Poll shows distressing ignorance of U.S. democracy’s birth

Although he’s given credit for the assertion, Thomas Jefferson never actually said “an educated citizenry is a vital requisite for our survival as a free people.”

Maybe he knew better. The country has now survived 241 years, most of them with a sizeable percentage of the population having no clue about the origins of the nation.

Once again this year, the NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll shows a distressing lack of knowledge among some of our fellow citizens, throwing into some doubt why we should continue to care about what they have to say on any subject.

Only 77 percent of the Americans surveyed can tell you from whom the United States declared its independence in 1776. Fifteen percent were unsure and 8 percent mentioned another country.

The Midwest doesn’t look good in the poll, either. Only 66 percent of those surveyed in the heartland know that the United States declared its independence in 1776 — the worst of any region.

The South — at 75 percent — was the weakest region in answering the country question, but the ignorance was pretty well spread across the land.

Only 67 percent of households making under $50,000 could name — spoiler alert! — Great Britain. Only 53 percent of African-Americans could.

It’s a little disappointing, then, that Marist College didn’t cross-reference its findings with its other poll today: an assessment of trust in democratic institutions.

It showed that we don’t have a lot.

Fifty-eight percent don’t have much trust in the media, 68 percent don’t have much trust in Congress, 61 percent don’t have much trust in the Trump administration and 61 percent have no or little trust in opinion polls.

Forty-two percent of Republicans think there’s too much freedom of the press.

They should’ve seen what it was like under King George III. Not that the name rings a bell with many of them, mind you.

  • Ben Chorn

    Freedom to be stupid is still a freedom

    • Rob

      And Forrest Gump’s mom said it best: “Stupid is as stupid does.”

    • MikeB

      And the most expensive one

  • lusophone

    Hasn’t this ignorance been growing over the last 2 or 3 decades and not during most of our existence as a country? I think we should continue to care about what our citizenry knows or has to say about our history as we seem to be tanking more recently with this increasing ignorance.

  • chlost

    And why has this basic knowledge been missed by so many citizens? Is it no longer taught in school? Are these folks just forgetting their high school education, or are have they never been exposed to the information? Is it part of what has been tested in these standards tests that our students must pass? A family member is starting a career as a social studies teacher, and I know this is part of the curriculum he’ll be teaching.

    • The thing is the percentage hasn’t really changed over the years so it’s not a new phenomenon. I have a hard time believing that it’s not taught in social studies as this seems to be pretty much the place where U.S. history seems to start in school (or, maybe the Mayflower and Jamestown Colony and that sort of thing. Is it possible to forget an answer to such an easy question?

    • lindblomeagles

      Bob’s right. Elementary, secondary, and college schools TEACH thorough U.S. History. The change actually occurs when students become adults. We as adults stop using, and, in many cases, corrupt factual information to suit our own socio-political agenda. It should be noted, both parties and party voters fudge U.S. History to there advantage. Today’s Republicans who, as Bob noted, believe the press abuses freedom of speech, are actually replacing old Southern Democrats who lamented the same free speech abuses when East Coast newspapers denounced slavery (1800 – 1865) and civil rights for Blacks (1865 – 1965). What adults want, when it comes strictly to societal relations and politics, is a media that represents their view of the candidates, the party, the issues, and the opposition, not necessarily facts. This is amplified today. In most cases, the media DOES report facts. Conservatives, however, like former Southern slave states, don’t want facts. They want to control the narrative. That’s what a free-independent press is designed to prevent.

  • Sam M

    Not in the least bit surprised. I’ve seen map tests given in 9th grade where they don’t get a single one right. Not just a handful of tests either. Schools can only do so much. If they don’t want to learn it they won’t.

  • Jack Ungerleider

    I feel I should add this link:

    It’s a sample civics test (like the one given to would-be citizens).

