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

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,

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

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

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