If there is any American whose birthday none of us should fail to note and celebrate, it is George Washington. In my case, he is in good company, since I have had difficulty my whole life remembering birthdays of close family members and friends, with the exception of my son’s, once the Boston Red Sox finally won their first World Series in 86 years on the same date, and my own, which I have been trying to forget ever since finding my dad dead in his chair on that date eight years ago. Nonetheless, my failure to salute the first and indispensable President is especially disgraceful for an ethics blog, and I apologize both to George and to all of you.
Time flies: I hadn’t issued a post specifically devoted to George’s remarkable character since 2011. (Something has gone seriously wrong when one has 287 posts on Donald Trump and only six about Washington.) In penance, allow me to atone with my favorite entry’s on the list of ethical habits some historians believe made him the remarkably trustworthy and ethical man he was, ultimately leading his fellow Founders to choose him, and not one the many more brilliant, learned and accomplished among them, to take on the crucial challenge of creating the American Presidency.
Directed to do so by his father, young Washington had copied out by hand and committed to memory a list called “110 Rules of Civility & Decent Behavior in Company and Conversation” It was based on a document composed by French Jesuits in 1595; neither the author nor the English translator and adapter are known today. The elder Washington was following the teachings of Aristotle, who held that principles and values began as being externally imposed by authority (morals) and eventually became internalized as character.
The theory certainly worked with George Washington. Those ethics alarms installed by his father stayed in working order throughout his life. It was said that Washington was known to quote the rules when appropriate, and never forgot them. They did not teach him to be a gifted leader, but they helped to make him a trustworthy one.
The list has been available at a link here (under Rule Book, to your left), almost from the beginning of Ethics Alarms. Would that readers would access it more often. Here are my 20 favorite highlights from the list that helped make George George, and also helped George make America America:
1. Every action done in company ought to be with some sign of respect to those that are present.
4. In the presence of others, sing not to yourself with a humming voice, or drum with your fingers or feet.
6. Sleep not when others speak, sit not when others stand, speak not when you should hold your peace, walk not on when others stop.
21. Reproach none for the infirmities of nature, nor delight to put them that have in mind of thereof.
22. Show not yourself glad at the misfortune of another though he were your enemy.
23. When you see a crime punished, you may be inwardly pleased; but always show pity to the suffering offender.
40. Strive not with your superior in argument, but always submit your judgment to others with modesty.
48. Wherein you reprove another be unblameable yourself, for example is more prevalent than precepts.
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.
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 permit reason to govern.
63. A man ought not to value himself of his achievements or rare qualities of wit; much less of his riches, virtue or kindred.
64. Break not a jest where none take pleasure in mirth; laugh not aloud, nor at all without occasion; deride no man’s misfortune though there seem to be some cause.
65. Speak not injurious words neither in jest nor earnest; scoff at none although they give occasion.
73. Think before you speak, pronounce not imperfectly, nor bring out your words too hastily, but orderly and distinctly.
82. Undertake not what you cannot perform but be careful to keep your promise.
88. Be not tedious in discourse, make not many digressions, nor repeat often the same manner of discourse.
89. Speak not evil of the absent, for it is unjust.
109. Let your recreations be manful not sinful.
110. Labor to keep alive in your breast that little spark of celestial fire called conscience.