McGuffey usually spoke extemporaneously, seldom writing down his addresses and sermons, one record does exist of a lecture he delivered before the society in 1845. It was an eloquent appeal for the education of the whole community, leisure for the working class that they might become pious and intelligent, the need for trained teachers, continued growth of teachers in service, and adequate school buildings.

Comprising the thought of the intellectual luminaries of the day, the Western Literary Institute constantly affirmed the need for a western culture and western schools, setting the foundation for western authorship and western publications.

The enterprising Winthrop B. Smith, then in partnership with William B. Truman in a Cincinnati publishing house, anticipated the need for textbooks specifically attuned to the needs of pioneer children and probably promulgated the rallying cry, “Western books for western people.” Here was a generation of bookless millions, coming from polyglot backgrounds, providing a ready market for his publications. By 1836 the foreign population of Ohio had risen to 460,970, with most immigrants coming from Germany, Ireland, and England. The predominant nationality in southwestern and western Ohio, however, was German (Mennonites, Dunkards, River Brethren, Roman Catholics, and Lutherans), “spreading their several hybrid vocabularies in private conversations and in the various sound contacts, often using mongrel words whose sounds seemed incapable of any orderly arrangement for spelling.

Already publishing Ray's Little Arithmetic, geared to the needs of pioneer children, Smith foresaw the tremendous market value of a series of readers that would serve the same purpose. He first approached Catherine Beecher with the idea, but since her primary interest was in higher education for women, she declined the offer, suggesting that he contact Professor McGuffey, knowing that he had already done extensive work in the area of elementary readers.

It is quite obvious that McGuffey’s contact with the Beecher family and his intimate association with members of the Western Literary Institute led to Smith’s proposition. A London publisher at this time had also printed his treatise on Methods of Reading, much discussed, probably among the intellectual elite.

According to Harriet McGuffey Love, remembering family folklore, McGuffey had already begun preparing his readers while he was teaching in Paris, Kentucky, the year before Dr. Bishop invited him to teach at Miami University. Since he had no textbooks suitable for his young charges, he, with the help of his older students, printed stories probably of his own creation on brown wrapping paper. Sitting on a log in the schoolyard, the children would pass the papers down the line as they read.

Despite his prodigious schedule at Miami University, including a full teaching load, coaching all the neophytes in oratory and public speaking (before breakfast, no less!), and preaching every Sunday, plus lecturing throughout Ohio on behalf of the public school system, McGuffey still found time to compile the first edition of his Readers. An indefatigable worker, he often said, “Labor with us was first a necessity; it has long been a luxury,” referring to his pioneer upbringing, much of it spent in merely clearing the forest for farming.

Zealous, ambitious, and resourceful, McGuffey gathered neighborhood children between classes to test the appeal of simple poems and stories. Tradition has it that he kept all his materials in his octagonal desk, ideal for separating word lists, spelling rules, reading exercises, and possible selections. The young professor, now a father himself, was busily compiling a new series of schoolbooks, the first specifically geared to the interests of the pioneer child.

McGuffey recognized the need for a graduated series of readers to replace the Puritan-inspired New England Primer, heavy with Calvinist theology, that was popular in the early schools (five million copies printed since 1690) and Webster’s Elementary Speller, or the “Blue Back Speller,” the leading textbook in the post-Revolutionary period. The Speller contained a lengthy moral catechism, a series of moral fables, a collection of both prose and verse readings, and an impressive spelling list. Packed along with the pioneer family’s pots and pans on their westward trek, the Speller was also the family anthology and encyclopedia.

McGuffey, however, with his own pioneer background and his experience in teaching children from the frontier settlements, knew intrinsically that the New England texts simply were not relevant to the western child. He would prepare his own Readers, reflecting the pioneer child’s delight in nature: the rippling streams, forest pathways, wild flowers, farm animals, his pet dog and cat—always watched over by a benevolent, although strict God, rather than the forbidding deity constantly warning him of impending gloom and doom.

