The Rules of Civility

These maxims originated in the late sixteenth century in France and were popularly circulated during Washington’s time. Washington wrote out a copy of the 110 Rules in his school book when he was about sixteen-years old.

This exercise, now regarded as a formative influence in the development of his character, included guidelines for behavior in pleasant company, appropriate actions in formal situations, and general courtesies, such as: “Superfluous Complements and all Affectation of Ceremonie are to be avoided, yet where due they are not to be Neglected” (no. 25); “Think before you Speak” (no. 73); and “Rince not your Mouth in the Presence of Others” (no. 101).

The Library of Congress owns the original manuscript for the Rules of Civility, along with most of the other of Washington’s school exercises. The introduction that follows, Charles Moore’s “Origin of the Rules of Civility,” is taken from Moore’s George Washington’s Rules of Civility and Decent Behaviour In Company and Conversation, published in 1926 with an introduction and photographic facsimiles of the manuscript pages by the Houghton Mifflin Company of Boston and New York. The Papers of George Washington has set aside Washington’s school exercises for separate publication because with appropriate annotation they will fill a volume in themselves (see the editorial note to Washington’s School Exercises, 1744-1748, in The Papers of George Washington, Colonial Series, W. W. Abbot et al, eds., [University Press of Virginia, Charlottesville, 1983], vol. 1, pp. 1-4).

Charles Moore’s Origin of the Rules of Civility

Among the hundreds of volumes of Washington Manuscripts in the Library of Congress, two contain the school exercises of George Washington, written before he had reached the age of sixteen years. The one devoted to mathematics exhibits a wide range of subjects, combined with sureness and accuracy in working, and clearness and neatness of presentation. Few graduates of colleges to-day, unless they specialize in mathematics, become so well trained in that subject. The problems in surveying show that at sixteen Washington was fitted to earn his living in the field.

The second book begins with legal forms, such as every planter should know: bills of sale and exchange, contracts, conveyances, deeds, leases, and even wills. The middle portion contains a Christmas poem, and also one entitled “True Happiness,” which strongly suggest that the boyish love poems attributed to his pen were taken from some book, now unknown. Probably they expressed his feelings at the moment, and he copied them.

The remaining ten pages of the second book are occupied by one hundred and ten “Rules of Civility and Decent Behaviour in Company and Conversation,” about which much has been written and little is known. These maxims were so fully exemplified in George Washington’s life that biographers have regarded them as formative influences in the development of his character.

During the days before mere hero worship had given place to understanding and comprehension of the fineness of Washington’s character, of his powerful influence among men, and of the epoch-making nature of the issues he so largely shaped, it was assumed that Washington himself composed the maxims, or at least that he compiled them. It is a satisfaction to find that his consideration for others, his respect for and deference to those deserving such treatment, his care of his own body and tongue, and even his reverence for his Maker, all were early inculcated in him by precepts which were the common practice in decent society the world over. These very maxims had been in use in France for a century and a half, and in England for a century, before they were set as a task for the schoolboy Washington.

That romantic and stimulating scholar, the late Moncure D. Conway, was born in Falmouth, Virginia. The Falls of the Rappahannock made music to his boyish ears, as they had sung to the young Washington. Mr. Conway’s knowledge of times and places and people in Colonial Virginia stimulated his zeal for research and gave food for his vivid imagination. He was the first to trace the origin of the Maxims to a treatise entitled “Bienseance de la Conversation entre les Hommes,” prepared, in 1595, by the “pensionnaires” of the French Jesuit College of La Fleche, and sent by them to their brothers at Pont-a-Mousson.

One of the recipients, Father Perin, translated the Maxims into Latin, adding a chapter of his own on behavior at table. The Latin edition appeared at Pont-a-Mousson in 1617, at Paris in 1638, at Rouen in 1651. It was translated into Spanish, German, and Bohemian. A French edition appeared at Paris at least as early as 1640. [Author’s note: George Washington’s Rules of Civility Traced to their Sources and Restored, by Moncure D. Conway; 1891. See also Backer’s Jesuit Bibliography).]

