As a young schoolboy in Virginia, George Washington took his first steps toward greatness by copying out by hand a list of 110 ‘Rules of Civility & Decent Behavior in Company and Conversation.’ Based on a sixteenth-century set of precepts compiled for young gentlemen by Jesuit instructors, the Rules of Civility were one of the earliest and most powerful forces to shape America’s first president, says historian Richard Brookhiser.
Most of the rules are concerned with details of etiquette, offering pointers on such issues as how to dress, walk, eat in public and address one’s superiors. But in the introduction to the newly published Rules of Civility: The 110 Precepts That Guided Our First President in War and Peace, Brookhiser warns against dismissing the maxims as “mere” etiquette. “The rules address moral issues, but they address them indirectly,” Brookhiser writes. “They seek to form the inner man (or boy) by shaping the outer.”
Here is a sampling of the rules, selected by F.B.C. director Ira Bryck. (For ease of reading, punctuation and spelling have been modernized.)
- 1. Every action done in company ought to be with some sign of respect to those that are present.
- 6. Sleep not when others speak, sit not when others stand, speak not when you should hold your peace, walk not on when others stop.
- 9. Spit not into the fire, nor stoop low before it; neither put your hands into the flames to warm them, nor set your feet upon the fire, especially if there be meat before it.
- 12. 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 man’s face with your spittle by approaching too near him when you speak.
- 13. Kill no vermin, or fleas, lice, ticks, etc. in the sight of others; if you see any filth or thick spittle put your foot dexterously upon it; if it be upon the clothes of your companions, put it off privately, and if it be upon your own clothes, return thanks to him who puts it off.
- 14. Turn not your back to others, especially in speaking; jog not the table or desk on which another reads or writes; lean not upon anyone.
- 18. Read no letter, books, or papers in company, but when there is a necessity for the doing of it, you must ask leave; come not near the books or writtings of another so as to read them unless desired, or give your opinion of them unasked. Also look not nigh when another is writing a letter.
- 19. Let your countenance be pleasant but in serious matters somewhat grave.
- 22. Show not yourself glad at the misfortune of another though he were your enemy.
- 23. When you see a crime punished, you may be inwardly pleased; but always show pity to the suffering offender.
- 31. If anyone far surpasses others, either in age, estate, or merit, yet would give place to a meaner than himself in his own lodging or elsewhere, the one ought not to except it. So he on the other part should not use much earnestness nor offer it above once or twice.
- 32. To one that is your equal, or not much inferior, you are to give the chief place in your lodging, and he to whom it is offered ought at the first to refuse it, but at the second to accept though not without acknowledging his own unworthiness.
- 35. Let your discourse with men of business be short and comprehensive.
- 44. When a man does all he can, though it succeed not well, blame not him that did it.
- 45. Being to advise or reprehend any one, consider whether it ought to be in public or in private, and presently or at some other time; in what terms to do it; and in reproving show no signs of cholor but do it with all sweetness and mildness.
- 46. Take all admonitions thankfully in what time or place soever given, but afterwards not being culpable take a time and place convenient to let him know it that gave them.
- 48. Wherein you reprove another be unblameable yourself, for example is more prevalent than precepts.
- 50. Be not hasty to believe flying reports to the disparagement of any.
- 56. Associate yourself with men of good quality if you esteem your own reputation; for ’tis better to be alone than in bad company.
- 62. Speak not of doleful things in a time of mirth or at the table; speak not of melancholy things as death and wounds, and if others mention them, change if you can the discourse. Tell not your dreams, but to your intimate friend.
- 63. A man ought not to value himself of his achievements or rare qualities of wit; much less of his riches, virtue or kindred.
- 64. Break not a jest where none take pleasure in mirth; laugh not aloud, nor at all without occasion; deride no man’s misfortune though there seem to be some cause.
- 70. Reprehend not the imperfections of others, for that belongs to parents, masters and superiors.
- 71. Gaze not on the marks or blemishes of others and ask not how they came.
74. When another speaks, be attentive yourself 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.
- 81. Be not curious to know the affairs of others, neither approach those that speak in private.
- 82. Undertake not what you cannot perform but be careful to keep your promise.
- 83. When you deliver a matter do it without passion and with discretion, however mean the person be you do it to.
- 89. Speak not evil of the absent, for it is unjust.
- 97. Put not another bite into your mouth ’til the former be swallowed. Let not your morsels be too big for the jowls.
- 110. Labor to keep alive in your breast that little spark of celestial fire called conscience