By: Richard Brookhiser


Drivers cut across lanes of traffic as if the turn signal had never been invented. Businesses put callers on hold, forcing us to listen to annoying music. People push in and out of elevators like hockey players facing off over a puck. You’d think rudeness was in our national character. But Americans once paid real attention to good manners. And if we could use a refresher course in courtesy now, there’s a great example in our past.

I was doing research for a book on George Washington when I heard of it; a student’s notebook, still preserved in the Library of Congress. In it, some time before the age of 16, the future Father of Our Country had painstakingly copiedRules of Civility & Decent Behavior in Company and Conversation.” Biographers gloss over Washington’s list of rules as a boyhood exercise—perhaps something a tutor had required to improve the young pupil’s handwriting. Such lists were popular in Colonial times.

Even so, Washington’s is curiously up-to-date. Mom would have liked Rule 97 (“Put not another bit into your Mouth ‘til the former be Swallowed”) and Rule 100 (“Cleanse not your teeth with the Table Cloth”). Boy Scout leaders can use Rule 9: “Spit not in the Fire.” Rule 6 is good for the corporate boardroom: “Sleep not when others Speak.” Personally, I like Rule 4: “In the Presence of Others Sing not to yourself with a Humming Noise.

Studying Washington’s life, I discovered that he hadn’t just copied out rules. He had grown to embody their spirit, especially those that carried the most vital moral lessons of his day and ours: humility, respect, self-control. Politeness did not come naturally to Washington, whose temper Thomas Jefferson described as “most tremendous.” But he kept it under tight rein. Rule 73 counsels “Think before you Speak.” At one level, this rule is about elocution—speaking calmly and distinctly. But it’s also about good judgment, and deliberating before you do.

The lesson took. In 1775, the Continental Congress was so impressed by Washington’s cool demeanor—”no harum-scarum, ranting, swearing fellow, but sober, steady and calm,” wrote one delegate—that it entrusted him with command of American forces. Twelve years later, Washington was chosen to preside over the convention in Philadelphia, where the Constitution was being debated. During four months of often heated argument, he spoke only three times—on the first day, the last, and once in between. According to Jefferson Washington laid his shoulder “to the great points, knowing that the little ones would follow.”

Washington needed all the courtesy he could muster to hold together a people so diverse: Southern aristocrats, Yankee merchants, pacific Quakers, bellicose Scotch-Irish frontiersmen. Slavery split the country north and south, while the Appalachian Mountains split it east and west. Politicians accused each other of treason and other infamies at the drop of a hat. The press could be dishonest and unfair. Americans were passionate about politics because the stakes were so high.

As President of the first modern republic, Washington had no precedents to guide him. Fortunately for him and for us, he had a model of personal behavior to fall back on. The sentiments he copied into his exercise book, practiced for decades, gave him the framework. Respecting his fellow Americans was a stepping stone to respecting their rights. Washington’s courtesy didn’t fail him even on his deathbed when he assured his doctors they had done their best. (Did he recall Rule 44: When a man does all he can though it succeeds not well blame not him that did it”?)

Now, almost 200 years later, we don’t have to make up inspirational stories about Washington, such as the cherry-tree myth. The facts are good enough. Washington helped make a new republic work by his high standards of civility. The same respect for courtesy will help today’s America too, particularly if we give our youth some rules of behavior to copy—in both our actions and our words. It’s all a matter of Washington’s Rule 48, which observes that setting a good example influences people more than precepts.


READER’S Digest, Inc.

Vol. 14, No. 866, (pgs. 41-42)

Copyright @ June, 1994. The Reader’s Digest Association, Inc.

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