Happy National Literacy Day! – Literacy Rates in Colonial America

In addition to the Revolutionary War, a literary revolution swept across the American Colonies and Europe in the 18th century.  In celebration of National Literacy Day, today we will explore the literacy rates of Colonial America and how they affected the men of the Maryland Line. 

There were many different levels of literacy in society, which can be seen in the men of the Maryland 400.  Some men, such as Private Aaron Dumper, were unable to write and often signed their name with an “X”.  However, some men who could not write were still able to read.  One enemy soldier inspected an American bag and was surprised “to see how every wretched knapsack…would be filled with…military works.”

aaron dumper X

Aaron Dumper signed his enlistment paper with an “X”, labeled as “his mark.”

Some could read but not write, and some could do both.  Although their writing skills were not perfect, Corporal Zachariah Gray and Sergeant Edward Sinclair both wrote their wills with “the uncertainty of human life” and battle looming over them.  Gray and Sinclair were on the higher end of literacy for the time, but their mediocre handwriting suggests they were never extensively trained.  

Zachariah Gray writing

Will written by Zachariah Gray.

Sinclair writing

Will written by Edward Sinclair.

Their writing can be compared to that of Corporal Andrew Ferguson and Sergeant William Sands.  Both Ferguson and Sands were from merchant families, and were formally trained in writing.  This can be seen in the clarity and beauty of their handwriting, although Ferguson wins the award in this category. 

ferguson writing

Will written by Andrew Ferguson.

Sands writing

Letter written by William Sands.

In addition to the gentry class which made up the officers, most of the Maryland 400 who were literate were non-commissioned officers.  However, this doesn’t mean that others did not reap the benefits of literacy.  Oftentimes, one person would read out loud to those around them who were unable.  In the Continental Army, this was frequently done with books about military strategy and politics. [1]

One study has found that around the beginning of the Revolutionary War, the literacy rate in Maryland for white men was approximately 80 percent.  This was about the average across the colonies for that time, although this number is likely overestimated. [2] Statistics for literacy rates among the soldiers are not available. However, especially towards the beginning of the war, literate men were recruited to be sergeants and corporals. Their jobs included administration duties, such as taking roll and keeping track of supplies, which required literacy, as we see with the Marylanders.

When the colonies were first settled, literacy rates were unusually high among the white population.  Enslaved people had markedly lower literacy rates. Literacy declined immediately after settlement, but raised again shortly after.  It seems that the original settlers passed on their knowledge to the first American-born generation, although it is unclear if this education happened at home, in the community, in the church, or elsewhere.  It is interesting to note that literacy rates were higher in the colonies than in Europe.  Additionally, areas in the colonies with denser populations had higher literacy rates earlier on. [3]

If you’d like to celebrate National Literacy Day by reading more about the Maryland 400, you can do so here!



[1] Deborah Keller-Cohen, “Rethinking Literacy: Comparing Colonial and Contemporary America,” Anthropology & Education Quarterly 24, no. 4 (1993): 288-307F. W. Grubb,  “Growth of Literacy in Colonial America: Longitudinal Patterns, Economic Models, and the Direction of Future Research,” Social Science History 14, no. 4 (1990): 451-82.

[2] This study analyzed the number of signatures on petitions, opposed to men who signed with a mark.  It is likely that men who were petitioning were educated in some way, which would lead to higher literacy rates.  Therefore, the findings are likely skewed and higher than they should be.

[3] Grubb.

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