Before McGuffey’s first meeting with Winthrop Smith, the publisher, he took his manuscript for the Primer, beginning A is for Ax, to one of his students, Welsh-born Benjamin Chidlaw, asking him to prepare a careful copy for publication. Living on thirty-two cents a week, cooking potatoes and porridge on the stove in his dormitory room, Chidlaw copied out the primer at his study table. McGuffey paid him five dollars for his effort.

Coming from his second-floor room on lower Main Street in Cincinnati, housing the nearly insolvent publishing partnership of Truman and Smith, Smith anticipated the immediate appeal of the little “western books for western children” and contracted with McGuffey for a speller and four readers, in addition to the Primer.

According to the terms of the contract, McGuffey would receive $1,000 in royalty payments. No one, except possibly the farsighted Mr. Smith, could have foreseen the vast treasure trove he had acquired, saving his firm from bankruptcy and allowing him and subsequent publishers of the Readers to retire as millionaires. The First Reader and Second Reader were published in 1836, the year McGuffey resigned his post at Miami University to accept the presidency of the newly founded Cincinnati College; a year later the Primer, the Third Reader, and the Fourth Readers followed. Added to the original books were questions to assist the teacher, rules of pronunciation, and spelling lists (with the collaboration of Catherine Beecher).24 The series was selling half a million copies a year by 1843.

While McGuffey was busily compiling his Readers, he still had time to become embroiled in a number of bitter campus controversies that would shatter the outwardly idyllic charm of the young university. He was often at loggerheads with the genial, easy-going President Bishop on the matter of student discipline, for example. Dr. Bishop, an ardent advocate of freedom and student responsibility, often said, “The general principle of the government of the institution is that every young man who wishes to become a scholar and expects to be useful as a member of a free community must at a very early period of life acquire the power of self-government.”

Despite the university’s strict rules regarding student discipline, drinking and disorderly conduct, long a problem in the riotous, pioneer village, became a burning issue in 1835. Students in ever-increasing numbers were taking the muddy path from the campus to the village and the High Street barrooms. Dr. Bishop had pleaded vainly with the proprietors to close their doors to students, and the trustees even petitioned the Ohio Legislature to outlaw liquor sales in Oxford, all to no avail. It wasn’t until 1905 that Oxford finally closed its drinking establishments.

The university, in 1832, had taken the stand that students patronizing local barrooms would be dismissed and the names of the proprietors circulated publicly. Many failed to heed the warning, however, and in 1835, the problem came to a head. As Walter Havighurst wrote in The Miami Years:

In January, Francis Carter, a hot-headed youth from Alabama, was expelled on three counts: continued idleness and neglect, instances of intoxication and profanity, and riot at a grocery [where liquor was sold]. On March 13, John Caperton was dismissed “for using improper language to one of the Professors at the close of recitation.” Three days later came a shooting-and-stabbing in the college building: George B. Haydon of South Carolina was expelled for discharging a pistol at Calvin Miller of Mansfield, Ohio, and the wounded Miller was expelled for attacking Charles Telford with “cowhide and dirk.” . . . In July four students were expelled for disorderly conduct, and in August three Southern students were sent home for riotous proceedings in the town of Oxford.” Eleven expulsions in a year were a blow to the 10-year-old college.

“Needled” by Professor McGuffey, in Havighurst’s words, always an advocate of strict discipline, the faculty decided to take drastic action on Christmas Eve 1835, when a group of the college’s “best” students were charged with “disorder.” Professor Scott, always a strong ally of President Bishop, claimed the charge was too severe: students were merely making “a trifling noise” near the door of North Dorm. The first faculty vote called for severe discipline, with only Dr. Bishop dissenting, and Professor McGuffey “exulted,” but several of the faculty later changed their minds, and the students were cleared.

As Havighurst noted, McGuffey, “already jealous of Bishop’s authority and prestige, began a prolonged attack on the president.” Professor Scott, siding with Bishop, believed that McGuffey “was not only a fomenter of discord but a hypocrite as well—calling for harshness in faculty meetings and courting students’ favor outside. ” Professor Scott said, “I have myself observed a very great difference between the tone assumed by Mr. McGuffey respecting a young man in secret Faculty session, and when the young man was present before us. In the one case it has sometimes been harsh, laconic, and denunciatory in the extreme—in the other, smooth as oil.” Professor McGuffey obviously was not regarded as the “jolly pedagogue” by some of his colleagues.

