Follow George Washington's 10 Rules of Civility and You'll Practically Be a Founding Father
Follow George Washington’s 10 Rules of Civility and You’ll Practically Be a Founding Father

Follow George Washington’s 10 Rules of Civility and You’ll Practically Be a Founding Father

Larry Holzwarth - March 6, 2018

As a youth, presumably as an exercise in penmanship, George Washington wrote out 110 Rules of Civility in a copybook. Based on Jesuit training, the rules were translated from French to English around 1640. They were translated by Francis Hawkins and were originally entitled Youths Behavior, or Decency in Behavior Amongst Men. Some of them seem trivial, some common sense (which as Voltaire famously noted is not so common), and some impossibly dated if taken literally. When comparing the Rules to the facts of Washington’s life it is clear that he took some, if not all, of the Rules seriously.

The Rules were originally written to describe proper behavior in what was then the peak of society in France, the aristocracy. They refer to courtesy, which originally meant proper behavior before the court. The French word for a Knight is chevalier, from whence comes the English word chivalry, which refers to the ideals present in a knight such as honor, integrity, and fairness to all. Washington spent the better part of his life in opposition to an aristocracy, determined to ensure that all are represented fairly and equally, and his Rules of Civility, despite being originally for the King’s Court, are a means of treating all persons the same.

Follow George Washington’s 10 Rules of Civility and You’ll Practically Be a Founding Father
Washington has appeared on paper money, coins, and stamps, including this 1847 issue. Wikimedia

Here are some of Washington’s Rules of Civility, which he copied before his sixteenth birthday, but followed all of his life. The punctuation, grammar, and strange capitalization are Washington’s own.

Follow George Washington’s 10 Rules of Civility and You’ll Practically Be a Founding Father
Gilbert Stuart stiffed Washington’s cheeks with cotton when painting this portrait, to hide the effects of his false teeth. White House

Consideration towards others

The first twenty three Rules of Civility are about showing others consideration, and discuss, in the high flown language of Washington’s day, how to demonstrate this consideration in public. “If you Cough, Sneeze, 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.” It seems simple enough, basic manners, but a quick glance around virtually any public place or gathering will allow the observer to discover that this Rule of Civility is in widespread disuse.

The thirteenth Rule of Civility is hopefully no longer germane, as it in part directs, “Kill no Vermin as fleas, lice, ticks etc. in the Sight of Others…” In this admonition there is no hint of any guilt for being infested with fleas, lice, and other vermin, which in Washington’s day and those of the French Jesuits who originally composed the Rules was fairly common, even among the wealthy elite. The Rule is solicitous of the feelings of companions and other persons, rather than of one’s own. It simply means to be more concerned for others comfort than for self.

“Be no Flatterer, neither Play with any that delights not to be Play’d Withal”, is another of the Rules which appears to have been taken seriously by Washington. What is flattery today and what was flattery in his day are completely different things, the daily conversation of Washington’s time was filled with honorifics such as “Your Excellency” and “Your Grace”. Play means tease, and here is an ageless reminder that some people do not like to be teased, or can’t tell when they are being teased, and as such should not be teased, especially not for one’s self-gratification.

“Show not yourself glad at the Misfortune of another though he were your enemy.” Washington demonstrated an understanding of this Rule throughout his life, on battlefields, in his correspondence with political foes, and in his business dealings. Today it could be interpreted as simple good sportsmanship. Washington throughout his life was highly competitive, when riding to hounds, throwing a bar (a game in Colonial Virginia in which participants took turns throwing a heavy iron rod to see who could throw the farthest), or in his business. This Rule demands humility in victory, among other things.

“The Gestures of the Body must be Suited to the discourse you are upon.” Once again, in consideration of one’s audience, flamboyant displays of hands and arms should be avoided if they distract from the verbal message being uttered. It would be difficult to decide what was too flamboyant in that flamboyant age. Throughout his life Washington was reserved and dignified when speaking, an affectation which many have attributed to his teeth, which slipped if he became too animated. He displayed the same reserve as a young man, so perhaps it was this rule which he followed instead.

