As a young schoolboy in Virginia, George Washington took the first steps toward greatness by copying a list of 110 ‘Rules of Civility and Decent Behavior in Company and Conversation.’ A century prior, Jesuit priests compiled the list of precepts for young gentlemen, and the maxims were one of the earliest and most powerful forces to shape America’s first president.
Most of the rules concerned etiquette topics such as how to dress, walk, and eat in public places and how to address one’s superiors. In the introduction to the newly published Rules of Civility: The 110 Precepts That Guided our First President in War and Peace, editor Richard Brookhiser states, “The rules address moral issues, but they address them indirectly. They seek to form the inner man (or boy) by shaping the outer.”
So, what were the 110 precepts that guided our first president in war and peace, and more importantly, are they still applicable in our day and age? Here are just a few, so you can decide.
• Every action done in company ought to be with some sign of respect to those that are present.
• In the presence of others, sing not to yourself with a humming voice, or drum with your fingers or feet.
• If you cough, sneeze, sigh or yawn, do it not loud but privately, and speak not in your yawning, but put your handkerchief or hand before your face and turn aside.
• When you sit down, keep your feet firm and even, without putting one on the other or crossing them.
• Do not gnaw your nails. Keep them clean and short, also your hands and teeth clean, yet without showing any great concern for them.
• Do not laugh too loud or too much at any public spectacle.
• If any one comes to speak to you while you are sitting, stand up.
• Use no reproachful language against any one; neither curse nor revile.
• Associate yourself with men of good quality if you esteem your own reputation, for ‘tis better to be alone than in bad company.
• Reprehend not the imperfections of others, for that belongs to parents, masters, and superiors.
• Gaze not on the marks or blemishes of others and ask not how they came. What you may speak in secret to your friend, deliver not before others.
• Think before you speak, pronounce not imperfectly, nor bring out your words too hastily, but orderly and distinctly.
• While you are talking, point not with your finger at him of whom you discourse, nor approach too near to him to whom you talk, especially to his face.
• Be not apt to relate news if you know not the truth.
• Speak not evil of the absent, for it is unjust.
• Drink not nor talk with your mouth full; neither gaze about you while you are drinking.
• Cleanse not your teeth with the tablecloth, napkin, fork or knife, but if others do it, let it be done with a toothpick.
• Be not angry at table whatever happens, but put on a cheerful countenance especially if there be strangers, for good humor makes one dish of meat a feast.
• Labor to keep alive in your breast that little spark of celestial fire called conscience.
So, the next time your children choose to act ill mannerly, remind them that just as the rules helped shape George Washington’s strong sense of self-discipline, they can do the same for modern children. Who knows, your child may grow up to be our president!