  • lindblomeagles

    Let’s start with 1776. Great Britain legally possessed the 13 Colonies (1600 – 1776) (Mass., Rhode Island, Connecticut, New Hampshire, New York, Pennsylvania, Delaware, New Jersey, Virginia, Maryland, the Carolinas, and Georgia. Maine split from Mass; Vermont from New York.) Similar to America’s possession of Puerto Rico, Great Britain never intended to turn the colonies into “British counties, provinces, or states;” therefore, full British law did not extend to the colonists. This arrangement worked until the end of the French and Indian War in 1763. Dividing issues were 1) who would pay for the French and Indian War; 2) who would decide Appalachia and the Great Lakes’ development; 3) who negotiates with Native American tribes. As a matter of British and international law, the colonies were not a nation and had no right to do any of these issues. They acted as an agent of Great Britain. Discontent started with paying for the war through taxation, a measure colonists viewed as punitive. But what drove the colonists over the edge was the colonists were denied a forum to discuss the three issues from Britain’s territorial governing bodies and from Parliament itself. And when the King tried to show the colonists who was boss, the colonists had had enough. To encourage support from sympathetic British subjects, the colonists wrote the Declaration of Independence, which more than the U.S. Constitution (1787), is where we derive our values from.

    • Re: Declaration of Independence. Values, perhaps. But, it is not the Law of the Land. People who claim the US was “founded as a Christian nation” often cite the Declaration as their proof, forgetting that the structure of our government and the Bill of Rights upon which we govern ourselves originate with the later, non-Creator-endowed Constitution.

      An enlightening summary of history, though! It puts a new perspective on Puerto Rico’s recent statehood/independence/status quo referendum.

      • lindblomeagles

        People forget 3 things about the U.S. Constitution Noodle. (A) The 13 colonies functioned like “Indian Tribes” in 1776. Just as several tribes aligned themselves to fight the Spanish, the French, the Dutch, the British, and the Americans, the 13 Colonies did the SAME thing. They each set aside their differences, united each tribes’ agenda with the agendas of other tribes, and fought the largest threat to everybody’s self-interest. Once the war was over, each of the 13 colonies planned on becoming an individual nation. (B) The U.S. Constitution, which legally created the United States, was proposed 4 years after the British Army surrendered, as a multi-partisan means of stopping the colonists from fighting themselves and to guard against the British Army now stationed in the Western Great Lakes and Southern Canada. Following the American Revolution’s end in 1783, the colonists engaged in economic wars with one another, with LARGE states (e.g. Virginia) often dominating SMALL states (such as Rhode Island). (C) The Bill of Rights was actually added last, and could be best described as a bargaining chip. Taken almost word for word from Virginia, BOR motivated states like New York, which was originally settled by the Dutch, to vote for THE UNITED STATES instead of fearing the loss of the way to manage New York and voting no to nationhood.

  • Rob

    Make America Great Britain again?

  • Robert Moffitt

    I’m willing to give a pass to the African-Americans who couldn’t answer that question on independence. Freedom for many would not come until much later.

    • But that wasn’t the question.

      • Robert Moffitt

        Tyrant! 😀

    • RBHolb

      As Frederick Douglass put it, “Fellow-citizens, pardon me, allow me to ask, why am I called upon to speak here to-day? What have I, or those I represent, to do with your national independence?”

    • lindblomeagles

      I understand what you’re saying, which is the American Revolution did not free Africans (or Native Americans), but African slaves HOPED words penned in the Declaration of Independence would be extended to them, just as Native Americans fighting alongside the colonists hoped the colonists would extend independence to their individual tribes. What the colonists meant when they penned the Declaration of Independence was 1) Britons were not savages or slaves. Everything they knew of British law and the Christian religion said so; 2) Locality should not end a Briton’s rights from British law. This was one of THE real issues dividing the colonies from the British. By right, Britons living in Britain, could protest things in a British court of law or governing assembly. Now that Britons were living on a faraway, distant British territory, King George said they lost that right. 3) The custom of every European power in 1776 was to decide how to pursue relations with non-men. This too was a bigger issue dividing British colonists from Great Britain. It was such a big issue, as it relates to “savages” (which, at that time, meant Native Americans) that it was included in an Article of the Declaration of Independence itself (read Declaration of Independence). So long as the word “men” was in the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights, and labels like “savages” and “property” were defined and codified into law, the American colonists DID NOT extend freedom.

        • lindblomeagles

          Loved the quiz!!! I love American History period, good or bad, happy or sad. I hope readers took note of questions 14 and 15, which tells who the best Native American officer was for the British and who the most skilled Native American officer was for the Continentals! Thanks Bob.

      • Rob

        Then, as now, you can’t eat hope.

