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Washington's rules of civility and decency

Sunday, February 22, marks George Washington’s 266th birthday. As the nation struggles to deal with a chief executive who has tried to separate personal morality and public virtue, there can be no more appropriate time to reflect on what the father of our country had to say about such matters.

Let me quote from his first inaugural address: ” … The foundations of our national policy will be laid in the pure and immutable principles of private morality, and the preeminence of free government be exemplified by all the attributes which can win the affections of its citizens, and command the respect of the world. I dwell on this prospect with every satisfaction which an ardent love for my country can inspire: since there is no truth more thoroughly established, than that there exists in the economy and course of nature, an indissoluble union between virtue and happiness; between duty and advantage; between the genuine maxims of an honest and magnanimous policy, and the solid rewards of public prosperity and felicity: since we ought to be no less persuaded that the propitious smiles of Heaven can never be expected on a nation that disregards the external rules of order and right, which Heaven itself has ordained: and since the preservation of the sacred fire of liberty, and the destiny of the republican model of government, are justly considered as deeply, perhaps as finally, staked on the experiment entrusted to the hands of the American People.”

Washington cautioned his countrymen not to look for public virtue in places and people without private morality. And he warned that the great American experiment in freedom would not last without a people chastened by religious and moral principles. Indeed, as he said, the very foundation of our nation must be laid in private morality. In his farewell address, Washington returned to this theme, adding that a nation could not be happy and prosperous without being virtuous.

“Can it be, that Providence has not connected the permanent felicity of a Nation with its virtue?” he asked. “The experiment, at least, is recommended by every sentiment which enables human Nature. Alas! Is it rendered impossible by its vices?”

What did all this mean in the real world? Washington was very specific – and very practical. Even as an adolescent he drafted 110 rules of civil behavior, borrowing liberally from a text used by generations of Jesuit tutors. He carried this document on his person throughout his entire extraordinary life. These were the principles that guided him through war and peace, through trial and triumph.

More than ever 200 years later, as we consider the lawyerly double-talk emanating from the White House about Monica Lewinsky, Kathleen Willey, Paula Jones, et al, the complete document is well worth study and contemplation. But in light of current events, let us reflect on some highlights of these simple, yet profound, precepts:

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

2. When in company, put not your hands to any part of the body not usually discovered.

7. Put not off your clothes in the presence of others, nor go out your chamber half dressed.

20. The gestures of the body must be suited to the discourse you are upon.

56. Associate yourself with men of good quality if you esteem your own reputation; for ’tis better to be alone than in bad company.

58. Let your conversation be without malice or envy, for ’tis a sign of a tractable and commendable nature, and in all causes of passion permit reason to govern.

59. Never express anything unbecoming, nor act against the rules before your inferiors.

82. Undertake not what you cannot perform but be careful to keep your promise.

108. When you speak of God or his Attributes, let it be seriously …

109. Let your recreations be manful not sinful.

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

Don’t you wish Bill Clinton carried around rules of behavior like these? Don’t you wish he had at least read and embraced such precepts?

One more closing thought from Washington’s farewell: “Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, Religion and morality are indispensable supports. In vain would that man claim the tribute of Patriotism, who should labor to subvert these great Pillars of human happiness, these firmest props of the duties of Men and citizens. The mere Politician, equally with the pious man ought to respect and to cherish them. A volume could not trace all their connections with private and public felicity. Let it simply be asked where is the security for property, for reputation, for life, if the sense of religious obligation desert the oaths, which are the instruments of investigation in Courts of Justice? And let us with caution indulge the supposition, that morality can be maintained without religion. Whatever may be conceded to the influence of refined education on minds of peculiar structure, reason and experience both forbid us to expect the National morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.

“‘Tis substantially true, that virtue or morality is a necessary spring of popular government. The rule indeed extends with more or less force to every species of free Government. Who that is a sincere friend to it, can look with indifference upon attempts to shake the foundation of the fabric?”