Born in Claysville, Pennsylvania, on September 23, 1800, William McGuffey graduated from Washington College (now Washington and Jefferson) in 1826. Between 1826 and 1836, he was a professor of philosophy and languages at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. Although he was licensed to preach in the Presbyterian Church in 1829, he never held a regular ministerial appointment.
In 1836 McGuffey was appointed president of Cincinnati College and served until 1839. While president, he helped to organize the common (public) school system of Ohio.
The first of his six "Eclectic Readers" was published in 1836. Known more commonly as just "McGuffey's readers," they were intended for elementary students. The Readers contained selections from English authors and provided moral and patriotic lessons. Going through numerous editions, an estimated 122 million copies were printed.
McGuffey was president of Ohio University from 1839 to 1843, taught at Woodward College from 1843 to 1845, and went on to become a professor of moral philosophy at the University of Virginia from 1845 to 1873. He died at Charlottesville, Virginia, on May 4, 1873.
McGuffey opposed Darwinian theory and "materialistic social philosophy." He has long been a favorite of conservatives as the "symbol and citadel of traditionalism." He always took the conservative side in the recurrent feud between Hamiltonians and Jeffersonians. He also was a consistent advocate of free public education.