Rules of Civility and Decent Behavior by George Washington

George Washington was known in life to exercise matters of decorum in the extreme, and like most who followed such rules, he tended to exhibit an equally extreme temper that was only held in check by those rules he lived by.  His manuscript for his Rules of Civility and Decent Behavior is one of the few surviving examples of his writings from his early life, and the neat penmanship that he demonstrates gives historians the idea that he had already developed a considerable sense of self-discipline.

The 110 rules found here are likely an exercise in penmanship from school, compiled by the time he was 16 years old.  They can be traced back to a manual of French etiquette written by Jesuits in 1595, which Washington copied from an English translation by Francis Hawkins, circa 1640.

Most people dismiss these rules as merely etiquette, but there’s an indirect moral code behind them too that has nothing to do with religion.  The idea was that civility was its own foundation, and these rules shape the inner person by helping to shape the outward appearances.  It’s all about how to operate in everyday life, how to eat, drink, talk, dress, and act around one’s superiors.  As one who studies the Middle Ages and especially knighthood, I can draw direct lines from the codes of chivalry of that era to this.  It seems simple on the surface, but it would have been extremely difficult to live by these rules in the best of circumstances.  Given that Washington had no formal training that would have been common for a gentleman of his era, he likely took these rules to extremes as a way to “fake it till you make it” in society.  Much of what’s here may seem outlandish in detail, but most of it is still applicable in civilized society today.

I have a hardcover copy of these rules on my bookshelf, bound in a collection with other writings and speeches from Washington, and in that context, it’s easy to see how this would be one of the solid foundations that he built for himself.  This audio, however, provides none of that.  There’s a brief summary of why this would have been important, and that’s serviceable for those who didn’t know, and I suspect most won’t care.  The rules are simply listed out from there.  It took longer to write this review than it did to listen to the audio.

Bottom line, this one’s targeted for the historically curious only, but I suspect that almost anyone could get something out of it if they had a mind to do so.

3 stars

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