Read George Washington’s “110 Rules of Civility”: The Code of Decency That Guided America’s First President

Con­trary to a thor­ough­ly abused polit­i­cal metaphor, Wash­ing­ton, DC was not in fact built on a swamp, though any­one who has vis­it­ed in the sum­mer will find that sto­ry plau­si­ble. Hav­ing just returned to my home­town for a few days, I’ve had ample reminder of its stick­i­ness, and have expe­ri­enced its fig­u­ra­tive­ly over­heat­ed atmos­phere first­hand. I needn’t go over the polit­i­cal and moral crises turn­ing the cap­i­tal into a caul­dron of “inci­vil­i­ty.”

But what exact­ly is “civil­i­ty” and what does it entail? Is it just anoth­er word for polite­ness, or a hyp­o­crit­i­cal­ly insid­i­ous code for silenc­ing dis­sent? Oxford Dic­tio­nar­ies recent­ly chose the word for its Week­ly Word Watch, cit­ing an Oxford Eng­lish Dic­tio­nary entry defin­ing it as “the min­i­mum degree” of deco­rum in social sit­u­a­tions. Deriv­ing from the Latin civis, or “cit­i­zen,” and relat­ed to “civics” and “civ­i­liza­tion,” the word first meant “cit­i­zen­ship,” and con­not­ed the treat­ment sup­pos­ed­ly due a per­son with said sta­tus. As often hap­pens, con­no­ta­tion became deno­ta­tion, and civil­i­ty came to stand for basic respect.

Ner­vous colum­nists now wor­ried about civility’s decline have pinned the prob­lem on cit­i­zen pro­test­ers exer­cis­ing civ­il dis­obe­di­ence and their first amend­ment rights, rather than on the tor­rents of abuse, threats, and lies that pour forth dai­ly from the exec­u­tive, who seems inca­pable of treat­ing any­one with min­i­mal decen­cy. But the very first hold­er of the office—faced with a frac­tious and unciv­il pop­u­lace (some of whom toast­ed to his “speedy death”)—believed it was his duty to set “a stan­dard to which the wise and hon­est can repair.”

What, we might won­der, would George Wash­ing­ton, builder of DC, have thought of the city’s cur­rent state? We can spec­u­late by ref­er­ence to his “Farewell Address,” in which the depart­ing pres­i­dent wrote:

The alter­nate dom­i­na­tion of one fac­tion over anoth­er, sharp­ened by the spir­it of revenge nat­ur­al to par­ty dis­sention, which in dif­fer­ent ages & coun­tries has per­pe­trat­ed the most hor­rid enor­mi­ties, is itself a fright­ful despo­tism. But this leads at length to a more for­mal and per­ma­nent despo­tism. The dis­or­ders & mis­eries, which result, grad­u­al­ly incline the minds of men to seek secu­ri­ty & repose in the absolute pow­er of an Indi­vid­ual: and soon­er or lat­er the chief of some pre­vail­ing fac­tion more able or more for­tu­nate than his com­peti­tors, turns this dis­po­si­tion to the pur­pos­es of his own ele­va­tion, on the ruins of Pub­lic Lib­er­ty.

Wash­ing­ton, argues his­to­ri­an and con­ser­v­a­tive colum­nist Richard Brookhis­er, gov­erned his own behav­ior with a strict code of con­duct based on “The Rules of Civil­i­ty & Decent Behav­ior in Com­pa­ny and Con­ver­sa­tion,” a list he care­ful­ly copied out by hand as a school­boy in Vir­ginia. “Based on a 16th-cen­tu­ry set of pre­cepts com­piled for young gen­tle­men by Jesuit instruc­tors,” notes NPR, “the Rules of Civil­i­ty were one of the ear­li­est and most pow­er­ful forces to shape America’s first pres­i­dent,” as Brookhis­er claims in his 2003 book Rules of Civil­i­ty: The 110 Pre­cepts That Guid­ed Our First Pres­i­dent in War and Peace.

Many of these “rules” are out­mod­ed eti­quette, many are baroque in their lev­el of detail, some should nev­er go out of style, and many would be mocked and derid­ed today as “polit­i­cal cor­rect­ness.” Brookhis­er “warns against dis­miss­ing the max­ims” as mere polite­ness, not­ing that they “address moral issues, but they address them indi­rect­ly. Maybe they can work on us in our cen­tu­ry as the Jesuits intend­ed them to work in theirs—indirectly—by putting us in a more ambi­tious frame of mind.” Or maybe they could induce some humil­i­ty among the already polit­i­cal­ly ambi­tious.

