I cannot say that the following figures are "absolute facts" because census taking and statistical sampling was not done in the Colonial period of the United States. Some later figures are shown in contrast.
The following references generally do not include enslaved persons in the United States, who were by law in some cases and by circumstance in others, prevented from learning how to read.
To find out how much better educated Americans were before compulsory attendance laws and government schools existed, all we have to do is read DuPont de Nemours fascinating little book, National Education in the United States of America, published in 1812. He writes:
"The United States are mote advanced in their educational facilities than most countries.
"They have a large number of primary schools; and as their paternal affection protects children from working in the fields, it is possible to send them to the schoolmasters -- a condition which does not prevail in Europe.
"Most young Americans, therefore, can read, write and cipher. Not more than four in a thousand are unable to write legibly -- even neatly....
"England, Holland, the Protestant Cantons of Switzerland more nearly approach the standard of the United States, because in those countries the Bible is read; it is considered a duty to read it to children; and in that form of religion the sermons and liturgy in the language of the people tend to increase and formulate ideas of responsibility. Controversy, also, has developed argumentation and has thus given room for the exercise of logic.
"In America, a great number of people read the Bible, and all the people read a newspaper. The fathers read aloud to their children, while breakfast is being prepared -- a task which occupies the mothers for three quarters of an hour every morning. And as the newspapers of the United States are filled with all sorts of narratives ... they disseminate an enormous amount of information."
- Northern Whites - 96.9%
- Southern Whites - 56.4%
The exceptional societies, in terms of leadership were the U.S. and Canada. Virtually from the time of settlement, these North Americans seem generally to have been convinced of the value of mobilizing the resources to provide their children with a basic education. Especially in New England, schools were frequently organized and funded at the village or town level. It is likely that the U.S. had the most literate population in the world by 1800.
The results of the research thus far are inconclusive. For example, there were already high literacy rates in the areas affected before primary education was promoted by the Guizot Law of 1833 and the Ferry laws of 1881-82.
There's considerable anecdotal evidence that literacy was high among what
were quaintly called "the lower orders" in the early nineteenth century.
Reading of literary, philosophical, and political works was especially
widespread among the so-called contemplative workers such as shoe-makers
and weavers. Because these folks pursued a sedentary occupation, often
in groups, there were able to read and discuss what they read at their
workplaces. A good example is Samuel Bamford, whose Autobiography
(originally published in the 1840s in two parts, "Passages in the Life of
a Radical" and "Early Days") gives a detailed picture of a reasonably
typical working-class person's reading habits around 1800.
Even though the literacy rate in Massachusetts was 98 percent, and in neighboring Connecticut, 99.8 percent, the assembled businessmen agreed the present system of schooling allowed too much to depend upon chance. It encouraged more entrepreneurial exuberance than the social system could bear.
The literacy rates during the colonial period and the early history of the United States indicate that literacy was steadily growing during that time period to rather high levels. Between 1650 and 1795, for example, male literacy rates are estimated to have risen from 60 to 90 percent. By 1840, literacy was estimated to be between 91 and 97 percent. There is no evidence that there was an undersupply of schools or a lack of interest in education in the United States. (Richman 38-9) The 1828 Journal of Education, for example, reports that "our population if 12,000,000, for the education of which, we have 50 colleges, besides several times the number of well endowed academies leaving primary schools out of the account. For meeting the intellectual needs of this 12,000,000, we have about 600 newspapers and periodical journals." Compare that with Poland, who at the time had a population of 20 million, yet only 15 newspapers.
In another four years, Thomas Paine's Common Sense would be stirring those debates. First published in January 1776, Common Sense sold more than 100,000 copies within the first two months. That's equal to a million copies in today's market. But there was more. Within the year, an estimated 400,000 copies were printed for a nation of three million independence-minded people. To find a comparable, contemporary success, we'd have to compare Common Sense to the popular, albeit lesser cultural event: the Super Bowl.
After the Revolutionary War, Franklin observed that Americans were so busy reading newspapers and pamphlets that they scarcely had time for books. Of course, Franklin had helped forge the new nation. And Franklin had helped set the stage for independence by feeding the literacy that stoked the desire for it. More than four decades before 1776, Franklin wrote "an innocent Plowman is more worth than a vicious Prince." The fact that so many could read this idea is remarkable.
The first of these books, Jon Butler's Becoming America: The Revolution before 1776 (Harvard University Press, 320 pp., $27.95), is a sweeping view of British North America in the period 1680-1776. The setting looks serene today: the rolling landscape, the gabled houses, the white-steepled churches. What in fact was happening, Butler writes, was "a revolution that utterly transformed the original seventeenth-century British colonies, marking the creation of the first modern society in Britain's colonies before independence." A huge leap in transatlantic trade produced a corresponding increase in the standard of living, evident in everything from furniture to diet. (At the time of the Revolution, American soldiers were on average 3 to 3.5 inches taller than the British Royal Marines.) Literacy rates, especially in New England, far exceeded those anyplace in Europe, and these, together with a flourishing economy and a proliferation of newspapers, helped turn the country into what Butler calls "a raucous political hothouse."
I realize none of this is necessarily conclusive but it is generally accepted that literacy rates in the United States were quite high before compulsory schooling was mandated starting in the 1840's.