Wow! What a fantastic show of interest in these polls! It looks like anywhere from 60-70 people participated. Unfortunately some questions were left unanswered by a few participants which is a shame. Still, there is enough of a grouping that I can start to draw some conclusions.
Before I get into that, however, let me go over the questions. Some of these questions were purposefully given because there is an air of vagueness to them. I still provided commonly accepted answers to these questions (and none of these questions were harder than a 5th grade social studies test), but I do also want to discuss what it is that makes them consensus answers.
So here are the answers and some conclusions about the poll responses (with the exception of the first and last question). I’ve combined a few of the questions to make it less cumbersome to respond:
About how many years do you think the American Revolution lasted and in which year do you think the American Revolution started?
The answers I was looking for were 1774 for the start of the Revolution and 9 years for total length. I’m going with the notion that the Revolution started in 1774; while the war started in 1775 (26% of respondents recognized this year), the patriots officially overthrew their parliamentary-appointed provincial governments. It started in the fall of 1774 in Massachusetts and soon it spread to just about every county in all 13 colonies. By the time the militia were called to arms on the Green of Lexington in 1775, the newly elected American county governments were already established and in the seat of local power for months and this is precisely how they were able to recruit, equip, and send troops to Boston. The war ended when Britain signed the Treaty of Paris in September of 1783.
This question was one of the trickiest. Since I purposely made the distinction of the start of the Revolution (rather than the war itself), one could argue persuasively that the Revolution has tendrils that go all the way back to 1765 (or earlier). However, nitpicking aside, the actual earliest accepted year that one can see a universal change in all the colonies against parliament–where actual change was instigated (rather than the occasional tarring and feathering of tax collectors)–happens in 1774.
The poll questions, however, point to the commonly-held misconceptions. Over 1/3 of respondents (34%) answered wrongly that the war started in 1776. But this is probably due to the prominence that this year holds in American mythology. It was the year that Washington pulled out a few amazingly significant victories at Trenton and Princeton, he made his famous Christmas crossing, the Declaration of Independence was written, signed, and read to the public, and the Continental Congress finally agreed upon something.
So why does this matter? It indicates that myth holds a more important role in American society, but it may also suggest that when a date is repeated enough in association with a series of events, that date becomes synonymous with those events. It doesn’t matter when that date falls in the history of those events, when stressed frequently it can take over the entire social memory of that history.
Which Battle Came First?
Case in point, I gave a series of answers that were spread out over the whole 9 year period of the war and also one battle that didn’t even belong to the Revolution. While 60% of respondents got the answer right (Breed’s Hill—also known as Bunker Hill—was the first chronologically, having been fought in 1775), the next most popular answer with over ¼ of the votes (26%), was the Battle of Saratoga. But this battle happened in 1777—two years after open war started at Lexington.
However, since it was such an important battle, it is one of the more famous. And since I used ‘Breed’s Hill’ instead of ‘Bunker Hill’, some didn’t recognize it and instead went with what they knew. This may also explain why some chose The Battle of Gettysburg (from the Civil War, fought in 1863) as their answer (5% of respondents).
Questions on the Continental Congress and the Constitutional Convention
I was quite pleased to see that nearly all respondents (87%) knew that ‘Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness’ is found in the Declaration of Independence. If you’re one of those people, you know more than Herman Cain and Nancy Pelosi (who falsely claimed that it was found in the Constitution—as did 7% of respondents). And it also seems that most of you (a whopping 94%! Good job!) knew that the Bill of Rights is found in the Constitution. But it isn’t clear whether respondents knew that the Declaration of Independence came before the Constitution—and that it precedes it by 11 years (the Declaration: 1776; the Constitution: 1787).
Despite a high percentage of right answers to these previous questions, a drop to only 74% of respondents could identify that the Continental Congress came before the Constitutional Convention. That means that 23% of those who answered correctly about the bill of rights and 26% of those who answered correctly about the phrase found in the Declaration of Independence, could not identify which institution provided which document at what time. And more interesting; a little over 10% of respondents thought that the Continental Congress and the Constitutional Convention were one and the same, despite the fact that over a decade separates them from each other.
How many died in the war?
This one was tough. Admittedly, all we have are estimates. However the general consensus is that between 6,000-8,000 died in combat or from wounds and another 18,000 died on prison ships, putting the highest estimates at 26,000. The number could be higher or lower, but this is the general figure that works.
Respondents generally were right (31% chose 26,000, vs. 39% who chose 18,000 which is how many died as prisoners of war alone). But most chose the wrong answer. Admittedly, this was probably the hardest question given, but it is also one of the most important. How can someone properly honor those who died if one doesn’t even know how many actually perished?
How do you feel about the survey (before and after)?
Let’s return to the first and last questions of this little survey because there is some interesting (telling) bits of data. While most people were pretty aware of the challenges going into this (68% responded that they had only a limited knowledge of the Revolution), many respondents expressed a good amount of confidence; 29% believed that they knew the Revolution well enough that they were going to do a good job on the survey.
But at the end of the survey, only 14% believed that they had done well (that they had answered the questions correctly), suggesting that over half (52%) had become less confident in their answers. The implications here seem to argue for the notion that at least some Americans believe they know more about the past than they actually do.
If everyone were scored collectively (that is, as a whole rather than individually—because this survey was entirely anonymous), the best grade that can be given is a 55%; which means everyone failed.
The survey really demonstrates precisely what is happening in American culture. The pervasiveness of cultural history is becoming more valuable than actual chronological history and this is problematic. It means that the narrative of our past has changed. When that happens, it becomes vulnerable to further manipulation.
But let me throw this question back at everyone:
Please feel free to discuss your results or even the survey results below in the comments. I want to hear from you!