Follow George Washington’s 10 Rules of Civility and You’ll Practically Be a Founding Father
Washington in the uniform of the Virginia Militia, in his late twenties. Wikimedia

Try not to make a spectacle of yourself

Rules 24 through 34 are directed towards proper behavior in public, where it is necessary to interact with others without drawing excessive attention to oneself. Many of them are no longer in practice. They discuss the proper way of saluting those encountered by the removal of one’s hat, and the manner in which it should be done. Men no longer remove their hats when they encounter acquaintances and others on the streets. Most men don’t even remove their hats when sitting at table, and the once simple gesture of taking off a hat in an elevator when a woman enters is long dead.

“If any one come to speak to you while you are Sitting Stand up though he be your Inferior…” instructs politeness be expressed to those of a lower social standing, not just one’s peers. The Virginia society of which Washington was part was divided by class, with the great plantation owners at the top. Washington was not of the top strata, at least not until near the end of his life. When he entered the House of Burgesses he was representative of the merchants, artisans, and tradesmen of his district and he was reputed to treat all of his constituents with the same respect and courtesy he exhibited to those of the social class above his own.

Another of the Rules in this category, in language too flowery to include here, states that once a service has been offered to a social inferior and refused it should not be pressed. Nor should a service be offered with the hope that it be refused, especially in public. These Rules should be followed to prevent one from making a show of oneself as being overly generous or thoughtful. Calling attention to your superior position through the guise of offering generosity is both hypocritical and thoughtless, as it can unnecessarily humiliate another.

“It is good Manners to prefer them with whom we speak before ourselves…”, Rule 34, is a simple edict to be considerate of others at one’s own expense. Throughout his lifetime, beginning at a very young age, Washington learned to command. In the Virginia militia, the Continental Army, and as President of the United States, he had to not only command, but lead. Leadership requires an understanding of the needs of those being lead, and their respect. Rule 34, which is simply a requirement to show respect to others in conversation, no doubt helped Washington develop the tools of leadership with which he helped form a nation.

George Washington was a very large man for his day, although recent study proves that he was not as tall as legends make him. According to the doctors who measured his corpse he was just slightly over six feet tall. Nonetheless he stood out in a crowd, and was easily identified from afar. The Rules of Civility which he copied that instructed how not to make a spectacle of himself were probably important to him, and he appears to have followed them diligently. Following the heated debates over the Constitution at the Convention, several delegates wrote of his quiet dignity and his deliberate manner in considering the arguments of all sides.

Follow George Washington’s 10 Rules of Civility and You’ll Practically Be a Founding Father
Writing in the late 18th century was often flowery and convoluted. Wikimedia

Don’t ramble on. Make your point clearly

When reading letters and documents from the mid-eighteenth century one has to wonder if people spoke in the same manner as they wrote. If they did conversation must have been a trying exercise. In writing, the language is often convoluted, with overwrought sentences and flowery salutations. The Rules of Civility, themselves written in a style which frequently requires some head scratching before comprehension arrives, contain five specific exhortations against such language in conversation. In short, they demand that conversation be concise.

Rule 35 states, “Let your Discourse with Men of Business be Short and Comprehensive.” It isn’t possible of course to hear a conversation between Washington and “Men of Business” but it is possible to read some of his many letters to his agents in London through which he ordered furnishings and supplies for his Mount Vernon home. When Washington ordered a new coach for his use from his London agent he wrote that he wanted a vehicle, “…in the newest taste…to be made of the best seasoned wood, and be by a celebrated workman.” Not what the modern ear or eye would consider concise perhaps, but clear enough. Regardless when the coach arrived it was soon evident that seasoned wood had not been used.

