Identities—What Are They Good For?   /   Summer 2018   /    Essays

The Strange Afterlife of William McGuffey and His Readers

Johann N. Neem

Classroom in Ohio, 1920s; details from McGuffey’s Fourth Eclectic Reader, Robert Martin/Alamy Stock Photo; THR photo illustration.

To some Americans, the McGuffey Readers represent a lost Eden.

President Trump’s secretary of education, Betsy DeVos, has long been an advocate of school choice. In her home state of Michigan, she led the movement to shift funds and students away from public schools, supporting not only charter schools but voucher programs to allow families to use tax dollars to send their children to religious schools. DeVos argues that families, not government, should determine what kind of education to provide children, and even challenges the very premise that the public has the right to play a role in the development of the next generation.11xEmma Brown, “Influential Conservative Group: Trump, DeVos Should Dismantle Education Department and Bring God into Classrooms,” Washington Post, February 15, 2017,

Many other Americans share DeVos’s belief that public schools no longer represent traditional American values, values that citizens of an older and more religiously observant Protestant America would have taken for granted. That transformation reflects a number of demographic trends, including increased immigration, and the related rise of a more ethnically and religiously diverse America. Perhaps more important than the growing presence of non-Protestant faiths, however, is the fact that many Americans are choosing not to attend church at all.22xSee, for example, Pew Research Center, “‘Nones’ on the Rise,” October 9, 2012, Yet such changes in demographics and habits came to seem directly threatening only after a series of Supreme Court decisions that, one by one, pushed most expressions of even the most diluted religiosity out of the public schools.

As a result of this enforced “secularization,” some Americans began to shun the public school system in order to restore a more faith-centered education for their children. In looking to the past, many evangelical homeschoolers rediscovered the McGuffey Readers, the leading grade-school readers of the nineteenth century. This series of primers that education reformer William McGuffey developed for American “common schools” in the nineteenth century has been credited, in the words of one historian, with “making the American mind.” A bit less grandiosely but no less significantly, another scholar has asserted that “outside of the King James Bible, the McGuffey Readers were the most widely read books in nineteenth-century America.”33xRichard Mosier, Making the American Mind: Social and Moral Ideas in the McGuffey Readers (New York, NY: King’s Crown Press, 1947), 25; Elliot J. Gorn, The McGuffey Readers: Selections from the 1879 Edition (Boston, MA: 1998), 2. But if those readers once represented a consensus of what Protestant America took for granted, today they present an alternative reality.

The original McGuffey Readers have been reissued in beautiful hardbound copies by the Christian publisher Mott Media because, in the words of the publisher, “When God is pushed out, humanism fills the void.” The Readers “are an answer for people concerned about humanism in education today.”44xMott Media Publishing, “About Us,”, accessed January 11, 2018. To some Americans, the series represents a lost Eden, a time when Protestant Christian principles were widely shared and when schools openly cultivated Christian character.

The testimonials of contemporary users of the series speak volumes. One homeschooling mother with fifteen children extolled the Readers because “they were written during a time in our history when Biblical Christianity was practiced and endorsed throughout America.”55xSherry Hayes, Dollar Homeschool’s Guide to the McGuffey Readers and Other Eclectic Series Books, 4, October 2011,'s%20Guide%20PDF%20sample.pdf. For many parents, the Readers are “refreshingly moral” because “they were written in an age of incredible spiritual awakening in America.”66xSherry Hayes, “McGuffey and the Christian Age of America,” Homeschool Sanity (blog), accessed January 3, 2017, Homeschooling evangelicals also value the Readers’ approach to teaching grammar and vocabulary through phonics rather than the “Whole Word” method, even though, in his own time, McGuffey’s approach would have been seen as innovative and a threat to traditional forms of educational authority.77xSee, for example, Timothy Power, “On the McGuffey Readers,” Sometimes I’m Actually Coherent (blog), September 17, 2007,

