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Though certainly the most ubiquitous, George Washington has also always been the most mysterious of the Founding Fathers; the one whose greatness is most difficult for us to comprehend.  Here was a man who was less well spoken and less brilliant than many of his peers.  He was not a great philosophical or political thinker.  He lost most of the military engagements he led.  And yet, the men of whom we think more highly in these regards almost universally revered him.  What quality was it that made men like Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, Alexander Hamilton and the Marquise de Lafayette defer to him ?  The answer must surely lie in the character of the man, and character seems to be a uniquely difficult quality to convey in writing. Perhaps it is actually impossible to describe the quality itself; instead the effects of it must be described.

One example from Washington's life seems to me to stand out above all others : his handling of the Newburgh Conspiracy.  When, after the War, disgruntled officers, led by Horatio Gates, circulated a letter suggesting that the Army march on Congress to demand back pay and hinted at taking control of the government, Washington used a simple but elegant ploy to defuse the crisis.  Having summoned the men to his tent so that he could read a letter meant to dissuade them from their proposed course of action, he paused, reached into a pocket, and withdrew a pair of glasses, which, thanks in large part to his vanity, few knew he even required.  As he unfolded them and put them on, he said :

    Gentlemen, you will permit me to put on my spectacles, for I have not only grown gray, but almost
    blind in the service of my country.

It is reported, perhaps with some hyperbole, that men wept; but at any rate, the insurrection crumbled.

It is hard for us, jaded as we have become about our leaders, to imagine the drama of this scene and the effect it must have had on his comrades, but then again, we are unfortunate enough to have a recent Commander in Chief whose preference in underwear, bizarre sexual proclivities, and genital deformities were all common knowledge.  It is perhaps instructive that when he was at Boys' State as a teenager (as related in David Maraniss's excellent biography First in His Class), Bill Clinton devoted himself to one single purpose and achieved it : to have his picture taken with President Kennedy.  At a similar age, sixteen year old George Washington copied by hand 110 maxims from a guidebook on manners originally compiled by Jesuits in 1595.  Both men were trying to improve themselves, but there's a key difference : Clinton sought a photo opportunity that would be personally gratifying and which he might use to advance his political career down the road; Washington sought out those precepts which would help him to discipline himself, to develop his character, and to make himself more presentable to society.  The fundamental object of Clinton's effort was personal aggrandizement, of Washington's, to make himself a better person.

In this little book Richard Brookhiser, who wrote a terrific biography of Washington, reproduces the 110 "Rules of Civility" in a much easier form to read than the original text (for example, check out an online version), along with a brief introductory essay and explanatory, often amusing, comments on many of the rules.  Here are some examples (with Brookhiser's comments in italics where applicable) :

    (1)    Every action done in company ought to be done with some sign of respect to those that are

    (4)    In the presence of others, sing not to yourself with a humming noise or drum with your
            fingers or feet.

            Don't carry a boom box either.

    (13)    Kill no vermin, as fleas, lice, ticks, etc., in the sight of others.  If you see any filth or thick
              spittle put your foot dexterously upon it, if it be upon the clothes of your companions put it
              off privately, and if it be upon your own clothes return thanks to him who puts it off.

            Useful advice on the frontier.  In 1748, when Washington was sixteen, he went surveying in
              the Blue Ridge mountains and was obliged to sleep under "one thread bare blanket with
             double its weight of vermin."  The last two clauses are useful anywhere:  Don't embarrass
             those you help, and however embarrassed you may be to discover that you have been in a
             ludicrous or disgusting situation, don't forget to thank those who helped you out of it.

As the last example demonstrates, many of the rules seem at first to be hopelessly antiquated, but on further reflection, in the concern they display for personal dignity and humility, thoughtfulness of and respect for others, maintenance of civil standards, they are truly timeless.  The final precept is the most famous and allows Brookhiser to sum up all that have come before :

    (110)    Labour to keep alive in your breast that little spark of celestial fire called conscience.

            The only open reminder of what has been implicit all along: Petty morals and large
                morals are linked; there are no great spirits who do not pay attention to both; these
                little courtesies reflect, as in a pocket mirror, the social and the moral order.

