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Marking Pennsylvania History

Reading as Common Sense

When Charles Dickens visited America in 1842, his reception equaled that of today's pop star. Alexis de Toqueville, who visited America a few decades earlier, might have predicted such a reception. He was astonished at the quantity of newspapers.

American newspaper publishing quickly grew into a widespread and powerful tradition. By 1730, there were seven newspapers published on the Eastern seaboard. Seventy years later there were 180 - more than twice the number available in England, which had a population half the size.

In the second half of the 17th century, the literacy rate for adult men in New England is estimated to have been as high as 95%, more than twice the estimated literacy rate for men in England. American women had literacy rates higher than 60%. Nowhere in the world was literacy greater.

In Colonial America, reading was not regarded as an elitist activity; it was regarded as an essential and popular activity. Reading was, as one historian put it, "the product of a busy, mobile society" and its spread is easily linked with the increasing interest in self-determination.

"Almost every man is a reader," wrote the Reverend Jacob Duche in 1772. Duche didn't have to go far from his church at 3rd and Pine Streets, to find evidence to support this observation. "The poorest laborer upon the shores of the Delaware thinks himself entitled to deliver his sentiment in matters of religion or politics with as much freedom as the gentlemen or scholar... such is the prevailing taste for books of every kind..."

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.

That so many accepted this revolutionary idea as common sense -- that made America unique.

- Kenneth FInkel, Executive Director of WHYY's Arts & Culture Service

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