A Revolution of Civility ~ 10 rules from George Washington for today

Portrait of George Washington by Thomas Sully circa 1820

America’s annual holiday in honor of George Washington came a little more than a month after an unsettling display of incivility at our nation’s Capitol. The event shook many of us to our core and increased our desperate longing for a more gracious society.

I recently picked up a book on the clearance shelf titled Civility ~ George Washington’s 110 Rules for Today by Steven Michael Selzer. 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.

As America’s first president, perhaps Washington understood that 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 2021 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, I’ve chosen just ten (keeping his original language) 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 some time 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. One of the most distressing scenes from January 6 was that of a woman, old enough to be a grandmother, standing in the halls of our Capitol repeatedly calling someone a most vile name. Cursing others may be commonplace in today’s society, but civil it is not.
  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 know civil from uncivil, courteous from discourteous, polite from impolite. Imagine if we all endeavored to keep that heavenly flame of our conscience burning bright. §

‘The Hill We Climb’ ~ inaugural poem by Amanda Gorman

(Stock Photo)

The Hill We Climb by National Youth Poet Laureate Amanda Gorman

When day comes, we ask ourselves, where can we find light in this never-ending shade?
The loss we carry.
A sea we must wade.
We braved the belly of the beast.
We’ve learned that quiet isn’t always peace, and the norms and notions of what “just” is isn’t always justice.

And yet the dawn is ours before we knew it.
Somehow we do it.
Somehow we weathered and witnessed a nation that isn’t broken, but simply unfinished.

We, the successors of a country and a time where a skinny Black girl descended from slaves and raised by a single mother can dream of becoming president, only to find herself reciting for one.
And, yes, we are far from polished, far from pristine, but that doesn’t mean we are striving to form a union that is perfect.
We are striving to forge our union with purpose.
To compose a country committed to all cultures, colors, characters and conditions of man.

And so we lift our gaze, not to what stands between us, but what stands before us.
We close the divide because we know to put our future first, we must first put our differences aside.
We lay down our arms so we can reach out our arms to one another.
We seek harm to none and harmony for all.

Let the globe, if nothing else, say this is true.
That even as we grieved, we grew.
That even as we hurt, we hoped.
That even as we tired, we tried.
That we’ll forever be tied together, victorious.
Not because we will never again know defeat, but because we will never again sow division.

Scripture tells us to envision that everyone shall sit under their own vine and fig tree, and no one shall make them afraid.
If we’re to live up to our own time, then victory won’t lie in the blade, but in all the bridges we’ve made.

That is the promise to glade, the hill we climb, if only we dare.
It’s because being American is more than a pride we inherit.
It’s the past we step into and how we repair it.
We’ve seen a force that would shatter our nation, rather than share it.
Would destroy our country if it meant delaying democracy.

And this effort very nearly succeeded.
But while democracy can be periodically delayed, it can never be permanently defeated.
In this truth, in this faith we trust, for while we have our eyes on the future, history has its eyes on us.
This is the era of just redemption.
We feared at its inception.

We did not feel prepared to be the heirs of such a terrifying hour.
But within it we found the power to author a new chapter, to offer hope and laughter to ourselves.
So, while once we asked, how could we possibly prevail over catastrophe, now we assert, how could catastrophe possibly prevail over us?

We will not march back to what was, but move to what shall be: a country that is bruised but whole, benevolent but bold, fierce and free.
We will not be turned around or interrupted by intimidation because we know our inaction and inertia will be the inheritance of the next generation, become the future.
Our blunders become their burdens.

But one thing is certain.
If we merge mercy with might, and might with right, then love becomes our legacy and change our children’s birthright.
So let us leave behind a country better than the one we were left.
Every breath from my bronze-pounded chest, we will raise this wounded world into a wondrous one.

We will rise from the golden hills of the West.
We will rise from the windswept Northeast where our forefathers first realized revolution.
We will rise from the lake-rimmed cities of the Midwestern states.
We will rise from the sun-baked South.
We will rebuild, reconcile, and recover.

And every known nook of our nation and every corner called our country, our people diverse and beautiful, will emerge battered and beautiful.
When day comes, we step out of the shade of flame and unafraid.
The new dawn balloons as we free it.
For there is always light, if only we’re brave enough to see it.
If only we’re brave enough to be it. §

Amanda Gorman, a 22-year-old Harvard graduate and first national youth poet laureate, delivered her poem The Hill We Climb at Joe Biden’s inauguration on January 20, 2021. Simply reading the words of her poem is like reading the lyrics to a song. To truly capture the rhythm, rhyme, mood, and promise of this powerful poem, please experience Gorman’s beautiful inauguration day performance. You can watch it at https://youtu.be/LZ055ilIiN4

An Optimist’s Guide to Politics

Politics and optimism seem to mix like oil and water, but formidable British statesman Winston Churchill once said, “I am an optimist. It does not seem too much use being anything else.” Those of us with such dispositions can successfully navigate a contentious election year by clinging to some simple values most optimists hold dear to their hearts.

At the end of the day, optimists just want everyone to be happy. It’s an idea our founding fathers shared, at least in theory. The second paragraph of the Declaration of Independence reads, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” When optimists vote, they want nothing more than our country to keep moving towards fulfilling those promising words adopted by the Second Continental Congress on July 4, 1776.

Most optimists believe good character to be the most important quality in any person, particularly someone who wishes to hold a public office. Voters who don’t care about a politician’s character, just their policies and party, are probably not optimists. Abraham Lincoln reminded us, “Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man’s character, give him power.” Think about the personal qualities you admire and likely insist upon in the people you want in your inner circle. Before you vote, consider how well the candidates hold up against that basic measure.

Optimists have heaps of trust in their fellow citizens and in democracy itself. We have faith in the democratic process and take seriously our right and responsibility to vote. This year marks the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment, which gave women the right to vote after decades of protest and civil disobedience. When we go to the polls we must keep in mind that democracy, the cornerstone of an optimistic nation, is always at stake.

At the risk of sounding like a Miss America contestant, optimists really do want world peace. George Washington said, “Observe good faith and justice towards all Nations; cultivate peace and harmony with all.” Here at home, we want to live in a country that’s peaceful and united in the belief that we all deserve to feel safe and respected, despite our differences. Support the candidate who wants that, too.

For those of us who like to keep things light, the next few weeks are going to be pretty heavy. Let’s stay true to our ideals of happiness, character, trust, and harmony. Don’t worry when the cynics call us dreamers, because they will. Finally, remember another thing Churchill said, “A pessimist sees the difficulty in every opportunity; an optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty.”