And this is the significance of Washington's attention to these seemingly petty rules, that the conscience is only a spark and that it may be extinguished unless one labors to maintain it.  Because Washington did take that labor seriously throughout his life, he had the reserve of respect and honor built up with others which enabled him to cow the rebellious officers at Newburgh and had the personal moral fiber which enabled him, at the vital moments in the life of the new republic, to refuse political power, both when it was there for the taking and when it was freely offered.   In some sense, these 110 maxims helped to create the man of whom King George III said, when he heard that General Washington planned to surrender command of the Continental Army to retire to his farm :

    If he indeed does that, he will be the greatest man in the world.

That assessment, from a humiliated enemy, was accurate then, and the bloody course of every subsequent revolution, suggests that it may understate the case.


Grade: (A)


See also:

George Washington Links:

    -Rediscovering George Washington (PBS)

Book-related and General Links:
    -National Review
    -ARCHIVES : "richard brookhiser" (NY Observer)
    -ESSAY : THE FORGOTTEN GEORGE WASHINGTON (Richard Brookhiser, American Enterprise Institute)
    -REVIEW : of A New Birth of Freedom: Abraham Lincoln and the Coming of the Civil War by Harry V. Jaffa (Richard Brookhiser, Commentary)
    -REVIEW : of Bishop G. Bromley Oxnam: Paladin Of Liberal Protestantism. By Robert Moats Miller (Richard Brookhiser, First Things)
    -REVIEW : of American National Biography John A. Garraty and Mark C. Carnes, general editors (Richard Brookhiser, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of SISTER REVOLUTIONS French Lightning, American Light. By Susan Dunn (Richard Brookhiser, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of EX-FRIENDS Falling Out With Allen Ginsberg, Lionel and Diana Trilling, Lillian Hellman, Hannah Arendt, and Norman Mailer. By Norman Podhoretz (Richard Brookhiser, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of THE COUSINS' WARS  Religion, Politics, and the Triumph of Anglo-America.  By Kevin Phillips (Richard Brookhiser, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of Other Powers The Age of Suffrage, Spiritualism, and the Scandalous Victoria Woodhull. By Barbara Goldsmith (Richard Brookhiser, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of The Strange Death of Vincent Foster An Investigation. By Christopher Ruddy (Richard Brookhiser, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of The Long Affair Thomas Jefferson and the French Revolution, 1785-1800. By Conor Cruise O'Brien (Richard Brookhiser, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of PARTNERS IN POWER The Clintons and Their America. By Roger Morris (Richard Brookhiser, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of KENNEDY & NIXON The Rivalry That Shaped Postwar America. By Christopher Matthews  (Richard Brookhiser, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of THE POLITICS OF RAGE George Wallace, the Origins of the New Conservatism, and the Transformation of American Politics. By Dan T. Carter (Richard Brookhiser, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of The Earth Shall Weep: A History of Native America, by James Wilson (Richard Brookhiser, National Review)
    -REVIEW : of Jim Sleeper (Liberal Racism) and Tamar Jacoby (Someone Else's House:  America's Unfinished Struggle for Integration) (Richard Brookhiser, NY observer)
    -REVIEW : of The Right Women: A Journey Through the Heart of Conservative America by Elinor Burkett (Richard Brookhiser, Commentary)
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next president with Wendy Kaminer, of the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study; Richard Brookhiser, senior editor at National Review magazine; and Yale Law School professors Akhil Reed Amar and Stephen Carter (Online Newshour, PBS, November 9, 2000)
    -ETEXT : Washington's Rules of Civility  (Papers of George Washington, UVA)
    -George Washington's Rules of Civility and Decent Behavior (Foundations Magazine)
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    -REVIEW : of  Founding Father Rediscovering George Washington. By Richard Brookhiser (Michiko Kakutani, NY Times)
    -REVIEW : of Founding Father Rediscovering George Washington. By Richard Brookhiser (Joseph J. Ellis , NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW :  Edmund S. Morgan: The Genuine Article, NY Review of Books
               Founding Father: Rediscovering George Washington by Richard Brookhiser
               The Invention of George Washington by Paul K. Longmore
               Cincinnatus: George Washington and the Enlightenment by Garry Wills
               George Washington: The Making of an American Symbol by Barry Schwartz
    -REVIEW : of Founding Father (Thomas J. Kuegler Jr., Horizons)
    -REVIEW : of FOUNDING FATHER, Rediscovering George Washington  (Monmouth University)
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               Alexander Hamilton, American by Richard Brookhiser
               Republican Empire: Alexander Hamilton on War and Free Government by Karl-Friedrich Walling
               A Fatal Friendship: Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr by Arnold A. Rogow
               Duel: Alexander Hamilton, Aaron Burr, and the Future of America by Thomas Fleming
               Burr, Hamilton, and Jefferson: A Study in Character by Roger G. Kennedy
               Scandalmonger by William Safire
    -REVIEW : of Alexander Hamilton, American (George McKenna, First Things)
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    -LECTURE : George Washington and Religion (Talk for Teachers' Institute at Mount Vernon, July 21, 1999)
    -ESSAY : The Apotheosis of George Washington: Brumidi's Fresco and Beyond (American Studies at the University of Virginia)
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    -ESSAY : Why the Founding is Back in Fashion (Jean M. Yarborough and Richard E. Morgan, City Journal)
    -ESSAY : CURIOUS GEORGE : Down at Mount Vernon, they are resurrecting a new and improved George Washington for the next millennium. (Eddie Dean, Washington City Paper)
    -ESSAY : George Washington's `Unmannerly' Behavior (William Guthrie Sayen, Virginia Magazine of History & Biography)
    -ESSAY : George Washington's Character (Katherine Kersten, Star Tribune)
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    -ESSAY : Before Amy Vanderbilt, there was George Washington (Women's Quarterly, Independent Women's Forum)

