Commentary: Civility ascendant: Washington’s 110 rules of behavior

George Washington’s life was greatly influenced by a school homework exercise which began when he was just 13 years old. He was apparently assigned the task of copying a translation of a 16th Century Jesuit treatise titled “Rules of Civility and Decent Behavior in Company and Conversation.” Washington not only copied the maxims, he lived them.

One way in which the 110 Rules guided Washington was in controlling his famous short temper. Most of the time adhering to the advice worked. But there were a handful of time when the Father of His Country lost it.

Dr. Samuel B. Hoff

To wit, there was the falling out with Alexander Hamilton in 1781 and a well-known 1791 incident which followed a military update being delivered to President Washington.

Another clear indicator of Washington’s adherence to the 110 Rules was his behavior in social situations. Washington went out of his way to make people feel at ease, but was so formal even at rest that some folks did not know how to react.

When Pennsylvania legend Gouverneur Morris once tried to get GW to lighten up by placing his arm around Washington, he was rebuffed in the strongest terms.

Clearly, as both a military and political leader, Washington’s character and personal convictions were noticed and emulated by others. These traits included modesty, courtesy, humility and respect.

For Washington, the 110 Rules were essentially a Code of Honor, one which his contemporaries agreed he followed best.

Though Washington’s reputation was somewhat built on exaggeration and myth, his commitment to the 110 Rules was real. Still, he was human and therefore far from perfect. Accordingly, it is easy to pick apart individual decisions he made as commander of military forces or policy decisions he announced as chief executive. The point is that most people alive during his time and since have marveled at the way Washington acted more so than the consequences of his choices.

Of course, Washington cared about both the appearance and success of his actions, but would not let criticism of the latter impact the former.

Throughout American history, the legacy of the 110 Rules can be assessed by evaluating how they impacted subsequent presidents and U.S. society as a whole.

Along with covering the 110 Rules generally, that will be the purpose of the program at the Old Statehouse on the Dover Green on Sunday at 2 p.m.

Additionally, audience members will have the opportunity to indicate how one or more of the 110 Rules are pertinent to their own lives. The event, sponsored by DSU’s Law Studies Program, the Delaware State Society of the Cincinnati, and the Delaware Division of Historical and Cultural Affairs, is free and open to the public.

Dr. Samuel B. Hoff, George Washington Distinguished Professor of History and Political Science and Law Studies Director at Delaware State University, will deliver the keynote address at the aforementioned event.

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