At 16, George Washington adopted for himself a list of 110 maxims on conduct published by 16th-century French Jesuit priests. Some of the rules are no-brainers. Others clearly have no expiration date.
Some of the earliest lessons we were taught about George Washington were well-meaning but inaccurate.
He didn’t chop down a cherry tree.
He didn’t throw a silver dollar across the mile-wide Potomac River; Superman could hardly do that.
His supernatural vision concerning America’s future actually was a pro-Union tract written in 1861 by Charles W. Alexander, who claimed he got the story from a 99-year-old Valley Forge veteran. But no mention of a vision was ever found in writings by Washington, a prodigious diarist since boyhood.
If an angel showed up in your tent, you’d remember it.
It has never been necessary to mythologize George Washington. If you had to start a country from scratch, you couldn’t do better than a military genius who wholly embraced the idea of civilian governance.
At 16, Washington adopted for himself a list of 110 maxims on conduct published by 16th-century French Jesuit priests, later translated by British educator Francis Hawkins.
Presidential historian Richard Brookhiser, who has edited a new version of “Rules of Civility & Decent Behavior in Company and Conversation,” says the reason Americans still revere Washington is that his life was in large part shaped by these principles.
CLOWNS AND PRINCES
Some of the rules are no-brainers, such as “Keep your hands and teeth clean,” and “Don’t leave your house half-dressed.”
Others clearly have no expiration date:
No. 1: “Every action done in public ought to be with some sign of respect to those that are present.”
No. 42: “Let your ceremonies in courtesy be proper to the dignity of his place with whom you converse, for it is absurd to act the same with a clown and a prince.”
No. 49: “Use no reproachful language against anyone; neither curse nor revile.”
No. 50: “Be not hasty to believe flying reports to the disparagement of any.”
No. 74: “Think before you speak.”
No. 110: “Labor to keep in your breast that little spark of celestial fire called conscience.”
Washington would be amazed by how far America has come.
He’d be appalled by how far we’ve strayed from the list.