Washington avoided this Rule in another letter as he was preparing to leave the Presidency. After selling his team of coach horses to his longtime friend Mrs. Elizabeth Willing Powell, Washington wrote, “As the Coach would be lonesome without the horses – and the horses might repine for want of their Coach (having been wedded for seven years) you had better take both.” Not exactly a concise means of saying that he wanted to sell his coach too, but a demonstration that Washington was not a marble statue exhibiting a formal stiffness in all of his dealings.

Within this category is another Rule regarding speaking of matters of which one knows little. “In visiting the Sick, do not Presently Play the Physician if you be not Knowing therein.” Washington copied these rules as a teenager, without the knowledge that he would have little formal education beyond what today would be considered high school. Although in many areas he was better educated than the average high school graduate of today, he bore in mind his lack of formal education for the rest of his life, and likely found this Rule to be applied in discussing other trades besides medicine.

Washington understood through these Rules the need for what we would call giving someone their space, “…do not Lean, nor Look them full in the Face, nor approach to near them at lest Keep a full Pace from them.” Crowding too close in conversation was a distraction from the words being spoken and an act of aggression and many of Washington’s contemporaries and biographers wrote of his maintaining a space around him which few could enter. Whether this was a defense caused through his natural shyness or a deliberate application of the Rules of Civility is anybody’s guess.

Follow George Washington’s 10 Rules of Civility and You’ll Practically Be a Founding Father
Washington knew he could not hold New York against Sir William Howe, but deferred to Congress which wanted it defended. Wikimedia

Humility and Arguing with Superiors

“Strive not with your Superiors in Argument, but always Submit your Judgment to others with Modesty.” Throughout his military career Washington had superiors over him to pass judgment on his performance of his duties and to whom he needed to offer the proper deference, even when he knew they were wrong. As the Commander of the newly formed Continental Army Washington was aware of the difficulties of defending New York from the British in the absence of a Navy, and so advised Congress, to whom he reported. They would not have New York left undefended and after he made his advice, Washington complied with his “superiors.”

Similarly, many years before, Washington provided advice to General Braddock which was heard but remained unheeded. When Braddock’s folly led to the debacle on the Monongahela in 1755, Washington took over command of the shattered British army as it withdrew. He wrote of the catastrophe but without claiming that had his advice been followed the British would have prevailed. It was Washington’s style as a commander to hold councils of war with his senior officers, and though the final decision was his he often heeded their advice.

Along with compliance to the directives of a superior, the Rules of Civility state that one should not, “…Teach your equal in the art himself Professes; it Savours of Arrogance.” Trying to tell someone how to conduct their business is a temptation too easily yielded to and often leads to conflict which could otherwise be avoided. It would be something like telling a coachbuilder what type of wood to use when building a coach. From that it can be gleaned that Washington may have copied all 110 Rules of Civility, but did not necessarily adhere to all of them or assign them the same importance.

One of the Rules of Civility advises that it is unwise to address all people in the same manner, and that the amount of ceremony involved during a conversation is dependent upon with whom one is conversing. “…for it is absurd to act the same with a Clown and with a Prince,” reads Rule 42. Humility should also be practiced when one receives good news by not expressing happiness before another who has not been so fortunate. “Do not express Joy before one sick or in pain for that contrary Passion will aggravate his misery.”

Much of Washington’s shaping of the office of the Presidency and his management of his closest aides, most of them much younger than he, can be found in the Rules of Civility. It was during his Presidency, especially in his second term, in which the factions of political parties emerged in the United States. Washington viewed party factions as divisive and warned repeatedly against them, but as they slowly splintered his administration and the Congress he continued to listen to both sides of issues and respond to counsel based on what he believed the Constitution – his superior – told him to do.

