Washington’s Rules

Published: February 25, 2011

By Jim Lichtman
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At the age of sixteen, George Washington copied, by hand, 110 Rules of Civility & Decent Behavior in Company and Conversation. Based on rules composed by French Jesuits in 1595, the conventions outline how we demonstrate respect for others. In a time of widespread self-interest, the rules focus on others.

In his biography of Washington, historian Richard Brookhiser writes, “all modern manners in the western world were originally aristocratic. Courtesy meant behavior appropriate to a court; chivalry comes from chevalier – a knight. Yet Washington was to dedicate himself to freeing America from a court’s control. Could manners survive the operation? Without realizing it, the Jesuits who wrote them, and the young man who copied them, were outlining and absorbing a system of courtesy appropriate to equals and near-equals. When the company for whom the decent behavior was to be performed expanded to the nation, Washington was ready.

Here are some of my favorites from Washington’s list:

– Every Action done in Company, ought to be with Some Sign of Respect, to those that are Present.

– Be not forward but friendly and Courteous; the first to Salute hear and answer & be not Pensive when it’s a time to Converse.

– Be not Tedious in Discourse or in reading unless you find the Company pleased therewith.

– Sleep not when others Speak, Sit not when others stand, Speak not when you Should hold your Peace, walk not on when others Stop.

– Let your Discourse with Men of Business be Short and Comprehensive.

– In your Apparel be Modest and endeavour to accomodate Nature, rather than to procure Admiration keep to the Fashion of your equals Such as are Civil and orderly with respect to Times and Places.

– Use no Reproachfull Language against any one neither Curse nor Revile.

– Take all Admonitions thankfully in what Time or Place Soever given but afterwards not being culpable take a Time & Place convenient to let him him know it that gave them.

– Associate yourself with Men of good Quality if you Esteem your own Reputation; for ‘is better to be alone than in bad Company.

– Speak not injurious Words neither in Jest nor Earnest Scoff at none although they give Occasion.

– Undertake not what you cannot Perform but be Careful to keep your Promise.

– Put not another bit into your mouth till the former be swallowed. Let not your morsels be too big for the jowls.

– If others talk at the table, be attentive but talk not with meat in your mouth.

– Labor to keep alive in your breast that little spark of celestial fire called conscience.

Many stories have been attributed to Washington, among them, perhaps the most popular, concerns his honesty. After chopping down a cherry tree on his father’s farm, young Washington is confronted and asked who was responsible. Washington reportedly said, “I cannot tell a lie, Pa.” While moralistic stories were gaining in popularity as a source used to teach the young, it is believed that Washington’s earliest biographer, Parson Weems, plagiarized the story from English fiction.

The complete list of Washington’s rules can be found atColonial Williamsburg.

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