Were Colonial Americans More Literate than Americans Today?

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In 1776, one book, written in complex language, sold over 120,000 copies in Colonial America. That number does seem large on its own. However, to give it even more meaning, I like to convert it to an equivalent number today.

This conversion is a task for proportional reasoning—one of my favorite tools for finding meaning in the numbers that surround us. First convert 120,000 into a fraction of the U.S. population in 1776: compared to the population at the time of 2.5 million, 120,000 is roughly 1 in 20, or 5%. Today’s U.S. population is about 300 million—of which 5% is 15 million.

Fifteen million copies today! More surprisingly, Common Sense by Thomas Paine sold this equivalent in just three months. In its first year, it sold 500,000 copies, or 20% of the colonial population.

Today’s equivalent is 60 million copies. On Wikipedia’s list of bestselling books, all books that have sold that many or more copies have done so over a much longer time. The shortest time is 8 years, for The Da Vinci Code; several others, such as Heidi, were published in the 19th century.

Another surprise arrives upon opening Common Sense: the sophistication of the writing and reasoning. Here are a few sentences:

As a long and violent abuse of power, is generally the Means of calling the right of it in question (and in Matters too which might never have been thought of, had not the Sufferers been aggravated into the inquiry) and as the King of England hath undertaken in his Own Right, to support the Parliament in what he calls Theirs, and as the good people of this country are grievously oppressed by the combination, they have an undoubted privilege to inquire into the pretensions of both, and equally to reject the usurpations of either.

The laying of a Country desolate with Fire and Sword, declaring War against the natural rights of all Mankind, and extirpating the Defenders thereof from the Face of the Earth, is the Concern of every Man to whom Nature hath given the Power of feeling; of which Class, regardless of Party Censure, is The Author.

Society in every state is a blessing, but government even in its best state is but a necessary evil; in its worst state an intolerable one; for when we suffer, or are exposed to the same miseries By a Government, which we might expect in a country Without Government, our calamity is heightened by reflecting that we furnish the means by which we suffer.

Each sentence is longer than a whole soundbite of today.

Furthermore, in 1776 literacy was not universal. Therefore, many colonial Americans had the book read to them. The sales figure of 500,000 copies thus underestimates the number of people who attended to its message.

And what a message! Can you imagine a book with such a complex style today selling 60 million copies in one year? To ask the question is to answer it. To make the comparison concrete, here are data from the National Assessment of Adult Literacy (NAAL), which measures the English literacy of adults across the United States. Prose literacy, defined in the study as the ability to “search, comprehend, and use information from continuous texts,” is categorized into four levels: below basic, basic, intermediate, and proficient. Proficient, the highest level, is defined as “reading lengthy, complex, abstract prose texts as well as synthesizing information and making complex inferences.” As an example of this level of performance, they cite comparing the viewpoints in two texts. This level seems to be roughly the level required to read Common Sense.

In the extensive NAAL survey, only 13% of adults attained this level. Thus, the proportion of Americans today who are able to understand Common Sense (13%) is smaller than the proportion that bought Common Sense in 1776 (20%). Are we a nation in decline?

(I am indebted to John Taylor Gatto’s article “The seven-lesson schoolteacher” for the idea of measuring colonial literacy using Common Sense.)

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  1. Heather says:

    Hidden due to low comment rating. Click here to see.

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  2. jonathan says:

    If you’ve ever picked up a 19thC reading book, meaning a grammar for children, it is more complicated than most adult reading today. Same with newspapers of the era – and that becomes more evident the further you go back in American history. I used to read old legal opinions. The writing is lucid, uses a large vocabulary – and uses it properly – and conveys ideas. Today’s opinions tend to be workmanlike prose that discuss technical application.

    As a student of English literature in college, I realized a main difficulty we had relating to the material was that it was too verbally dense for us. It conveyed more in shorter bursts of time than we could easily comprehend. It’s not that they were smarter or the converse but that their societies relied more on the word.

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    • Russell W says:

      I have to second this opinion. We’ve been living in a post-literate age in many senses for a while now. I think literacy of the day in the 1700s would be more comparable to computer programming in a difficult language today. I’ve no idea what percentage of the US population can program in a compiled language, but I’m sure the number is growing as more and more kids are exposed to computers. Programming today is as much of an art form as writing was back then—a good reason not to patent software—but programming is on the rise. There are also plenty of modern prose writers whose work is dense, complex and artistic (Pynchon comes to mind). But as for literacy being a measure of a nation’s health (Are we on the decline?) I don’t think it’s a valid measure; or at least I think it will correlate less and less with other measures of the health of our society as we go forward.

      Why do so many writers want the US to be Rome?

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      • Ryan says:

        Rome would be too good for us. Americans are becoming Eloi.

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      • michael says:

        Hidden due to low comment rating. Click here to see.

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      • Boba Fett's grease gun says:

        You spelled “ridiculous” wrong

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      • Delmar Knudson says:

        I also thought that was ridiculous.

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      • johndburger says:

        Hell, he spelled “it’s” wrong. Twice.

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      • Dizzy says:

        I agree with Michael here.

        First hand grammatical knowledge is not directly proportional to general or specific knowledge (unless referring to the specific knowledge of grammar.) We live in an age that we no longer need to have certain knowledge memorized in it entirety; we can export much of our knowledge of tedious rules to our various forms of technology saving brain power for more general knowledge.