The evangelical embrace of McGuffey is almost matched in intensity by the disdain of many historians, some of whom portray the Readers as narrowly moralistic and conformist, imposing on one and all “a common (Protestant, Christian) Lord” and rejecting Americans’ diversity.88xJames W. Fraser, Between Church and State: Religion and Public Education in a Multicultural America (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2016), 35–40. Rather than reflect Americans’ shared norms, others contend, the Readers aimed to control the minds of working-class Americans: “Those who were rich and considered respectable exercised a kind of cultural control when they tried to regulate poorer classes’ thoughts and behaviors, even through such seemingly innocuous things as school textbooks.”99xGorn, The McGuffey Readers, 12. The Readers have been described as a conservative response to the American Revolution’s egalitarian principles.1010xMosier, Making the American Mind, ch. 1. One scholar has even concluded that McGuffey’s efforts to promote patriotism undermined American liberty by making Americans slaves to their nation.1111xFrançois Furstenberg, In the Name of the Father: Washington’s Legacy, Slavery, and the Making of a Nation (New York, NY: Penguin, 2006). See also James Block, A Nation of Agents: The American Path to a Modern Self and Society (Cambridge, MA: Belknap, 2002).

Whether revering or rejecting his work, McGuffey’s fans and detractors both manage to miss the point of his original project: to find a middle ground, a place where diverse Americans could come together around shared values in order to participate in common public institutions. Today, when the very project of public education is being called into question, even at the highest levels of government, McGuffey’s legacy merits reconsideration.

Education as Public Responsibility

William McGuffey was an unlikely person to have made the American mind. Born in 1800 in Pennsylvania, he moved with his family to Connecticut’s “Western Reserve” (today’s Ohio) when he was two. As was typical for the time, his early education came from his parents. He subsequently received tutoring from the Reverend William Wick, a local Presbyterian minister. Young McGuffey lost this source of instruction at the age of fourteen, when Wick died. Soon after that, he decided to form a “subscription school,” which he operated out of the back room of a livery stable in West Union, Ohio.

After teaching for fees for several years, in 1818 he enrolled in an academy—a charter school offering advanced education in the arts and sciences—that prepared him sufficiently to gain admission to Washington College, in Pennsylvania. To help pay for his education, he interspersed attendance at college with spells of teaching, taking a position in a one-room schoolhouse in Paris, Kentucky. Once he finally earned his bachelor’s degree, he was appointed professor of ancient languages at Miami University (Ohio) in 1826, where he quickly gained a reputation for strict discipline and religious conservatism. He also became involved with Ohio’s vibrant circle of education reformers, who aspired to improve America’s public schools.1212xOn McGuffey’s life, see Gorn, The McGuffey Readers; Quentin Skrabec, William McGuffey: Mentor to American Industry (New York, NY: Algora, 2009); John H. Westerhoff III, McGuffey and His Readers: Piety, Morality, and Education in Nineteenth-Century America (Milford, MI: Mott Media, 1982).

In the 1820s, the idea that education was a public responsibility was a new one. Such schooling as American children received had long been the responsibility of parents. But after the American Revolution, certain political leaders began to argue that a republic required educated citizens; subsequently, between the 1820s and the Civil War, voters began approving the levying of state or local taxes to support schooling. By the onset of the Civil War in 1861, most northern states were offering free elementary education, and many southern states were moving in the same direction. In 1821, Ohio passed a law encouraging citizens to form school districts and to raise local taxes to support education, and subsequent legislation boosted local and state support for the building of better schoolhouses and the hiring of teachers. By 1837, about 31 percent of Ohio’s school-aged population was enrolled, a proportion that increased to 52 percent by 1850, even as Ohio’s population was quickly growing.

McGuffey took part in these changes through his involvement with a network of reformers known as the College of Teachers. The group included the textbook author Edward Mansfield, the Reverend Lyman Beecher, and his daughter Catharine Beecher. Catharine’s brother-in-law Calvin Stowe, who married Harriet Beecher, was commissioned by the Ohio state legislature to go to Europe to study its education systems and report back on his findings.

