Were Colonial Americans More Literate than Americans Today?

Photo: cdrummbks

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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COMMENTS: 80


  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.

        Disliked! Like or Dislike: Thumb up 19 Thumb down 35
      • Boba Fett's grease gun says:

        You spelled “ridiculous” wrong

        Thumb up 10 Thumb down 8
      • Delmar Knudson says:

        I also thought that was ridiculous.

        Thumb up 5 Thumb down 1
      • johndburger says:

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

        Thumb up 5 Thumb down 6
      • 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.

        Hot debate. What do you think? Thumb up 14 Thumb down 11
      • Sam_L says:

        Both you and Michael support the original article with your abuse of the English language.

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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.

    http://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Missouri_Question:_Speech_of_Mr._Walker,_of_N.C.

    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?

    Well-loved. Like or Dislike: Thumb up 25 Thumb down 9
  7. Iljitsch van Beijnum says:

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

    Well-loved. Like or Dislike: Thumb up 25 Thumb down 10
    • 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!)

      Thumb up 6 Thumb down 4
      • 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?

        Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0
  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.

    Thumb up 6 Thumb down 2
  9. Gary says:

    Are we a nation in decline? In some ways, yes; in others, no. Could “Common Sense” raise a protesting flash mob the way a 140-character txt msg or a tweet can? Certainly not in an hour. Is Egypt in decline because it’s populace cannot read hieroglyphics?

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  10. Eric M. Jones says:

    In a similar vein, are people getting smarter?

    Well, no. But this is okay because (e.g.):

    a) There are lots more people.
    b) People have much better tools.
    c) People now communicate much better.
    d) Smart people can rise in society easier than ever before.

    Thumb up 4 Thumb down 4
    • David Leppik says:

      Except that IQs have consistently gone up over time. (Research “Flynn Effect” for more details.)

      Thumb up 5 Thumb down 1
      • Dougbert says:

        That assumes that the type of intelligence measured by IQ is significant enough to be worth mentioning in a discussion as abstract as “are people getting smarter?” I’m not sure that it is.

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      • Eric M. Jones. says:

        I don’t want to get into a pointless I.Q. debate, but from an evolutionary viewpoint, high I.Q. doesn’t correlate well with high reproduction numbers. Perhaps it once did, but the purpose of civilization seems to be to protect its members euqally without refererring to Stanford-Binet scores. There are many exceptions, but evolutionary pressure seems relatively mild for I.Q.s.

        I am familiar with the Flynn Effect, but this is unsubstantiated and short term as far as I can tell. More will be revealed.

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      • James says:

        But why would intelligent people want to have a lot of kids? Or indeed, any kids? Granted, they’re fun to play with for an hour or two, sometimes even a whole afternoon, but it’s SO much nicer when you can give them back to the parents when you’re tired of them.

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  11. Jacob says:

    What’s ironic is the only people who’d read this post or care about what it has to say are already on the higher end of the literacy scale.

    The ones who can’t read and don’t feel any need to improve their skill are probably checking facebook right now reading: “OMG LOL taht was like sooooo Fn funny, like buton! LOL!”

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  12. Neil (SM) says:

    This assumes that everyone who bought the book was able to understand it. Education in the colonies back then certainly was not as far-reaching as it was today in the US. You said yourself that many folks needed to have the book read to them.

    I wonder if many bought the book just to own it. It seems like it was a trendy thing to do at the time. It could be that many folds at least grasped the concepts contained within but did not necessarily read and comprehend it cover-to-cover.

    Also, writing was really one of the few forms of media available that could reach a large audience. Today if such a groundbreaking book were published many people would hear enough about it on the TV news, might eventually get to watch a 2 hour feature film about it, or would at least get cliffs notes from Internet blogs or discuss it on web forums.

    Back then people might have just heard about it via word-of-mouth or read an article in a newspaper. Long-story-short: the population percentage figures might need to adjust for the availability of other media to consume. A bestseller today often gets preempted by it’s own publicity.

    That said, holy jeez on the sample paragraphs! Obviously the rules of grammar and syntax were not quite the same as they are today, but even still that is stylistically one horrible piece of writing!

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    • David Leppik says:

      That’s true. Stephen Hawking’s “A Brief History of Time” was a big bestseller too. But I don’t know very many people without a physics degree who actually finished the book.

