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George Washington’s Early Lessons Prove Politeness Is A Civic Virtue

Young Washington: ‘Cleanse not your teeth with the Table Cloth Napkin Fork or Knife but if Others do it let it be done wt. a Pick Tooth.’


In honor of the Fourth of July holiday, let’s consider some timeless words from our first president. When he was only a schoolboy, George Washington transcribed the unforgettable “110 Rules of Civility and Decent Behaviour in Company and Conversation.”

Below are some of the rules most meaningful to me.

Rule No. 5: “If You Cough, Sneeze, Sigh or Yawn, do it not Loud but Privately; and Speak not in your Yawning, but put Your handkercheif or Hand before your face and turn aside.”

Rule No. 12: “Shake not the head, Feet, or Legs rowl not the Eys lift not one eyebrow higher than the other . . . and bedew no mans face with your Spittle, by approaching too near him when you Speak.”

Rule No. 90: “Being Set at meat Scratch not neither Spit Cough or blow your Nose except there’s a Necessity for it.”

Rule No. 100: “Cleanse not your teeth with the Table Cloth Napkin Fork or Knife but if Others do it let it be done wt. a Pick Tooth.” (Emphasis mine.)

Thus, we can clearly see that the pursuit of manners is a patriotic virtue—at least, that’s what I told my three boys. Let’s just say etiquette was not their strong suit, particularly at the table.

Thank God, there has been improvement over the years. Fifteen years ago, my after-dinner routine included mopping down the walls and picking rice out of the carpet grain by grain. During the course of an average meal, we had five out of three kids spilling their drink. I can still hear the sound of Raspberry Crystal Light—a.k.a. bug juice—dripping between the table leaves.

By middle school they generally managed to keep the majority of their spaghetti on their plates, and the majority of their drink in their cups. But the struggle with the basics was real: Chew with your mouth closed! Don’t wipe your hands on your shirt! Stop guzzling your bug juice! Now!

Out of desperation, I did a little web surfing and discovered a book called “Manners Made Easy.” On the cover is a smiling, suit-clad little boy with angel wings and a halo. Perfect! When the book finally arrived in the mail, I ripped open the packaging and skipped to the final chapter, called “Table Manners.”

I read, “When sitting down to dinner, a gentleman seats the lady on his right, then any others who do not have a male escort.” I immediately sensed a disconnect. Our table manners problem was not a lack of male escorts. Our problem was an over-abundance of male escorts.

Ms. Manners-Made-Easy also has a complete set of iced tea rules:

  1. If you use lemon in your drink, use your left hand to cover the right hand while you squeeze the lemon wedge.
  2. Don’t crumple the sweetener packet. (But can you eat the sweetener packet? Asking for the sons of a friend.)
  3. The iced teaspoon is the only utensil you can prop. This avoids getting tea stains on the tablecloth.
  4. Never leave a spoon protruding from a glass; you might poke yourself in the eye.

All of this shows the wisdom of drinking bug juice, pre-mixed by mom to the exact artificial specifications.

Then I heard about cotillion—the complete etiquette experience, providing lessons in table manners and ballroom dance. Perfect! But when I called to register my oldest son, they told me I would have to simultaneously register a girl student. Apparently, they have trouble with unescorted males, too.

Fortunately, the mere threat of cotillion offered some leverage.

Whatever your patriotic festivities, may we all remember this final pearl from little Georgie: Rule No. 107:  “. . . talk not with Meat in your Mouth.” I wonder how many times the First Mother made him write that one.