At some point before the age of sixteen, George Washington wrote The Rules of Civility and Decent Behaviour in Company and Conversation in the last ten pages of a book of personal notes. The Rules were a series of maxims that he likely copied to practice penmanship. The 110 rules covered many of the proper social graces of the time period.
The rules were derived from an original list of maxims originally compiled by French Jesuits in the 1590s that was eventually translated into English by Francis Hawkins in London around 1640. In subsequent editions of Hawkin's book other writers added to the maxims. It is unclear how Washington acquired the Hawkin version of the maxims, who instructed him to copy them, or why changes were made to the original list of rules. Nonetheless, the rules seem to have stuck deeply with Washington as he followed the propriety they conveyed throughout his life.1
Washington grew up lacking the gentlemen's education typically accustomed for the children of wealthy landowners. With few people to model his behavior on and an acute awareness of his lack of formal education, the Rules guided Washington's intentional actions, pronounced speech, civility to those of lower ranks, and respect for his superiors.2 Maxims like Rule 92, "Take no Salt or Bread with your Knife Greasy," and Rule 12, "Shake not the head, Feet, or Legs roll not the Eyes lift not one eyebrow high than the other wry not the mouth, and bedew no mans face with your Spittle, by approaching too near him when you Speak," indicated general actions to avoid in public.
Other rules delved further into professional and personal actions. For example, Rules 40 and 68 encouraged humility in interaction by stating, "Strive not with your Superiors in argument, but always Submit your Judgment to others with Modesty," and "Go not thither, where you know not, whether you Shall be Welcome or not. Give not Advice without being Asked and when desired to do it briefly."3
Washington applied the Rules to various aspects of his life. During his military years, Washington expected a high level of decorum and cleanliness from his troops, referenced in Rule 51. He also promoted rules to his family, advising his stepgrandson, George Washington Parke Curtis that, "while a courteous behavior is due to all, select the most deserving only for your friendships," directly corresponding to Rule 56 which stated, "Associate yourself with Men of good Quality if you Esteem your own Reputation."4
Washington's written Rules were originally published, along with various samples of Washington’s writings, in the mid-nineteenth century. They have and continue to appear in various newspapers across the country, and were first published in book form in 1888, with subsequent editions following.5 The widespread and continued publication of Washington's copy of the Rules has contributed greatly to the gentlemanly reputation that has helped define his image.
George Washington University
1. Charles Moore, "Introduction to Washington's Copy of Rules of Civility and Decent Behaviour in Company and Conversation," The Papers of George Washington.
3. George Washington's Rules of Civility and Decent Behaviour in Company and Conversation, ed. Charles Moore (1926), 1,4,7,9.
4. "George Washington to George Washington Parke Custis, 28 November 1796," in Recollection and Private Memoirs of Washington (Philadelphia: J.W. Bradley, 1861), 75-77; George Washington's Rules of Civility and Decent Behaviour in Company and Conversation, 6.
Rasmussen, William M. S. and Robert S. Tilton. George Washington: The Man Behind the Myths. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1999.
Washington, George. George Washington's Rules of Civility and Decent Behaviour in Company and Conversation. Edited by Charles Moore. Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1926. At The Papers of George Washington, Washington’s Copy of Rules of Civility & Decent Behaviour in Company and Conversation.
"George Washington to George Washington Parke Custis, 28 November 1796." Recollections and Private Memoirs of Washington. Philadelphia: J.W. Bradley, 1861.
Washington, George. Washington’s Rules of Civility and Decent Behavior in Company and Conversation. Ed. J. M. Toner, M.D. Washington, DC: W. H. Morrison, 1888.
Moore, Charles. "Introduction to Washington's Copy of Rules of Civility and Decent Behaviour in Company and Conversation." Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1926.
View Washington's written Rules of Civility (Library of Congress)