See all of the 110 “Rules of Civil­i­ty” below, with mod­ern­ized spelling and punc­tu­a­tion, cour­tesy of NPR:

  1. Every action done in com­pa­ny ought to be with some sign of respect to those that are present.
  2. When in com­pa­ny, put not your hands to any part of the body not usu­al­ly dis­cov­ered.
  3. Show noth­ing to your friend that may affright him.
  4. In the pres­ence of oth­ers, sing not to your­self with a hum­ming voice, or drum with your fin­gers or feet.
  5. 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.
  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.
  7. Put not off your clothes in the pres­ence of oth­ers, nor go out of your cham­ber half dressed.
  8. At play and attire, it’s good man­ners to give place to the last com­er, and affect not to speak loud­er than ordi­nary.
  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.
  10. When you sit down, keep your feet firm and even, with­out putting one on the oth­er or cross­ing them.
  11. Shift not your­self in the sight of oth­ers, nor gnaw your nails.
  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.
  15. Keep your nails clean and short, also your hands and teeth clean, yet with­out show­ing any great con­cern for them.
  16. Do not puff up the cheeks, loll not out the tongue with the hands or beard, thrust out the lips or bite them, or keep the lips too open or too close.
  17. Be no flat­ter­er, nei­ther play with any that delight not to be played with­al.
  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.
  20. The ges­tures of the body must be suit­ed to the dis­course you are upon.
  21. Reproach none for the infir­mi­ties of nature, nor delight to put them that have in mind of there­of.
  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.
  24. Do not laugh too loud or too much at any pub­lic spec­ta­cle.
  25. Super­flu­ous com­pli­ments and all affec­ta­tion of cer­e­monies are to be avoid­ed, yet where due they are not to be neglect­ed.
  26. In putting off your hat to per­sons of dis­tinc­tion, as noble­men, jus­tices, church­men, etc., make a rev­er­ence, bow­ing more or less accord­ing to the cus­tom of the bet­ter bred, and qual­i­ty of the per­sons. Among your equals expect not always that they should begin with you first, but to pull off the hat when there is no need is affec­ta­tion. In the man­ner of salut­ing and resalut­ing in words, keep to the most usu­al cus­tom.
  27. ‘Tis ill man­ners to bid one more emi­nent than your­self be cov­ered, as well as not to do it to whom it is due. Like­wise he that makes too much haste to put on his hat does not well, yet he ought to put it on at the first, or at most the sec­ond time of being asked. Now what is here­in spo­ken, of qual­i­fi­ca­tion in behav­ior in salut­ing, ought also to be observed in tak­ing of place and sit­ting down, for cer­e­monies with­out bounds are trou­ble­some.
  28. If any one come to speak to you while you are are sit­ting stand up, though he be your infe­ri­or, and when you present seats, let it be to every­one accord­ing to his degree.
  29. 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.
  30. 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 mid­dest place is the most hon­or­able; the wall is usal­ly giv­en to the most wor­thy if two walk togeth­er.
  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.
  33. They that are in dig­ni­ty or in 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.
  34. 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.
  35. Let your dis­course with men of busi­ness be short and com­pre­hen­sive.
  36. Arti­fi­cers and per­sons of low degree ought not to use many cer­e­monies to lords or oth­ers of high degree, but respect and high­ly hon­or then, and those of high degree ought to treat them with affa­bil­i­ty and cour­tesy, with­out arro­gance.
  37. In speak­ing to men of qual­i­ty do not lean nor look them full in the face, nor approach too near them at left. Keep a full pace from them.
  38. In vis­it­ing the sick, do not present­ly play the physi­cian if you be not know­ing there­in.
  39. In writ­ing or speak­ing, give to every per­son his due title accord­ing to his degree and the cus­tom of the place.
  40. Strive not with your supe­ri­or in argu­ment, but always sub­mit your judg­ment to oth­ers with mod­esty.
  41. Under­take not to teach your equal in the art him­self pro­fess­es; it savors of arro­gan­cy.
  42. Let your cer­e­monies in cour­tesy be prop­er to the dig­ni­ty of his place with whom you con­verse, for it is absurd to act the same with a clown and a prince.
  43. Do not express joy before one sick in pain, for that con­trary pas­sion will aggra­vate his mis­ery.
  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.
  47. Mock not nor jest at any thing of impor­tance. Break no jests that are sharp, bit­ing, and if you deliv­er any thing wit­ty and pleas­ant, abstain from laugh­ing there­at your­self.
  48. Where­in you reprove anoth­er be unblame­able your­self, for exam­ple is more preva­lent than pre­cepts.
  49. Use no reproach­ful lan­guage against any one; nei­ther curse nor revile.
  50. Be not hasty to believe fly­ing reports to the dis­par­age­ment of any.
  51. Wear not your clothes foul, or ripped, or dusty, but see they be brushed once every day at least and take heed that you approach not to any uncleaness.
  52. In your appar­el be mod­est and endeav­or to accom­mo­date nature, rather than to pro­cure admi­ra­tion; keep to the fash­ion of your equals, such as are civ­il and order­ly with respect to time and places.
  53. Run not in the streets, nei­ther go too slow­ly, nor with mouth open; go not shak­ing of arms, nor upon the toes, kick not the earth with your feet, go not upon the toes, nor in a danc­ing fash­ion.
  54. Play not the pea­cock, look­ing every where about you, to see if you be well decked, if your shoes fit well, if your stock­ings sit neat­ly and clothes hand­some­ly.
  55. Eat not in the streets, nor in the house, out of sea­son.
  56. Asso­ciate your­self with men of good qual­i­ty if you esteem your own rep­u­ta­tion; for ’tis bet­ter to be alone than in bad com­pa­ny.
