George Washington’s Rules of Civility, Part 1

The Rules of Civility, Part 1

The Importance of Civility to George Washington was never more apparent than when a young George took much effort to memorize all 120 Rules for Civility valued at the time.  This article is Part 1 of a two part set.  In it, the first 55 of the 110 Rules of Civility, which Washington valued so highly, are listed and are listed exactly as he wrote them as a teen.

Integrity, Honor, Civic Virtue ~ Prized by Washington

The future first president of the United States thought civility, good manners and politeness were so important that he wrote out the Rules of Civility in his own hand and memorized them as a young teen.  At the age of 14 years old, young teens were expected to behave as adults and take on the responsibility of adults.  Washington believed that civic virtue and responsibility required the best behavior and integrity and took efforts toward those goals seriously.   Educated citizens knew that civic virtue and responsibility were also crucial aspects of liberty and a civilized nation, which added to his earnest desire to best know all of them.

It becomes clear through their writings, including in these early glimpses of Washington, that civic virtue is of great importance to them and necessary to the freedom they cherished.  We can learn from them…

Rules of Civility Date Back to 1595

The Rules of Civility have their initial source from the French Jesuits, composed by them in 1595.   Washington is said to have first encountered them in a penmanship assignment from his schoolmaster.  The first English translation of these rules appeared in 1640 and the translation is attributed to Frances Hawkins.   Civility was considered to be, not only crucial to freedom, but also to the greatness of an adult and the sign of a man of civic virtue, which Washington aspired to be.

“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 honored him (Washington) who honored every body.”                        – Richard Brookhiser, author of his book on Washington, quoting Weems, Washington’s biographer

[Please note that Washington’s original spelling and language, as shown next, is in keeping for his time.  Also, some parts were not decipherable from his original text due to age of the text.  Explanations or researched fill-in words are provided, where necessary.]

George Washington’s Memorized Rules of Civility EXACTLY as he wrote them as a 14-year-old teen–the first 55 (numbers 1 through 55):


Mount Vernon Org: Washington as a youth

1st. EVERY Action done in Company, ought to be with Some Sign of Respect, to those that are Present.

2d. When in Company, put not your Hands to any Part of the Body, not usually Discovered.

3d. Shew Nothing to your Friend that may affright him.

4th. In the Presence of Others sing not to yourself with a humming Noise, nor Drum, with your Fingers of Feet.

5th. IF YOU Cough, Sneeze, Sigh, or Yawn, do It not Loud, but Privately; and Speak not in your Yawning, but put Your handkerchief or Hand before your face and turn aside

6th. SLEEP not when others Speak, Sit not when others stand, Speak not when you Should hold your Peace, walk not on when others Stop

7th. PUT not off your Cloths in the presence of Others, nor go out your Chamber half Drest


8th. AT PLAY and at Fire its Good manners to give Place to the last Comer, and affect not to Speak Louder than ordinary.

9th. SPIT not in the Fire, nor Stoop low before it neither Put your Hands into the Flames to warm them, nor Set your Feet upon the Fire especially if there be meat before it.

10th. When you Sit down, Keep your Feet firm and even, without putting one on the other of Crossing them

11th. SHIFT not yourself in the Sight of others nor Gnaw your nails.

12th. SHAKE not the head, Feet, or Legs roll not the Eyes, lift not one eyebrow higher than the other wry not the mouth, and bedew no mans face with your Spittle, by appr . . . [approaching too near] . . . r him . . .[when] . . . You Speak.

13th. KILL no Vermin as Fleas, lice, ticks in the Sight of Others, if you See any filth or thick Spittle put your foot Dexteriously upon it if it be upon the Cloths of your Companions, Put it off privately, and if it be upon your own Cloths return Thanks to him who puts it off

14th. TURN not your Back to others especially in Speaking, Jog not the Table or Desk on which Another reads or writes, lean not upon any one.

15th. KEEP your Nails clean and Short, also your Hands and Teeth Clean, yet without Shewing any great Concern for them

16th. DO not Puff up the Cheeks, Loll not out the tongue rub the Hands, or beard, thrust out the lips, or bite them or keep the Lips too open or too Close.


17th. BE no Flatterer, neither Play with any that delights not to be Play’d Withal.

18th. READ no Letters, Books, or Papers in Company but when there is a Necessity for the doing of it you must ask leave: come not near the Books or Writings of Another so as to read them unless desired or give your opinion of them unask’d also look not nigh when another is writing a Letter

19th. Let your Countenance be pleasant but in Serious Matters Somewhat grave

20th. The Gestures of the Body must be Suited to the discourse you are upon

21st. Reproach none for the Infirmities of Nature, nor Delight to Put them that have in mind thereof.

22d. Shew not yourself glad at the Misfortune of another though he were your enemy

23d. When you see a Crime punished, you may be inwardly Pleased; but always shew Pity to the Suffering Offender.

24th. [Do not laugh too loud or] . . . too much at any Publick . . . [spectacle].

25th. SUPERFLUOUS Complements and all Affec[ta]tion of Ceremony are to be avoided, yet where due they are not too be Neglected


26th. IN PULLING off your Hat to Persons of Distinction, as Noblemen, Justices, Churchmen &c make a Reverence, bowing more or less according to the Custom of the Better Bred, and Quality of the Persons Amongst your equals except not always that they Should begin with you first but to Pull off the Hat when there is no need is Affectation, in the Manner of Saluting and resaluting in words keep to the [most] usual Custom.

