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Why George Washington’s rules matter more than ever today.

Before George Washington was the father of his country, or commander of the Continental Army in the Revolution, or even a fledgling officer in the British Army in 1754, he was just a struggling adolescent doing his homework in a six-room farmhouse along the Rappahannock River near Fredericksburg, Va. Unlike some of his Virginia contemporaries...
Time: 06:01     Date: 22.02.2018
Last US News - Opinion: Why George Washington’s rules matter more than ever today. NY Post 24 - US News

Unlike some of his Virginia contemporaries such as Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, Washington was never predestined for fame by virtue of breeding or formal education. He yearned for acceptance as an English gentleman. But he would have to work at it.

How hard he worked is underscored by one of the few documentary remnants of those years, from about 1745 through 1747, called “Rules of Civility and Decent Behavior in Company and Conversation.” He didn’t actually compose the rules, but copied them from an English translation of a 16th century Jesuit treatise, perhaps just to practice his penmanship. They nonetheless shaped his character.

The document, in Washington’s handwriting, includes 110 dos and don’ts designed to keep a man from being a lout. A few examples (using his spelling):

Undertake not what you cannot Perform . . . Let your Conversation be without Malice or Envy . . . When a man does all he can though it Succeeds not well blame not him that did it. Reproach none for the Infirmaties of Nature . . . Every action done in Company, ought to be with Some Sign of Respect, to those that are Present.

Reading them inescapably brings to mind Trump. Consider those last two, “reproach none” and “sign of respect” in juxtaposition to Trump’s ridicule of a New York Times reporter’s disability. You can find the connection on Twitter.

And then there’s this: “Wherein you reprove Another be unblameable yourself,” which perhaps is relevant to this Trump tweet from 2016:

“There’s never been anyone more abusive to women in politics than Bill Clinton. My words were unfortunate — the Clintons’ actions were far worse.”

Many deal with Virginia’s 18th century class society — how to behave in the presence of “your Betters” and your “equals.”

But they also include some timeless guidance:

Speak not injurious Words neither in Jest nor Earnest. Scoff at none although they give Occasion. Deride no mans Misfortune, though there Seem to be Some cause. Detract not from others . . . Be not apt to relate News if you know not the truth thereof. Associate yourself with Men of good Quality if you Esteem your own Reputation; for ‘tis better to be alone than in bad Company. Use no Reproachful Language against anyone . . . Mock not nor Jest at any thing of Importance . . . [Make no jests] that are sharp biting . . . Always Submit your Judgment to others with Modesty.

“The Rules” are not considered among the great Washington documents — like his Farewell Address.

In March, 2017, Bret Stephens, writing in the Wall Street Journal, built a column around the rules and Trump. The occasion was an infamous Trump tweet that former president Barack Obama “had my ‘wires tapped’ in Trump Tower . . .”

Stephens cited two of Washington’s rules: “ ‘Be not hasty to believe flying Reports to the Disparagement of any” and “Be not apt to relate News if you know not the truth thereof” and then wrote: “Care to name a political figure who might be well-served by observing such rules today?”

“Character rules, for better or worse,” he added.

“Americans used to know this, thanks to the likes of Washington. But liberals dropped the idea with Bill Clinton and conservatives dropped it with this guy. An earlier generation of moralists, philosophers and commonsensical people would have known what to call this: decline.”

In October, Washington’s Rules figured in an essay by two academics, Richard D. Brown and Richard Lyman Bushman. They suggested, as have others, that Trump’s rule-breaking was in fact the source of his power:

Washington did not dream up the rules. But he absorbed them and lived by them.

“All the Founding Fathers were aware” of the conventions reflected by the Rules, wrote historian Gordon Wood. “But no one was more serious in following them than Washington.”

They were the source of Washington’s power, Wood wrote. “Washington’s genius, his greatness, lay in his character” he said, and “it was his moral character that set him off from other men.”

Fred Barbash is a former national editor for The Washington Post.

© 2018, The Washington Post

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