Map of New England

The southern New England colonies Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Rhode Island saw the highest standards of literacy in North America. All three were settled by the Puritans. A product of the Reformation, they sought to improve, or purify, both Anglicanism and English society. Most of the Puritans came from East Anglia, a part of England that was already known for its high literacy rates. A core tenet of their faith was the belief that all church members should be able to read the Bible for themselves.

They also made the first English translation of the Bible in the 1550s. Their Bible was outlawed in England in the early seventeenth century by James I, leading to the need to emigrate. Once the Puritans were settled in New England, laws designed to promote literacy throughout society were quickly passed. In 1647, the Massachusetts Bay Colony passed a law called the “Old Deluder Satan Act,” requiring every town of fifty families to have a schoolmaster and every town of 100 families to keep a grammar school.

Connecticut passed similar laws in 1650. In contrast, Plymouth Colony, much poorer than its Massachusetts counterpart, saw lower levels of literacy in the early seventeenth century. By the outbreak of the American Revolution, the literacy rate among men in all three colonies was close to 90 percent. Despite these efforts, some women, servants, and poorer members of society were left uneducated. Near total literacy was not achieved until well into the nineteenth century. While Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Rhode Island had very high standards of literacy, this was not the case for all of New England.

For instance, literacy was far less common in Maine, despite the fact that it was a part of Massachusetts for most of the colonial period. Maine was settled by a combination of trappers and traders and people who left the Plymouth Colony. It also remained a frontier settlement well into the eighteenth century. Vermont and New Hampshire saw similar settlement patterns. Northern New England also had a stronger French Catholic influence than southern New England. The strong urge toward literacy was a mark of the reformist Protestant religions rather than Catholicism. Despite this, Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont still shared more regional similarities with the rest of New England than with other colonies.

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