The McGuffey Readers and Nineteenth Century America


By J. Parnell McCarter



I recently received an inquiry from a reader of this website relating to certain critical remarks I have made about The McGuffey Readers.  This reader had noted my concerns about the pluralistic tendencies of  The McGuffey Readers and asked me to explain these concerns in more detail.  Here was his question:


> Hi, while reading through your curriculum info I noticed that you mentioned that the McGuffey's Readers were pluralistic. I hadn't heard that before, and was wondering if you could point more towards some more information on this?


This is a very fair request, and one that I shall try to respond to in this article.


The original version of The McGuffey Readers was written by two brothers: William Holmes McGuffey and Alexander Hamilton McGuffey.  Here is a brief biography of William Holmes McGuffey found at http://www.aobs-store.com/reviews/mcgr7hb.htm :

“By most accounts, William Holmes McGuffey (1800-1873), the creator of the original McGuffey Readers and the man who became known as "the schoolmaster to the nation," was a dour, strict, and humorless career educator. He was born in western Pennsylvania into a Scotch-Irish Presbyterian family. His family moved to Ohio when he was very young. By 1826, after graduating from college and having held several teaching positions, he had risen to the rank of professor of ancient languages at the new Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. This later enabled his shrewd publishers to boast that McGuffey was a "former professor at Oxford."

In the mid-1830s, the Cincinnati publishing firm of Truman and Smith approached Catherine Beecher -- sister of the famous Reverend Lyman Beecher -- with a request to do a series of "western" reading texts. Beecher declined, but recommended William Holmes McGuffey for the task. He agreed to compile four "graded" readers for a flat fee of $1,000. McGuffey completed the task in just two years. All four Readers, plus the Primer, were published in 1836 and 1837.

McGuffey went on to be ordained as a Presbyterian minister and to serve as president of two colleges in Ohio. In 1845 he became a professor of moral philosophy at the University of Virginia. He remained in Virginia until his death in 1873. By this time, nearly 50 million copies of his Readers had been sold. Despite this astonishing publishing success, all that McGuffey received was the original $1,000. However, each Christmas, to show their "gratitude," his publishers presented McGuffey with a barrel of "choice smoked hams."

The Fifth and Sixth Readers were the products of William's younger brother, Alexander Hamilton McGuffey (1816-1896). Alexander was a scholar in his own right. In addition to his work on the Readers, he did a majority of the work on the popular McGuffey Eclectic Speller.

The basic McGuffey Readers were revised many times through the years. Neither of the McGuffeys was directly involved with these revisions. New revised editions were published in 1841, 1844, 1857, 1866, and 1879. Major changes included a gradual mellowing of the overt religious content of many of the lessons. Still, in sharp contrast to the totally secular readers in common use today, even the 1879 edition presented God as the Father and the Creator.

Decline in Popularity


McGuffey Readers were used widely in America until just after World War I...”


And here is a brief biography of Alexander Hamilton McGuffey found at http://www.lib.muohio.edu/mcguffey/genealogy.php :


“ALEXANDER HAMILTON McGUFFEY, son of ALEXANDER and ANNA (HOLMES) McGUFFEY, was born August 13, 1816, in Coitsville Township. When his brother William went to work at Miami University in 1826, Alexander went with him and was enrolled at the University's grammar school. He attended Miami University until 1831 26 and then taught briefly in Burlington, Kentucky. He taught English and languages at Woodward College while attending the Cincinnati Law School. He opened a law office in Cincinnati after passing the bar in 1839. That same year he married ELIZABETH DRAKE, daughter of DANIEL and HARRIET (SISSON) DRAKE. Alexander assisted his brother with the famous readers and was alone responsible for the 1838 speller and the fifth reader. The family lived at 300 Southern Avenue, Mount Auburn, Ohio, and owned a farm in Lebanon, Ohio. Elizabeth died in September of 1864, and in 1866 Alexander married CAROLINE VIRGINIA RICH, daughter of SAMUEL HEATH and FLORENCE M. (DOTY) RICH of Boston, Massachusetts. She was born in 1839. Alexander died June 3, 1896, and Caroline died in 1905.”



From a modern secularist vantage point, the school books written by these McGuffey brothers seem remarkably Christian.  There are many readings from scripture, promotion of Biblical virtues, and acknowledgement of evil.  Sodomy and feminism are not cast in a favorable light.  And creation, not evolution, is taken for granted.


But viewed from an historical standpoint, I fear that The McGuffey Readers were but one more step in a downward decline.  The McGuffey Readers are a far cry from the sound reformed theology represented in the original New England Primer and of the Protestant Reformation.  The spiritual and intellectual decline since the Protestant Reformation has not been steep but gradual.  Rome was not built in a day, so to speak.


Sadly, the McGuffey brothers – like the overwhelming majority of Americans – swallowed the lie that was inherent in the American Revolution and the formation of the United States.  The “patriots” of the American Revolution and the “Founding Fathers” of the United States represented a pluralistic alliance of Deists, Romanists, Congregationalists, Presbyterians, etc.  This pluralistic alliance and its members are lauded in The McGuffey Readers, whereas the Bible characterizes such alliances in unfavorable terms .  So, for example, the profane heretic Benjamin Franklin – who had rebelled against the reformed Puritanism of his birth for Enlightenment Deism – is eulogized in McGuffey Readers in glowing terms, such as in a page from the Fifth Reader found at http://www.puritans.net/news/mcguffey1.pdf (pdf format).  He is there said to have brought “freedom” to America.  But such a rebel against God cannot bring true Biblical freedom to a nation, but only a distorted Enlightenment version of it.  The Reader goes on to laud his “elevated rank in human nature”, whereas scripture calls such men as Benjamin Franklin fools. 


We find this sort of inappropriate eulogium of Franklin and others of like sort in the other original Readers (see, for example, the contents of a Reader for younger children at http://www.puritans.net/news/mcguffey2.pdf ) .  The philosophy of wicked heretics such as Ralph Waldo Emerson too are treated as acceptable, though they are hardly acceptable from a scriptural perspective.  America had abandoned the established orthodox Protestantism of its colonial era.  But there is a lack of recognition of how far things had already fallen since Reformation days, and no contrition to speak of for that fall.


So we must say that the original McGuffey Readers were representative of their time.  They were part of a chapter in history when there was revulsion against the logical results of a secularist constitution (hence the critical perspective of The McGuffey Readers towards Napoleon), yet a fond embrace of a secularist American constitution and the men who brought it about.  Because of the failure of leaders like the McGuffey brothers to recognize the wickedness of religious pluralism and a national secularist constitution, they were of little use to stop the inevitable spiritual decline.  That decline continued even in the years immediately following the publication of the original readers.  The readers themselves were increasingly secularized, and that part which was sounder in content was removed.  It was only a matter of time before American public school textbooks would laud sodomy and other violations of the “second table” of the Ten Commandments, having so compromised with the “first table” of the Ten Commandments.


(Note: For those who would like more information about The McGuffey Readers, these additional websites are instructive:  http://www.howtotutor.com/samples1.htm , http://digital.library.pitt.edu/nietz/ , and http://www.lib.muohio.edu/mcguffey/browse.php .