Washington's rules for good behavior


As a teen-age boy, George Washington copied out in his notebooks -- presumably as an exercise in penmanship assigned by a schoolmaster -- 110 "rules of civility and decent behavior in company and conversation." These precepts were based on rules composed in 1595 by French Jesuits and translated in the American Colonies as early as 1640. In honor of the first president's birthday, which was traditionally celebrated on this day, here is a selection of Washington's rules:

Every action done in company ought to be with some sign of respect to those that are present.

When in company, put not your hands to any part of the body not usually discovered.

In the presence of others, sing not to yourself with a humming voice, or drum with your fingers or feet.

If you cough, sneeze, sigh or yawn, do it not loud but privately, and speak not in your yawning, but put your handkerchief or hand before your face and turn aside.

Sleep not when others speak; sit not when others stand; speak not when you should hold your peace; walk not on when others stop.

Put not off your clothes in the presence of others, nor go out your chamber half dressed.

Spit not into the fire, nor stoop low before it; neither put your hands into the flames to warm them, nor set your feet upon the fire, especially if there be meat before it.

When you sit down, keep your feet firm and even; without putting one on the other or crossing them.

Shift not yourself in the sight of others, nor gnaw your nails.

Shake not the head, feet or legs; roll not the eyes; lift not one eyebrow higher than the other, wry not the mouth, and bedew no man's face with your spittle by [approaching too near] him [when] you speak.

Kill no vermin, or fleas, lice, ticks, etc., in the sight of others; if you see any filth or thick spittle put your foot dexterously upon it; if it be upon the clothes of your companions, put it off privately, and if it be upon your own clothes, return thanks to him who puts it off.

Do not puff up the cheeks, loll not out the tongue with the hands, or beard, thrust out the lips, or bite them, or keep the lips too open or too close.

Be no flatterer, neither play with any that delight not to be played withal.

Let your countenance be pleasant but in serious matters somewhat grave.

In putting off your hat to persons of distinction, as noblemen, justices, churchmen, etc., make a reverence, bowing more or less according to the custom of the better bred, and quality of the persons; among your equals expect not always that they should begin with you first; but to pull off the hat when there is no need is affectation; in the manner of saluting and resaluting in word keep to the most usual custom.

Let your discourse with men of business be short and comprehensive.

In speaking to men of quality do not lean nor look them full in the face, nor approach too near them at left. Keep a full pace from them.

In visiting the sick, do not presently play the physician if you be not knowing therein.

Do not express joy before one sick in pain, for that contrary passion will aggravate his misery.

When a man does all he can, though it succeed not well, blame not him that did it.

Being to advise or reprehend anyone, consider whether it ought to be in public or in private, and presently or at some other time; in what terms to do it; and in reproving show no signs of choler but do it with all sweetness and mildness.

Mock not nor jest at any thing of importance. Break no jests that are sharp, biting; and if you deliver any thing witty and pleasant, abstain from laughing thereat yourself.

Wear not your clothes foul, or ripped, or dusty, but see they be brushed once every day at least and take heed that you approach not to any uncleanness.

Run not in the streets, nor in your house, nor go with mouth open; go not shaking of arms, nor upon the toes.

Play not the peacock, looking everywhere about you to see if you be well decked, if your shoes fit well, if your stockings sit neatly and clothes handsomely.

Eat not in the streets, nor in your house, out of season.

Speak not of doleful things in a time of mirth or at the table; speak not of melancholy things or death and wounds, and if others mention them, change if you can the discourse; tell not your dream, but to your intimate.

Reprehend not the imperfections of others, for that belongs to parents, masters and superiors.

In company of those of higher quality than yourself, speak not 'til you are asked a question, then stand upright, put off your hat and answer in few words.

Make no show of taking great delight in your table; neither find great delight in your victuals; feed not with greediness; eat your bread with a knife; lean not on the table; neither find fault with what you eat.

Take no salt or cut bread with your knife greasy.

If you soak bread in the sauce, let it be no more than what you put in your mouth at a time and blow not your broth at table; let it stay till it cools of itself.

Put not another bite into your mouth till the former be swallowed; let not your morsels be too big.

Cleanse not your teeth with the tablecloth, napkin, fork or knife; but if others do it, let it be done without a peep to them.

Be not angry at table whatever happens, and if you have reason to be so, show it not but on a cheerful countenance especially if there be strangers, for good humor makes one dish of meat and whey.

Let your recreations be manful not sinful.

Labor to keep alive in your breast that little spark of celestial fire called conscience.

Pub Date: 2/22/99

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