These Rules Made George Washington a Great Man

The earliest authenticated portrait of George Washington.

When we think of America, we are tempted to suppose that our country was a break with the traditions of the past, and that manners and ceremony were cast aside. Yet, courtesy was nothing strange to George Washington, the “Father of His Country.”

At age 16, George Washington copied out these 110 rules for morals and good manners and the manuscript is preserved at the Library of Congress, know as “The Rules of Civility and Decent Behavior in Company and Conversation.”

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While some believe they were authored by Washington himself, it appears that they were originally written by French Jesuits in 1595. They made their first appearance in English in 1640, when twelve-year old Francis Hawkins translated them from French. That Washington is not the author does not diminish in any way the great value of his manuscript for all Americans.

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For the reader’s convenience, English usages and spelling have been modernized and rules with little to no application to our culture today are bracketed and in italics.


1) Every action done when in company ought to be done with some sign of respect for those present.

2) When in company, do not put your hands on any part of the body that is usually clothed.

3) Show nothing to a friend that may frighten him.

4) When in the presence of others do not hum or sing to yourself or drum with your fingers or feet.

Be as quiet as possible when you  yawn. Refrain from speaking when yawning; cover your face with your handkerchief and turn aside.

5) Be as quiet as possible when you cough, sneeze, sigh, or yawn. Refrain from speaking when yawning; cover your face with your handkerchief and turn aside.

6) When others talk, do not doze off. Do not sit down while others are standing. Do not speak when you should hold your peace. Do not continue walking when others stop.

7) Do not undress in front of others, nor leave your bedroom half dressed.

8) At games [and around the fire] it is good manners to give your place to a new arrival, and refrain from speaking louder than normal.

9) [Do not spit into the fire, stoop low before it, put your hands into the flames to warm them, or set your feet upon the fire especially if there is meat roasting before it.]

10) [ When you sit down, keep your feet firm and even, without putting one on the other or crossing them.]

11) Do not fidget within sight of others or bite your finger nails.

12) In company, do not shake your head, feet, or legs. Do not roll your eyes or lift one eyebrow higher than the other. Do not make faces or twist your mouth. Do not speak so close to people that inadvertently some of your spittle reaches them.

13) [Do not kill fleas, lice, ticks, etc. in front of others. If you see any filth of thick spittle place your foot over it. If you see it on your companions’ clothes, remove it with discretion. If others remove it from your own clothes, thank them.]

14) Do not give your back to others, especially when talking. Do not bump the table or desk someone else is using. Do not lean on others, or on furniture, walls, doorways, etc.

15) Keep your finger nails clean and trimmed. Keep your hands and teeth clean too, but without showing exaggerated concern for them.

16) Do not puff up your cheeks; stick your tongue out; rub your hands or beard; purse your lips or bite them. Do not keep your lips too open or too closed.

17) Do not flatter. Do not joke with anyone who does not like being played with.

18) When in the company of others, refrain from reading letters, books, or papers. If you must, then first ask their leave. Unless asked, do not come too close to others who are reading or writing so as to inadvertently read their material. Do not give your unsolicited opinion about their reading or writing. Do not look at letters others are writing.

19) Let your countenance be pleasant, but somewhat grave in serious matters.

20) Your body’s posture and gestures should harmonize with what you are saying.

Do not rejoice at the misfortune of others, even if they are your enemy.

21) Reproach no one for infirmities of nature, nor bring them up in conversation with those who have them.

22) Do not rejoice at the misfortune of others, even if they are your enemy.

23) Although you may be pleased within your heart, always show pity for a criminal when you see him punished.

24) During public spectacles, do not laugh boisterously or too loud.

25) Superfluous compliments and all affectation of ceremony should be avoided, yet they are not to be neglected when due and proper.

26) [In tipping your hat to persons of distinction, such as noblemen, judges, clergy, etc. make a reverence, bowing more or less according to the custom of the well-bred and the quality of the person. Amongst your equals do not expect them to salute you first. However, it is affectation for you to tip your hat when there is no need.] In greeting others keep to the most common custom.

27) [It is bad manners to direct someone who is more eminent than you to put their hat back on. It is also uncouth to refrain from doing this with those with whom it is proper. Likewise, he who rushes to put his hat on acts wrongly. Still, he should put on at the first request, or at most when asked to do so for the second time.] Now what is said here about showing differentiation in greeting others and in one’s behavior, ought also to be observed when taking one’s place. To sit down for ceremonies without taking this care is troublesome.

28) Stand up if someone comes to speak with you while you are sitting down, even if he is your inferior. When you show people to their seats, place them according to their status.

29) When you meet someone of higher social status than your own, stop, and step back to let him pass first, especially if this be at a door or any narrow place.

30) When walking, in most countries the most important place seems to be on the right. Therefore, place yourself on the left of him whom you desire to honor. However, if three people are walking together, then the most honorable place is in the middle. If two people are walking together, the wall side is usually given to the more distinguished.

