What Politicians can Learn about Decency from George Washington

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By age sixteen, George Washington had copied out by hand, 110 Rules of Civility & Decent Behavior in Company and Conversation. They are based on a set of rules composed by French Jesuits in 1595. The first English translation of the French rules appeared in 1640, and  are ascribed to Francis Hawkins, the twelve-year-old son of a doctor.

These were the rules that governed Washington’s behavior and helped to mould the man who attracted the love, loyalty and respect of all who served with him during the American Revolution and his Presidency. It would be easy to dismiss them as outdated and appropriate to a time of powdered wigs  and quills, but they reflect a focus that is increasingly difficult to find in our political leaders these days. The rules have in common a focus on other people rather than the narrow focus of their own self-interests that we find so prevalent with our politicians. They represent more than just manners. They are the small sacrifices that we should all be willing to make for the good of all and the sake of living together. These rules proclaim our respect for others and in turn give us the gift of self-respect and heightened self-esteem.

Without realizing it, the Jesuits who wrote  them, and Washington who copied and lived by them, were outlining and absorbing a system of courtesy appropriate to equals and near-equals. When the company for whom the decent behavior was to be performed expanded to the nation, Washington was ready. Parson Weems got this right, when he wrote about Washington that it was “no wonder everybody honored him who honored everybody.”

Both of our political parties have become openly uncivil toward each other and toward anyone or anything that disagrees with their programs. The televised debates focus on which candidate can hurt or dishonor the others the most. The winners are usually the most dishonest, unscrupulous and immoral of the lot and who have the most money to wage the most comprehensive “hate” campaigns.

RULES OF DECENT BEHAVIOR FOR POLITICIANS

I’ve extracted 63 of Washington’s 110 rules of decent behavior that relate to speaking, debating, or meeting with your political competitors. Read the rules and imagine, if you can, how George Washington would fare in a televised debate with contemporary politicians. Imagine the contrast between what was and what is now acceptable behavior. (So far as possible, I tried to keep the original wording.)

Washington’s Rules:

  1. Treat everyone with respect.
  2.  Every action done in company ought to be with some sign of respect, to those that are present.
  3. Be considerate of others. Do not embarrass others.
  4. Turn not your back to others especially in speaking.
  5. Let your countenance be pleasant but in serious matters somewhat grave.
  6. Reproach none for the infirmities of nature, nor delight to put them that have in mind thereof.
  7. Show not yourself glad at the misfortune of another though he were your enemy.
  8. When you see a crime punished, you may be inwardly pleased; but always show pity to the suffering offender.
  9. Don’t draw attention to yourself.
  10. Do not laugh too loud or too much at any public spectacle.
  11. Superfluous complements and all affectation of ceremony are to be avoided, yet where due they are not to be neglected.
  12. When you speak, be concise.
  13. Let your discourse be short and comprehensive.
  14.  In speaking to men, do not lean nor look them full in the face,  nor approach too near them at least keep a full pace from them.
  15. In writing or speaking, give to every person his due.
  16. Do not argue. Submit your ideas with humility.
  17. Strive not in argument, but always submit your judgment to others with modesty.
  18. Undertake not to teach your equal in the art himself professes; it savors of arrogance.
  19. Do not express joy before one sick or in pain for that contrary passion will aggravate his misery.
  20. When a person does their best and fails, do not criticize him.
  21. When a man does all he can though it does not succeed, blame not him that did it.
  22. When you must give advice or criticism, consider the timing, whether it should be given in public or private, the manner and above all be gentle.
  23. Being to advise or reprehend any one, consider whether it ought to be in public or in private; presently, or at some other time in what terms to do it & in reproving, show no sign of anger but do it with all sweetness and mildness.
  24. If you are corrected, take it without argument. If you were wrongly judged, correct it later.
  25. Take all admonitions thankfully in what time or place whatsoever given but afterwards not being culpable take a time & place convenient to let him know it that gave them.
  26. Do not make fun of anything important to others.
  27. Mock not nor jest at anything of importance.
  28. If you criticize someone else of something, make sure you are not guilty of it yourself. Actions speak louder than words.
  29. Wherein you reprove another be unblameable yourself; for example is more prevalent than precepts.
  30. Use no reproachful language against any one neither curse nor revile.
  31. Do not be quick to believe bad reports about others.
  32. Be not hasty to believe flying reports to the disparagement of any.
  33. Always allow reason to govern your actions.
  34. Let your conversation be without malice or envy, for it is a sign of a tractable and commendable nature.
  35. In all causes of passion admit reason to govern.
  36. Never break the rules.
  37. Never express anything unbecoming, nor act immorally.
  38.  Utter not base and frivolous things amongst grave and learned men.
  39. A person should not overly value their own accomplishments.
  40. A man ought not to value himself of his achievements, or rare qualities of wit; much less of his riches, virtue or kindred.
  41. Speak not injurious words neither in jest nor earnest. Scoff at none although they give occasion.
  42. Be not forward but always friendly and courteous.
  43. Do not detract from others nor be overbearing in giving orders.
  44. Detract not from others neither be excessive in commanding.
  45. Do not go where you are not wanted. Do not give unasked-for advice.
  46. If two people disagree, do not take one side or the other. Be flexible in your own opinions and when you don’t care, take the majority opinion.
  47.  If two contend together, take not the part of either unconstrained; or be not obstinate in your own opinion, in things indifferent be of the major side.
  48. Do not correct others when it is not your place to do so.
  49. When another speaks, be attentive yourself and disturb not the audience if any hesitate in his words help him not nor prompt him without desired, interrupt him not, nor answer him till his speech be ended.
  50. Don’t compare yourselves amongst yourselves.
  51.  Make no comparisons and if any of the company be commended for any brave act of virtue, commend not another for the same.
  52. Do not be quick to talk about something when you don’t have all the facts.
  53. Be not apt to relate news if you know not the truth thereof.
  54. Do not be curious about the affairs of others.
  55.  Do not start what you cannot finish. Keep your promises.
  56. Undertake not what you cannot perform but be careful to keep your promise.
  57. When you deliver a matter, do it without passion & with discretion, however mean the person be you do it too.
  58. 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.
  59. Be attentive to that which is spoken. Contradict not at every turn what others say.
  60. Do not keep repeating the same discourse.
  61. Do not speak badly of those who are not present
  62. Don’t allow yourself to become jaded, cynical or calloused.

Imagine an America where politicians and the mass media adhered to these rules of decent behavior. We would truly become “America the Beautiful.”

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What Politicians can Learn about Decency from George Washington
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Imagine an America where politicians and the mass media adhered to these rules of decent behavior. We would truly become “America the Beautiful.”
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2 Comments

  1. I guess Washington didn’t include ending slavery among his lessons in civility. Freeing slaves upon his demise just doesn’t cut it. As a slave-owner, he has no right to any respect or admiration.

  2. Such a great post! Very strong but sensitive personal ethics.

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