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George Washington: Father of Radical Civility?

RadicalCivility.jpgGeorge Washington had to put up with a lot of things during his lifetime--Redcoats, painful dental problems, Benjamin Franklin's whoopee cushions--but one thing he didn't have to put up with was people texting during movies.

Movies hadn't been invented yet and neither had cell phones, but there were plenty of other ways to annoy your fellow American back in Colonial times. Fortunately, there were also plenty of suggestions on how not to annoy them.

Washington himself as a young lad copied out by hand 110 "Rules of Civility & Decent Behavior in Company and Conversation." It was probably done as an exercise in penmanship but it must have sunk in too. The idea was not merely to get a person to be polite, but to help shape his or her character. (There is an extensive exploration of how Washington came to copy the rules here and you can see a digital facsimile of Washington's exercise by clicking here.)

Many of the rules strike us as outdated or even laughable today. I'm thinking of No. 12, which includes "bedew no mans face with your Spittle, by approaching too near him when you Speak" and No. 13: "Kill no Vermin as Fleas, lice ticks &c in the Sight of Others."

Others are concerned with the complicated relationships between people of different social classes. If these rules are any indication, Washington's contemporaries were obsessed with how deeply to bow to someone, who should offer his seat to whom, who held a social position that was higher or lower than someone else. For example:

31st If any one far Surpasses others, either in age, Estate, or Merit yet would give Place to a meaner than himself in his own lodging or elsewhere the one ought not to except it, So he on the other part should not use much earnestness nor offer it above once or twice.

32nd

To one that is your equal, or not much inferior you are to give the chief Place in your Lodging and he to who 'is offered ought at the first to refuse it but at the Second to accept though not without acknowledging his own unworthiness.

But many of the rules would be welcome today, including: "In visiting the Sick, do not Presently play the Physician if you be not Knowing therein," "Gaze not on the marks or blemishes of Others and ask not how they came," "When you see a Crime punished, you may be inwardly Pleased; but always show Pity to the Suffering Offender."

Of course, if everyone followed these rules there'd be no reality TV or "Howard Stern Show."

Do any of these 110 rules apply to today's Radical Civility movement? Why a matter of fact, yes. The fourth rule--"In the Presence of Others Sing not to yourself with a humming Noise, nor Drum with your Fingers or Feet"-- is another way of saying "Keep your piehole shut during movies."

But it's the very first rule that a young Father of Our Country scratched out in his exercise book with his quill that should guide all of us: "Every Action done in Company, ought to be with Some Sign of Respect, to those that are Present."

By George, I think he's got it.

By John Kelly  |  August 19, 2009; 10:40 AM ET
Categories:  Radical Civility  
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