    -1996 Presidential Election Archive (Smithsonian)
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    -Links to Presidential Libraries (CSP)
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    -The National First Ladies' Library (Canton, OH)
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    -The White House (Washington, DC)
    -White House Historical Association

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    -ETEXT : Etiquette in Society, in Business, in Politics and at Home (Emily Post, 1922)
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    -ETEXT : A Manual of Etiquette, With Hints on Politeness and Good Breeding by "Daisy Eyebright"
    -EXCERPT : Chapter One of   A SHORT HISTORY OF RUDENESS : Manners, Morals, and Misbehavior in Modern America By Mark Caldwell
    -ARCHIVE : Etiquette for Today by Peggy Post (Good Housekeeping)
    -The Institute for Character Development, Iowa's Commitment to Civility
    -Civility 2000
    -Emily Post Institute
    -Etiquette Hell : ...a special cyber place created for the truly etiquette challenged, the purposely greedy, the ungrateful, and the uncivil members of society.
    -Etiquette International
    -Gestures Around the World
    -Netiquette Home Page (Arlene H. Rinaldi, Florida Atlantic University (FAU)
    -Web of Culture
    -ESSAY : THE AMERICAN UNCIVIL WARS : How crude, rude and obnoxious behavior has replaced good manners and why that hurts our politics and culture (US News and World Report)
    -ESSAY : Are We a Nation of Boors? (Dale Keiger, Johns Hopkins Magazine)
    -ESSAY : MIND YOUR MANNERS: It makes civilization possible. (Abigail Mccarthy, Commonweal)
    -ESSAY : Civility Valley It Ain't : One of technology's side-effects is erosion of common courtesy (Brian D. Rossman, Campbell Reporter)
    -ESSAY : The death of decency (MATT SCHUDEL, Orlando Sun-Sentinel)
    -REVIEW : of Systems of Survival: A Dialogue on the Moral Foundations of Commerce and Politics. By Jane Jacobs (Mary Ann Glendon, First Things)
    -REVIEW : of A SHORT HISTORY OF RUDENESS Manners, Morals, and Misbehavior in Modern America. By Mark Caldwell (Naomi Bliven, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of A SHORT HISTORY OF RUDENESS Manners, Morals and Misbehavior in Modern America By Mark Caldwell (Richard Eder, NY Times)
    -REVIEW : of THE RITUALS OF DINNER The Origins, Evolution, Eccentricities, and Meaning of Table Manners. By Margaret Visser (Molly O'Neill, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of THE HATLESS MAN An Anthology of Odd & Forgotten Manners. By Sarah Kortum (Frank J. Prial, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of CIVILITY Manners, Morals, and the Etiquette of Democracy. By Stephen L. Carter (Michael Lind, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of DEBRETT'S ETIQUETTE AND MODERN MANNERS. Edited by Elsie Burch Donald (Justin Kaplan, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of THE PILGRIM'S RULES OF ETIQUETTE By Taghi Modarressi (Penelope Fitzgerald, NY Times Book Review)
    -LINKS : Yahoo! Etiquette Guide