Just as he had completed his comparisons with the French work, Mr. Conway found in the British Museum an English version of the Maxims, “purporting to be by a child in his eighth year,” first printed in London in 1640. “The translations are indeed rude,” he writes, “and sometimes inaccurate as to the sense, but that they were the unaided work of a child under eight is one of the “things hard to be believed” which a Maxim admonishes us not to tell.” Mr. Conway’s conclusion is that “A careful comparison of Washington’s Rules with the Hawkins version renders it doubtful whether the Virginia boy used the work of the London boy. The differences are more than the resemblances.”

civility_hawkinsYet admittedly Washington knew no French. As easily as the young Washington himself threw a stone across the Rappahannock, Mr. Conway overcomes this difficulty by having the Maxims translated from the French and made into copy-book form by the Reverend James Marye, who was born within the pale of the Catholic Church, at Rouen, but who came to Virginia with the first Huguenot Colony and was the minister of St. George’s Parish, Spotsylvania County, from 1735 till his death in 1767. His home was at Fayetteville, eight miles from Fredericksburg. There he lived and was buried. [Author’s note: Documents, chiefly unpublished, relating to the Huguenot emigration to Virginia. Edited and compiled by Robert Alonzo Brock. Richmond, 1886. History of St. George’s Parish in the County of Spotsylvania, by Rev. Philip Slaughter, D.D. Edited by R. A. Brock. Richmond, 1890.] The fact that James Marye was born in France and was educated as a Jesuit makes plausible the theory that he had knowledge of a work on manners known throughout the civilized world. He might have been Washington’s teacher; but there is no proof that he taught in Fredericksburg or elsewhere, or even that there was a school in Fredericksburg in his day, then little more than a name. Indeed we are by no means certain that George Washington went to school. His father, Augustine Washington, died in 1743, when the boy was eleven years old, and thereafter, until he was sixteen, he lived with his half-brother, Augustine, on the ancestral acres in Westmoreland County, forty miles from Fredericksburg. He was often at his mother’s home, at Ferry Farm, across the Rappahannock from Fredericksburg; but we are not certain who his teachers were or whether he was taught outside his own home.

A comparison of texts furnishes proof positive that the Maxims copied by George Washington came from the Hawkins version, and not from the French. The doubts thrown on the Hawkins work because of the author’s youth are unfounded.

Francis Hawkins was born in London in 1628. His father, John Hawkins, M.D. (Padua), was a brother of Sir Thomas Hawkins and of Henry Hawkins, all members of an old, active and influential family. Dr. John Hawkins had pub fished five books before his precocious son Francis, at the age of eight years, turned into English the French version of the Maxims. The pleased father took the manuscript to the printer, William Lee, who published it about 1640. The troubled state of the country kept the book from being reprinted until 1646, when a second edition appeared. Then followed in quick succession nine other editions before 1672.

A second part, entitled “Youth’s behaviour, or Decency in Conversation amongst Women”: with a portrait of Lady Ferrers, was added by the Puritan bookmaker, Robert Codrington, in 1664. This shows that Puritans as well as Cavaliers, Protestants as well as Romanists, regarded Hawkins’s Maxims as stepping-stones to favor. Indeed, so thoroughly was Hawkins’s English version accepted that Hawkins is regarded as the author of the book, and mention of the French authorship does not go beyond the expression on the title-page: “composed in French by grave persons for the use and benefit of their youth.”

Meanwhile Hawkins, at the age of twenty-one, entered the Society of Jesus. In 1662 he was professed of four vows; ten years later he was confessor at Ghent, and from 1675 till his death in 1680-81 he was professor of Holy Scripture at Liege College. [Dictionary of National Biography.]

The open questions are: who condensed, and arranged as exercises in writing, the Hawkins Maxims; and, second, who taught George Washington penmanship by the use of them ?

In any event, and whoever the teacher, it was the Hawkins English version and not the French version that was the source of the rules Washington copied. Is it not probable that the Hawkins book was one of those compilations that “no gentleman’s library could be without,” notwithstanding the fact that no such title appears in the catalogue of the library of William Byrd of Westover, reputed to have been the finest in the Colonies? Is it not possible that either Washington’s father or one of his half-brothers, all three of whom were educated in England, brought back a copy of one of the Hawkins editions?