      • AL287

        I hate to burst your bubble, lingblomeagles but Thomas Jefferson wanted slavery limited or abolished completely in the Declaration. It was left out because South Carolina refused to vote for independence if slavery were not allowed to continue.

        • lindblomeagles

          I didn’t write about Thomas Jefferson anywhere in this post, so you can’t burst my bubble. In fact, Thomas Jefferson’s name does not appear any where in this writing. It appears Al, you’re trying to tell us YOUR version of what happened at the Continental Congress AND didn’t read the original post from Moffitt. SO LET’S CORRECT YOUR MISTAKE. Moffitt’s point, which is accurate, is independence DID NOT pass to African slaves, to women, to men that didn’t own property, or to Native Americans until well after 1776. BASED ON THAT, MOFFITT gave African Americans a pass for not knowing too much about 1776. My post speaks DIRECTLY to what African slaves, free Blacks, and Native Americans HOPED to receive after the Revolutionary War’s end; that they weren’t just along for the ride. Some tribes in particular supported the British, while others fought alongside the Americans. There was a debate about slavery, but South Carolina wasn’t the only one pushing for slavery. The whole South was. And just for the record, Thomas Jefferson’s home state of Virginia passed several slave codes, the last ones in 1705. Virginia would not debate freeing slaves until 1832 when the State decided NOT to free the slaves. Sorry dude.

          • AL287

            I have been following your posts on this blog for some time now.

            Writing in all caps for more than just one or two words in an email or online post is the same as shouting at someone in person and I really don’t like being shouted at.

            I had enough of that from my abusive ex-husband DUDE.

            Here is the passage that was removed in its entirety from the Declaration of Independence. You can find it on http://www.blackpast.org., a non-profit dedicated to African American History.

            “He has waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating its most sacred rights of life and liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating & carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere or to incur miserable death in their transportation thither. This piratical warfare, the opprobrium of infidel powers, is the warfare of the Christian King of Great Britain. Determined to keep open a market where Men should be bought & sold, he has prostituted his negative for suppressing every legislative attempt to prohibit or restrain this execrable commerce. And that this assemblage of horrors might want no fact of distinguished die, he is now exciting those very people to rise in arms among us, and to purchase that liberty of which he has deprived them, by murdering the people on whom he has obtruded them: thus paying off former crimes committed again the Liberties of one people, with crimes which he urges them to commit against the lives of another.”

            I also suggest you watch “Amazing Grace” the story of William Wilberforce’s tireless efforts to abolish the slave trade in Great Britain.

          • lindblomeagles

            Again, the point of what I wrote, of what Bob Collins wrote, of what Robert Moffitt wrote, was not to address slavery; thus, if you followed my post, you didn’t read them. Thanks for your admission. Who cares if William Wilberforce fought the slave trade in Great Britain. The slave trade DIDN’T END IN AMERICA until 1865. Yes, the colonists wrote this passage in the Declaration of Independence, BUT IT WAS OMITTED from the final Declaration of Independence delivered in 1776, which EVERYBODY SENSIBLE clearly knows why — the South wanted to EXPAND the slave trade in spite of words like freedom and equality in the document. And so what Thomas Jefferson rambled to himself about abolishing slavery. When Thomas Jefferson became President in 1801, 25 years after 1776, HE NEVER BROUGHT THE SUBJECT OF SLAVERY UP TO CONGRESS, despite serving 2 terms that ended in 1809. Look, we get it. You’re sensitive about the role white Americans, including many of the Founding Fathers played in African Slavery (and Native American Genocide). You don’t want whites bearing sole responsibility of African slavery. You want to show the world that some whites really DID want Independence for African Slaves. Desire and Hope are elusive here, because we know what happened AFTER 1776, AFTER 1783 (the end of the American Revolution) AND AFTER 1788 (the US Constitution is written) —- African slavery continued in the United States, never to be abolished until 1865. Three chances, three misses, and an assorted number of Presidents, some of them the Founding Fathers themselves, impotent to stop African Slavery. THAT’S THE HISTORY DUDE. That said, Bob Collins’s point, Moffitt’s point, and even my point, is that we can still learn from 1776, the year 13 differing states, several Native American tribes, and some African slaves, set aside their differences with one another, united in one cause, and worked together for the good of the country. THAT’S WHAT INDEPENDENCE DAY IS ALL ABOUT! That’s why Bob posted this column. That’s why you should read American History, all of it, the good, the bad, and the ugly, and work across the aisle today to change our current politics.

