- Honorary Degree (1839)
- Doctor of Divinity
- Bloomington, Indiana
- Presenter: Andrew Wylie
William Holmes McGuffey was born in Pennsylvania, the second of five children. When he was 2 years old, his family moved to the Ohio Territory. He attended country school, received tutoring in Ohio, attended Greersburg Academy in Pennsylvania, and attended and graduated from Washington College in Pennsylvania. During his time at Washington College, McGuffey became friends with and even lived in the house of its president, Andrew Wylie, who would later become IU’s first president.
After obtaining his college degree, McGuffey made his living as a “roving instructor,” traveling throughout Kentucky, Ohio, and Pennsylvania, teaching frontier children in log cabins for parents who were willing to pay. The jobs would frequently change when the parents lost interest or ran out of funds.
In 1826, McGuffey became a professor at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. Later in Bethel Chapel, he was ordained as a Presbyterian minister. Also during that time, he started writing with his teenaged brother, Alexander, who graduated from Miami University at age 16. His series of books, The McGuffey Readers, sold 122 million copies through 1963, becoming the third bestselling book in the U.S. (after the Bible and Webster’s Dictionary). The McGuffey Readers borrowed heavily from the Bible and were used in public schools until 1963 when the Abington School District v. Schempp verdict declared their use for public education unconstitutional. However, they continue to be used for homeschooling.
In 1836, McGuffey became president of Cincinnati College, where he also lectured and taught. He became the fourth president of Ohio University in 1839 and president of the Woodward Free Grammar School in Cincinnati in 1843. He moved to Virginia in 1845 and became professor of Philosophy at the University of Virginia, a position he held until his death in 1873 in Virginia.
After McGuffey’s death, industrialist Henry Ford said the McGuffey Readers were one of his most important childhood inspirations. In 1934, Ford had the log cabin where McGuffey was born moved to Greenfield Village, which is part of the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan.
McGuffey married Harriet Spining in Oxford, Ohio in 1827. They had five children. McGuffey’s mother died in 1829, and his father, Alexander, remarried in 1831. McGuffey’s father had three more children: Harriet (born 1832), Margaret (born 1833), and Nancy (born 1836). Nancy was born when Alexander was 68 years old, making his oldest and youngest children 37 years apart in age.
In 1837, McGuffey’s daughter, Henrietta, was born. His wife, Harriet, died in 1850. He then married Laura Pleasants Howard in 1851. She was 18 years his junior. Their daughter, Anna, died at age 4. McGuffey’s father, Alexander, died in 1855.
McGuffey’s brother-in-law, Alexander, fought for the Union in the Civil War. President Abraham Lincoln called McGuffey the “Schoolmaster of the Nation.” He was buried next to his daughter, Anna. His second wife, Laura, lived to 1885 and was buried next to him. His stepmother lived to 1892.
His grandson (Henrietta’s son), Charles McGuffey Hepburn, became dean of the IU School of Law in 1918, holding that position until his death in 1929.
McGuffey’s brother Henry’s great-grandson, Lloyd McGuffey, only child of his parents, died at age 10 in Kansas after being kicked in the head by a horse.
McGuffey’s brother Alexander’s daughter, Helen Parkinson, traveled Europe with her daughter and died there in Rome, Italy. Alexander’s son, Kingsley MacGuffey, died in Santos, a coastal city of Brazil. Alexander’s great-grandson, Burgess Edwards, graduated from Harvard, was a captain in World War I, and moved to Shanghai, China, where he lived the rest of his life.
In the 1930s, Laura Ingalls Wilder’s daughter, Rose Wilder Lane, said that it was the McGuffey Readers that were her childhood inspiration, as she finally brought to publication her mother’s Little House on the Prairie books, further inspiring American women.
Organizations such as McGuffey Montessori School in Oxford, Ohio; McGuffey High School in Claysville, Pennsylvania; McGuffey Hall at Ohio University; and McGuffey Art Center in Virginia have all been named in McGuffey’s honor as well as McGuffey School District in Washington County, Pennsylvania.
The McGuffey Awards were established in 1993 as prizes of excellence given to long-lived, still-in-use textbooks. McGuffey’s Oxford home is now a National Historic Landmark.