One copy of the edition of 1663 has survived in the Library of Congress. The New York, Harvard, and Richmond Libraries report no copies. But the British Museum has the editions of 1646, 1651, 1663, and 1672; and also a Latin translation of the same work, London, MDCLII. The Bodleian Library, Oxford, has the seventh impression, 1661; eighth impression, I 663; ninth impression, I 668; and eleventh impression, 1672. Trinity College Library, Cambridge, England, has at least two editions-1663 and 1672. Dr. James H. Penniman of Philadelphia owns a copy of the edition of 1651,–the only copy of any edition I have found in this country, except the one in the Library of Congress.

The Library of Congress copy has been used as the basis of the comparisons herein made between the Washington and Hawkins texts. With its aid the Washington Rules have been restored, in cases of mutilation, with an accuracy more complete than the conjectural restorations of Dr. Toner [Author’s note: Washington’s Rules of Civility and Decent Behaviour in Company and Conversation. Copied from the original . . . and edited with notes, by J. M. Toner, M.D. Washington, D.C., 1888.] and of Mr. Conway. Of the one hundred and ten Rules in the Washington manuscript, not all are in the French version. Among them are a number that were added by English writers in the later editions of the Hawkins book. All the Rules are in the 1663 edition.

The hiatus of three quarters of a century between the latest known edition of Hawkins and the date which Washington himself placed upon his manuscript of the Rules is still unclosed. The Rules are not found in The Young Man’s Companion, by W. Mather, a copy of which school-book, with the name of George Washington and the date 1742 plainly written on the title-page, has been on the market. It is not established that the writing is his or that he owned the book, although it is contemporary with him. Nor have the Rules yet been discovered in any other like publication from 1672 till this day.

Professor E. K. Rand, of Harvard University, has called my attention to Dr. F. J. Furnivall’s collections of texts on Early English Meals and Manners and Queene Elizabethes Academy; and to the modernization of these texts by Edith Rickert, under the title of The Babees’ Book: Medieval Manners for the Young (1908). Many rules naturally are similar to those to be found in both the French and the English versions, but identity is lacking. Moreover, although mention is made of compilations so late as Richard Weste’s School of Virtue, printed in 1619, no mention is made of Perin’s work, or of Hawkins’.

Here, then, is the conclusion of the whole matter as it now stands: The Rules of Civility were composed originally, or compiled, and published in France, by the Jesuits, about 1595; they were translated into English by Francis Hawkins about 1640, and passed through no fewer than eleven editions down to 1672. From the Hawkins book the one hundred and ten Rules written by Washington were selected, simplified and arranged by some person at present unknown. One copy came into the hands of George Washington, who from it wrote out the manuscript that is among the Washington Papers purchased: from the family by Congress in 1834 and 1849, and held in the Department of State until 1903, when they were transferred to the Library of Congress.

I am indebted to Mr. R. F. Sharp, Keeper of the Department of Printed Books in the British Museum; to Mr. S. Gibson, Secretary of the Bodleian Library, Oxford; and to Mr. H. M. Adams, Librarian of Trinity College, Cambridge, England, for painstaking investigation in their several institutions, and for their prompt and courteous replies to inquiries.

Miss Emily B. Mitchell, long connected with the Division of Manuscripts in the Library of Congress, has prepared the manuscript of this work, and has aided in the research involved. Mr. Levin C. Handy has photographed the Washington Rules in such manner as to bring out the very best that in them is.

Charles Moore
Washington, D.C. May, 1926.


From George Washington’s Rules of Civility and Decent Behaviour in Company and Conversation. Edited with an Introduction by Charles Moore (Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1926), xi-xv.

5 thoughts on “The Rules of Civility

  1. I’ve purchased a number of copies of this great work over the years. Washington’s “Rules of Civility and Decent Behavior” are sometimes said to be written when he was 16 years old. Doing some research for my book, “George Washington’s Liberty Key,” I found this to be unlikely, as at that age Washington was soon off to be a surveyor. More likely, he was between 12 and 15 years old when he did this penmanship exercise, which certainly helped him later in life, when clearly written orders were important to his military success. A great gift to young adults for helping to develop aspects of good character!

  2. I bought in the 80s Richard Brookhiser’s little book RULES OF CIVILITY, THE 110 PRECEPTS THAT GUIDED OUR FIRST PRESIDENT IN WAR AND PEACE. Very good. It may still be edited these days.

  3. Hi Allen,
    You can find the Rules of Civility by following the links listed next to “View” at the top of this page. Both the original view and digital view are available!

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