It is February 22nd, the birthday of our first President, George Washington.
I don’t celebrate “President’s Day.” I celebrate the presidents individually, not the whole gaggle of them at once. But I most certainly don’t celebrate George Washington, the father of our country, as just another president. These days, George Washington has been relegated to that “truth telling guy” to be seen on the one dollar bill and on TV commercials at the end of February or that guy lumped in with Lincoln on “President’s Day.” And that is a shame, indeed, for, without George Washington, our presidency and nation might have become a far different place.
What made Washington such a giant for our times as well as his? For one thing, he knew how to act in public.
Back in the 1700’s
In the year 1759 a man named William Robertson wrote a book called The History of Emperor Charles V. It was a book that some claim was the standard after which modern historical study and writing has come to be patterned. Mr. Robertson, who became Principle of the University of Edinburgh in later years, introduced a salient point into the era of the Scottish Enlightenment. That idea was that “Politeness” in society would result in becoming a civilized nation. And it was a politeness perpetuated and spread through capitalism that was the best avenue to achieving that civilized level.
He wrote “In proportion as commerce made its way into the different countries of Europe they successively … adopted those manners, which occupy and distinguish polished nations.” So, as the theory goes, by his very nature man craves material possession and property. To accumulate that property he must work for it with his best skills. To make use of these skills he must rely on neighbors to get supplies to employ such skills as well as to become the customers for his skills. This leads man to act in a solicitous manner of his neighbors so that they will be disposed to employ him and his abilities. This self-interested “politeness” employed by the individual inculcates the action in society at large which, in turn, enlarges that field of involved persons to counties and then the country in general, neighboring countries and, ultimately, the world and the governments they create.
Yet, even before the intelligencia of Scotland waxed eloquent on the reasons and why-fors of commerce, civilization, and conduct, religions had already realized that such concepts, if even on a personal level, simply made sense. As early as 1559 the French Jesuits has compiled a series of maxims to govern human interaction many based on the Bible’s teachings. These maxims became all the rage in the mid 1600’s when they were spread throughout Europe.
So, with the theory of politeness in its various vestiges firmly entrenched in commerce and foreign and interpersonal relations it became obvious that one needed codes of conduct agreed upon by all to govern the rules of the game. This code of conduct became to be known by the word “ethics” in business and politics. In personal conduct it became known as etiquette. It is etiquette that underlies political ethics. Without etiquette, ethics struggles to exist. Unfortunately it is etiquette that seems to have died in modern society.
A few months ago I was walking through an itinerant book store, an empty store front temporarily rented by entrepreneurs who have bought returned books or close out books at cut-rate prices to sell cheaply to the public. In the history section I saw there the usual Clinton apologist books, Bush Hatemonger’s screeds, and the Obama-lover books that no one wanted, the dry collegiate studies of the fall of the Roman Empire, and the coffee table compilation books that have recently fallen out of favor. Suddenly I spied a spare little book edited and commented upon by Richard Bookhiser called Rules of Civility, The 110 Precepts That Guided Our First President In War And Peace. This 90 page hardback book sported the price of only $4.00 so I picked it up.
I took it home and spent the few minutes it took to read the Rules that were said to have governed the life of George Washington and found myself wondering what the heck happened to civility in this country? What happened to the etiquette that, once upon a time, governed civil society?
Mr. Brookhiser points out in his forward that Washington was the best of both worlds in a revolutionary leader. He was able to lead a rebellion as well as govern the new country after the rebellion succeeded. It was once remarked by a European diplomat’s wife that Washington had, “perfect good breeding and a correct knowledge of even the etiquette of a court.” High praise, indeed, from a haughty European in the days when they were so sure the United States of America were doomed to ignominious failure.
Today many of the rules seem archaic as they laid out rules on how to eat in public, When to wear a hat and when not to, the correct posture and the like. But even in these seemingly pointless “rules” one gets the distinct impression that the training to be imparted by these precepts are meant to work from the personal to the interpersonal informing the whole man, not just the public man. A concept we seem to have totally lost in our day of “rights” and desires. We have come to an age where what we “want” supersedes good posture, delicate eating habits and proper dress. We tell ourselves we are more than what we wear or how good our table manners are and so we dispense with such “nonsense.” But is it nonsense? In our arrogance, do we give ourselves short shrift when we ignore such once common ideals of conduct? It might become obvious as we view how people treat each other in public, while we feel the palpable anger in the air as each person seems so sure that they are not getting the “respect” they deserve. But do they treat others with the same respect they are so sure they deserve in return? Often they don’t.
As you read further into the rules you’ll find a road map to polite social discourse and comportment that you will just know have been lost to society. Here are a few of them for the purpose of comparison to today’s standards:
22) Show not yourself glad at the misfortune of another though he were your enemy … Be NICE, even when you win.
25) Superfluous compliment and all affectation of ceremony are to be avoided, yet where due they are not neglected … Real ceremony is a matter of respect not an end in itself, as Mr. Brookhiser notes.
36) Artificers and persons of low degree ought not to use many ceremonies to lords or others of high degree, but respect and highly honor them, and those of high degree ought to treat them with affability and courtesy, without arrogancy …. At first sight this might tend to enrage today’s man yet when you truly look at it this rule commands everyone, both high and low, to treat people with good grace and respect something that seems sorely lacking today.
80) Be not tedious in discourse or in reading unless you find the company pleased therewith … How many blow-hards do you find droning on about their theories and feelings today?( Hey wait a minute, don’t look at ME!)
81) Be not curious to know the affairs of others, neither approach those that speak in private … Don’t be a nosy gossip. That would erase most of TV and the newspapers report, I would imagine.
84) When your superiors talk to anybody hearken not, neither speak nor laugh … of course that would presuppose we HAVE superiors these days. It seems everyone assumes that no one is their “better” these days.
89) Speak not of the absent for it is unjust.
109) Let your recreations be manful not sinful.
Naturally these are just a few examples but don’t they all ring with a sense of delicacy, justice and common decency? Can you see how social discourse would improve with wide acceptance of such precepts? I would urge each of you to find this book or others like it and read General Washington’s maxims. It can do nothing if not improve your life.
Let me close this with the last rule in the series. One that is definitely forgotten these days …
110) Labor to keep alive in your breast that little spark of celestial fire called conscience.
Happy birthday, sir, but where have you gone George Washington, indeed?