George Washington’s Rules of Civility

Young George Washington’s education included copying by hand Rules of Civility & Decent Behavior in Company and Conversation.” In the process he learned not only penmanship, but a code of manners that shaped his character and conduct.

Some of the 110 rules pertain to etiquette: “In the Presence of Others Sing not to yourself with a humming Noise, nor Drum with your Fingers or Feet.” And, “Shake not the head, Feet, or Legs roll not the Eyes lift not one eyebrow higher than the other wry not the mouth, and bedew no mans face with your Spittle, by approaching too near him when you Speak.”

Fortunately, I’ve never been in situation that required me to: “Kill no Vermin as Fleas, lice ticks & in the Sight of Others, if you See any filth or thick Spittle put your foot Dexterously upon it if it be upon the Cloths of your Companions, Put it off privately, and if it be upon your own Cloths return Thanks to him who puts it off.”

Manners are the social lubricant that reduce friction, especially when we find ourselves in unpleasant company. “Be not angry at the table whatever happens & if you have reason to be so, show it not; put on a cheerful countenance especially if there be strangers, for good humor makes one dish of meat a feast.” For the good of our companions and the tranquility of our table, we must act, at times, contrary to our feelings, taking extra care in choosing words and controlling facial expressions, lest the table dissolve into unhappy conflict or miserable silence.

Generosity of spirit is commended: “Show not yourself glad at the Misfortune of another though he were your enemy.” And, “Speak not Evil of the absent for it is unjust.”

When tempted to pontificate on subjects about which we know little: “In visiting the Sick, do not Presently play the Physician if you be not Knowing therein.” And, “Undertake not to Teach your equal in the art himself Professes; it Savours of arrogance.”

In our day and Washington’s, busybodies are unwelcome: “Be not Curious to Know the Affairs of Others neither approach those that Speak in Private.”

Maturity comes more quickly when we: “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.”

A good reputation is hard to earn and easily forfeited, as this rule reminds: “Associate yourself with Men of good Quality if you Esteem your own Reputation; for ‘is better to be alone than in bad Company.”

To those of us who speak spontaneously and quickly: “Think before you Speak pronounce not imperfectly nor bring out your Words too hastily but orderly & distinctly.”

Careful thought should precede all commitments: “Undertake not what you cannot Perform but be Careful to keep your Promise.”

Although some of the 110 “Rules of Civility & Decent Behavior in Company and Conversation” are dated and belong to an era far removed from our own, many remain as relevant today as when the young George Washington copied them. Because they promote civility, good manners, and self-restraint, they have enduring value.

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