From the time the Mayflower landed at Plymouth Rock in 1620 until the 1850s, most parents taught their children to read at home or sent their children to small private or religious grammar schools. Education was voluntary and local governments did not force parents to send their children to state-controlled schools. Yet, literacy rates in colonial America were far higher than they are today.
In 1765, John Adams wrote that “a native of America, especially of New England, who cannot read and write is as rare a Phenomenon as a Comet.”1 Jacob Duche, the chaplain of Congress in 1772, said of his countrymen, “Almost every man is a reader.”2 Daniel Webster confirmed that the product of home education was near-universal literacy when he stated, “a youth of fifteen, of either sex, who cannot read and write, is very seldom to be found.”3
After the Revolutionary War, literacy rates continued to rise in all the colonies. There were many affordable, innovative local schools parents could send their children to. Literacy data from that early period show that from 1650 to 1795, the literacy rate among white men rose from 60 to 90 percent. Literacy among women went from 30 to 45 percent. 4
In the early 1800s, Pierre Samuel Dupont, an influential French citizen who helped Thomas Jefferson negotiate for the Louisiana Purchase, came to America and surveyed education here. He found that most young Americans could read, write, and “cipher” (do arithmetic), and that Americans of all ages could and did read the Bible. He estimated that fewer than four Americans in a thousand were unable to write neatly and legibly. 5 (See Note references in my book, "Public Schools, Public Menace")
From 1800 to 1840, literacy rates in the North increased from 75 percent to between 91 and 97 percent. In the South, the white literacy rate grew from about 50 to 60 percent, to 81 percent (it was illegal to teach blacks to read). By 1850, literacy rates in Massachusetts and other New England states, for both men and women, was close to 97 percent. This was before Massachusetts created the first compulsory public-school system in America in 1852 (of course, these literacy numbers did not apply to black slaves since many colonies had laws that forbid teaching slaves to read).
Ever since the first public schools were established in Massachusetts in 1852, and made compulsory in most of the states by the 1890's, literacy among adults and children has been deteriorating. As I noted in a previous article, today the literacy rate for students in our public schools ranges from 30 percent to 70 percent. Compare that literacy horror statistic to the over 90 percent literacy rate for the average child, man, and woman by 1852.
The question to naturally ask is this: if our kids learned to read far better when we had an education free-market before public schools came along, why on Earth do we need public schools now? The answer is, we don't. Parents should take advantage of the quality, low-cost, free-market education alternatives they have right now that I explore in my book, "Public Schools, Public Menace."