George Washington's Rules of Civility
In the late nineteenth century, a school notebook entitled "Forms of Writing" was discovered at Mount Vernon, Virginia, George Washington's plantation home on the Potomac River. The notebook apparently dates from about 1745, when George was fourteen years old and attending school in Fredericksburg, Virginia. Inside, in George's own handwriting, we find the foundation of a solid character education for an eighteenth-century youth: some 110 "Rules of Civility in Conversation Amongst Men." Historical research has shown that young George probably copied them from a 1664 English translation of an even older French work. Most of the rules are still delightfully applicable as a modern code of personal conduct. On the assumption that what was good enough for the first president of the United States is good enough for the rest of us, here are fifty-four of George Washington's "Rules of Civility."
1. Every action in company ought to be with some sign of respect to those present.
2. In the presence of others sing not to yourself with a humming voice, nor drum with your fingers or feet.
3. Speak not when others speak, sit not when others stand, and walk not when others stop.
4. Turn not your back to others, especially in speaking; jog not the table or desk on which another reads or writes; lean not on anyone.
5. Be no flatterer, neither play with anyone that delights not to be played with.
6. Read no letters, books, or papers in company; but when there is a necessity for doing it, you must ask leave. Come not near the books or writings of anyone so as to read them unasked; also look not nigh when another is writing a letter.
7. Let your countenance be pleasant, but in serious matters somewhat grave.
8. Show not yourself glad at the misfortune of another, though he were your enemy.
9. They that are in dignity or office have in all places precedency, but whilst they are young, they ought to respect those that are their equals in birth or other qualities, though they have no public charge.
10. It is good manners to prefer them to whom we speak before ourselves, especially if they be above us, with whom in no sort we ought to begin.
11. Let your discourse with men of business be short and comprehensive.
12. In visiting the sick do not presently play the physician if you be not knowing therein.
13. In writing or speaking give to every person his due title according to his degree and the custom of the place.
14. Strive not with your superiors in argument, but always submit your judgment to others with modesty.
15. Undertake not to teach your equal in the art he himself professes; it savors of arrogancy.
16. When a man does all he can, though it succeeds not well, blame not him that did it.
17. Being to advise or reprehend anyone, consider whether it ought to be in public or in private, presently or at some other time, also in what terms to do it; and in reproving show no signs of choler, but do it with sweetness and mildness.
18. Mock not nor jest at anything of importance; break no jests that are sharp or biting; and if you deliver anything witty or pleasant, abstain from laughing thereat yourself.
19. Wherein you reprove another be unblamable yourself, for example is more prevalent than precept.
20. Use no reproachful language against anyone, neither curses nor revilings.
21. Be not hasty to believe flying reports to the disparagement of anyone.
22. In your apparel be modest, and endeavor to accommodate nature rather than procure admiration. Keep to the fashion of your equals, such as are civil and orderly with respect to time and place.
23. Play not the peacock, looking everywhere about you to see if you be well decked, if your shoes fit well, if your stockings set neatly and clothes handsomely.
24. Associate yourself with men of good quality if you esteem your own reputation, for it is better to be alone than in bad company.
25. Let your conversation be without malice or envy, for it is a sign of tractable and commendable nature; and in all causes of passion admit reason to govern.
26. Be not immodest in urging your friend to discover a secret.
27. Utter not base and frivolous things amongst grown and learned men, nor very difficult questions or subjects amongst the ignorant, nor things hard to be believed.
28. Speak not of doleful things in time of mirth nor 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 friends.
29. Break not a jest when none take pleasure in mirth. Laugh not aloud, nor at all without occasion. Deride no man's misfortunes, though there seem to be some cause.
30. Speak not injurious words, neither in jest or earnest. Scoff at none, although they give occasion.
31. Be not forward, but friendly and courteous, the first to salute, hear and answer, and be not pensive when it is time to converse.
32. Detract not from others, but neither be excessive in commending.
33. Go not thither where you know not whether you shall be welcome or not. Give not advice without being asked; and when desired, do it briefly.
34. If two contend together, take not the part of either unconstrained, and be not obstinate in your opinion; in things indifferent be of the major side.
35. Reprehend not the imperfection of others, for that belongs to parents, masters, and superiors.
36. 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.
37. Speak not in an unknown tongue in company, but in your own language; and that as those of quality do, and not as the vulgar. Sublime matters treat seriously.38. Think before you speak; pronounce not imperfectly, nor bring out your words too hastily, but orderly and distinctly.
39. When another speaks, be attentive yourself, and disturb not the audience. If any hesitate in his words, help him not, nor prompt him without being desired; interrupt him not, nor answer him till his speech be ended.40. Treat with men at fit times about business, and whisper not in the company of others.
41. Make no comparisons; and if any of the company be commended for any brave act of virtue, commend not another for the same.
42. 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.
43. Be not curious to know the affairs of others, neither approach to those that speak in private.
44. Undertake not what you cannot perform; but be careful to keep your promise.
45. When you deliver a matter, do it without passion and indiscretion, however mean the person may be you do it to.
46. When your superiors talk to anybody, hear them; neither speak or laugh.47. In disputes be not so desirous 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.
48. Be not tedious in discourse, make not many digressions, nor repeat often the same matter of discourse.
49. Speak no evil of the absent, for it is unjust.
50. Be not angry at table, whatever happens; and 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 a feast.
51. Set not yourself at the upper end of the table; but if it be your due, or the master of the house will have it so, contend not, lest you should trouble the company.
52. When you speak of God or his attributes, let it be seriously, in reverence and honor, and obey your natural parents.
53. Let your recreations be manful, not sinful.
54. Labor to keep alive in your breast that little spark of celestial fire called conscience.