Persons in dignity or office have precedence everywhere but while young they should respect those who are their equals in birth or other qualities, even if these individuals have no public office. (Lady Washington’s Reception Day)

31) If someone far surpasses others—in age, status, or merit—yet would show preference to another of lower condition, be this in his own house or elsewhere, the person thus honored should not accept. Thus, the more distinguished person should not offer this too earnestly nor more than once or twice.

32) With someone who is your equal, or not much inferior, you should offer the chief place in your home and the person to whom it is offered should refuse the first offer, but accept the second, but not without first acknowledging his own unworthiness.

33) Persons in dignity or office have precedence everywhere but while young they should respect those who are their equals in birth or other qualities, even if these individuals have no public office.

34) It is good manners to show deference to those with whom we are speaking, especially if they are superior to us. With these, we ought never to take first place.

35) Be clear and to-the-point when speaking with professionals and men of business.

36) Craftsmen and persons of humble condition should not be overly ceremonious with lords, or others of high social rank, but should rather respect and honor them highly. Those of high rank should treat them with affability and courtesy, and without arrogance.

37) When speaking to distinguished gentlemen do not lean on anything; do not look them full in the face; nor approach too close. Keep a full yard’s distance from them.

38) When visiting the sick, do not play the physician unless you have studied medicine.

39) In speaking or writing, give to each his due title according to his rank and the customs of the place.

40) Do not argue with your superiors, rather present your opinion modestly.

41) Do not try to teach your equal the art or trade he exercises as this rings of arrogance.

42) Let your acts of courtesy be proportional to the rank of the person with whom you are speaking for it is absurd to treat with a clown and a prince in the same manner.

Do not express joy before one who is sick or in pain for that contrary passion will aggravate his misery.

43) Do not express joy before one who is sick or in pain for that contrary passion will aggravate his misery.

44) Do not recriminate an unsuccessful man when he did all he could.

45) If you have to counsel or reprimand anyone, ponder first if this should be in public or in private; now or at some other time; and in what terms to do it. In reprimanding show no irritation, only sweetness and mildness.

46) Receive all admonitions thankfully wherever and whenever they are given. However, if the admonition is unfounded (for you are not at fault), then, later on, at a time and place that are convenient for him, approach the person who admonished you and apprise him of your innocence.

47) Do not mock or jest about anything that is important. Do not tolerate backbiting jests. If you say anything that is witty and humorous, do not laugh yourself.

48) Be blameless yourself of whatever you reprove in others since your good example will prevail more than precepts.

49) Never use reproachful language against another. Do not curse or revile.

50) Be slow at believing anything that disparages another.

Do not play the peacock, looking up and down to see if you are well dressed, if your shoes fit well, your stockings sit neatly, and your clothes handsomely.

51) Do not wear soiled, ripped, or dusty clothes. [Rather, make sure they are brushed once every day at least] and be careful not to approach things that are dirty.

52) Be modest in your dress and strive to accommodate nature rather than seeking for admiration. Follow the fashion of your equals as long as it is civil and orderly with respect to times and places.

53) Do not run in the street. Do not walk too slowly, or with your mouth open. Do not fling your arms about or scuff your shoes when you walk. Do not walk on your toes or in a dancing manner.

54) Do not play the peacock, looking up and down to see if you are well dressed, if your shoes fit well, [your stockings sit neatly], and your clothes handsomely.

55) Do not eat in the street or at home outside of meal times.

56) If you prize your reputation, seek the company of good gentlemen; for it is better to be alone than in bad company.

57) [In walking up and down inside a house in the company of someone of higher rank than you, give him your right at the first opportunity and do not stop until he does. Be not the first to turn, and when you do turn be sure to turn facing towards him. If he be of much higher rank, do not walk with him cheek by jowl, but a little behind yet close enough that he may speak easily with you.]

58) Let your conversation be without malice or envy, for it is a sign of a tractable and commendable nature. In all passionate causes admit the governing of reason.

59) In front of your inferiors, never say anything unbecoming, nor act against the moral rules.

60) Do not urge your friends to reveal a secret for this would be a lack of modesty.

Where two are arguing do not take sides unless you have to.

61) Never utter base and frivolous things amongst grave and learned men nor raise very difficult questions or topics, or things that are hard to be believed, among the ignorant. When among those who are your equals or superior to you, do not stuff your speech with pompous sentences.

62) Do not speak of sorrowful things in times of joy or at the table. Do not speak of sad things as death and wounds, and if others mention them, do your best to change the subject. Only reveal your dreams to your intimate friend.

63) One should not show appreciation for one’s own achievements or rare qualities of wit; and even less his wealth, virtue or family.

64) Do not joke when the occasion is unsuitable or when those present would not take it well. Do not laugh loudly. Never laugh without reason. Never deride a man’s misfortune even though there seems to be some cause for it.

65) Never utter injurious words, be this in jest or in earnest. Never scoff at anyone even though they may give occasion.

66) Never be impertinent but friendly and courteous. Be the first to greet, hear, and answer and, when it is time for conversation, do not show yourself silent and pensive.

67) Never say anything detracting about others and, when commanding, never show yourself to be overbearing.

68) Do not go where you are unsure if you will be welcome or not. Do not give advice without being asked, and when it is solicited, give it briefly.