  57. In walk­ing up and down in a house, only with one in com­pa­ny if he be greater than your­self, at the first give him the right hand and stop not till he does and be not the first that turns, and when you do turn let it be with your face towards him; if he be a man of great qual­i­ty walk not with him cheek by jowl but some­what behind him, but yet in such a man­ner that he may eas­i­ly speak to you.
  58. Let your con­ver­sa­tion be with­out mal­ice or envy, for ’tis a sign of a tractable and com­mend­able nature, and in all caus­es of pas­sion per­mit rea­son to gov­ern.
  59. Nev­er express any­thing unbe­com­ing, nor act against the rules moral before your infe­ri­ors.
  60. Be not immod­est in urg­ing your friends to dis­cov­er a secret.
  61. Utter not base and friv­o­lous things among grave and learned men, nor very dif­fi­cult ques­tions or sub­jects among the igno­rant, or things hard to be believed; stuff not your dis­course with sen­tences among your bet­ters nor equals.
  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.
  65. Speak not inju­ri­ous words nei­ther in jest nor earnest; scoff at none although they give occa­sion.
  66. Be not froward but friend­ly and cour­te­ous, the first to salute, hear and answer; and be not pen­sive when it’s a time to con­verse.
  67. Detract not from oth­ers, nei­ther be exces­sive in com­mand­ing.
  68. 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.
  69. If two con­tend togeth­er take not the part of either uncon­strained, and be not obsti­nate in your own opin­ion. In things indif­fer­ent be of the major side.
  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. What you may speak in secret to your friend, deliv­er not before oth­ers.
  72. 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.
  73. Think before you speak, pro­nounce not imper­fect­ly, nor bring out your words too hasti­ly, but order­ly and dis­tinct­ly.
  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.
  75. In the midst of dis­course ask not of what one treats, but if you per­ceive any stop because of your com­ing, you may well entreat him gen­tly to pro­ceed. If a per­son of qual­i­ty comes in while you’re con­vers­ing, it’s hand­some to repeat what was said before.
  76. While you are talk­ing, point not with your fin­ger at him of whom you dis­course, nor approach too near him to whom you talk, espe­cial­ly to his face.
  77. Treat with men at fit times about busi­ness and whis­per not in the com­pa­ny of oth­ers.
  78. Make no com­par­isons and if any of the com­pa­ny be com­mend­ed for any brave act of virtue, com­mend not anoth­er for the same.
  79. 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.
  80. Be not tedious in dis­course or in read­ing unless you find the com­pa­ny pleased there­with.
  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.
  84. When your supe­ri­ors talk to any­body hear­ken not, nei­ther speak nor laugh.
  85. In com­pa­ny of those of high­er qual­i­ty than your­self, speak not ’til you are asked a ques­tion, then stand upright, put off your hat and answer in few words.
  86. 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.
  87. Let your car­riage be such as becomes a man grave, set­tled and atten­tive to that which is spo­ken. Con­tra­dict not at every turn what oth­ers say.
  88. Be not tedious in dis­course, make not many digres­sions, nor repeat often the same man­ner of dis­course.
  89. Speak not evil of the absent, for it is unjust.
  90. Being set at meat scratch not, nei­ther spit, cough or blow your nose except there’s a neces­si­ty for it.
  91. Make no show of tak­ing great delight in your vict­uals. Feed not with greed­i­ness. Eat your bread with a knife. Lean not on the table, nei­ther find fault with what you eat.
  92. Take no salt or cut bread with your knife greasy.
  93. Enter­tain­ing any­one at table it is decent to present him with meat. Under­take not to help oth­ers unde­sired by the mas­ter.
  94. If you soak bread in the sauce, let it be no more than what you put in your mouth at a time, and blow not your broth at table but stay ’til it cools of itself.
  95. Put not your meat to your mouth with your knife in your hand; nei­ther spit forth the stones of any fruit pie upon a dish nor cast any­thing under the table.
  96. It’s unbe­com­ing to heap much to one’s mea. Keep your fin­gers clean and when foul wipe them on a cor­ner of your table nap­kin.
  97. Put not anoth­er bite into your mouth ’til the for­mer be swal­lowed. Let not your morsels be too big for the jowls.
  98. Drink not nor talk with your mouth full; nei­ther gaze about you while you are drink­ing.
  99. Drink not too leisure­ly nor yet too hasti­ly. Before and after drink­ing wipe your lips. Breathe not then or ever with too great a noise, for it is unciv­il.
  100. Cleanse not your teeth with the table­cloth, nap­kin, fork or knife, but if oth­ers do it, let it be done with a pick tooth.
  101. Rinse not your mouth in the pres­ence of oth­ers.
  102. It is out of use to call upon the com­pa­ny often to eat. Nor need you drink to oth­ers every time you drink.
  103. In com­pa­ny of your bet­ters be not longer in eat­ing than they are. Lay not your arm but only your hand upon the table.
  104. It belongs to the chiefest in com­pa­ny to unfold his nap­kin and fall to meat first. But he ought then to begin in time and to dis­patch with dex­ter­i­ty that the slow­est may have time allowed him.
  105. Be not angry at table what­ev­er hap­pens and if you have rea­son to be so, show it not but on a cheer­ful coun­te­nance espe­cial­ly if there be strangers, for good humor makes one dish of meat a feast.
  106. Set not your­self at the upper of the table but if it be your due, or that the mas­ter of the house will have it so. Con­tend not, lest you should trou­ble the com­pa­ny.
  107. If oth­ers talk at table be atten­tive, but talk not with meat in your mouth.
  108. When you speak of God or His attrib­ut­es, let it be seri­ous­ly and with rev­er­ence. Hon­or and obey your nat­ur­al par­ents although they be poor.
  109. Let your recre­ations be man­ful not sin­ful.
  110. Labor to keep alive in your breast that lit­tle spark of celes­tial fire called con­science.

