"..and it may truly be said, that never did nature and fortune combine more perfectly to make a man great.."
– Thomas Jefferson, about George Washington, 1814
Richard Brookhiser,Founding Father: Rediscovering George Washington (New York: Simon & Schuster Inc., 1996) pp. 130-131.
|By age sixteen, Washington had copied out by hand, 110 Rules of Civility & Decent Behavior in Company and Conversation. They are based on a set of rules composed by French Jesuits in 1595. Presumably they were copied out as part of an exercise in penmanship assigned by young Washington's schoolmaster. The first English translation of the French rules appeared in 1640, and are ascribed to Francis Hawkins the twelve-year-old son of a doctor.|
Today many, if not all of these rules, sound a little fussy if not downright silly. It would be easy to dismiss them as outdated and appropriate to a time of powdered wigs and quills, but they reflect a focus that is increasingly difficult to find. The rules have in common a focus on other people rather than the narrow focus of our own self-interests that we find so prevalent today. Fussy or not, they represent more than just manners. They are the small sacrifices that we should all be willing to make for the good of all and the sake of living together.
These rules proclaim our respect for others and in turn give us the gift of self-respect and heightened self-esteem.
Richard Brookhiser, in his book on Washington wrote that "all modern manners in the western world were originally aristocratic. Courtesy meant behavior appropriate to a court;chivalry comes from chevalier – a knight. Yet Washington was to dedicate himself to freeing America from a court's control. Could manners survive the operation? Without realizing it, the Jesuits who wrote them, and the young man who copied them, were outlining and absorbing a system of courtesy appropriate to equals and near-equals. When the company for whom the decent behavior was to be performed expanded to the nation, Washington was ready. Parson Weems got this right, when he wrote that it was 'no wonder every body honoured him who honoured every body.'"
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