Political and theological differences also increased the tension at Miami during the mid-1830s. In 1832, students organized an AntiSlavery Society, parading by torchlight through the village streets and arguing the issue of states’ rights in their literary magazine and debating societies. Dr. Bishop and Professor Scott were avowed abolitionists, while McGuffey’s position was not quite clear. Havighurst claimed that he was pro-southern and usually agreed with Professor Albert T. Bledsoe, a staunch states’ rights supporter who would later become assistant secretary of war for the Confederacy. Interestingly enough, both McGuffey and Bledsoe would later become colleagues at the University of Virginia.

Dr. Minnich, however, writing in William Holmes McGuffey and His Readers, was not so sure of McGuffey’s total commitment to the southern course:

McGuffey’s attitude toward slavery is mooted. He most probably was not an abolitionist, though among his most intimate friends were the Beechers. Calvin Stowe, husband of Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of Uncle Tom's Cabin, was an intimate friend, and at the Stowe home, McGuffey was a frequent guest, even while the Beecher sisters were conducting groups of refugees along the Underground Railway. . . . While he was a professor at Miami, abolitionism was at tropic heat in public discussion, yet no commitment on his part is discoverable. He evidently was opposed to the injustice of slavery as his entire life would verify. He was, however, cavalier enough to enlist the warm friendship and admiration of the Southern gentleman. That he was not radical in anti-slavery beliefs is further verified by the cordiality shown him by the Virginians through his long professorship in Charlottesville. His marriage in 1851 to the daughter of a Southern gentleman further removed him from all suspicion of any radical anti-slavery sentiments. His many deeds of kindness to the Negro were never interpreted by the South as a sympathy with abolition, nor as antislavery sentiment. He belonged to the school of rugged individualism and knew no other economic system but that of Laissez-faire.

Further disagreements between Dr. Bishop and McGuffey arose over their schedule of classes. Hired to teach ancient languages, McGuffey yearned for an opportunity to be reassigned to the philosophy and religion courses, taught ably by Dr. Bishop. He had grown weary of “teaching forms, paradigms, and inflections of Latin and Greek and longed much to occupy a chair of mental and moral philosophy.”

McGuffey persisted and, as Mrs. Ruggles noted in The Story of the McGuffey Readers, “at times the president and the young professor of classics hardly spoke as they passed each other on campus or in the halls.”

The only problem was that most college presidents at that time reserved the privilege of teaching philosophy and religion for themselves, and President Bishop was no exception. He deemed these subjects “vital in establishing in the students in their last days of college the ideals of life, the essential religious tenets, and a social code worthy of alumni of Miami University.”

Since Minnich painted the McGuffey persona in the most adulatory colors, he downplayed the bitter controversy between Bishop and McGuffey over this matter, noting only, “that President Bishop surrendered so critical a section of the college curriculum to one of his staff . . . testifies to the esteem and confidence in which he held this colleague in the faculty.”

That wasn’t quite the way it was, according to James Rodabaugh in his impressively researched paper, “McGuffey: A Revised Portrait.” During his tenure at Miami University, one of his colleagues had written of McGuffey:

He was a man of very considerable talent, although not very general scholarship, especially in the departments of mathematics and general science; of active mind and fond of metaphysical investigation and discussion; an ingenious and plausible, but not always fair and safe reasoner; a very popular lecturer and public speaker, from his fluency and command of the language, though never rising to the higher flights of oratory; a man whithal of a good deal of personal vanity and ambition.

Based on his research, Rodabaugh concluded that McGuffey’s vanity and ambition engaged him in a struggle with President Bishop that was to result in his virtual dismissal from the university.

As Rodabaugh explained, McGuffey began to agitate the younger members of the faculty on the question of discipline, suggesting that Dr. Bishop was not strict enough. To appease him, McGuffey was given several courses in philosophy and religion from the president’s department, and ironbound discipline over the students became the order of the day.

