Episode 15. Fourth of July Special
"Rules of Civility & Decent Behavior in Company & Conversation" By George Washington
The Father of Our
Country is Telling Us
Times have Changed. That's evident in a little pamphlet assembled by George Washington in 1745, when he was just a 13-year-old schoolboy. The 110 "rules" give a stark contrast to the notion of "Civility and Good Behavior" of America today. The somewhat archaic text gives a fascinating -- and somewhat amusing - glimpse of the rigid rules of polite society that shaped our first President.
The background music is a collection of tunes that George Washington probably tapped his foot to -- even though Rule #4 admonishes:
4th. In the Presence of Others sing not to yourself with a humming Noise, nor Drum, with your Fingers or Feet.
It's helpful to avoid a revisionist perspective and put the Rules in the context of Washington's era -- a time when the colonies had not yet coalesced into the "United States of America," before the rebellious and egalitarian American character took hold. Many of the Rules that Washington recorded are unique to his time -- such as the manner in which one should or should not remove one's hat, and the easy acceptance of social rank -- referring to "those of better birth," "Your Superiors," and "Men of Quality," to which elaborate deference is frequently dictated.
It is also painfully evident that he makes no mention of women whatsoever, which is also reflective of the time. Women in 18th century America were excluded from public life, expected to run the household, weave, cook, and teach children morals and spirituality. In general, women were still not formally educated, and they did not enjoy the same freedoms and social power as men. They could not vote, own land while married, go to a university, earn equal wages, enter many professions, and even report serious cases of domestic abuse. Women who were found to be too argumentative or radical could deal with cruel and humiliating public penalties. It was clearly a man's world in which Washington grew up, and to which he aspired.
The character of the colonists was still largely reflective of English and European etiquette, where class divisions were stark. There were four main classes: the Nobility, the Gentry, the Yeomanry, and the Poor. There was little chance of upward mobility; you were born into your class, and likely to stay there. A person's class determined how they could dress, where they could live, and the kinds of jobs people and their children could get.
The 18th century society was largely segregated into estates and orders and it was the church and aristocracy who controlled social and economic power. The "estates of" the territory were the expansive "orders of social hierarchy" adopted in Christian Europe from the medieval period to early modern Europe; this was Washington's world.
Washington was born on February 22, 1732, in Westmoreland County, Virginia. He was the eldest of Augustine and Mary's six children, all of whom survived into adulthood. The family lived on Pope's Creek in Westmoreland County, Virginia. They were moderately prosperous members of Virginia's "middling class," and active in the Anglican Church. His father died when he was just 11, leaving little money for his education.
Unlike many of his contemporaries in the Continental Congress, Washington never attended college or received a formal education. But the pursuit of knowledge was a life-long passion. He may have received elementary instruction from private tutors and in a public school in Fredericksburg, but he was largely self-taught with the support and encouragement of his mother. Like most boys at the time, he learned arithmetic, geography, astronomy, and handwriting by copying text into a copy book.
While the current pamphlet has been erroneously attributed to him, he copied most of the Rules from a collection of maxims in a French volume that originated in the late sixteenth century and were popularly circulated during Washington's time. Such copy-work was a common method of teaching handwriting as well as memorizing a subject, which Young Washington apparently did very well.
By 1719, Thomas Fairfax the sixth Baron of Cameron, inherited control of the vast Northern Neck Proprietary, a five million acre land grant between Virginia's Rappahannock and Potomac rivers. In 1734 he asked his cousin William Fairfax to act as his land agent in Virginia. By 1743, William and his family were comfortably settled into their new home on the Potomac, Belvoir.
Washington clearly took the "Rules of Civility & Decent Behavior" to heart. The charm and decency of his character for which he later became famous no doubt helped him to navigate the steep slopes of 18th Century American society. In his youth, Washington became close friends of the wealthy Fairfax family of Fairfax County. They were descended from a prominent family based in Yorkshire, England, that had obtained a Scottish peerage from King Charles I in 1627.
Mount Vernon aquatint. Francis Jukes 1800
Belvoir Mansion, c 1780.
An early version of the text which George copied into his schoolbook.
That same year, George's older brother Lawrence married the elder Fairfax daughter Ann, and they moved into the newly-renamed Mount Vernon Estate, just down the Potomac from Belvoir. It eventually became George Washington's home:
George spent many happy years with the Fairfax family, who helped him further his education, gave him his start as a surveyor, counseled him in the acquisition of land, and eventually ushered him into politics and the military.
George's first known original publication is a record of his work as a surveyor, "Journal of my Journey Over the Mountains," mapping the vast holdings of the Lord Thomas Fairfax, Baron of Cameron, in Northern Virginia.
The journal reveals Washington's extraordinary mastery of mathematics and the practice of surveying.
It's not a stretch to imagine his wonder at the hugeness of America, at the raw beauty of the land, and perhaps how his journey "over the mountain" imbued in him the vision that inspired him to go on to lead the Colonies to Independence.
The Full text of Washington's Journal has been made available for free by The Project Gutenberg, a library of free online books. You can read the Journal at
Unfortunately, there are no actual portraits of Young George Washington. But this clever video is a fun way to imagine what he might have looked like:
It is tempting to chuckle and scoff at many of the antiquated precepts expressed in Washington's little volume, but as J.M. Toner, M.D., the man who first transcribed and published them in 1888, wrote in his introduction:
"These particular rules of civility and good behavior, although quaint, must always possess peculiar historical interest, because of their origin as well as for their intrinsic merits. It is therefore hoped that the publication of a true and complete copy of them from the original manuscript may prove not only gratifying to American pride but be of benefit to the growing youth of our country."