Members of the College of Teachers sought access to common schools for every child. McGuffey, like others in the group, was an educational progressive, but he believed that reform would never come unless Americans supported public schools. As he wrote in 1834, if democracy depended on educated, virtuous citizens, then states must adopt “immediately such measures [i.e., common schools] as shall secure to all that information which is adequate to the correct discharge of the duties to which every individual may find himself called by the voice of his country.”1313xWilliam McGuffey, “General Education” (1834), in Westerhoff, McGuffey and His Readers, 164–71, 165.

But the common schools, McGuffey quickly realized, needed better textbooks. In 1834, when Cincinnati publisher Truman and Smith saw an expanding new market in the nation’s common schools and approached Catharine Beecher, she directed the company to McGuffey (who had become, by then, president of Cincinnati College).

The Readers began appearing in 1836, and McGuffey would go on to write the first four in the original series. They were among the first generation of graded readers, each level offering more advanced readings and vocabulary than the prior ones. McGuffey continued to revise the Readers into the 1850s, but by then he had moved on—first, to teach at Woodward College in Cincinnati and then to chair the Department of Moral Philosophy at the University of Virginia, where he remained until his death in 1873. The original editions of the Readers most truly reflect McGuffey’s values and goals, and what he took to be the purposes of public education.

The Golden Rule and Civic Virtues

What do we find when we turn to those early Readers? Many of McGuffey’s selections provide stories that reinforce the golden rule. For example, in one story a boy turns over a turtle. His friend asks, “What if you were a turtle and somebody should put you on your back?” Even “a turtle can feel.”1414xWilliam McGuffey, The Eclectic Second Reader (Milford, MI: Mott Media, 1982), 121, 122. First published 1836. Real happiness did not come from pursuing superficial “beauty” or “wealth” but by offering “kindness.”1515xWilliam McGuffey, The Eclectic Third Reader (Milford, MI: Mott Media, 1982), 17–21. First published 1837. As McGuffey put it at the end of the first Reader, “Always do to other children as you wish them to do unto you.”1616xWilliam McGuffey, The Eclectic First Reader (Milford, MI: 1982), 152. First published 1836.

McGuffey also sought to encourage students to be patriotic citizens. Many selections invoked the American landscape or provided students guidance from famous speeches by both classical and contemporary models of civic virtues. There were selections about George Washington, the Marquis de Lafayette, the Cayuga leader Chief Logan (as described by Thomas Jefferson), and other notable historical figures. Yet McGuffey did not advocate blind patriotism. In The Eclectic Fourth Reader, for example, students were warned about “political corruption” and the “irresistible power of temptation.” Far from encouraging unquestioning deference, the Readers directed students to be vigilant and watch over their leaders. McGuffey extolled Washington above all for his willingness to put the public good ahead of his own, a practice Washington (and McGuffey) hoped all Americans would emulate.1717xWilliam McGuffey, The Eclectic Fourth Reader (Milford, MI: Mott Media, 1982), 201–04. First published 1838.

In short, the Readers provided a moral education grounded in the golden rule and civic virtues. For us today, however, McGuffey’s reliance on biblical passages and stories is striking. Even in his own time, some Americans raised questions about whether his book series relied too heavily on the Protestant Bible. Although schools in McGuffey’s era were less likely to begin classes with a prayer or biblical readings than schools in the later nineteenth or early twentieth centuries,1818xR. Laurence Moore, “Bible Reading and Nonsectarian Schooling: The Failure of Religious Instruction in 19th-Century Public Education,” Journal of American History 68, no. 4 (2000): 1581–99; Jonathan Zimmerman, Whose America: Culture Wars in the Public Schools (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2002). McGuffey made “no apology” for using scriptural passages “in a Christian country.” He believed, however, that the Bible should be taught as part of “general education” and not as a devotional: “The Bible is the only book in the world treating of ethics and religion, which is not sectarian. Every sect claims that book as authority for its peculiar views.” He carefully chose selections from passages that “do not involve any of the questions in debate about the various denominations of evangelical Christians.”1919xMcGuffey, The Eclectic Third Reader, Preface. In short, his goal was to draw from the Protestant majority’s background religious beliefs by using a widely shared book without causing unnecessary division. Furthermore, he practiced the golden rule that he preached. According to one scholar, if certain passages in the Readers were deemed particularly offensive to Catholics or Jews, McGuffey excised them.2020xSkrabec, William McGuffey, 191–94.

