Rules of civility

We hear admonitions that there must be more civility in political discourse. Ironically, this often comes from some of the most arrogant, ignorant, uncivil people on and close to the political stage. Currently, incivility can be heard from many in and around Washington, D. C.

Nearby at Mount Vernon, Virginia—home to the first president of the new American government authorized by a confederation of States—the opening of George Washington’s presidential library was celebrated last week, reported by Maria Recio of McClatchy News. And it’s about time. Over 200 years ago he wrote a friend that he wanted a building on the property to display his papers.

Unlike the 13 other presidential libraries, this one is privately funded. The Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association raised $106 million to fund the library. Its official name is the Fred W. Smith (no relation) National Library for the Study of George Washington. It’s a travesty that this “greatest president” had to wait for his modest wish while lesser ones have lavish facilities paid for by taxpayers. But it is appropriate that Washington’s “timeless relevance” is honored by private donations.

Many years ago a school notebook titled, “Forms of Writing” used by fourteen-year-old George while he attended school in Fredricksburg, Virginia was found at Mount Vernon. According to Bill Bennett in his “Book of Virtues,” inside the notebook in Washington’s handwriting were 110 “Rules for Civility in Conversation Amongst Men.” These helped young men of that period build character.

I’ve selected some of these rules listed below that I suggest our current president should learn from our first president:

__Every action in company ought to be with some sign of respect to those present.
__Turn not your back to others, especially in speaking.
__Be no flatterer, neither play with anyone that delights not to be played with.
__Let your countenance be pleasant, but in serious matters somewhat grave.
__It is good manners to prefer them to whom we speak before ourselves.
__Always submit your judgment to others with modesty.
__Undertake not to teach your equal in the art he himself professes; it savors of arrogance.
__Being to advise or reprehend anyone, consider whether it ought to be in public or in private, presently or at some other time, also in what terms to do it.
__Mock not nor jest at anything of importance; break no jests that are sharp or biting; and if you deliver anything witty or pleasant, abstain from laughing thereat yourself.
__Wherein you reprove another be unblamable yourself, for example is more prevalent than precept.
__Be not hasty to believe flying reports to the disparagement of anyone.
__Associate yourself with men of good quality if you esteem your own reputation, for it is better to be alone than in bad company.
__Let your conversation be without malice or envy, for it is a sign of tractable and commendable nature; and in all causes of passion admit reason to govern.
__Utter not base and frivolous things amongst grown and learned men, nor very difficult questions or subjects amongst the ignorant, nor things hard to be believed.
__Speak not injurious words, neither in jest or earnest. Scoff at none, although they give occasion.
__Detract not from others, but neither be excessive in commending.
__Think before you speak; pronounce not imperfectly, nor bring out your words too hastily, but orderly and distinctly.
__Undertake not what you cannot perform; but be careful to keep your promise.
__Speak no evil of the absent, for it is unjust.
__Labor to keep alive in your breast that little spark of celestial fire called conscience.


About R. E. Smith Jr.

Mr. Smith writes essays and commentary on politics, American history, environment, higher education and culture. He's been published in print media and at blog sites for about 25 years. Smith's formal education includes B.S. and M.S. degrees from the State University of New York and Syracuse University. He has earned a 21-credit hour Certificate in Professional Writing from the University of North Carolina-Wilmington. Training/work experience: NYS Ranger School; U. S. Army, Corp of Engineers; soil scientist and forester with USDA; Assoc. Professor at SUNY; real estate agent; small business owner.
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