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    • Q says:

      I agree with your point about not everyone buying the book to read it. Since this is an economics blog, surely we should bring up the possibility that ownership of the book was signaling something.

      Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0
      • jb says:

        Exactly…while we know not the price of the book, or gross receipts, in real terms, the opportunity costs for acquiring the book must have been reasonable enough to be an incentive for complicit treason. Also, we are talking about a booklet, not a full sized, well bound volume. So, I surmise that the purchase of the book is more like wearing an “I Like Ike!’ button than reading John Locke. Certainly signaling.

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    • Dan Santo says:

      Oh yeah, lots of people off the street were buying this book to be a coffee table conversation started because there was so much disposable income back then among the common populace to purchase something that cost them several weeks worth of wages.

      Thumb up 4 Thumb down 2
      • Michael Peters says:

        Lots of people spend money on status symbols that they can’t really afford. Books were status symbols and popular books that were effecting the mood of the country’s elite probably more so.

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    • Jens Fiederer says:

      “This assumes that everyone who bought the book was able to understand it.” is the crux of the biscuit. Just about everybody in Germany bought “Mein Kampf”, but far fewer finished reading it.

      With an item that has such political overtones, it is very difficult to determine whether a purchase represented an interested and capable reader or a show of loyalty.

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  13. john says:

    This is not good. Today there are more alternatives…

    Thumb up 1 Thumb down 3
  14. pudge says:

    Some of that is a stylistic difference: people usually write similarly to how they speak, and people spoke like that more often then, than today; so, it’s understandable that more people would be able to comprehend such prose (which, I should point out, by today’s standards, is — in some places — grammatically incorrect, unlike this particular sentence I’ve constructed, which is similarly dense).

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    • uthor says:

      I also wonder if someone from colonial times would be able to comprehend modern language easily or if it would be a chore.

      Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0
  15. David Leppik says:

    Books aren’t just for reading. I remember hearing about a farmer who had an illuminated Bible that he dipped in the cows’ water trough for good luck.

    Having a book in colonial times would have been about status and prestige as much (or more) than about reading it.

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  16. chris says:

    What were the state of public libraries at the time?

    Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0
    • Gwen says:

      My understanding is that public libraries as we know them did not exist. There were lending libraries where you could buy a subscription and borrow books for a time. Once again, not for the poor.

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  17. Ridzie says:

    This reminds me of the Coen Brothers version of True Grit. The language in the movie was a delight, as usual for their work, but it made me wonder about the period. Were frontier Americans that verbose? They use big words and complex sentences to say things that could easily be shortened. This post seems to back up the Coen Bros’ version. My intro to English teacher stressed economy of words, perhaps Paine and those of his time needed a better editor.
    It’s also easy to write something long and rambling. It takes real skill to be concise.

    Thumb up 4 Thumb down 0
  18. Jim says:

    I thought I would share some of the readability scores of the quoted text:

    The Flesch-Kincaid reading ease score is 5.6 (0 to 100, higher is best)
    The Flesch-Kincaid grade level is 30.2th grade
    The Gunning Fog index is 33.2 (average is 12, lower is best)
    The Coleman-Liau index is 10.8
    The SMOG index is 18.2
    The automated readability index is 35.5
    (Tested using http://www.joeswebtools.com/text/readability-tests/)

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  19. Chris says:

    We’ve just learned to use fewer semicolons and run-on sentences. He would have failed my 11th grade writing course.

    Thumb up 4 Thumb down 1
  20. mickey says:

    would be interesting to see it as a proportion of total books sold in a year as opposed to per capita

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  21. George says:

    “Are we a nation in decline?”

    I don’t think we really needed this example to show we are a civilization in decline.

    Thumb up 3 Thumb down 2
  22. Joshua Northey says:

    a) Did it really SELL that many copies. How many were handed out for political purposes? Somehow I doubt these were sales in a modern Barnes and Noble/Amazon sense.

    b) People have been decrying a decline in literacy and standards since Republican Rome, yet the facts always show the opposite. We educate and interact with more and more sections of society, so the average reader may be getting dumber, but the populace as a whole is getting smarter because 200 years ago those people couldn’t even read.

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  23. Jimmy says:

    I think it’s also to take into consideration the subject matter of Common Sense and the time when it was bought. If we were going through a Revolution today and a book was written about the public’s grievances I’m sure it would sell millions.