Follow George Washington’s 10 Rules of Civility and You’ll Practically Be a Founding Father
No person received more of Washington’s unbridled temper than Major General Charles Lee. Wikimedia

Giving advice and correction

Throughout his life George Washington strove to keep check on what was reported to be a ferocious temper. The rare occasions when he was unable to keep his passions in check were written about by many of his contemporaries as fearsome events. Washington was a model of self-control in circumstances which would have tested the patience of Job. Late in his career he endured attacks upon his character in newspapers and in the halls of government. Still he retained his restraint for the most part.

Thomas Jefferson wrote of a time when Washington was President and a report irritated the Chief Executive to the point that the then 63 year old Washington tore off his hat, threw it on the floor, and stomped on it repeatedly to release his built up ire. Tobias Lear, one of Washington’s many secretaries, wrote that the sound of Washington swearing was like no other once the President finally lost control of his temper and began to vent. Still, Washington released his temper at objects or in semi-privacy, rather than direct it at offending individuals.

This may have been in part due to Rule number 45, which he laboriously copied as a boy, “Being to advise or reprehend anyone, consider whether it ought to be in public or Private; presently or at Some other time in what terms to do it & in reproving Show no Sign of Cholar (sic) but do it with all Sweetness and Mildness.” There was at least one time when Washington failed to heed this Rule, and it occurred before several officers under his command and the Marquis de Lafayette, many of whom wrote of the ferocity of Washington’s rage at the time.

The occasion was the Battle of Monmouth. As British General Clinton moved the British Army from Philadelphia to New York, Washington determined to attack it in New Jersey. Command of the attacking American force was given to Charles Lee, who turned it down as beneath him. After command was given to Lafayette, Lee changed his mind and demanded it as his right. When Lee led the attack he quickly decided the plan was faulty and ordered a retreat. As Washington rode towards the battle with the main body of the American army he encountered the retreating soldiers, and his temper got the better of him.

With a face described as almost purple with rage, Washington confronted the retreating Lee, cursing in a voice heard well over the gunfire, calling Lee incompetent, and a poltroon, the then commonly used word for a coward. Washington emphasized his words by violently slapping his riding crop against his own boots and thigh, oblivious to the pain it caused, such was his rage. He fired Lee on the spot and sent him to the rear in shame. Lee later demanded an apology in writing. His note was returned to him unanswered, and he never served in the American Army again after that June day. On that day Washington also violated Rule 49, “Use no Reproachful Language against anyone neither Curse nor Revile.”

Follow George Washington’s 10 Rules of Civility and You’ll Practically Be a Founding Father
Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson clashed on almost every issue, but Washington valued them both. Wikimedia

Dealing with disputes

When Washington first scrawled Rule 69 he had no way of foreseeing that he was copying down what would become his style of leadership both during the Revolutionary War and in overseeing his Cabinet as President of the United States. Rule of Civility 69 reads, “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.” Simply put, in a disagreement between two others don’t take sides, maintain a degree of flexibility in your own opinion, and in a case where you really don’t care side with the majority.

The Constitution does not call for a Presidential Cabinet. That was Washington’s first gift to the new government which he helped define in the Constitution. The men he selected, in particular Thomas Jefferson as his Secretary of State and Alexander Hamilton as Secretary of the Treasury were from opposite sides of the spectrum. Jefferson foresaw an agricultural economy while Hamilton’s vision was of an industrial and financial colossus. Their opposing viewpoints in almost everything were debated before Washington who listened to both before issuing decisions.

Eventually those who supported the views of Hamilton and his allies became the Federalists, who argued for a strong central government while Jefferson’s faction became the Democratic-Republicans. Washington remained uncommitted to either side, although by the end of his Presidency he was clearly leaning towards the Federalists. By listening to both sides and in most cases deferring to the majority Washington was using the technique described in Rule 69, though whether he did it consciously is questionable. There is evidence though that he did do it consciously, based on his activities following the Constitutional Convention.

