There are moments when it is wise to look back from whence we have come. Donald Trump’s recent tantrum in the Oval Office, his symphony of tweets, and his penchant for personal attacks and questionable alliances—all echoed in the media, on Capitol Hill, and across the nation—suggest that it is worth revisiting the first president’s “firm opinion” that those who follow him are bound by duty to behave at all times in a civilized and decent manner.
As a young man, George Washington copied down Rules of Civility and Decent Behaviour in Company and Conversation, a list of 110 precepts compiled by Jesuits in the 16th century, for the training of young gentlemen. The intent of these rules was to shape the inner character of those who observed them by perfecting their outer behavior.
Washington was a slave owner, he sometimes broke his own rules, and much of what he prescribed and proscribed 275 years ago is as crucial to civilized behavior today as fish forks and butter knives. Nevertheless, some of the rules that Washington copied down as a youth seem more pertinent than ever:
1st: Every Action done in Company ought to be done with Some Sign of Respect, to those that are Present.
2nd: When in Company, put not your Hands to any part of the body, not usually Discovered.
6th: Sleep not when others Speak. Sit not when others stand. Speak not when you Should hold your Peace, walk not when others Stop.
22nd: Show not yourself glad at the Misfortune of another though he were your enemy.
35th: Let your Discourse with Men of Business be Short and Comprehensive.
40th: Strive not with your Superiors in argument, but always Submit your Judgment to others with Modesty.
41st: Undertake not to Teach your equal in the art himself Professes; it Savours of arrogance.
44th: When a man does all he can though it Succeeds not well, blame not him who did it.
50th: Be not hasty to believe flying Reports to the Disparagement of any.
56th: Associate yourself with Men of good Quality if you Esteem your own Reputation; for ‘is better to be alone than in bad Company.
58th: Let your Conversation be without Malice or Envy, for ‘is a sign of a Tractable and Commendable Nature; and that in all Causes of Passion admit Reason to Govern.
60th: Be not immodest in urging your Friends to Discover a Secret.
73rd: Think before you Speak pronounce not imperfectly nor bring out your Words too hastily but orderly and distinctly.
79th: 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.
82nd: Undertake not what you cannot Perform but be Careful to keep your Promise.
89th: Speak not Evil of the absent for it is unjust.
110th: Labor to keep in your breast that little spark of celestial fire called conscience.