Defending McGuffey’s actions, Mrs. Ruggles insisted that the “upstart from the backwoods” proceeded to make the courses memorable for his students. “Using the Socratic method,” she explained, “the professor promulgated, the students questioned, and the discussion wandered wherever their combined minds led. Though this was the age of academic stuffiness, no one was ever known to nod in McGuffey’s classes.”

Havighurst, however, writing in The Miami Years, agreed with the Rodabaugh account:

Already jealous of Bishop’s authority and prestige, McGuffey began a prolonged attack upon the president. Professor Scott, Bishop’s strong ally, believed that McGuffey was not only a fo-menter of discord, but a hypocrite as well, calling for harshness in faculty meetings and courting student favor outside.

While Professor Scott stood firmly behind President Bishop, McGuffey enlisted the support of young Albert T. Bledsoe, who had just been appointed professor of mathematics at Miami in 1835. Under McGuffey’s influence the young professor “was soon so opposed to the president that he even openly suggested his impeachment. ”

Because of the ruthless and open attacks on President Bishop, who was extremely popular with the students and the townspeople, McGuffey and his cohort Bledsoe were literally forced out of the school.

In March 1836, Bishop reported “a year of peculiar trial and difficulty.” He had been ill—“nearly lost the use of my right side and scarcely know what it is to get a good night’s rest.”

As noted earlier in this chapter, both President Bishop and Professor Scott also left Miami after the turmoil had subsided to teach at nearby Cary’s Academy, with Bishop ending his days there in comparative peace and serenity.

As the winds of controversy swirled through the university, McGuffey was no doubt happy to accept Dr. Daniel Drake’s call to become president of newly founded Cincinnati College. Resigning his position in 1836 (along with Professor Bledsoe), McGuffey was still a controversial figure at Miami since he was suspected of trying to divert the income of Miami to Cincinnati College. As head of Cincinnati College he advised parents not to send their sons to Miami “where it is more likely that they would be made Drunkards and Gamblers than good scholars.”

Another chapter was soon to open in McGuffey’s life.

You can download copies of his readers below in pdf format...

Reader 1
Reader 2
Reader 3
Reader 4
Reader 5
Reader 6
Reader - Spelling

A History of the McGuffey Readers
By Henry H. Vail (1911) (pdf)

William Holmes McGuffey and his Readers
By Harvey G. Winnigh, LL.D., D.E.D. (1936) (pdf)


So great have been the services of the McGuffey Readers that it seems most fitting that full authentic information concerning their author and the books should be made available to the millions of American citizens who had through these readers their first introduction to the world’s best literature and to a dependable moral and ethical code.

That the impact of these books was wide and deep in the lives of the people who read them as children and youths and in those who lived in the milieu of the social processes which these books set into operation, is fully attested by the organization of many societies and clubs, by the appearance of numerous magazine articles, historical references, and by the establishment of McGuffey museums.

Henry Ford commemorated his introduction to the great world of morals and literature in the McGuffey Readers by reprinting the six readers of 1857. He generously distributed sets of these reprints to the McGuffey lovers throughout the United States. Collections of the McGuffey Readers are sought for by libraries and museums. Very complete sets of these books from the earliest editions may be found in the McGuffey Museum at Miami University, in the Ohio Archaeological and Historical Society at Ohio State University, Columbus, Ohio, in the Ford Museum, Dearborn, Michigan, and in a few private collections.

The author has attempted in this book to exhibit the social status of the times and the character of the population of the Ohio country which created a demand for books of McGuffey tone and timbre; he has tried to illustrate the growing commercial and publishing interests which carried along the success of this enterprise with other enterprises of the period in the Middle West. Furthermore, it is the purpose of this book to reveal as far as possible the character of William Holmes McGuffey as a distinguished humanitarian, heedless of monetary or mercenary possibilities, centered only in services which he could render his day and generation through the appeal of his pen and his voice and his extraordinary literary sense. We have wished to pay tribute to the influence of the McGuffey Readers in the far-flung frontiers in the march of western development, even beyond the Rockies.

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