George Washington and the Rules of Civility

If you visit any George Washington-related national site, the gift shop usually includes a slim volume of George Washington’s Rules of Civility.

The Processes of 18th Century Education

young GW

George Washington always maintained the utmost dignity and civil behavior.

When George Washington was born in 1732, schools as we know them, were rare. If they received “education” at all, little children received the basics at their mother’s knee. They learned their letters and numbers. They learned Bible stories and Aesop’s fables, both of which provided “moral” education. They learned to read and write. Little boys learned to use tools or other instruments for a trade or property management. Little girls learned to sew and cook and housewifery skills.

Later, if a family could afford it, a tutor might be engaged, or perhaps co-engaged with neighbors. If a family was wealthy or intellectually inclined, a little boy might be sent to board with a schoolmaster, frequently a classically educated clergyman who taught to augment his small income. Thus the child studied Latin and Greek, advanced mathematics, the Scriptures, some science and philosophy.

Little girls usually remained home; mother was the best teacher!

The “tools” of learning were simple and few. A slate, chalk, cloth for “erasing,” and, once a child progressed, some paper, quill pen and ink (which was costly). Books for a child were usually out of the question. They were a luxury and extremely expensive, usually handed down within families. (It would not be until the mid-18th century that Benjamin Franklin, printer-and-sage of Philadelphia, organized the first FREE public lending library.)

Copy Exercises

Copy books were standard penmanship exercises.

If any outside “source” material was available, it was a page here or there that a child could read or copy from. Once children learned to write with enough proficiency to warrant the expensive paper and ink, it was common to have them copy various previously published materials. This served many purposes: it improved penmanship, a highly valued skill; further absorption of the learning-points through the copying process; and in many cases, those copy exercises could be crudely bound into a book that the child kept for future reference.

Most flimsy childhood copy book exercises were lost or discarded over the years, particularly when education advanced and the tools of learning were more readily available.

George Washington and Civility

Next to learning the Bible, learning moral behavior and good manners was crucial to an 18th century adolescent.

No doubt George Washington, fatherless at eleven, had already learned the basic behavioral dos and dont’s: Respect your elders. Children should be seen and not heard. Wait your turn. Don’t talk with your mouth full. Et cetera.

Fortunately for George, his half-brother Lawrence, a dozen or so years older, had always taken an interest in the bright fellow, whose plans for a “classical” education in London were now thwarted.

mount vernon

Mount Vernon was smaller and more rustic when George Washington first visited.

Lawrence Washington had inherited a thriving property along the Potomac that he named Mount Vernon. His closest neighbors were the Fairfaxes, arguably the highest ranking family (nobilitywise) in Virginia. In addition to wealth, title and property, they were also cultured. They filled their home with fine things, and opened it to the creme of Colonial society. Their conversations reflected their learning and education. When Lawrence married a Fairfax daughter, it was considered a huge advantage for the Washington family.

Young George Washington was invited for frequent visits with Lawrence and his bride – which meant exposure to the fine-ness of Fairfax living. They liked George, and were happy to have him associate with their elite and usually learned guests. They also were happy to help mentor him and make many things possible.

Unquestionably, the young Washington wanted very much to emulate the Fairfaxes in every way: In manners, in taste, in education and learning, and perhaps most of all, in acquiring the obvious respect they enjoyed from their fellow Virginians. They were his role models, and he aimed high.

The Rules of Civility and Decent Behavior

“Rules of Civility and Decent Behavior” has been reprinted hundreds of times.

Somewhere in Washington’s possession, perhaps discovered after his death, was a little booklet written in his own hand, entitled The Rules of Civility and Decent Behavior. It was compiled when he was about sixteen, considered to be a copy-book exercise to improve his manners and his penmanship, both of which were excellent. The fact that the crudely bound booklet was kept for so many years is testament to the importance of both the lessons it taught, and the penmanship that was deemed the best of all the “Founding Fathers.”

There were 110 “Rules,” generally thought to have been composed by French Jesuits in the late sixteenth century.

The “rules” themselves range from the obvious to the archaic, and some are guaranteed to raise a smile in today’s world.

Before and after drinking, wipe your lips; breath [sic] not then or ever with too great a noise, for its uncivil.

In the Presence of Others Sing not to yourself with a humming Noise, nor Drum with your Fingers or Feet.

Put not off your Cloths [sic] in the presence of Others, nor go out your Chamber half Drest [sic].

Kill no Vermin as Fleas, lice ticks &c in the Sight of Others, if you See any filth or thick Spittle put your foot Dexteriously [sic] upon it if it be upon the Cloths [sic] of your Companions, Put it off privately, and if it be upon your own Cloths [sic] return Thanks to him who puts it off.

These rules were of major importance to a young man who wished to achieve stature – perhaps even more so to a young man who would never enjoy the educational benefits of many of his future peers. Most of them still apply today!

Wherein you reprove Another be unblameable [sic] yourself; for example is more prevalent than Precepts.

Associate yourself with Men of good Quality if you Esteem your own Reputation; for ’tis better to be alone than in bad Company.

You can check the Mount Vernon website for all of them!


Freeman, Douglas Southall – Washington – Scribners, 1968

Kaminski, J.P. and McCaughan, Jill A. – A Great and Good Man – Madison House Publishing, 1989


About Feather Schwartz Foster

Feather Schwartz Foster is an author-historian who has made more than 500 appearances discussing presidential history. She teaches adult education at the Christopher Wren Association (affiliated with William and; Mary College), and adult Education programs at Christopher Newport University. She has been a guest on the C-SPAN "First Ladies" program. She has written five books.
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4 Responses to George Washington and the Rules of Civility

  1. energywriter says:

    Good rules for everyone. I’m going to check if the Yorktown museum carries them.

  2. sheafferhistorian says:

    Reblogged this on Practically Historical.

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