Saturday was George Washington’s birthday. We bet you might not even notice.
About 50 years ago, the country shifted the day to celebrate the birth of our first president from the fixed date of Feb. 22 — a practice dating to 1885 — to the third Monday in February. Abraham Lincoln and Ronald Reagan were born this month. So was William Henry Harrison, the nation’s ninth president (and shortest serving, who died 31 days into his term). But a funny thing about the modern holiday is that it never falls on the actual birthday of any president. The birthdays of the four presidents born this month all come either too early or late to coincide with our national holiday. No wonder it’s one of the most underwhelming federal holidays on the calendar, one more likely to spark thoughts of school vacations than rousing displays of patriotic pride.
We were looking for a way to put Washington’s actual birthday back in focus. A timely suggestion came from a former newspaper columnist, Sue McMahon, who mentioned a notebook Washington wrote when he was 15 years old. It is one of three similar volumes of musings of a bookish adolescent. One, for example, contains a sample land deed, along with practical tips such as how to keep pen ink from freezing in winter (answer: add brandy). But it’s the last 10 pages of one such notebook that have been of particular interest to biographers for nearly two centuries. Those pages are filled with what Washington called “Rules of Civility & Decent Behavior in Company & Conversation.”
In a digital copy of the “Rules of Civility,” published by Washington College, there’s a preface by historian and author Adam Goodheart, who wrote that the “Rules of Civility” “were crucial tools of self-advancement in the land-hungry, rough-and-tumble, status-obsessed environment of early Virginia ... a world poised precariously between drawing-room gentility and frontier squalor, between civilization and the wilderness.” Even if, as some believe, the notebook was merely a penmanship exercise for young Washington, the contents of the tattered volume are hugely prized. As Goodheart wrote, “this unprepossessing volume is one of the national library’s greatest treasures.”
A sampling of Washington’s Rules provides insights into the young mindset of this eventual Founding Father and his early premonitions of the meaning of citizenship.
But there’s another reason we’re intrigued. With 2020 being a presidential election year, civility and decency also happen to be on many voters’ radar.
There are 110 rules in the notebook, each numbered in sequence. Many have to do with manners. For our purposes, we’ll bypass examples of those — i.e., reminders not to spit, scratch or chew nails in the company of others. Instead, here is a smattering of rules that might resonate more in today’s political environment:
#45. Being to advise or reprehend any one, consider whether it ought to be in public or in Private.
#47. Mock not nor Jest at any thing of Importance break no Jests that are Sharp Biting and if you Deliver any thing witty and Pleasant abstain from Laughing thereat yourself.
#49. Use no Reproachful Language against any one neither Curse nor Revile.
#50. Be not hasty to believe flying Reports to the Disparagement of any.
#54. Play not the Peacock, looking everywhere about you, to See if you be well Decked, if your Shoes fit well if your Stockings sit neatly, and Clothes handsomely.
#56. Associate yourself with Men of good Quality if you Esteem your own Reputation; for ’tis better to be alone than in bad Company.
#58. Let your Conversation be without Malice or Envy, for ’tis a Sign of a Tractable and Commendable Nature and in all Causes of Passion admit Reason to Govern.
#59. Never express anything unbecoming, nor Act against the Rules Moral before your inferiors.
#62. Speak not of doleful Things in a Time of Mirth or at the Table; Speak not of Melancholy Things as Death and Wounds.
#63. A Man ought not to value himself of his Achievements, or rare Qualities of wit; much less of his riches Virtue or Kindred.
#65. Speak not injurious Words neither in Jest nor Earnest Scoff at none although they give Occasion.
#89. Speak not Evil of the absent for it is unjust.
And finally, #110. Labour to keep alive in your Breast that Little Spark of Celestial fire Called Conscience.
Happy Washington’s Birthday, everybody.