When Washington returned to Mount Vernon in the fall of 1787 he was already being asked to write his memoirs of the Revolution. He refused, but the growing awareness of his countrymen’s interest in his public and personal papers made him revisit the copybooks and other papers of his youth. Over the winter of 1787-88 he recopied them, correcting the spelling errors and mistakes of grammar, producing in some instances entirely new documents and in others simply edited copy. Whether he corrected the Rules of Civility at that time or not is immaterial, he certainly read them, as they were one of the later works of his youth, before he began his training as a surveyor.

The Rules of Civility would thus not have been a nearly forgotten childhood exercise, but a recently read series of guides for a man who read them in the context of his recently completed war and his upcoming service as the first President. It was by then a given that once ratification was complete and a government formed, Washington would be its President. The manner in which he ran his cabinet and made his decisions is certainly reflected in several of the Rules of Civility, perhaps none more so than Rule 69.

Follow George Washington’s 10 Rules of Civility and You’ll Practically Be a Founding Father
Mount Vernon as it appeared in the 1930s when Navy ships departing Washington Navy Yard rendered salutes as they passed. National Archives

Don’t be a hypocrite

George Washington and the founders of the nation lived in a hard drinking age and many of them were hard drinkers themselves. Washington was fond of beer and ale, and operated a brewery at Mount Vernon. Eventually he built a distillery there, after shifting his crops from tobacco to maize, corn and wheat. Peach brandy and ciders were also produced at the plantation and fine wines and port were purchased through merchants in Alexandria, Philadelphia, and other locations. Although Washington was no drunkard he would be considered by today’s standards a heavy drinker.

When he returned to Mount Vernon after the Constitutional Convention one of the pressing matters of business was to hire a new gardener to oversee both the fruit orchards and the vegetable and herb gardens which supplied the plantation. Of the candidates Washington interviewed one stood out, but his reputation for heavy drinking was widespread. His references indicated that although he was ordinarily reliable, he had a tendency for occasional binges which detracted from his work. Rule of Civility number 48 seemed to apply. It read, “Wherein you reprove Another be unblameable yourself; for example is more prevalent than Precepts.”

This rule establishes that before one criticizes another for anything, one should be certain that the subject of the criticism is not part of one’s own behavior or character. It also states that actions speak louder than words. Washington may also have considered Rule 50, “Be not hasty to believe flying Reports to the Disparagement of any,” meaning don’t be too quick to accept what you hear as the truth. Besides, he needed a gardener. Washington pondered the situation and made a decision, calling the gardener back to Mount Vernon and drawing up a contract.

Washington agreed to hire the gardener for a period of one year, if the gardener refrained from drinking except for “…if allowed four dollars at Christmas, with which to be drunk four days and four nights; two dollars at Easter, to effect the same purpose; two dollars at Whitsuntide, to be drunk for two days, a dram in the morning, and a drink of grog at dinner and at noon.” Grog was the common name for rum cut with water. If being given a drink every morning, noon, and night was a sacrifice the gardener was a heavy drinker indeed.

It’s also an indication of what Washington considered drinking in moderation and is likely close to what his own habits were, although he preferred beer with his meals over grog, especially in the warm months. Interestingly, although more than twenty of the Rules of Civility address table manners and conversation at meals, only three of them address the issue of drinking in any manner, other than Rule 99, which reads, “Drink not too leisurely nor too hastily. Before and after drinking, wipe your lips; Breathe not then or ever with too great a noise, for it is uncivil.”

Follow George Washington’s 10 Rules of Civility and You’ll Practically Be a Founding Father
A somewhat unflattering picture of Major General Charles Lee. Wikimedia

Do not judge too harshly

During the bleak days of the Revolution which followed Washington’s defeat at New York, Major General Charles Lee actively campaigned to have Washington removed from command, with Lee replacing him. As part of this campaign, Lee sent a letter to Colonel Joseph Reed, one of Washington’s aides, in which he congratulated Reed for his role in saving the Continental Army from complete annihilation at the hands of the British. The fatuous Lee flattered Reed, who responded in a letter of his own, showering Lee with similar praise, and referring to Washington as having “an indecisive mind.”

