Couth & Culture

Challenging Americans to regain couth, courtesy and manners in order to benefit our culture and national well-being.  

Personal submissions invited for review and publication at this site.  If you’re interested in helping manage this page please feel free to contact me.


January 16, 2011

Rules of Civility
& Decent Behaviour
In Company And Conversation

No wonder everybody honoured him who honoured every body.” – Parson Weems (1758 – 1825) regarding George Washington

For the first post at this site and to set the tone for future ones, I’ve chosen to share a little known aspect from the life of the man who used to commonly be known as the Father of the Nation, George Washington. There may be a lesson today for us who have benefited by his character, vision and actions.

Before Washington was sixteen years old, he penned a copy of 110 Rules that were popular during colonial time. Many of the rules seem unusual or of common practice today, but at the time they all were no doubt good advice for refinement of rough hewn country settlers in the colonies carved from a vast wilderness. Some we need to be reminded of today – they may cure some prevalent social ills. There is a graciousness to the list that haunts of another era in American history.

At the time these maxims had been existence for a century and a half, composed by French Jesuits in 1595, evolving through various modifications and translations. For those who have studied Washington’s life, this exercise is regarded as a formative influence on the development of his character, behavior and manners. “[H]is powerful influence among men, and of the epoch-making nature of the issues he so largely shaped, …his consideration for others, his respect for and deference to those deserving such treatment, his care of his own body and tongue, and even his reverence for his Maker, all were early inculcated in him by precepts which were the common practice in decent society the world over.” (1)

The Foundations Magazine has publicized the list of Rules, with the introduction that follows below. Upon 235 years of our Nation’s Founding, America has become unimaginably prosperous, influential and powerful globally in no small part because of our fealty, respect and loyalty for each other. Yet in recent decades we as a people have grown sharply divided ideologically and politically, often with diminished common courtesy and regard for each other. At this critical moment in our history as we face daunting new challenges and changes at home and abroad, we would do well to consider and re-instill the small displays of respect and courtesy for each other that Washington advocated, that will in turn ensure our common good, prosperity, influence and power.

We will not always agree on critical issues, but we can guarantee our common success by practicing restraint, respect and honor for each other as equals. Washington inspired the nation to pull together once before; there are enormous, factious forces and challenges before us today, but we can do it again.

Today many, if not all of these rules, sound a little fussy if not downright silly. 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. The rules have in common a focus on other people rather than the narrow focus of our own self-interests that we find so prevalent today. Fussy or not, 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. 

Richard Brookhiser, in his book on Washington wrote that “all modern manners in the western world were originally aristocratic. Courtesy meant behavior appropriate to a court; chivalry comes from chevalier – a knight. Yet Washington was to dedicate himself to freeing America from a court’s control. Could manners survive the operation? Without realizing it, the Jesuits who wrote them, and the young man who copied 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 that it was ‘no wonder every body honoured him who honoured every body.‘” 

Rules of Civility & Decent Behaviour can be read at the online Foundations Magazine by clicking here. Take some time to read through them.

(1) The Papers of George Washington Documents

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