IF YOU'RE OUT of sorts about what kind of New Year's resolutions to make, permit me to offer some from history.
The king of January 1 maxims was Benjamin Franklin who, beginning in December, 1732, disseminated his advice for the coming year in Poor Richard's Almanack. Second only to the Bible in annual sales, Poor Richard was replete with New Year's resolutions in the form of short adages on such virtues as thrift, industry, love and marriage -- and patience. Although Franklin devised only a few of the numerous adages found in Poor Richard, he was ingenious in his selections and in refining the thoughts of other authors. A few examples:
"Keep your eyes wide open before marriage, half shut afterwards."
"To err is human, to repent divine, to persist devilish."
"Let our fathers and grandfathers be valued for their goodness, ourselves for our own."
"The excellence of hogs is fatness; of men virtue."
"There are no ugly loves, nor handsome prisons."
"Let thy child's first lesson be obedience, and the second will be what thou wilt."
"Cut the wings of your hens and hopes, lest they lead you a weary dance after them."
"To lengthen thy life, lessen thy meals."
"There are three things extremely hard: steel, a diamond, and to know one's self."
"To be humble to superiors is a duty, to equals courtesy, to inferiors nobleness."
"Better is a little with content than too much with contention."
"Laziness travels so slowly that poverty soon overtakes him."
"Courage would fight, but discretion won't let him."
"Write injuries in dust, benefits in marble."
"Be at war with your vices, at peace with your neighbors, and let every New Year find you a better man."
Another popular disseminator of New Year advice was Noah Webster (1758-1843), who was perhaps best-known for his dictionary and for advocating a distinctly American language. Webster was also an ardent critic of government waste and the bad habits of the American people.
In late December, 1786, he published a small article with do's and don'ts for the coming year. "First," he wrote, "fee no lawyers. You say lawyers have too high fees. I say they have not. They cost me not one farthing. Do as I have always done, and lawyers' fees will be no trouble at all. If I want a new coat, or my wife wants a new gown, we have agreed to wear the old ones until we have got cash or produce to pay for them. When we buy, we pay in hand; we get things cheaper than our neighbors; merchants never dun us, and we have no lawyers' fees to pay . . ."
After urging his readers to be prudent in drink (two gallons of rum a year was sufficient) and dress (one good suit for Sundays was adequate), Webster summarized the bottom line of his New Year wisdom:
"Reform, economize. This is the whole of your political duty. You may reason, speculate, complain, raise mobs, spend life in railing at Congress and your rulers, but unless you import less than you export, unless you spend less than you earn, you will be eternally poor."
Finally, George Washington over his lifetime came up with New Year's resolutions that were not only sound for his day but also prophetic -- and even suitable today:
"In the Presence of Others Sing not to yourself with a humming Noise, nor Drum with your Fingers or Feet."
"Associate yourself with Men of good Quality if you esteem your own Reputation; for 'tis better to be alone than in bad Company."
"Be not tedious in discourse or in reading unless you find the company pleased therewith."
"Do not conceive that fine clothes make fine men any more than fine feathers make fine birds. A plain genteel dress is more admired, and obtains more credit than lace and embroidery, in the Eyes of the judicious and sensible."
"My observation on every employment in life is that, wherever and whenever one person is found adequate to the discharge of a duty by close application thereto, it is worse executed by two persons, and scarcely done at all if three or more are employed therein."
"A century hence . . . will produce a city, though not as large as London, yet of a magnitude inferior to few others in Europe, on the banks of the Potomac, where one is now establishing for the permanent seat of the government of the United States . . . a situation not excelled, for commanding prospect, good water, salubrious air, and safe harbour, by any in the world . . ."
Thomas V. DiBacco is a historian at The American University.