        Just because we no longer write as absurdly verbose as the Victorians doesn’t mean that they were “smarter than us.” It’s just a part of our culture and technology that has changed to accommodate a different way of communication.

        And to suggest that we are a nation of decline do merely to a change in general reading and writing style is just naive. We now have the ability to access almost everything we know as a species remotely through the internet. The ability to outsource our information to our technology may have made the general public less knowledgeable about specific knowledge, but we are all much wiser and more aware of the knowledge and ideologies of our world than even many of the academics in the 1700’s.

        If anything, the traditional views on how to measure knowledge and wisdom need to be updated rather than used a means to bitch and moan about how the older generations are always better. We are not a society of decay, we are one of growth and beauty. Stubbornly clinging to traditional beliefs in a more modern and evolved world is only detrimental the rest of us who want to see society flourish into something new and better.

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      • Sam_L says:

        Hidden due to low comment rating. Click here to see.

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    • headhunt23 says:

      Not sure I agree with you. They used a lot of flowery language – our communications are much more direct and we relate more information in fewer words and with clearer sentence structure.

      At the risk of embarrasing myself by demonstrating poor reading comprehension, let me take a stab at translating the above.

      “People have the right and the duty to question their government and reject that government if they are aggrieved

      “If a people want their own country, every man, regardless of station, must fight for it

      “While people are good, government is a necessary evil.”

      Now, as an aside, I’d also say that Paine pretty much published his book at the most opportune moment possible. His publicist and PR guys mst have been really good. I would probably venture that no work of literature has timed it’s release better. It’s as if “The Siege” (movie with Denzel Washington) had been released on Sep 14, 2001.

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      • Rick T. says:

        “While people are good, government is a necessary evil.”

        Not exactly. From Federalist #51 (James Madison):

        “If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself. A dependence on the people is, no doubt, the primary control on the government; but experience has taught mankind the necessity of auxiliary precautions.”

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    • Delmar Knudson says:

      But, there’s no need for that now. We have Twitter and the Tabloids at the grocery checkout. 😉

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    • Aviya says:

      “I realized a main difficulty we had relating to the material was that it was too verbally dense for us.”

      Please elucidate the relationship between the “mass” of the aformentioned material and it’s comprehensibility.

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  3. Tim High says:

    Perhaps it would be more interesting to compare the TOTAL number of books sold per person then versus now. A lot fewer books per capita were written (and printed) back then, as well. Not to diminish the importance and impact of that work, but given the sheer number of new works, as well as “classics” accumulated over time, I don’t think this is an apples to apples comparison.

    I think we know there’s been a drastic change in terms of information overloads, attention spans, ability to focus, and so on. Much less oral heritage, many more sound bites. It doesn’t take a few hours to pen a letter. You shoot off an email in 30 seconds. You don’t lug your big trunk of clothes and books to spend a month with your cousin, you do a quick Skype chat. You can feel it when you spend a night camping outdoors how the quality of conversations, time, even the way you think changes. In fact, I feel a little that way just turning off the TV and computer at home.

    I think according to many measures, literacy has gone up. Attention span and depth of thought is what is being sacrificed.

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    • Delmar Knudson says:

      When your choice for entertainment was a fire and brimstone preacher, a pint at the local pub, or a willing lass; it’s not surprising that many turned to reading if they were literate.

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  4. Ivan says:

    Very interesting article, however one also needs to take into consideration the literature options that were available in 1776 vs. the ones that are available today. Also, the emergence of other forms of entertainment outside of reading, since the time of Paine, has obviously had a great impact on the popularity of books.

    I suppose one can still make an argument that all the entertainment options available today, turned our society, as a whole, away from the pursuit of the intellectual sort of pleasure, such as reading complex work of literature and onto watching Jersey Shore and Ironman.

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  5. scott says:

    The same question crossed my mind the other day upon coming across the etymology of the word “bunkum.” The word’s origin is traced back to a nonsense speech delivered in 1820 by Congressman Felix Walker, who claimed that he was speaking to the people of Buncombe, North Carolina. Here is a link to the text of that “nonsense” speech.


    Regardless of its content, the vocabulary that it employs and its literary quality are far beyond anything that a modern politician would dare utter.

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  6. blane jackson says:

    How can you expect someone to read and understand Common Sense while simutaneously watching TV and texting?

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  7. Iljitsch van Beijnum says:

    Another viewpoint is that we’ve collectively learned to write a whole lot better.

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    • Russell W says:

      i.e. :

      From another point of view, we have endeavored to improve our writing as a society with much success.

      (adverbs suck!)

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      • Mitch says:

        From another Point, of the View our society has Endeavored to undertake, and improve (for all Good and Just seek, to improve in All things), their Writing as writing is, essential for the Maintenance, of said Just society, with much Satisfaction.

        Iljitsch and Russell bring up a good point. Perhaps I’m just poorly educated, but a lot of writing from that era looks like the above.

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      • Max says:

        ‘as a society’ is an adverbial phrase. What’s so bad about adverbs?

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  8. gotyourmoney says:

    I would imagine there is more than one definition/measure of literacy, just as there is more than one measure/definition of intelligence, and presumably the same goes for any such abstract concept.

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