via Wash­Po

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Dis­cov­er Thomas Jefferson’s Cut-and-Paste Ver­sion of the Bible, and Read the Curi­ous Edi­tion Online

The Poet­ry of Abra­ham Lin­coln

John Green’s Crash Course in U.S. His­to­ry: From Colo­nial­ism to Oba­ma in 47 Videos

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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  • Rho Belair-Edison says:

    Now if present day politi­cians would fol­low these sug­ges­tions civil­i­ty might break out and Con­gress might even get things done and enact prop­er and right­eous law.

  • Gerald says:

    Good post. The above rules high­light the impor­tance of reli­gion to civil­i­ty and the Founders’ polit­i­cal vision. In the same Farewell Address quot­ed above, Wash­ing­ton declared:

    Of all the dis­po­si­tions and habits which lead to polit­i­cal pros­per­i­ty, reli­gion and moral­i­ty are indis­pens­able sup­ports. In vain would that man claim the trib­ute of patri­o­tism, who should labor to sub­vert these great pil­lars of human hap­pi­ness, these firmest props of the duties of men and cit­i­zens. The mere politi­cian, equal­ly with the pious man, ought to respect and to cher­ish them. A vol­ume could not trace all their con­nec­tions with pri­vate and pub­lic felic­i­ty. Let it sim­ply be asked: Where is the secu­ri­ty for prop­er­ty, for rep­u­ta­tion, for life, if the sense of reli­gious oblig­a­tion desert the oaths which are the instru­ments of inves­ti­ga­tion in courts of jus­tice? And let us with cau­tion indulge the sup­po­si­tion that moral­i­ty can be main­tained with­out reli­gion. What­ev­er may be con­ced­ed to the influ­ence of refined edu­ca­tion on minds of pecu­liar struc­ture, rea­son and expe­ri­ence both for­bid us to expect that nation­al moral­i­ty can pre­vail in exclu­sion of reli­gious prin­ci­ple.

    I believe Wash­ing­ton was on to some­thing here.

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