George Washington's Rules of
Good Behavior, ca. 1746
The qualities that would make George Washington
a respected leader and a genuine hero of American history were evident at a young
age. General Edward Braddock, Washington’s commander during the French
and Indian War, wrote the following appraisal to a friend in 1755:
"Is Mr. Washington among your acquaintances? If not, I recommend you to embrace the first opportunity to form his friendship. He is about twenty-three years of age; with a countenance both mild and pleasant, promising of both wit and judgment. He is of comely and dignified demeanor, at the same time displays much self-reliance and decision. He strikes me as being a young man of extraordinary and exalted character, and is destined to make no inconsiderable figure in our country."
(Kinnaird, George Washington, the pictoral biography)
As a youth, Washington led a troubled life. His father died when he was eleven.
As a result, George spent much of his formative years living with his older
step-brothers, Austin and Lawrence. He received some formal education
between the years of six and fourteen, but the majority of what he learned
One staple of his self-learning was a book entitled The Young Man’s
Companion published in London in 1664. The book’s title page proclaimed
that it was written "in a plain and easy style so that a young man
may attain the same, without a tutor." Included in the book was
a list of rules for proper social behavior that had been developed by French
Jesuits almost a century earlier. The thirteen or fourteen-year-old George
Washington would spend hours filling the pages of his notebook with copies
of these rules, many of which he modified to better fit his own view of proper
behavior. The boy entitled his writings as the Rules of Civility and
Decent Behavior In Company and Conversation.
The result of young George's effort was two-fold. First, he was able
to perfect his penmanship – handwriting so immaculate that it was commented
upon throughout the rest of his life. Secondly, and more importantly, he developed
a set of rules that both reflected and molded his sense of character and good
behavior for the rest of his life. These Rules of Civility were instrumental
in the transformation of the young boy who filled his notebook with them to
the adult who would become the “Father of His Country.”
Washington's Rules of Civility contained 110 maxims. Here is a sampling:
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 Noise, nor Drum with your Fingers or Feet.
Sleep not when others Speak, Sit not when others
stand, Speak not when you Should hold your Peace, walk not on when others
When you see a Crime punished, you may be inwardly
Pleased, but always shew Pity to the Suffering Offender.
When a man does all he can, though it succeeds
not well, blame him not that he did it.
Being to advise or reprehend any one, consider
whether it ought to be in publick or in Private; presently, or at Some
other time, in what terms to do it & in reproving, Shew no sign of Cholar
but do it with all Sweetness and Mildness.
Take all Admonitions thankfully in what Time or
Place Soever given, but afterwards not being culpable, take a Time & Place
convenient to Let him know it that gave them.
Mock not nor Jest at any thing of importance, break
no Jest that are Sharp Bitting and if you Deliver any thing witty and Pleasant,
abstain from Laughing thereat yourself.
Wherein you reprove Another, be unblameable yourself;
for example is more prevelant than Precepts.
Use no Reproachful Language against any one, neither
Curse nor Revile.
Be not hasty to believe flying Reports to the Disparagment 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.
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 to others.
Speak not Evil of the absent for it is unjust.
Put not your meat to your Mouth with your Knife in your hand neither Spit
forth the Stones of any fruit Pye upon a Dish nor Cast anything under
Let your Recreations be Manful not Sinful.
Labour to keep alive in your Breast that little Spark of Celestial fire
Murray, John Allen, George Washington's Rules of Civility (1942);
Kincaid, Clark, George Washington, the pictorial biography (1967); Sparks, Jared,
The Writings of George Washington, vol. 1 (1839).
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