Words That Matter

In his book on George Washington, Richard Brookhiser writes that “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. Parson Weems got this right, when he wrote that it was ‘no wonder every body honoured him who honoured every body.’ ”

Respect, consideration, responsibility: Here are ten of my favorites from Washington’s list of 110 Rules of Civility & Decent Behavior in Company and Conversation, along with my own ethical points:

1. Every Action done in Company, ought to be with Some Sign of Respect, to those that are Present. (Be respectful of others at all times.)

2. Let your Discourse with Men of Business be Short and Comprehensive. (Think before you speak, then keep it brief.)

3. Associate yourself with Men of good Quality if you Esteem your own Reputation; for tis better to be alone than in bad Company. (Associate with people of character, if you wish to demonstrate character yourself.)

4. When a man does all he can though it Succeeds not well blame not him that did it. (We all fail. Focus on the best in others, not their failures.)

5. Be not hasty to believe flying Reports to the Disparagement of any. (Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.)

6. Be not immodest in urging your Friends to Discover a Secret. (Respect confidences. Always be discrete.)

7. Undertake not what you cannot Perform but be Careful to keep your Promise. (Be responsible; keep your promises.)

8. Be not apt to relate News if you know not the truth thereof. In Discoursing of things you Have heard Name not your Author always A Secret Discover not. (Check your facts; don’t gossip.)

9. If two contend together take not the part of either unconstrained; and be not obstinate in your own Opinion, in Things indifferent be of the Major Side. (Respect all opinions, even those you don’t agree with. In trivial matters, don’t be disagreeable.)

10. Labor to keep alive in your breast that little spark of celestial fire called conscience. (Strive to live up to your highest aspirations; cynicism is destructive.)

Abraham Lincoln was, arguably, the greatest writer and speaker of all U.S. Presidents. Every time I read Lincoln’s Gettysburg address, I am awed. Less than 300 words, it not only conveyed the mood and moment, but perhaps, a mood of our last several years.

In spite of the seriousness of the occasion, Lincoln managed to express an optimism for the future of the nation; a hopefulness that we could all use more of.

“Four score and seven years ago, our fathers brought forth upon this continent a new nation: conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

“Now we are engaged in a great civil war. . .testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated. . . can long endure. We are met on a great battlefield of that war.

“We have come to dedicate a portion of that field as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

“But, in a larger sense, we cannot dedicate. . .we cannot consecrate. . . we cannot hallow this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember, what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here.

“It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us. . .that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion. . . that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain. . . that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom. . . and that government of the people. . .by the people. . .for the people. . . shall not perish from the earth.”

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