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.)


Is it just me or did Thomas Paine use commas incorrectly?


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.

Tim High

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.



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.


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.

blane jackson

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

Iljitsch van Beijnum

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


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.


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?

Eric M. Jones

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.

David Leppik

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


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!"

Neil (SM)

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!


David Leppik

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.


This is not good. Today there are more alternatives...


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).

David Leppik

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.


What were the state of public libraries at the time?


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.


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/)