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
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