Civility II: George Washington


Rules of Civility & Decent Behaviour in Company and Conversation

At age 16 or so, the student George Washington copied 110 Rules of Civility & Decent Behaviour in Company and Conversation into one of two surviving schoolbooks, preserved in the Library of Congress. The Rules date back to 16th century France, and were popularly circulated in English translation.

Washington’s transcription occupies the last ten pages of the second schoolbook, and in 1926 Charles Moore said that “These maxims were so fully exemplified in George Washington’s life that biographers have regarded them as formative influences in the development of his character.”

The University of Virginia web site offers a transcription of the Rules as well as scans of the original. Many of the Rules are quaint, and relevant in a social world which no longer exists. Reading the entire list is an entertaining exercise, and educational, but some of the Rules have a particular relevance to current discussions of civility in political discourse.

In today’s climate of “information overload” it is apparently impossible for Members of Congress and Members of the Media to read the legislation that they are debating, ridiculing, or otherwise commenting upon, so it is undoubtedly too much to expect them to read all of Washington’s Rules. Here are some that should be required reading:

A Selection from the Rules of Civility & Decent Behaviour in Company and Conversation

12th Shake not the head, Feet, or Legs rowl not the Eys 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.

17th Be no Flatterer, neither Play with any that delights not to be Play’d Withal.

21st: Reproach none for the Infirmaties of Nature, nor Delight to Put them that have in mind thereof.

22d Shew not yourself glad at the Misfortune of another though he were your enemy.

24th Do not laugh too loud or too much at any Publick Spectacle.

25th Superfluous Complements and all Affectation of Ceremonie are to be avoided, yet where due they are not to be Neglected.

39th In writing or Speaking, give to every Person his due Title According to his Degree & the Custom of the Place.

40th Strive not with your Superiers in argument, but always Submit your Judgment to others with Modesty.

42d Let thy ceremonies in Courtesie be proper to the Dignity of his place with whom thou conversest for it is absurd to act the same with a Clown and a Prince.

43d Do not express Joy before one sick or in pain for that contrary Passion will aggravate his Misery.

44th When a man does all he can though it Succeeds not well blame not him that did it.

46th 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.

47th Mock not nor Jest at any thing of Importance break no Jest that are Sharp Biting and if you Deliver any thing witty and Pleasent abstain from Laughing there at yourself.

48th Wherein wherein you reprove Another be unblameable yourself; for example is more prevalent than Precepts.

49th Use no Reproachfull Language against any one neither Curse nor Revile.

50th Be not hasty to beleive flying Reports to the Disparagement of any.

56th Associate yourself with Men of good Quality if you Esteem your own Reputation; for ’tis better to be alone than in bad Company.

58th Let your Conversation be without Malice or Envy, for ’tis a Sign of a Tractable and Commendable Nature: And in all Causes of Passion admit Reason to Govern.

59th Never express anything unbecoming, nor Act agst the Rules Moral before your inferiours.

63d A Man ought not to value himself of his Atchievements, or rare Qualities of wit; much less of his riches Virtue or Kindred.

64th Break not a Jest where none take pleasure in mirth Laugh not aloud, nor at all without Occasion, deride no mans Misfortune, tho’ there Seem to be Some cause.

65th Speak not injurious Words neither in Jest nor Earnest Scoff at none although they give Occasion.

67th Detract not from others neither be excessive in Commanding.

69th If two contend together take not the part of either unconstrained; and be not obstinate in your own Opinion, in Things indiferent be of the Major Side.

70th Reprehend not the imperfections of others for that belongs to Parents Masters and Superiours.

73d Think before you Speak pronounce not imperfectly nor bring out your Words too hastily but orderly & distinctly.

74th When Another Speaks be attentive your Self and disturb not the Audience if any hesitate in his Words help him not nor Prompt him without desired, Interrupt him not, nor Answer him till his Speech be ended.

78th Make no Comparisons and if any of the Company be Commended for any brave act of Vertue, commend not another for the Same.

79th 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.

82d undertake not what you cannot perform but be carefull to keep your promise.

86th In Disputes, be not So Desireous to Overcome as not to give Liberty to each one to deliver his Opinion and Submit to the Judgment of the Major Part especially if they are Judges of the Dispute.

89th Speak not Evil of the absent for it is unjust.

109th Let your Recreations be Manfull not Sinfull.

110th Labour to keep alive in your Breast that Little Spark of Celestial fire Called Conscience.

Finis

–SG

What do you think? Please enter a comment below.

2 Responses to “Civility II: George Washington”

  1. Captain Mimo Says:

    Chop not any cherry tree nor say as did you not when yet you did!

  2. SG Says:

    [112th] Waste not your money by throwing it across any river, nor crack any walnut with your hands when in company because such feats of strength are braggery and unbecoming.

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