Americans celebrate Presidents Day, a federal holiday commemorating George Washington’s birthday, on the third Monday in February. The occasion used to be celebrated every February 22 — the actual date the first U.S. president was born — until 1971, when it was moved to create more three-day weekends for the country’s workers.
These days many people think the holiday commemorates all U.S. presidents, even though some Americans aren’t completely clear on who those presidents are, according to researchers from Washington University in St. Louis.
While 88 percent of all U.S. presidents’ names were recognized, fewer than 60 percent of those polled recognized Presidents Chester Arthur (1881-1885) and Franklin Pierce (1853-1857).
Certain presidential names were recognized 99 percent of the time, including Washington, Lincoln, the Roosevelts, Kennedy, Nixon, Bush, and Obama.
And some respondents were pretty sure famous Americans who’d never been president — such as Alexander Hamilton and Benjamin Franklin — had in fact lived in the White House.
“We created the list of lures by combining vice presidents who did not become president with other famous names from American history,” the researchers wrote, “We also included names of people who were not famous to assess whether some subjects would be yea-sayers, responding yes to most everyone, or responding randomly.”
These lures were so successful that many people were more certain Hamilton, who appears on the $10 bill, served as U.S. president than they were about six actual presidents.
“Our findings from a recent survey suggest that about 71 percent of Americans are fairly certain that Alexander Hamilton is among our nation’s past presidents,” Henry L. Roediger III, a human memory expert at Washington University, told the Association for Psychological Science. “I had predicted that Benjamin Franklin would be the person most falsely recognized as a president, but Hamilton beat him by a mile.”
Hamilton, one of America’s founding fathers, helped frame the U.S. Constitution, which established America’s national government and fundamental laws. A close ally of George Washington, Hamilton served as the secretary of the U.S. treasury. He died at the age of 49 in an infamous duel with Aaron Burr, the sitting U.S. vice president.
Benjamin Franklin was many things, but he was never president, even though a majority of people polled thought he was. Franklin was a founding father as well as a scientist, inventor and diplomat who facilitated America’s first volunteer fire department.
The study polled 326 people via Mechanical Turk, an interactive online service.
A similar study Roediger conducted in 2014, found Americans are pretty good at naming the first few and the last few presidents, but then things start to fall off. Fewer than 20 percent of people polled in the 2014 study could recall more than the last eight or nine presidents in order.
So, on Presidents Day, while Americans might commemorate all of the U.S. leaders, they might not always remember exactly who it is they’re saluting.
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