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.