The Long Lugubrious History of Polls

The Long Lugubrious History of Polls

You can't open a newspaper or turn on the television today without running smack dab into a poll of Americans on a topic of burning significance. Should Reagan attend Yuri Andropov's funeral in Moscow? Or how do women with bouffant hairdos feel about John Glenn's stand on farm price supports? How did the world ever get along without these trusty barometers of public opinion — or at least the views of 652 upscale, unemployed meatpackers from Jersey?

Polls have been around for centuries; but in olden days they were conducted by governments rather than private firms and for very good reasons were not spread around the countryside by town criers. In 1491, Queen Isabella of Spain had 1,283 of her subjects and one Italian questioned as to the geometric shape of the planet: ''Be ye, fair citizens, of the view that the earth be round or flat or none of the above?'' The results were that all but one opined that the Queen was quite round and the earth perfectly flat. The lone dissenter, of course, would soon sail off into the sunset and into our history books.

In 1337, King Edward III of England asked 975 yeomen about a momentous affair of state: ''Loyal subjects, what say we stout English lads have a whack at the French for about a century, tally ho, good show, what?'' Sixty-three percent said 50 years ought to do the trick nicely, while 18 percent opted for hacking and slicing up the Irish instead. Nineteen percent insisted that they were not in the least bit stout. These mixed results notwithstanding, the King declared the Hundred Years' War against France the very next day. The study was used to line the royal birdcage.

Despite our current obsession, opinion polls were not used in America until the Revolutionary War. In fact, the first survey was taken at Valley Forge, where 1,562 of Washington's shivering, emaciated troops were asked about the war , revolutionary ideology, and foreign policy.

But before they got to the serious questions, a canvasser of Polish descent could not restrain himself from asking, ''So, is it cold enough for you?'' The soldiers reportedly rose up, put this unfortunate gentleman on his horse, and hollered, ''Gallop, Pole!''

When the men finally quieted down, they were given a series of hypothetical choices: ''Which would you rather have, political self-determination or a pair of shoes for your bare feet? Taxation with representation or the year's back pay owed you by the Continental Congress? A hunk of fresh meat or freedom from Europe's entangling alliances?''

Although he had commissioned the opinion poll, Gen. George Washington never released its findings. He started his campfire with it.