McGuffey was in a sense correct. In his time, most Americans were Christians, with Protestants composing the majority and Catholics making up a growing percentage. The schools reflected this background culture. Still, McGuffey took a progressive position for his time. He embraced what was called nonsectarianism, the position that public schools could draw from religion without promoting any particular sectarian perspective. The hope was to offer something that reflected the nation’s culture and values without inciting division. Advocates of nonsectarianism believed that nonsectarian schools would welcome diverse Americans under a common umbrella while continuing to teach values.2121xSteven Green, The Bible, the School, and the Constitution: The Clash That Shaped Modern Church-State Doctrine (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2012). This perspective is best reflected in words offered by Horace Mann, the first secretary to the Massachusetts Board of Education, who is considered one of the “founding fathers” of public education in the United States. To Mann, nonsectarianism was to religion what nonpartisanship was to politics. Schools must not embrace one political party over another, but schools should prepare young people to enter public life. The same was true of moral life. If schools could teach citizenship while “avoiding the tempest of political strife,” they could also teach religion “upon the most broad and general grounds.”2222xHorace Mann, “Twelfth Annual Report” (1848), in Life and Works of Horace Mann, ed. Mary Mann and George Mann (Boston, MA: Lee & Shepard, 1891), 4:280, 296–97. More generally, see Mann, Life and Works, 4:292–340.

Not everyone agreed. Roman Catholics pointed out the implicit and explicit biases against Catholicism in common school readers, including McGuffey’s. Even drawing texts from the Protestant Bible threatened Catholic doctrine. Catholic leaders in the nineteenth century argued for public support for parochial education, convinced that Catholic children’s faith was not only disrespected but threatened by what historian Diane Ravitch has called the “sectless Protestantism” of the common schools.2323xDiane Ravitch, The Great School Wars: A History of the New York City Public Schools (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2000), 35.

If many Catholics worried that the schools were too Protestant, many Protestants worried that the schools were not Protestant enough. As one historian of the common schools has put it, advocates of nonsectarianism such as McGuffey and Mann sought “‘religion’ rooted in no community of faith.”2424xCharles Leslie Glenn Jr., The Myth of the Common School (Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press, 1988), 151, and ch.7. Some evangelicals in McGuffey’s time condemned nonsectarians’ effort to raise such a broad tent. They worried that teaching the Bible alongside other secular readings reduced it to a moral text rather than the word of God. In response, evangelicals established Sunday schools around the country. By 1832, over eight thousand schools were associated with the American Sunday School Union, which, in its words, challenged public schools’ efforts “to diffuse knowledge without religion.”2525xQuotes and discussion from Anne M. Boylan, Sunday School: The Formation of an American Institution 1790–1880 (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1988), esp. 52–59. See also Glenn, The Myth of the Common School, ch. 8.

In short, McGuffey sought a middle way between Catholic demands for separate schools and some Protestants’ desire for explicitly sectarian education.

Readers as Remedy?

In the wake of Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species (1859), conflicts between the demands of religion and science roiled American public education. For example, in the infamous Scopes trial (1925), advocates of evolution squared off against those who proclaimed the final authority of the Bible. These tensions never went away.

