As we ready to break for Independence Day, let us consider how literacy influenced our ability to enjoy our nation, our republic and form of government, and our Bill of Rights.
First of all, how literate were the colonies? Fairly well read, for Puritan society encouraged literacy so that all could read the Scriptures. And, colonial societies and communities needed to communicate effectively and soundly with Great Britain’s government. Thus, the 1700s in colonial America saw an astonishing rise in literacy levels – an exponential “tide” of literacy.
By 1760, it is believed 85% of New England’s male population was literature, women about 48% (slightly lower in the South). These rates could have been even higher – one study published by Colonial Williamsburg found literacy rates in the Williamsburg area in 1759 were 94% for white males and 54% for white females. Some writings say literacy levels could have been as high as 95% in the colonies during the period leading up to and following the American Revolution.
The Colonists thus initiated their own printing businesses, their own public debates. Citizens become more than spectators and were heavily involved in political expression, participants in the free flow of information. Sam Adams and Joseph Warren become “heroes” of sorts with their writing prowess. By 1776, Thomas Paine’s Common Sense sold 100,000 copies almost overnight! The subject of popular reading material became – how best to protect individual rights!
Thus, the colonists became astute in the social, cultural, and economic impact of governmental and local laws and the resulting consequences imposed upon their daily life and ways and means of living. They could compete with Britain intellectually and claim their own viewpoint as to how they wished to be governed, to what laws they wished to adhere, and to the ideals they wished to adopt, collectively.
As we celebrate today, in 2023, just three years from our 250th birthday, can we say the same? Are we literate enough to continue brandishing our ideals, ensuring equality, and expressing our viewpoints – competing internationally? As you eat your hamburger this Fourth of July, ponder this food for thought, this call for action!