Before George Washington was the father of his country, or commander of the Continental Army in the Revolution, or even a fledgling officer in the British Army in 1754, he was just a struggling adolescent doing his homework in a six-room farmhouse along the Rappahannock River near Fredericksburg, Va.
Unlike some of his Virginia contemporaries, such as Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, Washington was never predestined for fame by virtue of breeding or formal education. He yearned for acceptance as an English gentleman. But he would have to work at it.
How hard he worked is underscored by one of the few documentary remnants of those years, from about 1745 through 1747, called “Rules of Civility and Decent Behavior in Company and Conversation.” He didn’t compose the rules but copied them from an English translation of a 16th-century Jesuit treatise, perhaps just to practice his penmanship. They nonetheless shaped his character.
But the rules, while nowhere near as famous as other Washington documents, are cited now more than ever in recent years. Washington lived by the rules. President Trump breaks them.
The document, in Washington’s handwriting, includes 110 do’s and don’ts designed to keep a man from being a lout. A few examples (using his spelling):
Undertake not what you cannot Perform …
Let your Conversation be without Malice or Envy …
When a man does all he can though it Succeeds not well blame not him that did it.
Reproach none for the Infirmaties of Nature …
Every action done in Company, ought to be with Some Sign of Respect, to those that are Present.
Reading them inescapably brings to mind Trump. Consider those last two, “reproach none” and “sign of respect” in juxtaposition to Trump’s ridicule of a New York Times reporter’s disability. You can find the connection on Twitter.
And then there’s this rule: “Wherein you reprove Another be unblameable yourself,” which perhaps is relevant to this tweet:
Many of them, particularly those dealing with hygiene, seem no longer relevant to Trump or anyone else. One presumes he’s not putting his feet in the ovens of Mar-a-Lago as dinner is being prepared, an incivility listed in Washington’s rules, where he writes:
Spit not in the Fire … nor Set Your Feet upon the Fire especially if there be meat before it …
Many deal with Virginia’s 18th-century class society — how to behave in the presence of “your Betters” and your “equals.”
But they also include timeless guidance:
Speak not injurious Words neither in Jest nor Earnest. Scoff at none although they give Occasion.
Deride no mans Misfortune, though there Seem to be Some cause.
Detract not from others …
Be not apt to relate News if you know not the truth thereof.
Associate yourself with Men of good Quality if you Esteem your own Reputation; for ’tis better to be alone than in bad Company.
Use no Reproachful Language against anyone …
Mock not nor Jest at any thing of Importance …
[Make no jests] that are sharp biting …
Always Submit your Judgment to others with Modesty.
Washington’s rules are not among the period’s best-known or cherished manuscripts. But somehow, since Trump’s ascent, they have attracted new interest.
In March 2017, Bret Stephens, writing in the Wall Street Journal, built a column around the rules and Trump. The occasion was an infamous Trump tweet that President Barack Obama “had my ‘wires tapped’ in Trump Tower.”
Stephens cited two of Washington’s rules: “Be not hasty to believe flying Reports to the Disparagement of any” and “Be not apt to relate News if you know not the truth thereof” and then wrote: “Care to name a political figure who might be well-served by observing such rules today?
“… Character rules, for better or worse,” Stephens added.
“Americans used to know this, thanks to the likes of Washington. But liberals dropped the idea with Bill Clinton and conservatives dropped it with this guy. An earlier generation of moralists, philosophers and commonsensical people would have known what to call this: decline.”
In October, Washington’s rules figured in an essay by two academics, Richard D. Brown and Richard Lyman Bushman. They suggested, as have others, that while Washington triumphed by following the rules, Trump prevails by flouting them.
Ironically, Donald Trump has succeeded beyond all expectations precisely because he upends the rules of civil discourse. … he knows that calls for civility reek of condescension. The president’s outspoken rudeness thrills and liberates supporters who resent the snobbishness implicit in polite conventions and especially Congressional politesse. Trump voters may practice good manners privately, but they revel in Trump’s rule-breaking because it expresses their resentment of political elites.
“All the Founding Fathers were aware” of the conventions reflected by the rules, wrote historian Gordon Wood. “But no one was more serious in following them than Washington.”
They were the source of Washington’s power, Wood wrote. “Washington’s genius, his greatness, lay in his character” he said, and “it was his moral character that set him off from other men.”
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