While much has been said about the implicit target audience of Thomas Paine, such as this audience largely included wealthy, propertied white men, why this was the case has largely gone unaddressed. As a result, I will venture to suggest that a combination of two factors, namely the high cost of producing a pamphlet, as well as illiteracy, largely led to this tunnel vision like exposure upon the American peoples.
As Darell West notes in the book “The Rise and Fall of the Media Establishment”, an estimate of 2% of people in the American colonies were newspaper subscribers. This was largely due to the fact that most individuals could not afford the 6 cents required for the purchase of a newspaper. This was the case until the advent of the penny press in the 1830s, which made newspaper subscriptions and purchases available to a much wider portion of the public. Though I could not find the price of an individual copy of “Common Sense”, production costs of the pamphlet would have been comparable to those of a newspaper. By consequence, it is conceivable that the wealthiest sect of American colonists (propertied, white men) was a primary consumer group of the publication.
The second, and perhaps more important factor leading to the somewhat stratified consumption of “Common Sense” was the literacy rate in the American Colonies. At the time, the largest segment of the population to receive an education (certainly at the college level) would have been again, wealthy white men. Though governesses may have made literacy a possibility for women as well as men, the people that could afford to entertain such a luxury was again the wealthiest sect of families. These families tended to gravitate towards urban settings, which left people of rural communities largely uneducated. New England colonies, and the cities within, would have been home to the most literate concentration of people in the American colonies as a result.
Jeremy Popkin, in the work “Revolutionary News: The Press in France, 1789-1799” introduces a model for the circulation of newspapers in France leading up to and through the French Revolution. In this model, Popkin estimates that a single newspaper within the city of Paris shuffled through the hands of an average of 10 people. Various Salons made a point of keeping copies of all available newspapers, and as a result, those that would frequent French Salons had the opportunity to read the newspapers of their choice. It is important to note, however, that patrons of the Salons of Paris were on the upper end of the social stratum. Popkin moves to consider the suburbs of Paris and rural France, where he suggests that the average recycling of a newspaper drops to about 3 people per newspaper. Cost of newspapers, as well as lower literacy, and of course the greater distances needed to circulate newspapers were all factors in the drop in readership.
I allow that the French model, as well as comparison between newspapers and pamphlets may not be directly translatable, though this model is comparable to the proliferation of “Common Sense”. Illiteracy would certainly not hinder the most politically involved of colonists. As there were public readings of newspapers to benefit those that could not read them, there were undoubtedly similar readings of “Common Sense”, which might reach 300 or more illiterate colonists. Between such readings, and word of mouth, most colonists would have the opportunity to assimilate the message contained within the pages of the pamphlet. Nevertheless, barriers including literacy and the cost of purchase certainly tended to favor the wealthiest, propertied white men in the colonies.