Early American Literacy

by Tammy Drennan

Back when Google was testing its Google Answers project, a writer posed a question about literacy rates in Colonial America. Someone did some excellent research in answering the question.

Of all the excerpts provided, though, I found this one most telling:

“Kenneth Lockridge’s study of literacy in colonial New England is relevant here. Lockridge found that, in 1660, 60 percent of New England males signed their wills; it was 70 percent in 1710, 85 percent in 1760, and 90 percent by 1790. He estimates that half of those unable to sign wills could read. Thus, there was practically universal adult male literacy in New England by 1790.”

Source: The Revolution in American Journalism in the Age of Egalitarianism, The Penny Press

Literacy for women in New England was as high as 90% by 1750. While literacy in other regions was somewhat lower, it was still relatively high — and climbing.

Further, these early Americans were not reading comic books. They were reading about religion, politics and business matters; they were reading Shakespeare and other classic writers.

They were writing, too — especially letters and journals. The book, “To His Excellency Thomas Jefferson,” is a great collection of letters to President Jefferson “from laboring-class Americans with little formal education.” Little formal education — but these writers penned missives that would put many of today’s college-educated class of Americans to shame. Early Americans did not shy away from explaining complex problems and ideas, and they weren’t afraid to employ their rich vocabularies.*

So, if literacy was climbing by the decade and had become so widespread, why the drive by reformers for compulsory state schooling?

A modern comparison might shed some light on this conundrum.

Today’s homeschooling movement is without question successful. Highly successful — academically, socially, civically. Yet, homeschoolers must constantly fight off those who want to control what they’re doing, change what they’re doing, and even stop what they’re doing.

Many reformers simply want control. Reality has nothing to do with their cause. They twist the facts to suit their ends. Has one homeschooled child been academically neglected? Regulate all of them, they say. Have millions of public schooled children been academically neglected? That’s okay, they reply, because they’re already under our control.

It’s about control, not improvement. Nothing drives the typical reformer mad like independent people who think they don’t need him.

We should take heart and glean courage from early Americans — brave, confident, self-defining, self-educating men and women who wrote fluently to their president with every expectation that he would read and respect their opinions.

Imagine what we might be like today if we were all independently educated, free of the endless limitations of state-defined and state-run schooling.

O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay!’
We’d chortle in our joy.**

* Some might argue that their spelling was appalling, which was sometimes true, but it’s still easily readable — and Jefferson was no great speller himself.

**My apologies to Lewis Carroll for slightly modifying his delightful words.

3 Responses to Early American Literacy

  1. Frances says:

    Your footnote on spelling brings out that American English wasn’t standardized until Webster’s 1828 dictionary. It wasn’t that they didn’t know how to spell. It is more the case that there wasn’t a “right” way to spell. If people could “sound it out”, that was an acceptable way. (As a poor speller, I sometimes long for those days.)

    I really liked this post. I would add that it has not only to do with control of people but also of money. As you and I have already discussed, somebody somewhere gets almost $10,000 a year per student (as a US average). That’s a lot of money.

  2. tdbwd says:


    Hi. Very true about spelling at that time, though Jefferson also routinely spelled people’s names wrong, even the names of people he wrote to regularly.

    Also very true about money, sadly true.

    On a lighter note (and if I may indulge in a little humor), I once saw a bumper sticker that said: Bad Spellers of the World, Untie! :-)

    Good to hear from you, Frances.


  3. Al says:

    Another reason for “reformers” to opposed home schooling is that mere parents might not be teaching the “right” things: that the world evolved without any help from a Supreme Being, that socialism is more fair than capitalism, that all of us are collectively guilty because of slavery in the eighteenth century, that men and women should always be identical and interchangeble, etc.

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