Last week I mentioned briefly the 110 rules of Civility & Decent Behavior in Company and Conversation that George Washington copied out by hand into his copybook. I’d like to delve into those rules a little more deeply this week.
These 110 rules of Civility & Decent Behavior in Company and Conversation are based on a set of rules composed by French Jesuits in 1595. Presumably they were copied out as part of an exercise in penmanship assigned by young Washington’s schoolmaster. The first English translations of the French rules appeared in 1640, and are ascribed to Francis Hawkins, the 12-year-old son of a doctor. From the Hawkins book the 110 rules copied by Washington were selected, simplified and arranged by some person at present unknown.
Unfortunately, the rules are not organized in any particular order, either by importance or by type, yet virtually all of them are as important today as they were 400 years ago, allowing for some cultural adjustments. The one exception to the randomness of the rules is that virtually all of them grow out of the first: “Every action done in company ought to be with some sign of respect to those that are present.”
The young Washington not only copied the rules by hand, he regularly referred to them and is believed to have memorized and applied the entire set of rules to his daily behavior as evidenced by the well-worn copybook.
Although Washington’s formal schooling ended at age 11 with the death of his father, Augustine, and much of his teens was spent hard at work, both on the family plantation and on the frontier, he did not present himself as the rough, uncouth young man that he might have. His application of the rules allowed him to mix very comfortably with every strata of society. While he had less education than virtually all of the other Founding Fathers, he commanded such respect for his leadership, humility, and poise in polite society that lack of education was never an important issue.
Here is a sampling of these rules that will never be out of style:
- If you cough, sneeze, sigh, or yawn, do it not loudly but privately and speak not in your yawning but put your handkerchief or hand before your face and turn aside.
- Put not off your clothes in the presence of others, nor go out your chamber half dressed.
- Shift not yourself in the sight of others nor gnaw your nails.
- Be no flatterer, neither play with any that delights not to be played withal.
- Show not yourself glad at the misfortune of another though he were your enemy.
- If anyone come to speak to you while you are sitting stand up though he be your inferior, and when you present seats let it be to everyone according to his degree.
- When you meet with one of greater quality than yourself, stop, and retire especially if it be at a door or any straight place to give way for him to pass.
- In walking the highest place in most countries seems to be on the right hand therefore place yourself on the left of him whom you desire to honor: but if three walk together the middle place is the most honorable, and the wall is usually given to the most worthy if two walk together.
- Let your discourse with men of business be short and comprehensive.
- Strive not with your superiors in argument, but always submit your judgment to others with modesty.
- When a man does all he can though it succeeds not well blame not him that did it.
- Use no reproachful language against anyone, neither curse nor revile.
- Be not hasty to believe flying reports to the disparagement of any.
- Associate yourself with men of good quality if you esteem your own reputation; for tis better to be alone than in bad company.
- A man ought not to value himself of his achievements, or rare qualities of wit; much less of his riches virtue or kindred.
- Detract not from others neither be excessive in commanding.
- Undertake not what you cannot perform but be careful to keep your promise.
- Be not tedious in discourse, make not many digressions, nor repeat often the same manner of discourse.
- Drink not nor talk with your mouth full; neither gaze about you while you are drinking.
- Labor to keep alive in your breast that little spark of celestial fire called conscience.
Want to read all 110 rules of civility or learn more about them? Check out these websites: