When most people think of George Washington, the Father of Our Country, they think of the story of him cutting down the cherry tree and then confessing to his father “I cannot tell a lie. I did it with my little hatchet.” Ironically, this story of the First President’s unshakeable honesty has turned out to be a complete fabrication by an author named Mason Lock Weems. More on this story may be found here.
Certainly it is a cautionary tale to approach all political biographies with a shaker of salt.What most people do not realize is that George Washington Himself wrote an etiquette book at the not-as-tender-as-it-is-now* age of 14. George Washington’s Rules of Civility & Decent Behavior in Company and Conversation puts forward no fewer than 110 instructions for Perfect Propriety. Etiquetteer doubts that Washington ever intended them to be published – it appears he copied them from another book – and yet what he chose to copy must represent what he felt was most important in the behavior of a gentleman. Several of these instructions no longer apply, for instance 27th: “Tis ill manners to bid one more eminent than yourself be covered as well as not to do it to whom it’s due . . .” or 57th: “In walking up and down in a house, only with one in company if he be greater than yourself, at the first give him give him the right hand and stop not till he does . . .” Issues of precedence like these make Etiquetteer awfully glad that Washington won the war.
Still, Etiquetteer wishes that more citizens than just churchgoing African-American ladies, for instance, would keep alive the tradition of Perfect Proper Hats and How to Wear Them. But many of Washington’s maxims remain fresh and accurate, especially those concerning table manners and what used to be referred to as “deportment,” the way one presents oneself in public. It’s sort of sad when you think that Americans still have to be told not to talk with their mouths full (98th and 107th) or to take only one bite at a time (97th). But Washington put these forward as essential table manners, and much more. At least now we don’t have to worry about anyone cleaning their teeth with the tablecloth (100th). In public 18th now applies to electronic devices as well as anything on paper: “Read no letters, books, or papers in company; but when there is a necessiry for the doing of it, you must ask leave. (Emphases Etiquetteer’s.) And while the grunge look of the 1990s seems at last to be over, too many people could heed 51st: “Wear not your clothes foul, ripped, or dusty . . .” as well as 52nd: “In your apparel be modest and endeavor to accommodate nature,” which Etiquetteer translates as “No one wants to see your underwear.” But Etiquetteer has to Wag an Admonitory Digit at That Mr. Dimmick Who Thinks He Knows So Much over 24th: “Do not laugh too much or too loud in public.”
Reviewing all 110 of Washington’s instructions (which Etiquetteer hopes you will do) one sees that he felt it important to make a good impression on others by showing them respect and consideration. One did this through taking pride and care in one’s appearance, paying attention to the feelings of others regardless of rank, and personal modesty. In other words, Washington sought to shape his behavior with self-control. And speaking of shape, Etiquetteer doesn’t like to think of etiquette as a corset so much as a girdle. The first deforms the figure, restricts one’s movement, squeezes the internal organs, and leads to all sorts of debilitating health problems. A girdle, on the other hand, may be tight, but it molds one’s figure into something more pleasing without disguising one’s true self. So let us all use Washington as our guide and “ . . . bedew no man’s face with your spittle by approaching too near him when you speak.”
*What Etiquetteer means by this is that one had to behave like a grown-up much sooner than one does now. Alas, many Americans now put off behaving like adults until they are old enough to earn graduate degrees.