Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Washingtonian Civility

Augustine Washington sought for his son to be a great man. Indeed, George became one. In advance of that or perhaps because of it, he gave him a handwritten notebook filled with 110 principles. They were translated from a Latin text that Jesuit monks had used for teaching the sons of nobility in the 1500s.

Washington biographer, Richard Brookhiser, restored and expanded upon them in his book, Rules of Civility: The 110 Precepts That Guided Our First President In War And Peace

These rules go beyond matters of etiquette and formality. They are more of a complete code of conduct that an upstanding man follows to impress upon others that he is in full control of himself and his surroundings. I imagine that along with his imposing stature, adhering to these codes made Washington quite a man amongst men. And like a true gentleman of any era, it was his calling to be an inspiring example to those that would follow him.

Here are a few highlights:

1. Every action done in company ought to be done with some sign or respect to those that are present.

10. When you sit down, keep your feet firm and even, without putting one on the other or crossing them

25. Superfluous compliments and all affectation of ceremony are to be avoided, yet where they are due they are not to be neglected.

35. Let your discourse with men of business be short and comprehensive.

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.

49. Use no reproachable language against any one, neither curse nor revile.

63. A man ought not to value himself of his achievements or rare qualities of wit, much less of his riches, virtue or kindred.

82. Undertake not what you cannot perform but be careful to keep your promise.

97. Put not another bit into your mouth till the former be swallowed. Let not your morsels be too big for the jowls.

109. Let your recreations be manful not sinful.

What impressed me most about this set of rules is that it steers clear of any type of dandyism. It doesn’t get bogged down in dress socks and hat tipping. Instead it functions as a guide for a man to keep a solid chin and a firm grip on everything. Like a farmer/soldier/statesman would have to be. Stoic, elegant and self aware.

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