Antiquated Etiquette: Presidential Edition

 George Washington wrote an etiquette book (sort of).

Yes, this George Washington:

To quote Ted "Theodore" Logan: Welcome to the Hall of Presidents.

Indeed it seems that among his many accomplishments (freeing the colonies from the yoke of oppression, fathering a new country, chopping down cherry trees and bragging about it*), America’s first president was also a bit of a fastidious prude.  Despite his heroics and his reputation for having a vicious temper, he’s been described as an “exceedingly bland heroic leader,” and that his “…virtue was admirable, but not overly interesting.”

He began the building blocks of his virtue at a very young age; when he was a teenager, he copied 110 rules from a Jesuit tract called Youths Behavior, or Decency in Conversation amongst Men into a personal notebook.  (OK, in the interest of full disclosure, the Jesuits originally published it in French and then–allegedly–a twelve-year-old boy named Francis Hawkins translated that into English and said translation is what GW got his teenage mitts on and essentially copied verbatim, but was this digression totally necessary?  History freaks, I did it for you.)  This book stayed with him throughout his entire life and informed much of his behavior in society.  Excepting, of course, for his anger management problems.

Anyway.  Without further ado, here is a sampling of George Washington’s translated, formerly French Jesuit rules for proper behavior among all walks of life, as taken from the book Rules of Civility: The 110 Precepts that Guided Our First President in War and Peace.

#2: When in company, put not your hands to any part of the body not usually discovered.

Errrm…who’s he hanging out with?  Though I am delighted to know that he disapproved of picking one’s nose or touching the hoo-ha in public.

#4: In the presence of others, sing not to yourself with a humming noise or drum with your fingers or feet.

Aaaaa-MEN!  So one time the BF and I stayed in this lovely bed & breakfast in Gettysburg and discovered, at breakfast, that one of the other guests was an obnoxious humming monster.  Have you ever tried to enjoy a pecan scone with an unrepentant humming type person nearby?  It’s impossible.  Her husband was so used to it he just read his paper in silence but the rest of us wondered if we could sneak her onto a battlefield at dusk.  If I don’t want to deal with professional mariachi bands or wandering minstrels at my table, what on earth makes this lady think I’d want to hear her tuneless humming?  I still get the sensation of nails down a chalkboard when I think of her; if only I’d known then what a presidential boor she was.

#7: Put not off your clothes in the presence of others, nor go out of your chamber half drest.

And there’s no clause here excusing put-off clothing if tequila is a factor, so just don’t do it, mmkay?

#12:  Shake not your head, feet, or legs, roll not the eyes, lift not one eyebrow higher than the other, wry not the mouth, and bedew no man’s face with your spittle by approaching too near him when you speak.

There goes the entirety of Jack Black’s acting career.

Rolled, lifted. wry-ed. Philistine.

#45: Being to advise or reprehend any one, consider whether it ought to be in publick or in private, presently, or at some other time, in what terms to do it; & in reproving shew no sign of choler, but do it with all sweetness and mildness.

In other words, every hothead chef or kitchen manager who’s ever chewed an employee’s butt up one side and down the other in the heat of the moment…knock it off.

Seems like this was one of those points Gee-Dub had to work on himself.

#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.

Seriously.  Don’t be the boob who laughs at your own jokes.  And…if the premise isn’t funny, the joke isn’t funny.

(Yes, I know there are comedians who would passionately argue that point.  But this?  Is my blog.)

#50: Be not hasty to believe flying reports to the disparagement of any.

In other words, don’t believe everything you hear.

I particularly like this one because it forces me to think about how different life was in the 18th century.  There were no news channels or interwebs or cars, so “flying reports” means “gossip that I’m hearing probably weeks, and possibly months, after the fact.  Which will then take weeks/months to dispute, so there had to be a malleability of thought inherent in this.  Now, if we hear a rumor on the ‘net it becomes stone-cold FACT pretty quickly.  Think “Mr. Rogers was a Marine sniper.”  Or that whole “birther” thing.

#84: When your superiors talk to anybody hearken not, neither speak nor laugh.

So, this is where that sort of joyless virtue mentioned previously starts to express itself.  Because oh, no.  You don’t want to speak or laugh.

#90: Being set at meat scratch not, neither spit, cough, or blow your nose except there’s a necessity for it.

His state dinners must have been a riot, between the spitters and the people you have to remind not to touch themselves publicly.  Though really, this IS good advice.

#97: Put not another bit into your mouth till the former be swallowed.  Let not your morsels be too big for the jowls.

Take human bites!  

#100: Clean not your teeth with the table cloth, napkin, fork or knife, but if others do it, let it be done with a pick tooth [toothpick].

Because I hate, loathe, and despise when my guests clean their teeth with my tablecloth.

And finally…

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

True dat, though I don’t know if this qualifies as “etiquette” so much as it is “that thing which makes us human and prevents us from walking around with atrophied hearts and dead, sunken eyes.”  Though one would imagine that walking around with a soulless void in one’s breast would be frowned on in polite society, so perhaps it IS etiquette, after all.  Well played, Gee-Dub.  Well played.

The introduction and explanation of Washington’s “rules” make the book I mentioned fun, but if you want to see all of his “rules”, you can find them all here.

I don’t have much more to say about the book other than this: when I realize there were books like this, it changes (for me) the image I have of life in the 18th century.  We promote and kind of buy into this ideal that “back then”, people instinctively knew how to behave and George Washington, gentleman farmer, and his ilk, lived via a code of conduct that beamed into their heads from the Heavens and incorporated into every fiber of their being.  Not the case.  People had to be reminded not to wipe their teeth with the tablecloth and that they ought to keep their clothes on in company.  Good advice, but not some I would normally have associated with their traditional values and concerns.  Until now.  Maybe we’re not so bad with our modern sensibilities, after all.  And maybe, with a little push in the other direction or without the early gift of a set of rules, GW would have taken a much different route.


(Many thanks to my friend Deb for this picture; I don’t know where she found it, or if she composed it, but I’m totally happy to make use of it.)

*Note: George Washington, in all likelihood, didn’t actually cut down his father’s prized cherry tree.  This is a story that was added to the fifth edition of his biography, and is often considered to be the first American urban legend.

8 responses to Antiquated Etiquette: Presidential Edition

    • beyondpaisley – Author

      Rule 13 talks about how you shouldn’t kill vermin around folks. What an itchy scratchy spitty smelly era. Yeesh.

      Glad you liked it!


  1. jp

    Bwahhhaaa…coffee, meet keyboard. It might have been the shout-out to Ted “Theodore.”

    But this?

    “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.*

    Oh, bite me, GW, you sanctimonious old prude.


    • beyondpaisley – Author

      Just from the little I’ve read in the research for this, he seemed to be pretty joyless. Stoic, if you must be diplomatic.

      Love Ted “Theodore” Logan. 🙂


  2. marjorie

    Another oft repeated legend is that he sported wooden teeth, but they were actually animal teeth dentures. Boar, I think.

    Abouth rule #4 (humming) I admit I once resorted to humming to myself as well as turning over the plates to read the markings on the bottom whilst on vacation with someone who simply would not converse for the bulk of a week. So sometimes humming to oneself is a desperate last resort.


    • beyondpaisley – Author

      Oh, my. My my mymymymymy. Perspective is everything, Marjorie. I’m sorry both that you were on such a weird vacation and also that it resulted in the humming. Celebrate that that’s over! And I’d heard about the non-true wooden teeth already. Though, changing the topic almost entirely, supposedly Clark Gable had horrific breath as the result of his false teeth. That, of course, has nothing to do with this. Just sayin’. 🙂


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