  • Rob

    Regarding Jefferson and the misattributed quote, he actually had the whack notion of a natural aristocracy, wherein some people (selected from a pool of white, property-holding men) were naturally more virtuous, gifted and talented than others, and thereby more deserving of running the government than others.

    • lindblomeagles

      The History of the United States is very complicated. On the one hand, Virginia and Massachusetts were established by a company, making its initial settlers employees rather than citizens until those companies folded. The lands known as Pennsylvania, Maryland, the Carolinas, and Georgia were originally legacy inheritances. And the lands of New York, New Jersey, and Delaware were confiscated lands from the Dutch and Swedish respectfully. Maine, Rhode Island and Connecticut were established by unhappy Britons fleeing Massachusetts. Because motivations for settling America differed, you really had competing ideas about what the states and the United States of America should and should not represent. Statesmen from Virginian, Maryland, the Carolinas, or Georgia (like Thomas Jefferson), often DID think aristocracy should be commonplace because that’s how these states were created. Meanwhile, statesmen from New York, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Connecticut, often evoked a people centered, or God centered, governing philosophy because that’s how they were created.

      • Rob

        Thanks for the mini-lecture. I love The People’s History of the United States by Howard Zinn. A very cool “warts and all” read.

        • lindblomeagles

          You know Bob, the beauty of American History is several people have written about it. I personally prefer Colin Woodward’s American History books, but if you’re interested in the subject, there are several authors to choose from. What should never be lost on us today, however, is 1) the importance of being given the opportunity to present (uninterrupted) one’s case and the time for us to reflect upon it before rendering a verdict (this is what the colonists didn’t get from Britain), 2) the humanity found in people generally (Slaves and “Indians” for example, believing in the premise of freedom, liberty, and independence alongside colonists hoping to achieve the same thing against the British), and 3) the requirement of compromise to forge enduring peace and prosperity (if, for example, Massachusetts is the only colony fighting the British, America would not be America today — each colony/state had to give up something to accomplish America). I think this is where Bob Collins was going when he posted this excellent survey and thread on News Cut.

          • Rob

            History is complicated? Gosh! Who knew? And thanks so much for your “You know, Bob, several people have written about history” paternalism. I thought I had majored in Poli Sci and had minored in American History, but maybe it was just a dream…

  • rosswilliams

    There is nothing distressing about those results. Unless you are playing Trivial Pursuits or taking an elementary school American history examine, that piece of knowledge has no current value. Does it matter whether it was Great Britain or England? Still 77% of adults living in the United States answered it correctly, despite many people who never went to school here and some people who struggle to remember their own name. And then there are the people who diidn’t care and were just too distracted to give their answer any thought. My guess is that despite the media’s non-stop Trump hysteria, you would find a lot of people would tell a pollster they were unsure who was President.

    “Useless and pointless knowledge.” Bob Dylan

    • “Useless and pointless knowledge.”

      — A category consisting of knowledge that people don’t know.

      • rosswilliams

        No, a category of trivial knowledge of no importance that you know and others don’t.

        • Anything people don’t know can be dismissed as mere trivia. Generally a lack of basic awareness of basic facts extends to a level of knowledge of all information.

    • lindblomeagles

      Not knowing and not professing Trump is President are two different things. A lot of people, like myself, don’t place the word President next to his name. Second, the American Revolutionaries sternly disagree with you. The Britons living daily in the colonies REMEMBERED they were British subjects in Great Britain before arriving in the colonies. The colonists DID NOT understand why British rights were based on WHERE you lived in the Empire. They left the British over this triviality. And when the colonists wrote the U.S. Constitution, they penned laws to prevent THEIR former experiences as British subjects. But more importantly, Donald Trump, claims history is important. He’s looking back at policies derived in America’s past, WITH, I might add, your full support. History is never just a means of remembering useless facts. And if you don’t believe me, just ask all of our nation’s Christians who are still reading and applying stories and psalms from Jewish texts and events that were written in Ancient times in today’s world.

      • rosswilliams

        ” History is never just a means of remembering useless facts.”

