Literacy levels of Revolutionary America were remarkably high.
In 1731, Franklin helped start America’s first subscription library, and similar libraries spread throughout the colonies during his life. He later reflected, “These libraries have improved the general conversation of the Americans, [and] made the common tradesmen and farmers as intelligent as most gentlemen from other countries.”
Thomas Paine’s pamphlet Common Sense, written in plain style but enunciating sophisticated political principles, sold 120,000 copies during the colonial period to a (free) population of 2.4 million (akin to selling ten million copies today).
The Federalist essays, written by Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay in support of a constitution for the nascent republic, were published in newspapers—written for and read by the common man.
Sales of books and educational materials in the early- and mid-19th century likewise indicate a high national literacy level.
Between 1818 and 1823, when the population of the United States was less than twenty million, Walter Scott’s novels sold five million copies (the equivalent of selling sixty million copies today). Early in the 19th century, The Last of the Mohicans by James Fenimore Cooper likewise sold millions of copies.
The McGuffey Readers, first published in 1836, routinely used such terms as “heath” and “benighted” in third-grade texts. They asked such questions as “What is this species of composition called?” and gave such assignments as “Relate the facts of this dialogue.”