With the onset of the Cold War in the late 1940s, Americans sought to highlight their country’s Christian heritage and ideals in contrast to “godless communism.” Across the county, school districts sought to find ways to offer religious education and to recognize America’s dependence on God. A 1960 survey found that about 88 percent of public schools had Christmas celebrations, 42 percent had Bible reading, and 33 percent had prayer in homeroom.2626xFraser, Between Church and State, 146. But in the early 1960s, as part of the broader civil rights revolution, American courts enhanced their protection of Americans’ religious freedom under the First Amendment. Religious minorities asked the courts to protect their children from state-sponsored religion in the schools, and the Supreme Court agreed. In two major decisions, Engel v. Vitale (1962) and Abington v. Schempp (1963), the Court outlawed both Bible reading and school-directed prayer. Many, if not most, Americans still wanted a religious component to public education. All kinds of Americans—white and black, left and right, North and South, Protestant and Catholic—condemned the Court’s decisions. The rulings, they argued, did not reflect public will and American culture. By taking God out of the classroom, schools would impose secularism upon a religious people.2727xMark D. McGarvie, Law and Religion in American History: Public Values and Private Conscience (New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 2016), ch. 4; Kevin M. Schultz, Tri-Faith America: How Catholics and Jews Held Postwar America to Its Protestant Promise (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2011), ch. 5; Fraser, Between Church and State, ch. 7–8; Zimmerman, Whose America, ch. 6–7; Milton Gaither, Homeschool: An American History (New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008).

After the Supreme Court’s decisions in Engel and Abington, even commonplace celebrations such as Christmas began to become embroiled in controversy. In response, more and more evangelicals came to share pastor and author Tim LaHaye’s view that “the public school system was unfit for educating the children of Christian families” and that Christians could not “turn their [children’s] minds over to the enemies of the cause of Christ.”2828xTim LaHaye, The Battle for the Public Schools (Old Tappan, NJ: Revell, 1983), 240–41. Mainline denominations accepted the Supreme Court’s rulings because the same Supreme Court was promoting civil rights and desegregation, which mainline Protestants supported. But for other American Christians, the Court’s rulings provided evidence that elites were seeking to secularize the United States from the top down.

Even as more Americans left their churches in the 1970s and 1980s, a growing number of American Christians became politically active, seeking a return to a more Christian America and challenging the secularization of public schools and American culture.2929xAndrew Hartman, A War for the Soul of America: A History of the Culture Wars (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2015); James Davison Hunter, Culture Wars: The Struggle to Define America (New York, NY: Basic Books, 1991). Nonetheless, the vast majority of Americans still believe that their local public schools reinforce their family values.3030xCarl Desportes Bowman, Culture of American Families: A National Survey (Charlottesville, VA: Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture, 2012), 29, 64. Indeed, most Americans continued to embrace their local schools, not just rhetorically but with their pocketbooks, regularly supporting ballot measures to increase funding.3131xEducation Next, “Results from the 2016 Education Next Poll,”; “Americans Like Their Schools Just Fine, but Not Yours,” NPR Morning Edition (radio broadcast), August 23, 2016, See also Bowman, Culture of American Families, 22–23. But for a growing number of Protestant Americans, the newly secular schools, combined with a more diverse America, have left them alienated from America’s public culture and institutions.3232xRobert P. Jones, The End of White Christian America (New York, NY: Simon & Schuster, 2016); Arlie Russell Hochschild, Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right (New York, NY: New Press, 2016). For some statistical data, see Bowman, Culture of American Families, 49–53. For these Americans, McGuffey and his Readers offer a way back to better times.

McGuffey and the Big Sort

There is no way to know what McGuffey would do if he were alive today. Still, we can try to learn from his words and work. Both his critics and his champions have misrepresented McGuffey, interpreting him through the lens of America’s post-1960s culture wars rather than his own effort, in his own life, to promote public schools that would bring all Americans together. McGuffey clearly believed that Americans needed public schools to promote equality, to teach young people morality and civic virtues, and to sustain a common culture.

