Yet, Poll Shows Young Americans Know Very Little About Founding Father
Chestertown, MD, February 17, 2005 — If George Washington returned from the dead and attempted to recapture the presidency of the United States, he would beat an incumbent President George W. Bush by nearly 20 percentage points, according to a new national poll conducted for Washington College by the public affairs research firm of Schulman, Ronca & Bucuvalas, Inc. Asked to choose between George Washington and George W. Bush, Republicans in the survey supported Bush by a margin of more than 2 to 1, while Democrats and independents overwhelmingly favored Washington.
However, the survey—commissioned to honor the first president's birthday on February 22 and the inauguration of a major new history book prize co-sponsored by Washington College—found that by some measures, Washington's status as a national icon is slipping. Only 46 percent of the 800 adult Americans surveyed could identify him as the general who led the Continental Army to victory in the Revolutionary War. When asked who they thought was America's greatest president, only 6 percent named George Washington, ranking him seventh, behind Abraham Lincoln (20 percent), Ronald Reagan (15 percent), Franklin D. Roosevelt (12 percent), John F. Kennedy (11 percent), Bill Clinton (10 percent), and George W. Bush (8 percent).
Is it too late to return the Father of Our Country to his pedestal? Perhaps not. On Saturday, February 19, a new prize will be unveiled at Washington College honoring the year's best book on George Washington, the American Revolution, or the early Republic. Sponsored jointly by the College, Mount Vernon, and the Gilder Lehrman Institute for American History, the George Washington Prize will offer the winner $50,000, making it one of the largest book prizes in the nation. (By comparison, the Pulitzer Prizes and National Book Awards bring $10,000 to each winner.)
“We undertook this survey to gauge just how much average Americans know about their first president, and we hope the George Washington Prize will be an important step in restoring his rightful place as a national hero,” said Ted Widmer, Director of Washington College's C. V. Starr Center for the Study of the American Experience. “As the results indicate, we have some way to go. While most Americans remember the myth of the cherry tree, fewer and fewer Americans under the age of 50 can identify any of the pertinent facts of his life. And let's face it, ‘First in war, first in peace, and seventh in the hearts of his countrymen,' doesn't sound very impressive.”
Indeed, the survey found that younger Americans are far less likely to know basic facts and legends about Washington and his era. Of respondents between the ages of 18 and 29, only 57 percent knew the tale of Washington and the cherry tree (compared to 91 percent of respondents over 50). Just 45 percent of them identified Martha Washington as our nation's first First Lady. A mere 4 percent knew that President Washington's first inauguration was held in New York City. And in response to a multiple choice question asking them to identify the name of Washington's residence, only 49 percent of young Americans picked Mount Vernon; 23 percent picked “Gettysburg,” 15 percent picked “Monticello,” 3 percent picked “Graceland,” and 2 percent picked “Neverland Ranch.”
The George Washington Prize/Washington College Poll was conducted by telephone February 7-10, 2005, among a random sample of 800 adults throughout America. The margin of error for the entire sample is approximately +/-4 percentage points. All interviewing was conducted by Schulman, Ronca & Bucuvalas, a full-service global strategy and research organization specializing in public policy and opinion surveys, whose clients include major financial institutions, news organizations, and Fortune 500 companies.
Washington College—a private, independent college of liberal arts and sciences located in historic Chestertown on Maryland's Eastern Shore—was founded in 1782 and is the only institution of higher learning that the first president (who himself never attended college) patronized during his lifetime. Washington donated 50 Guineas to the newly founded school, gave his consent for it to be named in his honor, served on its Board of Visitors and Governors, and received an honorary degree in 1789.