Target Audience

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.

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One Response to Target Audience

  1. Justin Norman says:

    I think that looking into the intended audience, or the audience that at least read Common Sense more than any other group of people, is interesting for several reasons. Firstly, we discussed at length who Paine includes in his society, and who is not included. I think most certainly, white, educated, property owning men are included. So obviously, his intended audience was at the very least the people he wanted included in his society. There were, however, other groups of literate people (i.e., Quakers, Tories), who presumably read Common Sense and were not part of Paine’s society. If I had a guess, I would say Paine was not too concerned about these people reading Common Sense, and he probably even wanted his dissenters to read and argue against his pamphlet. Paine seems like the prototypical drunken, pompous, I’m-never-wrong type of guy that loves to refute the arguments of people like Tories and Quakers. I wonder, however, if he struggled at all with the fact that others (slaves, women, the poor, etc.), may not have been able to read his pamphlet. We know that Paine sympathized with slaves, and I also think that when writing something on the common good, he would have preferred if the majority of society could have read his argument, even if he were not to include everyone in his society.

    It is also interesting to think about how, if Paine the blogger existed today, his pamphlet would have been received and effected the masses. Certainly, in our Internet age, everything is readily available, so what would have resulted from millions more people reading an initially-anonymous blog calling for revolution? Would he have garnered even more of a following, or would there have been a tremendously larger amount of opponents? It is tough to say. I do think, nonetheless, that the closest comparison, regardless of their political ideals, is the Tea Party – a politically driven group rallying in unity against the current government, and who rose to popularity largely through the use of new age media. Is the Tea Party kind of a modern day Thomas Paine? I don’t really know, but I do think that Paine would have loved and made full use of the blogosphere had he lived today.

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