George Washington (1732-1799) Nathanial Currier

How to Comport Yourself in Today’s World According to George Washington

How many adults remember their high school writing assignments? For that matter, how high school seniors remember the writing assignments from last year? Not many, that’s for sure. But then, not many high school assignments, writing or otherwise, go on to become little books of wisdom, still sold over 200 years later.

Bust of George Washington (Jean Antoine Houdon)

Then of course, not many of us can claim to be a father of a country. George Washington, at the age of 16, copied out a list of 110 “Rules of Civility & Decent Behavior in Company and Conversation.” He did not come up with these rules off the top of his head, but instead they are based upon a list of rules for young gentlemen prepared by a Jesuit priest in the 16th-century.

Whether the young Washington wrote these guidelines out by choice, or under the watchful eye of a tutor, is unclear. What is certain is that all 110 rules were taken to heart and formed the future general and president. These are rules of more than etiquette, although pointers are offered on how to dress, walk and talk. Beyond the simple truisms are the larger moral issues. The Jesuits were in fact seeking to shape the soul by shaping the mannerisms.

So what are these amazing maxims? and How would they apply to our life today?

Well, the entire list of Rules of Civility & Decent Behaviour In Company and Conversation can be found under The Papers of George Washington, part of the Alderman Library at the University of Virginia. But I think I will repeat only some of the rules with some modernization done to the spelling and punctuation, or the meaning may get lost in translation.

1. Every action done in company ought to be with some sign of respect to those that are present.
This is possibly the most important rule. It sums up many of the others, and we in modern times followed only one of these rules, I for one vote for this one. There is a reason it is first.

George Washington (Nathanial Currier)

2. When in company, put not your hands to any part of the body not usually discovered.
This certainly meant something different in Washington’s day, as much more of the body was not usually discovered, but in anyway or how, this one would be especially good for baseball players.

7. Put not off your clothes in the presence of others, nor go out of your chamber half dressed.
This will certainly be a hard one to put into effect today.

44. When a man does all he can, though it succeed not well, blame not him that did it.
Now that’s good advice for everyone, especially for the person who did all that he could.

82. Undertake not what you cannot perform but be careful to keep your promise.
Also very good advice for many of us who take on too much!

95. Put not your meat to your mouth with your knife in your hand; neither spit forth the stones of any fruit pie upon a dish nor cast anything under the table.
In modern times, we don’t often eat with our knives, or bake pies with un-pitted fruit, but this last part, about not casting things under a table, is very hard to convince the kids to keep to when there is also an adorable little dog putting his paw on their knees.

110. Labor to keep alive in your breast that little spark of celestial fire called conscience.
A fitting bookend. Just as the first rule says think of the other people around you before you do something, the last says always have a conscience in all you do.

George Washington Silhoutte (William Annesley)

There is also a lot of letting your betters go first, making sure those of a better station have the first choice, etc, which again, just don’t apply as much in today’s society as such things did for Washington or the Monks back in the 16th century. Now such things go down to simple politeness. But so much of these little pearls of wisdom are common sense manners that they all can be applied today – with the exception of 18. Read no letter, books, or papers in company. I think too many commuters would have difficulty with that one. Forget the letters, books or papers, add on phone, eReader or iDevice and we all have a problem!

To learn more about George Washington, the exhibit First in the Hearts of His Countrymen: George Washington is showing at the Albany Institute of History and Art until the 20th of May, 2012. And if you want to bring the whole family, the Institute and Albany Kid are having a giveaway for a full year Family Membership. Check out A Generous Giveaway and Historic Exhibit Courtesy of Albany Institute for more details.

Washington's Headquarters (Unidentified artist)

 All images are from First in the Hearts of His Countrymen: George Washington
and are used by permission of the Albany Institute of History and Art.

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