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  24. oldtaku says:

    You also have to consider how very, very bored they were. Entertainment was at a premium and you could afford to spend nights reading and teasing through clever turns of thick prose – though that might cut into your time at the coffee house or pub.

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  25. Gwen says:

    I think it is interseting that no one posting here has mentioned the topic of Paine’s Common Sense. Common Sense was one of two major influences on Jefferson in drafting the Declaration of Independance (the other being Leviathan, not the SyFy movie). Paine is advocating for violent overthrow of a sitting government. Not a government that murdered and tortured its people but a government that over taxed without permission. This is inflammatory prose that was spread to further a cause (we call it propaganda these days).

    Just a question-does the Colonial census include all persons in the US or only the ones counted in English census? I very much doubt that the slaves read or had Common Sense read to them. So this argument about literacy hinges on whether wealthy white men of colonial times could read complex sentences. Can wealthy white men today read complex sentences? I really think that apples should be caompared to apples if you are going to tell me that my country is heading into a decline.

    FYI-I didn’t read Common Sense but I did read Leviathan. Jefferson was able to articulate the grand ideas of liberty much more clearly and certainly in a way that is still understood. When in the course of human events…

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  26. M.M. says:

    I think it’s disingenuous to compare this apple to the oranges of today’s books. “Common Sense” was a pamphlet, not a book. It was only 48 pages long. It cost the average Colonial the equivalent of about $2 in today’s money. Basically, we’re talking about something that was more akin to a one-off magazine or newspaper than a book.

    Now, a circulation of 60 million/year is still insane for any magazine today, but, as has been noted, the newsstands were not nearly so crowded.

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  27. Siddhartha Herdegen says:

    Interesting post, but Sanjoy Mahajan misses the mark when he posits _Common Sense_ was more popular than “The Da Vinci Code” because it sold an equivalent number of copies in 1/8th the time.

    Given the rate of sales (60 million/8 years), “The Da Vinci Code” published in 1776 would have sold 500,000 copies in 24 days, far more quickly than “Common Sense”‘s 365, which seems reasonable given the increased communication and transportation systems we have today.

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  28. Tony says:

    I suppose it all comes down to which you consider more important: literature or communication.

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  29. Daren says:

    Some scholarship on “literacy” and what it meant in real terms suggests that many people before the rise of widespread advanced literacy would buy a book and keep a book that was considered important–like The Holy Bible, for example–whether they ever opened and attempted to read it at all. The ownership of the book was talismanic, and/or a sociocultural status symbol. I respectfully suggest that the correlation between purchase of a book and apprehension of its contents is tenuous at best.

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  30. MRb says:

    No one says we’re less literate because no one can read Beowulf in it’s original form anymore. Language changes. 500 years ago what was called english was basically indecipherable to a modern American or English speakers. Common Sense was published 225 years ago. The language was different. As long as the same meanings and thoughts can be conveyed, it really doesn’t matter how many big words are used.

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    • James says:

      No one? I beg to differ! But not many read Beowulf even in a translation to contemporary English.

      As for the English of 500 years ago… Well, I find the language of Shakespeare at least as comprehensible as the argot of present-day street culture.

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  31. RyanL says:

    One factor overlooked here is the different role of books in society and entertainment today than in 1776. There was no mention of movies/internet or other forms of entertainment that encroach on the book’s domination of entertainment/delivery of education today.

    Also, the sense of patriotism amongst Americans back then also probably skews the sales numbers. I can imagine a scenario where one wouldn’t be considered an American if he couldn’t attest to owning a copy of Common Sense at home (so perhaps people that couldn’t read were buying this book after all, if only to put it on the shelf next to their American Flag).

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  32. Phil says:

    But then there have must have been many fewer books written and sold at that tine compared with today.

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  33. Hank says:

    No question need be asked here.. Colonial Americans were absolutely more literate than modern day Americans.. Consider this: a Facebook status is limited to 420 characters.. The most popular social networking site in the world doesn’t allow users to post a thought more than 420 characters long, including punctuation and spaces between words. Effectively, that bans any user from posting any abstract or complex idea. But what is truly remarkable about this limit, is that no one complains about it! Average Americans don’t have anything important to say anymore, and they don’t know how to articulate complex thoughts to begin with. 420 characters makes barely a sentence in the prose of the colonial writers. Read the correspondence between men like George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and Thomas Paine.. These men were in every sense ‘men of letters’. They could all speak and write in a fashion that is far removed from average Americans today. America has been subjected to dumbing down all throughout the 20th century. We have reached a level of materialism, stupidity and vapidity that would appall the founders of this country. We have become a mob of cattle dominated by a small elite, who unlike the unwashed masses, know that with knowledge and intellect comes power.

