Last week, in scanning various headlines, I was delighted to see—among all the bad news—this story: “George Washington’s 110 Rules of Civility.”
The link they have brings the reader to the Mount Vernon website.
This isn’t advice George Washington doled out. Rather, it’s a series of aphorisms that he learned as a youth that greatly impacted his life. If you want to know what made the father of our country tick, read the “Rules of Civility.”
Technically they are not his “110 rules of civility.” But he has helped make them famous. In many ways, this list of 110 maxims are similar to the book of Proverbs. Some have noted that they were originally written in the 1600s by Catholics in France.
In a book I co-wrote with Dr. Peter Lillback on the faith of our first president, George Washington’s Sacred Fire, we have an Appendix that reprints all 110 of these rules.
We note, “George Washington, sometime before the age of 16, transcribed these Rules of Civility & Decent Behaviour In Company and Conversation. Most historians of Washington see a great deal of consistency between his life and these rules for ‘civility and decent behavior.’”
Here are a few examples:
- Rule #1 notes, “Every Action done in Company, ought to be with Some Sign of Respect, to those that are Present.” Treat others with respect.
- Rule #40 states, “Strive not with your Superiors in argument, but always Submit your Judgment to others with Modesty.” Humility goes along way.
- Rule #48 declares, “Wherein you reprove Another be unblameable yourself; for example is more prevalent than Precepts.” Take the beam out of your own eye before worrying about the speck in another’s eye, to paraphrase Jesus.
While the Rules of Civility are not actual quotes from the Bible, they echo Biblical teaching.
When George Washington was 11 years old, his father died. His Christian mother, Mary Ball Washington, provided much Biblical guidance for him. Meanwhile, his formal education came to a halt. Nonetheless, George continued to read and study all his life—including these Rules of Civility.
I asked for some comments about the Rules of Civility from Dr. Peter Lillback, who is the founding president of Providence Forum, for which I now serve as executive director.
He told me, “These principles communicate how to behave when one is with people of rank, and when eating with them at table. They emphasize noble conduct and ground good character in conscience, termed the celestial fire given to men to know right from wrong.”
Here are more samples from the Rules of Civility:
- Rule #22 says, “Shew not yourself glad at the Misfortune of another though he were your enemy.” This is like the Biblical principle, don’t gloat over your enemy.
- Rule #56 states: “Associate yourself with Men of good Quality if you Esteem your own Reputation; for ’tis better to be alone than in bad Company.” As the Bible puts it, bad company corrupts good morals.
- Rule #73 notes: “Think before you Speak. Pronounce not imperfectly nor bring out your Words too hastily but orderly & distinctly.”
Lillback notes, “Those who study Washington’s life generally agree that these principles became part of his conduct and character. They shaped him into a sterling gentleman in his era, who ultimately became the indispensable man in America’s founding.”
Some of the final sayings in this short book that so impacted the founder of our nation underscored the importance of reverence for God:
- Rule #108 states: When you Speak of God or his Attributes, let it be Seriously & with Reverence. Honour & Obey your Natural Parents although they be Poor.”
- Rule #109 says: “Let your Recreations be Manful not Sinful.”
- Rule 110 declares: “Labour to keep alive in your Breast that Little Spark of Celestial fire Called Conscience.”
For my Providence Forum television documentary on George Washington, Dr. Cal Beisner, author and former seminary professor, commented, “Washington built a lot of his life around the Rules of Civility. He wrote on each of these different rules and tried to measure up to them himself. And it was very, very clear, I think, that he wasn’t doing this just simply, you know, to look good in front of other people. He was doing this because he believed that this pleased God. And Washington was a man who feared the Lord, and lived in accordance with that.”
We have a crisis in character today. We can see it in virtually all the headlines, as leading men and women from all sorts of professions get tripped up by their own character flaws. But the Rule of Civility made popular by our first president provide timely and timeless advice to try and avoid such pitfalls.
©2023. Jerry Newcombe, D.Min. All rights reserved.