Article abstract: As an early nineteenth century college president, professor, and Presbyterian clergyman in the Ohio Valley, McGuffey compiled the most famous series of school textbooks in American history. His six Eclectic Readers sold more than 122 million copies between 1836 and 1920, and impressed upon young Americans the virtues of individual morality, thrift, hard work, and sobriety.
William Holmes McGuffey was born September 23, 1800, on his mother’s family farm in Washington County, Pennsylvania. He was the second child and the eldest son of Alexander and Anna Holmes McGuffey, who had seven children before she died in 1829. His grandfather William McGuffey (1742-1836) and grandmother Ann McKittrick (1747-1826) had emigrated from Wigtown, Gallowayshire, Scotland, in 1774, sailing on the stormy Atlantic for thirteen weeks before landing in Philadelphia. His father was only seven years old when the family came to America, on the eve of the Revolutionary War. After a short stay in the city, the McGuffeys moved due west to carve out a farm in York County on the edge of the Appalachian mountains, which was their wartime home. Like thousands of other Scottish immigrants, who traditionally disliked the British, the elder William McGuffey enlisted in the Pennsylvania regiments and served under General George Washington until the defeat of General Lord Cornwallis at Yorktown in 1781. In 1789, the family moved to the western edge of Pennsylvania, settling along Wheeling Creek in Washington County, south of Pittsburgh. Living among English and Scotch-Irish immigrants, the war veteran became known as “Scotch Billy.” His son Alexander, nicknamed “Sandy,” became a skilled frontiersman with his rifle, and with a friend, Duncan McArthur, became a scout and soldier in the Indian wars of the 1790’s. They marched with General Anthony Wayne to drive the Indians out of the Ohio Territory.
After returning from the Miami Valley, Alexander married Anna Holmes in 1797, and they lived with her family in Pennsylvania, where three children were born: Jane (in 1799); William Holmes (in 1800); and Henry (in 1802). When Ohio entered the Union in 1803, Alexander moved his family directly north from West Alexander and across the Pennsylvania state line into Trumbull (modern Mahoning) County, near Youngstown, Ohio, where he had erected a windowless log cabin. There, four more daughters and one son, Alexander, Jr., were born. As the oldest boy, William worked long hours on the Ohio farm to support the growing family. After he had left home, his mother died there at the age of fifty-three in 1829. Two years later, his father was remarried, to Mary Dickey, and in 1836, after the birth of three more daughters, he moved his family and father back to the Keystone state, where “Scotch Billy” died at the age of ninety-four.
McGuffey’s early education began in the family’s log cabin, where his mother taught her children the three R’s. Local “subscription schools,” generally taught by a young man or minister, provided further education. Like Abraham Lincoln in western Kentucky amid similar wilderness conditions, young McGuffey borrowed books from neighbors, memorized portions of the Bible and sermons, read before the fireplace, and taught his younger brothers and sisters. His father crafted an adjustable wooden candlestand that provided better light for his love of learning. Before his fourteenth birthday, “Master McGuffey” advertised opening his own school at West Union (modern Calcutta, Ohio), with a four-month term starting in September, 1814; forty-eight pupils paid two dollars each for his instruction.
He attended the Reverend William Wick’s boarding school in Youngstown for a year or two, then took his high school level studies at the Old Stone Academy in Greersburg (modern Darlington), Pennsylvania, under the tutoring of Presbyterian minister and principal Thomas E. Hughs. From Greersburg he acquired sufficient command of classical languages for admission in 1820 to Washington College in Washington, Pennsylvania, near his birthplace. He found lodging with the head of the school and daily walked six miles to and from the college with President Andrew Wylie. McGuffey majored in philosophy and languages, learning Latin, Greek, and Hebrew. During his senior year, with most of his classwork completed, McGuffey accepted a teaching position near Paris, Kentucky, for 1825-1826. On a visit to Lexington, the first president of Miami University, Robert Hamilton Bishop, happened to meet McGuffey and promptly offered him a professorship in languages at the Oxford, Ohio, land-grant college, at a salary of six hundred dollars per year. He accepted, and Washington College graduated him with honors at the end of the school year.
McGuffey began his ten-year career at Miami University at the age of twenty-six in the fall of 1826. The new professor impressed observers with his penetrating blue eyes, swarthy complexion, and dark hair. His rugged features were characteristically Scottish, and his height was average.
His younger brother, Alexander Hamilton McGuffey (1816-1896), rode to Oxford with his brother and attended the village school before enrolling in William’s language classes. At fifteen, Alexander entered Washington College, and he was graduated in 1836; that fall, he became a professor of languages at Woodward College in Cincinnati. He studied law at the Cincinnati Law School and was admitted to the Ohio bar as a lawyer in 1839.
During his first year on the faculty, William...
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