No lie – our nation’s first president has advice for our 45th.
As a young man, George Washington transcribed and committed to heart 110 rules of etiquette that guided his outlook on life and governance.
So much so they are now commonly known as George Washington’s “Rules of Civility and Decent Behavior.”
First developed in 1595 by French Jesuits, the code of conduct eventually made its way to the colonies, including the journal of a 16-year-old surveyor-in-training.
Historian Richard Brookhiser, author of “Rules of Civility: The 110 Precepts That Guided Our First President in War and Peace,” notes the rules offer “pointers on such issues as how to dress, walk, eat in public and address one’s superiors.”
Like #4: “In the presence of others sing not to yourself with a humming noise, nor drum with your fingers or feet.”
Washington’s rules, according to Brookhiser, offer much more than guidelines for conduct and conversation, as they “address moral issues” and “seek to form the inner man by shaping the outer.”
As our nation emerges from the most acidic electoral season in recent history, many hope that President Donald Trump will pivot from his corrosive campaign rhetoric and embrace, in both demeanor and deed, the gravitas of the Oval Office.
Such a transformation would be aided by adherence to Washington’s rules, especially the following six:
▪ Every action done in company, ought to be with some sign of respect, to those that are present. (#1)
▪ Show not yourself glad at the misfortune of another though he were your enemy. (#22)
▪ Use no reproachful language against any one; neither curse nor revile. (#49)
▪ A man ought not to value himself of his achievements, or rare qualities of wit; much less of his riches virtue or kindred. (#63)
▪ Let your recreations be manful not sinful. (#109)
▪ Labor to keep alive in your breast that little spark of celestial fire called conscience. (#110)
While Washington’s rules are clearly a product of his time, limited by the lack of humanity afforded those conscripted into slavery and the strict social conventions that bound women, they can nevertheless jumpstart a modern conversation about our expectations for civil discourse.
Conservative columnist Michael Gerson cautions that “the insults, invective and coarseness” of this past presidential contest were calculated, “intended to indicate authenticity and a fighting spirit – the liberation of politics from political correctness and elite sensibilities.”
Twenty years earlier, in “Miss Manners Rescues Civilization,” syndicated columnist Judith Martin offered a similar warning, ever so politely, that counterfeit courage can be used as a cover-up for public bigotry.
“That it is only human nature to harbor ugly, harmful ideas, some of which may be deeply rooted prejudices, does not even surprise her. However, the belief that these thoughts might therefore just as well be let loose in the world to spread their damage, or that there is actually something courageous about expressing them, will drive her to ordering smelling salts by the case.”
Celebrity in and of itself does not explain Trump’s public personality, as Ronald Reagan, the only other president to have a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, was known for his conservatism and courtliness, not coarseness.
Without doubt, too many rules about social conduct can overprescribe public behavior, leading to suffocating social practices.
But with too few politeness rules – and too few people who practice the underlying value of respect – we lose the social glue that binds us together.
George Washington’s prescription for civil society – and his advice for the 45th president – couldn’t be more clear: Manners matter.
Kate Karpilow writes on issues affecting women, families and children and is the former executive director of the California Center for Research on Women & Families. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.