It turns out George Washington really was the first "Rules Guy."
I thought of that as I was visiting friends in Virginia recently and came across his booklet, "Rules of Civility and Decent Behavior In Company and Conversation" on their coffee table. A well-known treasure in the 19th century and a delight to historians of Washington and a few thoughtful folks today, it’s been lost to most of the rest of us in modern times.
As I picked up the booklet, this one published by the Mount Vernon Ladies Association with an introduction by Letitia Baldrige, I thought again about how I am in fact not paranoid: we are living in an incredibly coarse culture.
George Washington was not yet 16 when he penned his 110 "rules" for conduct (which he adapted from a 17th century book of etiquette, according to Baldrige). They range from:
— #50 "Be not hasty to believe flying reports to the disparagement of any;"
— #56 "Associate yourself with men of good quality if you esteem your own reputation; for ’tis better to be alone than in bad company;"
— #58 "Let your conversation be without malice or envy, for ’tis a sign of a tractable and commendable nature: and in all causes of passion admit reason to govern;"
— #11 "Shift not yourself in sight of others nor gnaw your nails;"
— #2 "when in company, put not your hands to any part of the body, not usually discovered." (I love that one!)
There are calls to good table manners, to always prefer another to one’s self (giving up a seat to the last "comer" and not speaking too loudly for instance), to stately body language which means Washington understood the importance of what his very countenance communicated, and exhortations to good morals for the purpose of benefiting others.
And so it is no surprise Washington closes with:
— #110 "Labor to keep alive in your breast that little spark of celestial fire called conscience."
Now consider that a young, fatherless teenage boy wrote these.
George Washington was a man who towered, literally and figuratively, above others. He was known to be a man of profound dignity and character. According to historians, he not only strove to live by these rules but they reflect a character of a man, a young man, who was uniquely cognizant of the importance of the "presentation" he was putting forward in the world. Washington’s commitment to dignified behavior and self-censure brought him to the attention of prominent men at a very early age. And the rest is, literally, history.
In what was still considered a rather rough, "frontier" society, Washington’s "Rules" reflected the highest goal for what society should be. I’m not sure we have such goals anymore. Flash forward and today’s slouching, mumbling, self-centered teens (I know, surely, they had such teens in Washington’s day too!). OK, make that self-centered all of us, just consider the debased culture we marinade in, and I think we would all benefit greatly from a consideration of "The Rules."
Only here’s the problem: what struck me as I reviewed "The Rules" is a sentiment of modesty, self-restraint in all things, and putting others first, the moral basis for good manners. It’s the opposite of today’s "all about me" culture. So sadly, I’m not sure "The Rules" could even get through to us.
Of course the response to this today might be "wait a minute — Washington later owned slaves, women of the day couldn’t vote nor did they have equal rights to men, and on it goes. Talk about a ‘coarse’ culture!"
Well, such folks are absolutely right. But the natural response to that is that if these "Rules" of civility could be held in esteem in that day, then what’s our excuse in our age of enlightenment that such "Rules" would be largely despised in our own?
(Betsy Hart hosts the "It Takes a Parent" radio show on WYLL-AM 1160 in Chicago. Reach her through betsysblog.com.)