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George Washington’s Rules of Civility

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National Book Award/Pulitzer Prize finalist Adam Haslett tackles George Washington’s Rules of Civility, which will be printed in its entirety. In addition to an introductory essay, Haslett annotates the text.

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Introduction by Adam Haslett

One summer a few years ago, on a particularly inebriated afternoon at a house some friends of mine were looking after in upstate New York, I came across a small book of maxims of good behavior purporting to be by George Washington. The sheer oddity that our Founding Father had penned lines such as “Rinse not your Mouth in the Presence of Others” (Rule 101) was only compounded by the book’s assertion that he had done so at the age of fourteen. To explain why, at the time, I seriously wondered if the text were an elaborate joke, I should add that the house we were staying in was owned by a writer whose most acclaimed novel was the only book I had ever seen with a blurb from Thomas Pynchon. He was a man with a highly developed sense of the absurd; and he had a large, eclectic library. In my altered state that afternoon, it struck me as entirely possible that our absent host had somewhere come across this curious parody of 18th-century manners and chosen to leave it prominently displayed on the top of a stack of books in his sitting room precisely so that ignorant and unsuspecting guests such as myself would come across it and be stricken with the dilemma of whether or not to credit the idea that the leader of one of the most important revolutions in human history had written the words, “If you See any filth or thick Spittle put your foot Dexteriously upon it.”

No sooner did this little volume have me in its grasp than my equally incapacitated friends entered the room and I began reading aloud to them in a tone of wonder. “Do not Puff up the Cheeks, Loll not out the tongue rub the hands, or beard, thrust out the lips, or bite them or keep the Lips too open or too Close.” Combining the diction of the St. James Bible with the subject matter of what do to when one coughs or sneezes, the rules seemed to suggest that our adolescent future President had ascended not Mt. Vernon, but some colonial Mt. Sinai, and there, instead of the tablets of Judeo-Christian morality, had been handed a lesson book in table manners. Incredulity reigned among us.

But what if it were authentic? My friends mused on what the broader discovery and dissemination of the book might portend for our understanding of the meaning of the United States as a political entity. Its implications, though unclear, were clearly enormous. A microcosm of intellectual life on the left, our manic conversation burst forth, shone brightly, and dissipated in a hurry.

Our ignorance of course was as complete as it was enjoyable. This was no Pynchonesque sendup of the 18th century. It turned out that any scholar of the founding generation could tell you that our first President, at the age of fourteen, had indeed copied out 110 rules of civility, and that some historians even cited this fact in their explanation of Washington’s famous rectitude and formal bearing.

Thus began the minor odyssey that has led Mr. Johnny Temple to ask me to write the introduction to his imprint’s reissue of the Rules of Civility, the first installment in a series of Presidential B-sides, books on generally (or apparently) non-political topics that have fallen out of public view. While I doubt this service to our nation will garner accolades from our current leaders (in fact, my annotation of these rules will more or less insure that it doesn’t), it will hopefully not go unrecognized as part of an effort to better understand the men who have held the highest office in the land, an office which at the beginning of the 21st century has become the greatest agglomeration of military and economic power in human history. In the musings, occasional pieces, and sociological adventures of our leaders, might we discover the basements, cupboards, and antechambers in the mind of power? If so, then it will be well worth the effort. At no time since the height of the Cold War and the anti-communist witch hunts has it been more important for us to understand the pathologies of political authority in this country.

Happily, Washington’s Rules of Civility provides us the opportunity not only to gain insight into the 18th-century culture of manners that helped form our first President, but also gives us a set of precepts we might use to evaluate the behavior of our current administration, as I do a bit of in my occasional annotations in the text. It is, then, an ideal place to begin this series of lesser known Presidential writings.

While there is debate and uncertainty as to how the Rules of Civility made their way to Virginia and into the hands of the young Washington, historians agree that whatever version he copied, its point of origin was the Rules of Civility & Decent Behavior in Company and Conversation, a manual composed by French Jesuits in 1595. The first English translation appeared in 1640 and went into several printings over the next forty years. One possibility is that Washington was given an English translation of the rules by a tutor as an exercise in penmanship. Whatever the case, Washington was not the author of the rules, but a copyist. There are, in my view, two basic categories into which the rules fall. The first contains precepts of general applicability having to do with table manners, comportment during conversation, and the clothing and display of the body. Thus, Rule 14: “Turn not your Back to others especially in Speaking, Jog not the Table or Desk on which Another reads or writes, lean not upon any one.” The second and often overlapping group contains those rules which are primarily concerned with the etiquette of class. These are aimed at instructing the reader on how to correctly perform their role in the social hierarchy. Thus, Rule 29: “When you meet with one of Greater Quality than yourself, Stop, and retire especially if it be at a Door or any Straight place to give way for him to Pass”; and Rule 59: “Never express anything unbecoming, nor Act against the Rules Moral before your inferiours,” which contains the perfectly aristocratic and French implication that morality is and always has been something for the lower classes.

Etiquette, of course, has its origin in royal courts and was nowhere more fully elaborated than in the French monarchy of the 17th and 18th centuries. Proper manners, along with proper dress and the right accent, were required for entry into the highest circles. The great ambition of the bourgeoisie from the French fop to the Ralph Lauren shopper was and remains the meticulous aping of the aristocrat.

It makes perfect sense, then, that a child of the gentry should be handed a copy of these rules in the American colonies in the 18th century. Good manners and basic hygiene were often lacking (thus the need to dexterously stamp out that filth), and there was a rising farmer and merchant class seeking political autonomy along with the maintenance of a version of class hierarchy that would act as a bulwark against the direct democracy of the rabble (remember in this regard that Senators were not subject to popular election until well into the 19th century). The Rules of Civility take on both concerns, guiding their reader through difficult situations from soup eating—let it cool rather than blowing on it (Rule 94)—to conversing with your betters—submit with modesty to their judgment (Rule 40).