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  34. Trent Spriggs says:

    Nowadays, readibility is the main factor… Since the invention of the typewriter (QWERTY) writing was compressed, and mood became more of a means via timber, to convey a point and analogies could be employed with greater flexiblity… In short grammar, and a slow period cadence became less opaque and stiffer concept density (a sort of efficacy) has arisen… On a philosophical level these was necessary to foster our present highly networked and logistic society that gives us so much quality of life… The contemporaries of Paine were of course accomplished in penmenship and their works could were as aesthetically appealing to see as they were to listen to… Flesch’s masterpiece, a work, on how to effectively get your ideas across to the greatest audience is very instructive, and illustrates the democratization of debate even further… http://www.amazon.com/Write-Speak-Think-More-Effectively/dp/0451167635 Thomas Paine, rewritten, rather ‘subtitled’ in a manner of speaking, into a more plain spoken style might lead to wider awareness and a resurgence…

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  35. boop says:

    You economists should try reading some books from the 18th century. I remember reading some rene Descartes – a single sentence could run on over 5 pages. This was the common way of writing back then.

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  36. Matthew says:

    There are a lot of well thought out comments here regarding language and literacy. I would like to add that many of the copies of Common Sense were probably bought because it was in fashion to have a copy of such a book to identify yourself as someone who ascribed to what it represented regardless of your ability to follow the prose.

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  37. Shane says:

    This is the theme of Neil Postman’s 1985 book “Amusing Ourselves to Death”. He points out that debates between Lincoln and Douglas in the 1850s were three hours long: one 60-minute speech, a 90-minute reply and a 30-minute rejoinder by the first speaker. He argued that modern debates focus on seconds-long soundbites.

    Postman blamed television for this change, emphasising the spectacle, the image and the simplistic slogan.

    I always thought I’d love to know what he thinks of the internet, with the rise of online textual discussions (like we’re having here).

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  38. David says:

    It might be worth editing the concluding passage, “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%).” Readers who skip over the preceding argument and read only the conclusion, then loudly dismiss the article as an unreasonable diatribe against the inability of 21st-century readers to understand 18th-century writing.

    Indeed, the point is not that Americans’ ability to read archaic language is insufficient; and to emphasize the actual point — that the deficiency is in the ability to read *complex* language — the conclusion should have read something more like this: “Thus, the proportion of Americans today who can read and fully comprehend a complex text (13%) is smaller than the proportion that bought just such a text back in 1776 (20%).” Not as catchy, to be sure, but much clearer.

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  39. Justin says:

    Another aspect that the author overlooked is the significance of the work. Books today do not reach the same proportion of the population because the population has many more topics that they are interested in. Even if the scope is limited to political texts – there are any number of topics that a reader could choose from today (terrorism, abortion, civil rights, energy, etc).

    When Common Sense was written – it addressed a political issue that was practically the ONLY political issue, whether or not to declare independence from Britain.

    I would argue that there has never yet been a political topic in America which carried more weight than that one, so it would make sense that it generated the most interest. Lives and livelihoods were literally made and broken on the decision to start a revolution. I have never been faced with a political issue in my lifetime which directly threatened my existence and well being, so while this raises an interesting question, this mitigator renders the comparison irrelevant.

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  40. Mark says:

    I’m British and apart from the archaic over-capitalization of words it is fairly simple to understand. But then I consider myself to have had a reasonable education.

    “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?”

    Well, this makes the assumption that anyone who reads a book can fully understand it. It is possible to read a book beyond one’s proficiency and still obtain most of the message even if it is not fully comprehensible. I read books when I was 11 or 12 which I had to re-read later to understand all the nuances of the language.

    ‘A Brief History of Time’ was a terse read (I’m a science graduate) and a ‘best-seller’ but few people that bought it seem to have read it, or understood it (at least from my personal poll). It’s also not particularly well written.

