From Delancy Place for 3/7/08
In today’s excerpt–George Washington’s lifelong obsession with showing courtesy, which played no small part in his ability to lead a new country that itself had little respect:
“A set of precepts that meant much to Washington and that has drawn the attention of historians, though perhaps not enough, was one that he had copied out by hand at sixteen, ‘The Rules of Civility and Decent Behavior in Company and in Conversation’–one hundred and ten in all–which were based on a set composed by French Jesuits in 1595. …
“The focus of the set was established in the very first rule. ‘Every action done in company ought to be done with some sign of respect to those that are present.’ The ‘Rules of Civility’ are ‘virtues of humanity’– guidelines for dealing with others, based on attending to their situations and sensibilities. … ‘When you see a crime punished, you may be inwardly pleased; but show pity to the offending sufferer’ (rule #23). ‘… treat artificers and persons of low degree with affability and courtesy, without arrogance’ (rule #36). ‘When a man does all he can, though it succeed not well, blame not him that did it’ (rule #44). … Washington also bought books of politeness as an adult, and instances of his courtesy, or comments on it, are legion. …
“[Today] we worry about our authenticity–about whether our presentation reflects who we ‘really’ are. Eighteenth-century Americans attended more to the outside story and were less avid to drive putty knives between the outer and inner man. ‘Character’ … was a role one played until one became it. …
“Courtesy and reputation–the medium and stimulus of Washington’s morality–operate on and through other people. Courtesy is how you treat them, reputation is what they think of you. … Courtesy and reputation made it possible for Washington to say to his countrymen, we, and to command a response.”
Richard Brookhiser, Founding Father, Free Press, Copyright 1996 by Richard Brookhiser, pp. 127-132,136.
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