Times have certainly changed since the days of George Washington’s youth. Sometime before the age of 16, Washington transcribed 110 “Rules of Civility & Decent Behaviour in Company and Conversation” into his school copybook, now part of the George Washington Papers at the Library of Congress. Imagine assigning your students this exercise today.
Some of these “Rules of Civility” address basic etiquette, which may be recognizable to students in spite of the wording: “Shift not yourself in the Sight of others nor Gnaw your nails.” Other rules may be more difficult for students to understand but familiar once their meaning is interpreted: “Speak not Evil of the absent for it is unjust.” Still others may seem nonsensical in light of modern social norms: “Eat not in the Streets, nor in the House, out of Season.”
Did Washington live his adult life according to these rules? Students might investigate this question by analyzing Washington’s correspondence for evidence of how he responded to difficult circumstances. One intriguing example—although certainly Washington must not have thought so at the time—is a letter dated December 2, 1791, addressed to Pierre Charles L’Enfant. In this two-page document, President Washington addresses an incident that took place on November 20 of that same year. Major L’Enfant, selected as planner of the new capital city at Washington’s recommendation, had ordered the demolition of a partially-constructed house that stood in the way of one of his planned avenues. He acted under his own authority and without the owner’s consent. Complicating matters, the homeowner, Daniel Carroll, was a prominent citizen who was related to one of the Commissioners in charge of the District of Columbia.
Washington admonished L’Enfant in his letter, writing, “Having the beauty and regularity of your plan only in view, you pursue it as if every person, and thing, was obliged to yield to it.” Such elegant prose (and handwriting) communicates Washington’s disapproval politely, yet in no uncertain terms. In this instance, at least, the evidence points to Washington behaving in a very civil manner, indeed.
- (Elementary grades) Have students compose their own “Rules of Civility” based on those from Washington’s time. How might some of these new rules influence students’ responses to challenges in their own lives? [Note: While a transcription of the document is not available from the Library of Congress Web site, an online search using its full title will produce results.]
- (Secondary grades) Use the Teacher’s Guide to Analyzing Manuscripts to help students analyze Washington’s December 2, 1791, letter and complete the Primary Source Analysis Tool. Have students read the letter’s transcription before challenging them to compare its tone to related entries in Washington’s letter copybook. How does Washington address this same controversy in a December 2, 1791, letter to Daniel Carroll; a December 1, 1791, letter to the Washington, D.C., Commissioners; and a November 30, 1791, letter to Thomas Jefferson? [Note: Links to transcriptions are available at the top of each page.]
Which of these “Rules of Civility” do your students think apply to our society today?