The Elegance of Civility

There is a dog-eared little blue book on my shelf titled Civility – George Washington’s Rules for Today by Steven Michael Selzer. As we celebrate Presidents’ Day on Monday, let’s look to the father of our nation for some lessons in simple, everyday elegance. 

According to the author, when George Washington was just fourteen, he copied 110 principles for personal conduct from a manual composed by French-Jesuits in 1595. Washington titled his list Rules of Civility and Decent Behavior in Company and Conversation and carried it with him throughout his life. 

America’s first president understood civil behavior is not just desirable but essential to a successful democratic nation. In a letter written to the people of Baltimore in 1789, Washington wrote what could easily be applied to us today. “It appears to me that little more than common sense and common honesty, in the transactions of the community at large, would be necessary to make us a great and happy nation.”

Most of Washington’s rules are as apropos in 2022 as they were 250 years ago, though a few have become less relevant. One such rule states, “Kill no vermin, as fleas, lice, ticks, etc., in the sight of others. If you see any filth or thick spittle, put your foot dexterously upon it.” Ew, George.

Out of Washington’s 110 rules, and in keeping his original language, I’ve chosen ten that could start a revolution of civility.

  1. Every action done in company ought to be done with some sign of respect to those that are present. This was Washington’s rule number one, and if we truly followed it, the others might be unnecessary. Everyone deserves kindness and respect, and though the rules are apolitical, it does pair nicely with a nation founded upon principles of democracy.
  2. In the presence of others, sing not to yourself with a humming noise, nor drum with your fingers or feet. This rule makes me think Washington may have spent time, as I have, as an eighth grade teacher. We should all keep in mind that our music, talking, fidgeting, pencil tapping, phone use, and other behaviors might be disturbing to others.
  3. Strive not with your superiors in argument, but always submit your judgment to others with modesty. I’ve heard it said we Americans often know our rights better than our wrongs. We are gloriously endowed with freedom of speech, but we should do so carefully, respectfully, and wisely.
  4. Use no reproachful language against anyone. Neither curse nor revile. Demeaning, undisciplined, rude, and crude language routinely flies out the mouths of those who should be setting an example for others. While such talk may be commonplace in today’s society, civil it is not. There is only one person’s words over which we have control.
  5. Associate yourself with men of good quality if you esteem your own reputation, for ’tis better to be alone than in bad company. In business, politics, and our personal life, we should be careful of the company we keep. It was Washington’s pal Benjamin Franklin who said, “He that lies down with dogs, shall rise up with fleas.”
  6. Be not hasty to believe flying reports to the disparagement of any. I’m not sure Washington could have foreseen the abounding dishonesty paraded as truth in our society. Now more than ever, we have the responsibility to get our information from trustworthy sources and share it judiciously.
  7. Think before you speak, pronounce not imperfectly nor bring out your words too hastily, but orderly and distinctly. In the words of another great president, Abraham Lincoln, “Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak and remove all doubt.”
  8. Be not curious to know the affairs of others, neither approach those that speak in private. In an age when many over-share details of their personal lives, it’s still important to respect people’s privacy. It takes a certain amount of maturity and discretion to stay out of the rumor mill.
  9. Put not another bite into your mouth till the former be swallowed. Let not your morsels be too big for the jowls. Though poor table manners may not be immoral, they can be unpleasant. A revival of basic etiquette would go far in increasing our respect towards one another.
  10. Labor to keep alive in your breast that little spark of celestial fire called conscience. This delightful quote is Washington’s 110th and final rule. Deep down we understand civil from uncivil, courteous from discourteous, polite from impolite. Imagine if we all endeavored to keep that heavenly flame of our conscience burning bright. §

“Few men have virtue to withstand the highest bidder.”
~ George Washington

2 thoughts on “The Elegance of Civility

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