Lee replied in another letter in which he discussed an indecisive mind as a “…greater disqualification than stupidity or even want of personal courage…” and went on to point out that defeat was inevitable for one lacking the means to act decisively at the right time. When Reed received this letter it was accompanied by a note from Washington. He had opened the letter when it arrived at headquarters, believing it to be official correspondence regarding the movements of the Army. Washington was at the time concerned that Lee was not moving across New Jersey with sufficient speed and hoped that the letter would let his commander know that the troops were on the march.

Washington’s discovery of the contents of the letter must have shocked him to the core, but he didn’t let on to his subordinates. One of his trusted aides and his second in command discussing him in terms which were hardly flattering must have hurt as well. In the note which he sent to Reed when forwarding the letter he said that he had opened the letter and read it, thinking it to be official in nature, and when he discovered that it was personal he resealed it and sent it on with his apologies for intruding into a personal correspondence. That was all. He neither mentioned it to Reed nor any other aides, and he did not address the issue with Lee.

Rule number 63 reads, “A Man ought not to value himself of his Achievements, or rare Qualities of wit; much less of his riches Virtue or Kindred.” This to Washington would have meant not to have too high of an opinion of his own achievements. He may also have been guided by Rule 58, which includes, “…And in all causes of Passion admit Reason to Govern.” There was nothing in the letter which was specifically disloyal, instead it was the personal opinion of another officer being expressed in what he believed to be a private correspondence. Washington may have simply had too much character to react, even as Lee continued to vex him.

Washington may also have allowed his silence to serve as sufficient punishment for Reed, who continued to serve throughout the war, but not as one of Washington’s aides after the New Jersey campaign. Or he may have considered bringing up the matter with Lee in person when he arrived, as described in Rule 77, “Treat with men at fit Times about Business & Whisper not in the Company of Others.” If so, we’ll never know. Lee was captured by the British as he lolled in New Jersey and by the time he was exchanged and returned to the Army other issues of greater concern occupied Washington’s mind.

Follow George Washington’s 10 Rules of Civility and You’ll Practically Be a Founding Father
Abigail Adams left a more flattering description of Washington than her husband’s “Old Muttonhead,” Wikimedia

Maintain a proper image to the world

John Adams, in a bit of a fit of temper, once referred to Washington as Old Muttonhead. Adams had the unenviable task of succeeding Washington as President so his harrumphing can be viewed with some sympathy. His wife provided a somewhat more laudable description. Abigail Adams described thus: “He has a dignity which forbids familiarity mixed with an easy affability which creates love and reverence.” This is almost a reflection of Rule 87. “Let thy carriage be such as becomes a man Grave Settled and attentive to that which is spoken. Contradict not at every turn what others Say.”

What is often forgotten about George Washington is that he was a woodsman of renown in Colonial Virginia, a surveyor who was one of the first to explore the lands across the Ohio River. His education and training was in woodcraft, and he personally knew many of the premier woodsmen of the day, including Daniel Morgan, Daniel Boone, and George Rogers Clark. Washington was acutely aware of this lack of formal education and the difference between walking in the western woods and walking in society. He was constantly aware of his bearing and the way he carried himself.

It took only a few weeks of his Presidency before his administration was under attack for what some perceived to be the Royal trappings which were displayed in the President’s House in New York. Among these were the levees which were held weekly and at which Washington appeared in a black suit made of imported velvet, bowing in return to those who bowed and curtsied to him (Jefferson would dispense with the bows and introduce the handshake during his administration). Even the manner in which Washington bowed was criticized as stiff and Royalist. He responded that it was old age and an unskilled teacher which led him to bow in that manner.

“Be not tedious in Discourse, make not many digressions nor repeat often the Same manner of discourse,” reads Rule 88. Washington found the formal levees to be tedious in the extreme and since they were held weekly during the early months of the Presidency – Tuesday afternoons – there was inevitably repeated discourse. Such affairs are often the source of gossip, which Washington was not above hearing, though he did not repeat it, at least there is no indication that he did. Rule 89 mandates, “Speak not Evil of the absent for it is unjust.” It proscribes speaking evil, but not listening to it.