Perhaps McGuffey today would look for ways to provide a common education in common schools by drawing on the general ideals and principles of our background culture. Throughout his career, he sought to sustain a civic culture that drew from American culture and ideals, including its faith traditions, while rejecting more robust, narrower, and less tolerant forms of religious nationalism.3333xOn this distinction, see Philip Gorski, American Covenant: A History of Civil Religion from the Puritans to the Present (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2017), ch. 1. See also McGuffey’s distinction of the role of religion in public life in “Duties on Teachers and Parents” (1835), in Westerhoff, McGuffey and His Readers, 181.

America’s background culture has changed since McGuffey’s time. There is no going back. Yet we Americans still need a civic culture. Unlike the subjects of empires or authoritarian regimes, citizens in a democracy must work together to achieve their goals. Doing so requires citizens to have a sense of themselves as a people with mutual ideals and aspirations. This in turn requires acculturation into a common culture with shared rituals and practices. As the philosopher Charles Taylor has written, “Only those with a supermuscular Kantian conscience would be willing to knuckle under to a majority with which they felt no links.”3434xCharles Taylor, “Liberal Politics and the Public Sphere,” in New Communitarian Thinking, ed. A. Etzioni (Charlottesville, VA: University Press of Virginia, 1995), 204. See also Charles Taylor, “No Community, No Democracy, Part 1,” The Responsive Community 13 (2003): 17–27; Craig Calhoun, Nations Matter: Culture, History, and the Cosmopolitan Dream (London, England: Routledge, 2007); Sarah Song, “Three Models of Civic Solidarity,” in Citizens, Borders, and Human Needs, ed. Rogers Smith (Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2011): 192–208.

The challenge faced by any society, particularly one as diverse as ours, is that no common civic culture can ever be fully common. It was not so in the nineteenth century, and it will not be so in the twenty-first century. There are always minorities who feel excluded or who make sacrifices in the interests of the larger community. These sacrifices must be recognized and, when possible, compensated for.3535xDanielle S. Allen, Talking to Strangers: Anxieties of Citizenship since Brown v. Board of Education (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2004). After World War II, the Supreme Court sought to do so by erecting a higher, less permeable wall between religion and public education in order to make America’s public schools more welcoming to non-Protestants. The secularization of public education thus responded to real historical problems. In the wake of the culture wars, however, many evangelical Christians, as well as conservatives of other faiths, worry about the direction of American society and culture. They feel as alienated from public schools as other religious groups felt in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Our public conversations thus must continue, and new efforts must be made to (re)discover common ground. The alternative is an America whose people are incapable of sharing a common moral universe and civic culture, a prospect that threatens not just the public schools but the social order.3636xJames Davison Hunter, Before the Shooting Begins: Searching for Democracy in America’s Culture War (New York, NY: Free Press, 1994).

McGuffey aimed to make his Readers acceptable to most Americans, and for much of the nineteenth century they were. His efforts reflected his belief that education was a public good because every child was equally entitled to it, because democracies needed educated citizens, and because common schools encouraged diverse Americans to see themselves as part of the nation. The McGuffey Readers aimed to bridge Americans’ differences rather than contribute to them.

Even if we cannot return to the world of his Readers, McGuffey’s lifelong effort to support common schools remains relevant. Today, we Americans live in communities divided by race, income, religion, and, increasingly, partisan affiliation—what journalist Bill Bishop has called “the big sort.”3737xBill Bishop with Robert G. Cushing, The Big Sort: Why the Clustering of Like-Minded America Is Tearing Us Apart (Boston, MA: Mariner Books, 2008). We struggle to find what is common among us. More than ever, we need institutions and aspirations that bring us together. Instead, our politicians emphasize and exaggerate what divides us, leading us to conflict and even violence. At a time when advocates of multiculturalism from both right and left urge us to escape into our own religious and ethnic communities and when white nationalists openly gather in public spaces, McGuffey’s aspiration to bring Americans together in common schools might once again speak to us.