        Of course it isn’t, which is why asking people to remember them, or being upset that they don’t, is just a pretentious game of trivial pursuits. But lets be clear, the revolution was not about some abstract idea of freedom, it was about people wanting to be free to do specific things the British were preventing and to be free from specific actions that the British were taking. But at this point in history, that it was Britain, not England, Scotland or Wales, is irrelevant.

        • lindblomeagles

          I disagree. It’s very relevant because a lot of American Law is based on British Common Law, including, for example, the Bill of Rights. And why are you repeating what I said? It’s clear as day in what I wrote that King George and the Britons trivialized what the colonists were angry about. I didn’t say it was the other way around. You’re purposefully misquoting me. Seems you didn’t read any of my posts, which are numerous throughout this thread. You also didn’t address the last two parts of the text above that you’re responding to. The colonists replaced a lot of things, but they kept some core British things in place. They could have based America after the French, Dutch, or even Spanish laws and customs (1776 – 1788) because, as I’ve stated, these nations WERE in America (the French in Maine, the Dutch in New York, the Spanish in bordering Florida) during the Revolutionary War. France SIDED with the Americans, providing troops and material. The colonists could have even chosen one of the Native American models of government and customs to follow. The colonists didn’t do any of that because while the colonists disagreed with the British on how to manage and govern the colonies, the colonists still PREFERED British life and culture over French, Dutch, Spanish, and Indian culture. Today, some of our citizenry and leaders are suggesting we throw away those final vestiges of British-American law, custom, governance, and experiences in favor of something more fascist related. All of this is definitely relevant.

    • // despite many people who never went to school here

      Since it was a poll of registered voters, that would make them likely naturalized citizens.

      The odds are that 100% of naturalized citizens got the answer correct.


      • rosswilliams

        The poll appears to be of adult residents, not just registered voters and the 77% figure is explicitly “national adults”..

        • KTFoley

          Page 2 of the poll itemizes the demographic info gathered on the 1205 respondents, including the 995 that identified as registered voters.

          Page 3 of the poll indicates that 79% of national registered voters correctly answered the question “From which country did the United States win its independence?” vs. 77% of national adults.

          Page 5 of the poll indicates that 72% of national registered votes correctly answered the question “In what year did the United States declare its independence?” vs. 69% of national adults.

  • lindblomeagles

    There’s a paradox between these poll numbers and the celebration of our American Revolution. While the Founding Father’s distrust sprang from unequal government representation in Britain, one legally sanctioned voice in the media and in church, and from King George’s colonial policy reversals from past King’s practices, Americans distrust similar institutions and offices (Congress, the media, Trump) for elusive, vague, and thus far, less consequential reasons. Those supporting Trump, for example, seem to accept a King George’s style of governance, while those opposed almost equate Trump’s Administration to a King George. There’s also some irony too. At a time when nearly full freedom has reached so many Americans of differing gender, faith, race, and age, the majority of Americans are displeased thus far with the outcome of working towards the stated goals of 1776.

  • Jerry

    To be fair, a lot of what children learn about the founding of this country qualifies more as mythology than history.

    • Rob

      Or Big Lies. I LOVE this comment!!

  • Postal Customer

    0% of Newscut bloggers can spell “Great Britan” :p

  • BNelson

    As a history teacher, I am baffled at the concern and outrage over this kind of trivia. I don’t test students on questions like “in what year did we declare independence?” Instead, I test students on questions like “why did we declare independence?” If kids memorize the date, that’s an added bonus. Polls and surveys like this seem based on faulty concepts of historical understanding in the first place.

    • I figure if people don’t know what country we declared Independence from, they probably don’t know the Bill of Rights. If they don’t know the Bill of Rights, they probably don’t know the Constitution. If they don’t know the Constitution, well, they’re a poor excuse for responsible citizenship.

  • steve bonfiglio

    As an American who has lived in other countries, the results of these polls are both troubling and not surprising (and may speak to the likeability of today’s administration). That said, I can tell you that Americans are not at all stupid–less educated in a traditional sense, very probably. However, more Americans can fix their own car, build an add-on to their house, and survive lost in a hostile environment than many of their peers in foreign countries. We are a highly practical people, yet possessing a deep suspicion of intellectual thought. We are still a frontier people who have run out of frontier (yet still insist on possessing guns to keep our families safe).