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As a young man, George Washington transcribed 'Rules of Civility & Decent Behaviour In Company and Conversation.' Painting by Gilbert Stuart, 1797

CONNECTIONS: What would George do?

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By Tuesday, Jan 9, 2018 Viewpoints 4

About Connections: Love it or hate it, history is a map. Those who hate history think it irrelevant; many who love history think it escapism. In truth, history is the clearest road map to how we got here: America in the 21st century.

For some reason, at the beginning of each year, we make lists. Not certain why but, in case it is a good idea, here is one more list.


  • Our president called the leader of North Korea, Kim Jong-un, Little Rocket Man.
  • Secretary Rex Tillerson called President Trump a moron.
  • Liberals call conservatives homophobes and racists; conservatives call liberals baby-killers.
  • Steve Bannon called Donald Trump Jr.’s actions treasonous; Donald Trump Jr. called Bannon an opportunist.
  • Bannon said Ivanka Trump was “dumb as a brick”; her father said Bannon “has lost his mind.”
  • Our president called former opponents Pocahontas, Crooked Hillary, and Lyin’ Ted just as he calls his current enemy, journalist Michael Wolff, “a lying loser.”
  • Trump formerly called his political advisor Bannon a “great guy and good friend” and now calls him Sloppy Steve.
  • His opponents called the president Adolf Twitler, Agent Orange, the Angry Creamsicle, Benedict Donald, Boss Tweet, the Cheeto-In-Chief, Prima Donald, and the Great White Dope.

With respect to great debate, the national dialogue and the dignity of office: It is what it is and it ain’t what it was.

When name calling intensifies and vitriol rules, when there is more heat than light, all sense is lost. People tune out and no one hears the facts and points asserted or the issues stated. One fervently hopes this behavior never takes root in the Berkshires and, if it appears, is roundly discouraged. If, however, this form of dialogue is sustained nationally, it might become commonplace and, with familiarity, become accepted.

In its own way, this is a crisis. It is time to turn to the Father of Our Country for assistance in raising the level of discourse. What would George do? Luckily as a 16-year-old, George Washington transcribed “Rules of Civility & Decent Behaviour In Company and Conversation” (Washington, George. Rules of Civility & Decent Behavior in Company and Conversation: a Book of Etiquette. Williamsburg, VA: Beaver Press, 1971).

The first page of the original manuscript of George Washington’s ‘Rules of Civility & Decent Behaviour In Company and Conversation.’ Image courtesy the Papers of George Washington

These were a set of rules based on ones proposed by the Jesuits in the 16th century. Washington copied them out presumably because he meant to emulate and recommend them–although some have suggested it was merely an assigned exercise in penmanship.

The first rule is certainly applicable to the present problem. It asks that “Every Action done in company ought to be with some Sign of Respect, to those that are present.”

There are 110 rules, some worded strangely and riddled with spelling and capitalization odd to us. For example, No. 3 is “Shew Nothing to your Friend that may affright him” instead of “Don’t scare your friends with odd or unacceptable behavior.”

Washington cautions: don’t hum, or drum your fingers or your feet in public. If you cough or sneeze, do it quietly and turn aside. Do not sleep, bite your nails or go out in public half dressed; and please don’t spit into the fire. Certainly all good advice, but not helpful in solving the stated problem.

There are other rules that are surprisingly timely but off topic: No.17 is “Be no Flatterer, neither Play with any that delights not to be Play’d With” [don’t flirt with someone who does not wish to be flirted with]; No.109 is “Let your Recreations be Manful not Sinful”; and No. 18 is “…look not nigh when another is writing a letter” [don’t read anyone else’s mail or email].

Many rules relate to behaving with dignity in public life, timely reminders given the current loss of civility. For example, Nos. 21 – 23 caution not to reproach people for infirmities of nature or be glad about the misfortunes of others even if they are your enemies. Don’t gloat when someone is punished even if inwardly pleased, but show pity for the suffering offender, and don’t laugh too loud or too much at public spectacles.

Some rules relate to basic gentlemanly behavior: Submit your Judgment to others with Modesty; Undertake not to Teach your equal, it Savors of arrogance; and, if giving advice or a reprimand, consider whether it ought to be in public or in private and never do it in anger but with mildness.

Between Rules 49 and 59, the middle of the Washington’s compendium, is the heart of the matter. It constitutes a countervailing list:

  1. Use no Reproachful Language against any one; neither Curse nor Revile;
  2. Be not hasty to believe flying Reports [gossip] to the Disparagement of any;
  3. Associate yourself with Men of good Quality if you Esteem your own Reputation; for ’tis better to be alone than in bad Company;
  4. Let your Conversation be without Malice or Envy;
  5. In all Causes of Passion [hot button topics] admit [let] Reason to Govern; and
  6. Never express anything unbecoming, nor Act against the Rules of Morality.

There are differences in style and differences in opinion but neither should challenge decency. Times change, style changes but the Ten Commandments don’t. Language evolves, manners ease, but the Golden Rule is immutable. Name-calling, unfounded accusation and character assassination are often wrong and are never good substitutes for a well-crafted argument built on solid reason and grounded in fact.

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4 Comments   Add Comment

  1. Steve Farina says:

    How interesting that this article is highlighted in “Related Articles” listed under this periodical’s “Orange Alert”….. guess someone didn’t take this to heart, yet

  2. Sharon Powers says:

    Thank you for this and for all of your enlightening articles.

  3. Anthony Ehrlich says:

    A wise and witty essay.Will many today take Washington’s admonitions to heart? I wonder.

  4. Robert H. Jones says:

    Thank you, Carole Owens. You have shone a light on a national problem that has clearly seeped into every fiber of our way of being, right down to the local level. It is quite apparent in both the Edge and the Eagle that civil discourse is in short supply. Some critics view themselves as purveyors of fact, even clairvoyant, when it comes to issues facing us. They purport to speak the truth, when of course, we all know they are simply espousing opinion. The problem is, anyone with a different opinion or approach to an issue is characterized as a liar, shady, conniving, scheming, or unable to pass a “smell test”. While I am saddened by the choice in using this approach, I must choose to simply dismiss it as silly. I am drawn to folks who ask intelligent, reasoned, well considered questions in order to come to wise conclusions. In my experience, those who have all the answers actually don’t.

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