Washington’s Presidency was set against the backdrop of the French Revolutionary Wars and two factions emerged in the United States, one backing war against France and the other supporting a war against Great Britain. Those who wanted to fight the British wanted to punish them for supporting the American Indian tribes in the Northwest Territory and Canada. Washington wanted to avoid any war and give the country a growth period of relative peace and in this he was successful, though it cost him a great deal of his popularity.

Follow George Washington’s 10 Rules of Civility and You’ll Practically Be a Founding Father
Washington’s extensive gardens provided food for the estate, rather than sale. Wikimedia

Dinner manners

The final twenty Rules of Civility, except for the last three, discuss table manners and conversation. When reading them it is evident that some dinners in Colonial Virginia were raucous affairs. They contain advice about the proper deportment at table and in conversation. They also contain advice about what should be served. For example Rule 92 specifies, “Entertaining any one at the table, it is decent to present him with meat…” Rule 91: “Make no Show of taking great Delight in your Victuals, Feed not with Greediness; cut your Bread with a Knife, lean not on the Table neither find fault with what you Eat.” Rule 92 admonished against using a greasy knife to cut bread.

Dinner at Mount Vernon was the main meal of the day. It was held at three in the afternoon Monday through Saturday and at two on Sunday. It consisted of numerous dishes and was of course often comprised of seasonal foods. Washington was especially fond of salt cod, which was served every Saturday but there was also a selection of roasts, game, ham and other dishes. When the Washington’s were home it was a rare thing for them not to have multiple guests at their dinner table. Following dinner, Washington seldom ate another meal for the day, it was typical in Virginia for a supper to be served around 9 PM, but that was the hour Washington usually retired.

Salt was presented on the dinner table in bowls, rather than shakers, and one of the Rules of Civility contains a stricture against using a soiled knife with which to take salt. Rule 102 advises against urging others to eat and Rule 103 advises one not to eat either too slowly or too quickly, but to finish with the rest of the company at table. Rule 101, one of the shortest of all the Rules of Civility says simply, “Rinse not your mouth in the presence of others.” Some of the others include not talking “…with meat in your mouth”, and “…nor need you drink to others every time you drink.”

At the end of the meal and the dessert course, which usually featured several pies and tarts as well as cheeses, Washington and his male guests were served with different wines and an assortment of cheese, fruits, and nuts. Washington was loved Brazil nuts and according to John Adams it was these, rather than poor dental hygiene, which caused the loss of his teeth. He habitually cracked them with his teeth, which as anyone who has cracked a Brazil nut knows was quite a feat. Gradually he broke his natural teeth one by one. Rather than sip wine, Washington preferred beer following his meal, usually a heavy porter brewed at Mount Vernon.

The final three Rules of Civility are as follows. Rule 108: “When you speak of God or his attributes, let it be seriously & with reverence. Honor & obey your natural parents although they be poor.” Washington provided the care of his mother through most of his life. Rule 109 reads, “Let your recreations be manful not sinful.” And finally Rule 110, “Labor to keep alive in your breast that little spark of celestial fire called conscience.”

Where do we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

“George Washington’s Rules of Civility and Decent Behavior in Company and Conversation”, Foundation Magazine Online

“The Surprising George Washington”, by Richard Norton Smith, Prologue Magazine, Spring 1994

“Biography of George Washington”, entry, George Washington’s Mount Vernon, mountvernon.org

“The Mansion”, entry, George Washington’s Mount Vernon, mountvernon.org

“George Washington to Elizabeth Willing Powell”, letter, George Washington’s Mount Vernon, mountvernon.org

“George Washington, Businessman”, by James Thomas Flexner, American Heritage Magazine, October 1965

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