    Stiglitz wrote a book, ‘Globalization and its discontents’ which I found incredibly hard to read (far harder than the ‘Common Sense’ passages above) and I found myself having to reread some sentences several times because they were laced with ambiguity, or substantially confusing phrasing. I came to the conclusion that he was simply a poor writer (and that’s my story and I’m sticking to it). ;-)

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  41. Tom Mannis says:

    Interesting, and the point is well taken. But to be fair, what would those book sales numbers have been had colonial Americans had televisions, radios, movies and other distractions?

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  42. David Wharton says:

    Payne’s style in the paragraphs you quote reminds me most of the periodic style of classical orators like Demosthenes and Cicero, and if his education was typical of his times, he almost certainly read, studied, and maybe memorized passages of Cicero’s Philippics or speeches against Catiline. His educated readers would have done the same, and so were more used to processing sentences with piled-up subordinate clauses. And since this style was popular in public speaking, even less-literate listeners got more opportunity to practice processing this kind of language than we do.

    Does this make them more literate than we are? In some sense, sure (and here I’m speaking as a classics professor). But are periodic sentences, and the ability to digest them easily, what the world needs more of right now? Not really, and I don’t think we need to beat ourselves up because we no long practiced a particular style of speaking and writing. Even the Romans gave it up after Cicero.

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  43. Huggy says:

    Their are about 150 million households. I would use that number instead of 300 million. I dont’t know how many households their were in colonial times.

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  44. Kothos says:

    I’m not American, but if this book was about defying England because the American people were being opressed, then it could well be that it sold as much out of political reasons as anything else. Even if every copy sold was read by two people, it may be that it was not all understood, and people persevered with it because they had a strong common feeling that they needed to band together and do something about their oppressors?

    Essentially, maybe it was a special case.

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  45. rickp says:

    It seems like everyone is missing the point of criticism. The article states that 20% of the nation bought the book, then took a massive assumption that these people could understand it. The article also states that most people couldn’t read, so someone had to read to them. Wouldn’t it make more sense that the person reading could and would explain what Paine was saying in simpler terms?

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  46. Laurence Cuffe says:

    At that time this was the way to disseminate a political message. If you look at the listenership for some talk show hosts, you are probably looking at the same thing.
    Circa 20 million for Ross whats his name…

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  47. Heidi says:

    I think that another aspect to consider is that there was a huge segment of the population in the 1700′s who couldn’t read at all because they received no form of academic education. Today, instead of being sent out to work in the fields or the factories, most American children attend school; not only the children of the wealthy or those whose parents choose not to profit off of their children’s labor. Additionally, there are far fewer slaves in the US (there should of course be no slavery in the US, but that is a whole other can of worms) so there are not as many adults who are unable to attain an education as well. When you realize that we are comparing the highest educated individuals from a smaller population with the average educated individuals from a much larger population, you will see that drawing conclusions based on that data is problematic. Also of interest would be the number of other new books printed in 1776 in colonial America, how much competition was there? And how many of those others books were expressing the volatile independent stirrings that ignited the American Revolution? Thomas Paine’s Common Sense was not read merely because it was “written in complex language,” it was not valued because of its “sophistication of…reasoning,” Thomas Paine was simply expressing (very eloquently) popular ideas whose time had come. THAT was what made it such a popular book! And who’s to say that everyone who read it understood it completely? Some may have merely gotten the gist of it, and that was good enough for them.

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  48. Jumana says:

    Does the 2.5 million population number above include the slave and Native American population of the colonies? I know they weren’t part of the target market for the book, but the 300 million certainly includes a large number with limited English proficiency, so for a fair comparision they should be counted.

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  49. Maxine Parshall says:

    It isn’t really honest to compare modern day reading comprehension with colonial sales numbers. We don’t know how many colonists really comprehended the details of Paine’s arguments. And we don’t know how many colonists who were being read to asked the reader to explain it or to summarize it.

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  50. gradi3nt says:

    Isn’t it also true that the number of words published and distributed per capita is many orders of magnitude larger today than it was in the colonial era? With more choices of course distribution totals will be lower.

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  51. Jem says:

    I arrived here in a search for historical world literacy. I’ve read a few stats over the years but really want to see something in concrete. I’m starting to get a sense that perhaps I won’t find any concrete literacy rates that span internationally for a millennium because no one was actually keeping track.

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