69) Where two are arguing do not take sides unless you have to. Do not be stubborn in your opinion. In neutral things, side with the majority.

70) Do not admonish others for their imperfections as this is the prerogative of parents, masters, and superiors.

Do not be boring in your conversation or reading unless you find that those present are pleased with it.

71) Do not look at the marks or blemishes of others and do not ask how they came about. That which you say in secret to your friend should not be divulged in front of others.

72) Do not speak in a foreign language in front of company, but always in your own, and as done by gentle folk, not riffraff. Handle sublime issues seriously.

73) Think before you speak. Do not pronounce your words imperfectly nor bring them out too hastily but rather with order and clarity.

74) When another speaks be attentive to what he says and do not disturb those present. If he should hesitate in his words do not help him out nor prompt him unless he requests this. Do not interrupt him, nor answer him until he has finished what he wished to say.

75) If you join an ongoing conversation do not ask what the topic is. If you perceive that the conversation stopped because of your arrival, gently entreat them to proceed. If a distinguished person comes to the conversation while you are talking, it is courteous for you to summarize what was said earlier.

76) When speaking, do not point to anyone you are talking about. Do not approach too closely the person you are speaking to, especially his face.

77) Leave your discussion of business with people for its appropriate time. Do not whisper when in the company of others.

78) Draw no comparisons and if anyone in your circle of conversation is commended for a brave act of virtue, do not praise someone else who is with you for the same thing.

79) When you do not know if news are true, be careful not to pass them on. In repeating things you have heard, do not name your source every time. Never disclose a secret.

80) Do not be boring in your conversation or reading unless you find that those present are pleased with it.

81) Do not show curiosity about the doings of others and do not approach people who are speaking privately.

82) Never undertake what you cannot carry through to completion and be careful to keep your promises.

83) When you address an issue do so without passion and with discretion, no matter how humble the condition of the person you are dealing with.

Do not eavesdrop, talk or laugh while anyone who is your social superior is talking with another.

84) Do not eavesdrop, talk or laugh while anyone who is your social superior is talking with another.

85) [When in the presence of these persons superior to you in rank, do not speak until you are asked a question, then stand up straight, remove your hat and answer succinctly.]

86) In discussion, never be so eager to prevail as to curtail the freedom of the participants to state their opinion. Submit to the judgment of the majority especially if they are judging the discussion.

87) Let your posture be composed, such as becomes a grave man, and pay attention to what is said. Do not contradict constantly what others say.

88) Do not be boring in your speech. Refrain from digressions. Do not repeat what you have already said earlier.

89) Do not speak ill of anyone who is absent for this is unjust.

90) Having sat down for a meal, do not scratch, [or spit], cough or blow your nose unless this is a necessity.

If others speak at the table pay attention to what they say.

91) Be discreet in showing your pleasure with the food being served. Do not eat greedily. When helping yourself from the common loaf of bread use a knife to cut a slice. Do not lean on the table nor criticize the food you were served.

92) [Do not serve yourself to the common salt or cut from the common loaf with a knife you have already used for your meal.]

93) If you are entertaining another at dinner, it is courteous to prepare his plate, from the platters. Do not try to help others if this is not wanted by the head of the table.

94) If you dip a piece of bread into the sauce, make sure that it is no more than bite-size. While at the table, do not blow on your soup to cool it; rather, wait a bit, letting it cool on its own.

95) Do not eat from your knife. Do not spit out fruit pits or stones. Do not throw anything under the table.

96) It is unbecoming to stoop over your plate. Keep your fingers clean, and if they become dirty, use a corner of your napkin to clean them.

97) Do not take another bite without having swallowed the former. Do not take a bite that is more than you can chew.

98) Do not drink or talk with your mouth full. Do not look around while you are drinking.

99) Do not drink too slowly or too quickly. Wipe your lips before and after drinking, without breathing, and without making too much noise, for to do so is uncivil.

100) [Do not clean your teeth with the tablecloth, napkin, fork, or knife, but if others do so, let it be done with a toothpick.]

101) Do not rinse out your mouth in front of others.

102) Encouraging your guests repeatedly to help themselves to seconds is no longer done. You need not toast every time you have wine.

103) When there are others who outrank you socially at table, do not take longer to finish eating than them. Do not rest your arm, but only your hand upon the table.

104) The most important person at the table should be the first to unfold his napkin and start his meal. Thus, he should do this without delay. The meal should be served with dexterity so that the slowest person at the table will still have sufficient time for his meal.

Whatever may happen, never show any irritation at the table even if there is cause for this.

105) Whatever may happen, never show any irritation at the table even if there is cause for this. Display only a cheerful countenance, especially if you are entertaining guests, for a good disposition turns a simple meal into a feast.

106) Do not sit down at an important place at the table unless it is your role to do so or because the host wants you to. Do not argue, least this trouble the guests.

107) If others speak at the table pay attention to what they say and do not talk with your mouth full.

108) When you speak of God or His attributes, do so seriously and with reverence. Honor and obey your natural parents even if they be poor.

109) Let your recreations be manly not sinful.

110) Work hard to keep alive in your breast that little spark of heavenly grace called conscience.