The C.V. Starr Center for the American Experience at Washington College, founded in 1782 and located in Chestertown, Maryland, just released this interesting polling data and comment:
If George Washington returned from the dead and attempted to recapture the presidency of the United States, he would beat the incumbent President 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.
Self-identified Republicans chose George W. over George Washington 62% to 28%! Bush has done a pretty spectacular job at consolidating his base if Republicans don’t really prefer the first and real George W.
Click here to get the entire news release as well as the tabulations, which I finagled a bit early.
But there is more to the story — and much of it is not heartening as many Americans seem to be losing touch with the chief founding father.
The survey found that:
— 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)
— 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 younger respondents identified Martha Washington as our nation’s first First Lady.
— A mere 4 percent of younger respondents knew that President Washington’s first inauguration was held in New York City
— In response to a multiple choice question asking younger respondents 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.”
Ted Widmer, a brilliant guy who has recently published a biography of Martin Van Buren and is Director of the C. V. Starr Center, said:
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.
Washington College is a wonderful small liberal arts college that I visit frequently. The College was founded in 1782 and calls itself “the first college of the new nation,” meaning after the Articles of Confederation were adopted.
Interestingly, George Washington was really involved with the school.
While Jefferson, Madison and Monroe were constantly seeing to Virginia’s state interests, it seems that Hamilton, one of the essential founding fathers who had no state of his own but intertwined himself with New York, and General George Washington were examples of true early national-oriented magnanimity. Washington College was 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 college (about $50,000 today) and according to the press release “gave his consent for it to be named in his honor, served on its Board of Visitors and Governors, and visited Chestertown to receive an honorary degree in 1789.”
A Virginian helping to fund a liberal arts college in Maryland must have been rather rare in the early days of the nation.
This survey was undertaken to help raise interest in George Washington before President’s Day this next Monday and to unveil on Saturday, February 19, a new prize, “The George Washington Prize” honoring the year’s best book on George Washington, the American Revolution, or the early Republic.
The George Washington Prize is sponsored jointly by Washington College, Mount Vernon, and the Gilder Lehrman Institute for American History, and will award the winner $50,000, making it one of the largest book prizes in the nation.
C-Span’s Brian Lamb will also be helping to punctuate the celebration of this new George Washington Prize and will be there at Washington College on Saturday to receive and Honorary Doctor of Public Service distinction. The info is in the links if you want to trek out to the Eastern Shore and Chestertown for several free and interesting events commemorating America’s first president.
I will be up at Deep Creek Lake, Maryland this weekend so will miss the festivities — but if you head in, stop in at the best coffee shop in town, “Play it Again Sam,” and tell Peggy that I sent you.
— Steve Clemons