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 Likewise he that makes too much haste to Put on his hat does not well, yet he ought to Put it on at the first, or at most the Second time of being ask’d; now what is herein Spoken, of Qualification in behavior in Saluting, ought also to be observed in taking of Place, and Sitting down for ceremonies without Bounds is troublesome.

28th. IF ANY one come to Speak to you while you are are Sitting Stand up tho he be your Inferiour, and when you Present Seats let it be to every one according to his Degree.

29th. WHEN you meet with one of Greater Quality than yourself, Stop, and retire especially if it be at a Door or any Straight place to give way for him to Pass

30th. IN walking the highest Place in most Countrys Seems to be on the right hand therefore Place yourself on the left of him whom you desire to Honour: but if three walk together the middle Place is the most Honourable the wall is usually given to the most worthy if two walk together.

31st. IF any one far Surpasses others, either in age, Estate, or Merit, yet would give Place to a meaner than himself . . . [in his own lodging or elsewhere] . . . the one ought not to except it, So . . . [he on the other part should not use much earnestness nor offer] . . . it above once or twice.

32d. TO one that is your equal, or not much inferior you are to give the chief Place in your Lodging and he to who ’tis offered ought at the first to refuse it but at the Second to accept though not without acknowledging his own unworthiness

33d. THEY that are in Dignity or in office have in all places Preceedency but whilst they are Young they ought to respect those that are their equals in Birth or other Qualitys, though¬ they have no Publick charge.

34th. IT is good Manners to prefer them to whom we speak before ourselves especially if they be above us with whom in no Sort we ought to begin.

Getty Images: Young George Washington is shown as a surveyor of the lands of Lord Fairfax, 1748.


35th. LET your Discourse with Men of Business be Short and Comprehensive.

36th. ARTIFICERS & Persons of low Degree ought not to use many ceremonies to Lords, or Others of high Degree but Respect and highly Honour them, and those of high Degree ought to treat them with affibility & Courtesie, without Arrogancy

37th. IN Speaking to men of Quality do not lean nor Look them full in the Face, nor approach too near them at lest Keep a full Pace from them.

38th. IN visiting the Sick, do not Presently play the Physicion if you be not Knowing therein.

39th. IN writing or Speaking, give to every Person his due Title According to his Degree & the Custom of the Place.

40th. STRIVE not with your Superiers in argument, but always Submit your Judgment to others with Modesty

41st. Undertake not to Teach your equal in the art himself Professes; it flavours of arrogancy.

42nd. [Let they ceremonies in] . . . curtesie [courtesy] be proper to the….. Dignity of his place . . . [with whom thou converses for it is absurd to act the] . . . t yr. same with a Clown and a Prince.


43d. DO not express Joy before one sick or in pain for that contrary Passion will aggravate his Misery

44th. When a man does all he can though it Succeeds not well blame not him that did it.

45th. 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 Signs of Cholar but do it with all Sweetness and Mildness

46th. Take all Admonitions thankfully in what Time or Place Soever given but afterwards not being culpable take a Time or Place Convenient to let him him know it that gave them.

47th. MOCK not nor Jest at anything of Importance break no Jest that are Sharp Biting and if you Deliver anything witty and Pleasent abtain from Laughing thereat yourself.

48th. WHEREIN wherein you reprove Another be unblameable yourself; for example is more prevalent than Precepts


49th. USE no Reproachfull Language against anyone neither Curse nor Revile

50th. BE not hasty to believe flying Reports to the Disparagement of any

51st. WEAR not your Cloths, foul, unript or Dusty but See they be Brush’d once every day at least and take heed that you approach not to any Uncleaness

52d. IN your Apparel be Modest and endeavour to accomodate Nature, rather than to procure Admiration keep to the Fashion of your equals Such as are Civil and orderly with respect to Times and Places

53d. RUN not in the Streets, neither go too slowly nor with Mouth open go not Shaking yr. Arms . . . [kick not the earth with your feet, go] . .  not upon the toes, nor in a Dancing . . . [fashion].

Be Humble

54th. PLAY not the Peacock, looking everywhere about you, to See if you be well Deck’t, if your Shoes fit well if your Stockings Sit neatly, and Cloths handsomely.

55th. EAT not in the Streets, nor in ye House, out of Season.

Civic Virtue

With this look at the coming of age of George Washington, we can see the value he (along with our other Founders) placed upon civic virtue and civility.

Washington’s use of these Rules of Civility and Decent Behavior formed his character and guided him as an adult.  These rules were so significant in his life that countless copies of his rules have been published in books in America and abroad.  Many believe Washington wrote the Rules, though he never claimed this and his writings credited Frances Hawkins and the French Jesuits, who first wrote them.

In his strict adherence to these rules, Washington set forth an example for all who followed him.  Our Founders considered Civic Virtue to be the most important attribute for any political candidate, along with education and experience.   Washington set a standard our Founders intended for us to follow.

Two of many available books:






Margo Louis
About Margo Louis 8 Articles
Margo Louis has been writing on newspapers since she was a teen and continued writing through college and her career, leaning toward technical writing in more recent years. She is pleased to be a part of The Founding Project and its support of civics education. When not working or writing, Margo enjoys cooking, travel, perusing antiques and especially loves spending time with her children and family.

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