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History Survey Commissioned by Colonial Williamsburg Challenged Adults, Children

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All Americans have a right to "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness," but only three out of 10 who were surveyed in 1998 knew that those rights are set forth in the Declaration of Independence. As America celebrated the nation's independence on July 4,1998 a survey of adults and children found some significant gaps in Americans' knowledge of the history of how our country began.

Colonial Williamsburg commissioned a national telephone survey of multiple-choice questions to measure Americans' knowledge of the past. Among the findings, children who were surveyed were less aware than some adults of some of the most basic historical facts. For example:

  • Almost half the children surveyed didn't know the purpose of the Declaration of Independence – "to state that the colonies were free of British rule" – while only 18 percent of adults answered that question incorrectly;
  • One child in 10 (13 percent) correctly identified our nation's Founding Fathers, compared with more than half (55 percent) of adults; and
  • More than two-thirds of children didn't know that "Give me liberty or give me death" was uttered by Patrick Henry, rather than Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln or Paul Revere, compared with a third of adults who didn't know.

Adults, ages 35-54 years old, were polled. On average, they answered seven of 10 questions correctly. Children, ages 9 to 12 years old, were asked the same questions and gave correct answers half the time.

"Many parents, especially the Baby Boom generation, are concerned that their children aren't learning enough about how and why the United States came to be," said Colonial Williamsburg President Bob Wilburn. "Kids are inundated with information from movies, television, the Internet and theme parks – but how much of it is really stimulating, relevant or even accurate? Our nation's future depends in part on our understanding of the past – the ideals and values on which this country was founded."

Some historical facts came easily to both adults and children:

  • Almost all adults (94 percent) and kids (91 percent) surveyed knew that George Washington was the first president of the United States; and
  • The majority of both groups (89 percent of adults and 76 percent of children ) also knew that there were 13 original states.

Several questions challenged adults and children:

  • Five of 10 children and nearly four of 10 adults surveyed didn't know that the "shot heard round the world" started the Revolutionary War; and
  • Close to a third of the children and a quarter of adults surveyed didn't know the Redcoats were soldiers who fought in the Revolutionary War, rather than the Civil War or World War I.