All of which is not to say that the Rules of Civility don’t contain a lot of good advice. They do. We should be able to maintain a critically minded stance toward the second, class-enforcing category of the rules and their anti-democratic impulse, while realizing that if people followed some of the rules of general applicability the world would be a better place. For one thing, there would be fewer boorish people and boorish conversations. The rules are nowhere more timeless than in their advice on how to talk to your fellow man. Rule 41: “Undertake not to Teach your equal in the art himself Proffesses; it Savours of arrogancy.” You bet it does. And it’s boring as all get out. Who among us hasn’t been lashed to the mast of an interminable conversation consisting of some ignoramus proving his superior knowledge of history to an historian, or bridge building to an engineer? If in such situations we could simply note, quietly, a Rule 41 violation and end it there, how much less dangerous dinner parties would be. And who in the meeting-crazed corporate world wouldn’t weep tears of joy at the legislative adoption of Rule 35: “Let your Discourse with Men of Business be Short and Comprehensive.” Those struck by illness might be sorely tempted to hoist over their doors a banner bearing Rule 38: “In visiting the Sick, do not Presently play the Physician if you be not Knowing therein.”—i.e., please could we not talk about your neck ache on the eve of my back surgery?

Precepts such as these make the Rules of Civility both a pleasure to read as well as a resource to guide aspects of contemporary behavior. Alas, as is the case with so many of the writings of our founders, the neo-conservatives have lighted upon this minor text of Washington, and laying their ideological grid down upon it, have discovered—surprise, surprise—yet another reason why the 1960s were a disaster whose influence must be eradicated from the culture. Let me back up and explain. According to conservative columnist and Washington biographer Richard Brookhiser, the reason the Rules of Civility are not taken seriously today is that this country has succumbed to a cult of authenticity, an idea that self-expression, direct experience, and a lack of formality in human relations constitute a kind of natural state against which is set the repressive strictures of traditional society. While Brookhiser correctly identifies the American origins of this idea in Thoreau and Emerson, the modern source of the view originates in Rousseau and his notion that social life itself, with its inevitable comparisons and envies, casts natural man from the garden of unselfconsciousness and ushers him into a world of strife and discord. Hobbes and Locke, of course, wouldn’t agree with this speculative history of human development, and nor would our Founding Fathers, who tended to view the state of nature as a place of anarchy and violence, not innocence. While Rousseau and the Romantics that followed him might see many of the Rules of Civility as the height of artificial, inauthentic behavior, Brookhiser finds in them the possibility of greatness working its way from the outside in. If we follow the rules, the inner man will be trained by the outer decorum, and the respect for others that the rules encourage will move from the surface of action into the heart of intention. Good manners will lead to great men.

In the neo-conservative worldview, the 1960s were the apotheosis of this rude cult of authenticity and as such an entirely regrettable setback for the possibility of future greatness in the American character. Obscured or simply ignored in this account of our recent past is the fact that it was during that same decade that millions of Americans struggled and partially won the right to be treated with basic human dignity, let alone proper etiquette. The Southern tradition of courtly manners, that was no doubt the most faithful to the class dimension of Washington’s Rules of Civility as compared with any other regional way of life in the country, produced, among other citizens, George Wallace and Bull Connor, who might both have profited from a more expansive reading of Rule 1: “Every Action done in Company, ought to be with Some Sign of Respect, to those that are Present.”

I tarry with Brookhiser’s comments about the ’60s first to point out that manners can flourish in the absence of character and act to hide cruelty, and second to make a small stand against twenty years of neo-conservative attempts to co-opt the writings of the Founders into a narrow political agenda that now more boldly than ever seeks to roll back fifty or perhaps even a hundred years of progress toward social and economic justice. One need look no further than Martin Luther King Jr.’s speech at the Lincoln Memorial to understand the vital importance of fighting for the meaning of our founding documents and their Enlightenment promises against those that seek to read them as nothing more than a declaration of property rights.

However, I digress. I lose my sense of humor. Living under the second Bush administration can do that to you. Let us remind ourselves that there is real enjoyment and instruction to be had in these rules, and that readers are encouraged to revel in the grammar and apply the rules far and wide. Particularly active citizens might send our current President a telegram of Rule 73: “Think before you Speak pronounce not imperfectly nor bring out your Words too hastily but orderly & distinctly.” Those with an interest in foreign policy and a metaphoric cast of mind might append Rule 97 to their White House missive: “Put not another bite into your Mouth til the former be Swallowed let not your morsels be too big for the Gowls.”

Finally, we should remind ourselves that Washington¹s exercise in penmanship stands toward the beginning of a long line of American books of advice to the common man, from Benjamin Franklin’s Poor Richard’s Almanac to the burgeoning self-help sections of your local bookstore. A country bent on self-improvement, personal as well as political, we are ever seeking the way forward and seem happy to grant charlatan after charlatan the status of sage. In this, at least, Washington’s Rules of Civility have to them a certain gravitas lent them by the future greatness of their adolescent copyist. “Cleanse not your teeth with the Table Cloth Napkin” might appear a trivial bit of manners, but to know that it was transcribed and presumably followed by our first President grants it an historical echo missing from, say, The Rules, that latter day dating manual with its ukase that one shouldn’t play phone messages in the presence of a date lest you lose an aura of mystery when your young quarry hears your mother reminding you that you have run out of mayonnaise. Here, then, is high-brow self-improvement for the funnier angels of our nature.

Enjoy and obey.