Recently Loretta shared an 1873 guide to etiquette for a Victorian gentleman. Suggested rules for good manners weren't new then, however. From Baldassare Castiglone's The Book of the Courtier, first published in 1508, through Emily Post and Miss Manners, advice has been available for those who wish to improve their manners, and aspire to appear as well-bred gentlemen or ladies.
Long before George Washington became America's first president and the Father of Our Country, he was a sixteen-year-old Virginian acutely aware of his lack of the formal education and cultured manners that he observed in the wealthiest planters and other English gentleman of the Georgian era. At some point, young George must have come across Youths Behaviour, or Decency in Conversation Among Men, a 17th c. English translation of a guidebook first published by French Jesuits in 1595. The maxims in Youths Behaviour covered not only basic manners and general courtesies, but also larger issues of character and moral judgement, with suggestions for how a gentleman should respect others and conduct himself in the world.
The numbered maxims must have struck a chord with George, because around 1748 he carefully copied them into the back of a notebook - his commonplace book - for future reference. Titled The Rules of Civility and Decent Behavior, he referred to them throughout his life, and they formed the backbone of his own personal code of behavior. There are 110 rules in his list; here are only the first seven of them. Although centuries old, most of the rules are still quite applicable. Modern sixteen-year-olds should take note.
1st. Every Action done in Company, ought to be with Some Sign of Respect, to those that are Present. 2nd. When in Company, put not your Hands to any Part of the Body, not usually Discovered. 3rd. Show Nothing to your Friend that may affright him. 4th. In the Presence of Others, Sing not to yourself with a humming Noise, nor Drum with your Fingers or Feet. 5th. If you Cough, Sneeze, Sigh, or Yawn, do it not Loud, but Privately; and Speak not in your Yawning, but put Your Handkerchief or Hand before your face and turn aside. 6th. Sleep not while others Speak, Sit not when others stand, Speak not when you Should hold your Peace, walk not on when others Stop. 7th. Put not off your Clothes in the presence of Others, nor go out your Chamber half Dressed....
The original handwritten version George Washington's Rules of Civility is now in the Library of Congress. If you enjoy the challenge of 18th c. penmanship, you can read it in its entirety online here, or transcribed here.
Left: ColonelGeorge Washington, by Charles Wilson Peale, c. 1772. Right: The first manuscript page of George Washington's Rules of Civility, Library of Congress.
There’s a big difference in how we use history. But we’re equally nuts about it. To us, the everyday details of life in the past are things to talk about, ponder, make fun of -- much in the way normal people talk about their favorite reality show.
We talk about who’s wearing what and who’s sleeping with whom. We try to sort out rumor or myth from fact. We thought there must be at least three other people out there who think history’s fascinating and fun, too. This blog is for them.