Rules of Civility
In the late nineteenth
century, a school notebook entitled "Forms of Writing" was
discovered at Mount Vernon, Virginia, George Washington's plantation
home on the Potomac River. The notebook apparently dates from about
1745, when George was fourteen years old and attending school in
Fredericksburg, Virginia. Inside, in George's own handwriting, we
find the foundation of a solid character education for an
eighteenth-century youth: some 110 "Rules of Civility in
Conversation Amongst Men." Historical research has shown that young
George probably copied them from a 1664 English translation of an
even older French work. Most of the rules are still delightfully
applicable as a modern code of personal conduct. On the assumption
that what was good enough for the first president of the United
States is good enough for the rest of us, here are fifty-four of
George Washington's "Rules of Civility."
1. Every action in company
ought to be with some sign of respect to those present.
2. In the presence of others
sing not to yourself with a humming voice, nor drum with your
fingers or feet.
3. Speak not when others
speak, sit not when others stand, and walk not when others stop.
4. Turn not your back to
others, especially in speaking; jog not the table or desk on which
another reads or writes; lean not on anyone.
5. Be no flatterer, neither
play with anyone that delights not to be played with.
6. Read no letters, books,
or papers in company; but when there is a necessity for doing it,
you must ask leave. Come not near the books or writings of anyone so
as to read them unasked; also look not nigh when another is writing
7. Let your countenance be
pleasant, but in serious matters somewhat grave.
8. Show not yourself glad at
the misfortune of another, though he were your enemy.
9. They that are in dignity
or office have in all places precedency, but whilst they are young,
they ought to respect those that are their equals in birth or other
qualities, though they have no public charge.
10. It is good manners to
prefer them to whom we speak before ourselves, especially if they be
above us, with whom in no sort we ought to begin.
11. Let your discourse with
men of business be short and comprehensive.
12. In visiting the sick do
not presently play the physician if you be not knowing therein.
13. In writing or speaking
give to every person his due title according to his degree and the
custom of the place.
14. Strive not with your
superiors in argument, but always submit your judgment to others
15. Undertake not to teach
your equal in the art he himself professes; it savors of arrogancy.
16. When a man does all he
can, though it succeeds not well, blame not him that did it.
17. Being to advise or
reprehend anyone, consider whether it ought to be in public or in
private, presently or at some other time, also in what terms to do
it; and in reproving show no signs of choler, but do it with
sweetness and mildness.
18. Mock not nor jest at
anything of importance; break no jests that are sharp or biting; and
if you deliver anything witty or pleasant, abstain from laughing
19. Wherein you reprove
another be unblamable yourself, for example is more prevalent than
20. Use no reproachful
language against anyone, neither curses nor revilings.
21. Be not hasty to believe
flying reports to the disparagement of anyone.
22. In your apparel be
modest, and endeavor to accommodate nature rather than procure
admiration. Keep to the fashion of your equals, such as are civil
and orderly with respect to time and place.
23. Play not the peacock,
looking everywhere about you to see if you be well decked, if your
shoes fit well, if your stockings set neatly and clothes handsomely.
24. Associate yourself with
men of good quality if you esteem your own reputation, for it is
better to be alone than in bad company.
25. Let your conversation be
without malice or envy, for it is a sign of tractable and
commendable nature; and in all causes of passion admit reason to
26. Be not immodest in
urging your friend to discover a secret.
27. Utter not base and
frivolous things amongst grown and learned men, nor very difficult
questions or subjects amongst the ignorant, nor things hard to be
28. Speak not of doleful
things in time of mirth nor at the table; speak not of melancholy
things, as death and wounds; and if others mention them, change, if
you can, the discourse. Tell not your dreams but to your intimate
29. Break not a jest when
none take pleasure in mirth. Laugh not aloud, nor at all without
occasion. Deride no man's misfortunes, though there seem to be some
30. Speak not injurious
words, neither in jest or earnest. Scoff at none, although they give
31. Be not forward, but
friendly and courteous, the first to salute, hear and answer, and be
not pensive when it is time to converse.
32. Detract not from others,
but neither be excessive in commending.
