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. 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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  2. 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.

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    • David Leppik says:

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

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      • 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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  3. 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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  4. 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.

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      • 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.

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      • 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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  5. john says:

    This is not good. Today there are more alternatives…

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  6. 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.

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  7. 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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  8. chris says:

    What were the state of public libraries at the time?

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    • 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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