Thursday, December 8, 2016

December Classic of the Month: George Washington's Rules of Civility & Decent Behavior

In the spirit of the upcoming holiday season, and in light of extreme differences that have arisen in the American public over the recent presidential election, we at Cosimo hope the American people will take our December Classic of the Month to heart.

The history of George Washington’s Rules of Civility &Decent Behavior is a bit unusual and unclear; scholars seem to agree that Washington’s 110 rules are the result of a penmanship exercise, in which a teenage Washington copied a set of maxims originally compiled by French Jesuits in the 1590s. Somehow the translated text found its way to Virginia, and somehow it was assigned to a young Washington as an educational exercise. The result is a collection of maxims (with either Washington’s or his instructors’ additions) that dictate the behavior of a young man in civil society.

Washington’s Rules of Civility were part of his personal papers, purchased by Congress and now housed in the Library of Congress. Many historians consider this document a sort of “foundational  document” that details the tenets which later governed Washington's behavior as an adult. Indeed, Washington was known for his kindness and deportment, though it is mere speculation that the Rules contained in this penmanship exercise are the root of Washington's civility.

Statesman or no, George Washington's Rules of Civility & Decent Behavior is a fascinating and informative historical text detailing the rules of behavior for a bygone era—many  of which are still pertinent today. Rules dictates the behavior of one in company, emphasizing kindness, conscience, and cleanliness. While today’s reader may not need reminding to keep their feet away from “the fire, especially if there be meat before it,” many of the Rules hold true today. 

The Library of Congress' webpage features digital scans of Washington's notebook, available here. For more on the fascinating debate concerning the origin of the maxims Washington copied, check out the University of Virginia's page "The Papers of George Washington."

George Washington’s Rules of Civility & Decent Behavior is now available digitally, in paperback, and in beautiful hardcover.

About the Author 
George Washington (1732-1799) was an excruciatingly correct child with a passion for propriety. At the age of 14, he copied out 110 rules for elegant deportment from a work created by Jesuits in the 16th century as a guide for young gentlemen of quality, and through these rules, which he took greatly to heart, we can see the beginning of the man Washington would become taking shape.


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