33. Go not thither where you
know not whether you shall be welcome or not. Give not advice
without being asked; and when desired, do it briefly.
34. If two contend together,
take not the part of either unconstrained, and be not obstinate in
your opinion; in things indifferent be of the major side.
35. Reprehend not the
imperfection of others, for that belongs to parents, masters, and
36. Gaze not on the marks or
blemishes of others, and ask not how they came. What you may speak
in secret to your friend deliver not before others.
37. Speak not in an unknown
tongue in company, but in your own language; and that as those of
quality do, and not as the vulgar. Sublime matters treat seriously.
38. Think before you speak;
pronounce not imperfectly, nor bring out your words too hastily, but
orderly and distinctly.
39. When another speaks, be
attentive yourself, and disturb not the audience. If any hesitate in
his words, help him not, nor prompt him without being desired;
interrupt him not, nor answer him till his speech be ended.
40. Treat with men at fit
times about business, and whisper not in the company of others.
41. Make no comparisons; and
if any of the company be commended for any brave act of virtue,
commend not another for the same.
42. Be not apt to relate
news if you know not the truth thereof. In discoursing of things you
have heard, name not your author always. A secret discover not.
43. Be not curious to know
the affairs of others, neither approach to those that speak in
44. Undertake not what you
cannot perform; but be careful to keep your promise.
45. When you deliver a
matter, do it without passion and indiscretion, however mean the
person may be you do it to.
46. When your superiors talk
to anybody, hear them; neither speak or laugh.
47. In disputes be not so
desirous to overcome as not to give liberty to each one to deliver
his opinion, and submit to the judgment of the major part,
especially if they are judges of the dispute.
48. Be not tedious in
discourse, make not many digressions, nor repeat often the same
matter of discourse.
49. Speak no evil of the
absent, for it is unjust.
50. Be not angry at table,
whatever happens; and if you have reason to be so show it not; put
on a cheerful countenance, especially if there be strangers, for
good humor makes one dish a feast.
51. Set not yourself at the
upper end of the table; but if it be your due, or the master of the
house will have it so, contend not, lest you should trouble the
52. When you speak of God or
his attributes, let it be seriously, in reverence and honor, and
obey your natural parents.
53. Let your recreations be
manful, not sinful.
54. Labor to keep alive in
your breast that little spark of celestial fire called conscience.
This "want ad" appeared in
the early part of this century.
Wanted -- A boy that stands
straight, sits straight, acts straight, and talks straight;
A boy whose fingernails are
not in mourning, whose ears are clean, whose shoes are polished,
whose clothes are brushed, whose hair is combed, and whose teeth are
well cared for;
A boy who listens carefully
when he is spoken to, who asks questions when he does not
understand, and does not ask questions about things that are none of
A boy that moves quickly and
makes as little noise about it as possible;
A boy who whistles in the
street, but does not whistle where he ought to keep still;
A boy who looks cheerful,
has a ready smile for everybody, and never sulks;
A boy who is polite to every
man and respectful to every woman and girl;
A boy who does not smoke
cigarettes and has no desire to learn how;
A boy who is more eager to
know how to speak good English than to talk slang;
A boy that never bullies
other boys nor allows other boys to bully him;
A boy who, when he does not
know a thing, says, "I don't know," and when he has made a mistake
says, "I'm sorry," and when he is asked to do a thing says, "I'll
A boy who looks you right in
the eye and tells the truth every time;
A boy who is eager to read
A boy who would rather put
in his spare time at the YMCA gymnasium than to gamble for pennies
in a back room;
A boy who does not want to
be "smart" nor in any wise to attract attention;
A boy who would rather lose
his job or be expelled from school than to tell a lie or be a cad;
A boy whom other boys like;
A boy who is at ease in the
company of girls;
A boy who is not sorry for
himself, and not forever thinking and talking about himself;
A boy who is friendly with
his mother, and more intimate with her than anyone else;
A boy who makes you feel
good when he is around;
A boy who is not
goody-goody, a prig, or a little pharisee, but just healthy, happy,
and full of life.
This boy is wanted
everywhere. The family wants him, the school wants him, the office
wants him, the boys want him, the girls want him, all creation wants