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George Washington’s Lessons

Author Rita Smith
Air Date 10/7/2003

George Washington’s Lessons Transcript

In 1745 George Washington was a 13 year old school-boy in Virginia when he wrote down a list of social rules in his workbook entitles “The Rules of Civility.” The list was the descendant of a courtesy book published in Italy in 1556 and expanded later in the century by the French Jesuits, who, by this time, were educating the children of the nobility all over Europe and deportment was an increasingly important subject. An English translation of a German/Latin edition was published in 1641 entitled Youth Behaviour, or, Decency in Conversation Amongst Men. A copy of this latter book, as well as the earlier French Jesuit edition, would have been used by Washington’s teacher as a source for the his rules.

Because the Washington family was relatively prosperous, young George had been fortunate enough to attend several schools, beginning at the age of seven. In 1745, he was living with his mother and younger siblings in Fredericksburg, Virginia, and attending, somewhat sporadically, a local high school, under the tutelage of Rev. James Marye, rector of St. George’s Church.

During his first year of study at the school, Washington wrote down and learned these rules of social behavior. Because the notebook manuscript was written in a colonial shorthand, John T. Phillips, an author and historian, suggests that the rules were dictated to him by his teacher and not simply copied from another paper or the board.

The notebook sat relatively undisturbed, aside from the unwanted attention of some inquisitive mice, for over a hundred years. In 1849, it was purchased, along with all of Washington’s private papers, for the Library of Congress. A complete transcript of it was published in 1888 by J.M. Toner, with everything recorded just as Washington had written it, including all of the shorthand abbreviations, the typos, original capitalization, punctuation and spelling, leaving unfilled gaps where mice had eaten away at the pages.

So imagine George Washington, a 13 year old gentleman-in-training, sitting at his school-room desk, listening intently to his teacher intone these rules of civility and carefully writing them down in a notebook:

1. Every action done in company ought to be with some sign of respect to those that are present.

2. In the presence of others, sing not to yourself with a humming noise; nor drum with your fingers or feet.

3. Sleep not when others speak; Sit not when others stand. Speak not when you should hold your peace, Walk not when others stop.

4. Kill no vermin, such as fleas, lice, ticks, etc. in the sight of others.

5. If you visit the sick, play not the physician if you be not knowing therein.

6. Labour to keep alive in your breast that little spark of celestial fire called conscience.

Phillips, John T. II, George Washington’s Rules of Civility, Leesburg, Virginia: Goose Creek Productions. c. 2002.

Image courtesy of the Baldwin Library of Historical Children’s Literature, University of Florida. Photographed by Rita Smith

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