Nearly daily a political figure or commentator demands a return to the principles of America’s founding fathers. For a few of these speakers, incorporating colonial ideas on civility & decent behavior in company and conversation, might be very worthwhile.
The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, operator of the world’s largest living history museum in Williamsburg, Virginia holds a treasure trove of founding father wisdom. A paper on civility, with 110 rules of behavior, prepared by George Washington, sometime before the age of 16, is on the Foundation website.
The ten page list begins with rules of conversation, then discusses behavior among different classes (“people of quality,” servants, masters, etc.). A significant part of the list addresses table manners and still other sections discuss public presence, including how to act when observing misfortune or punishment of others. Many rules prescribe modulation in demeanor and keeping one’s business to oneself.
Today, many bemoan the state of public discourse. Given that a common best practice for effective meetings is use of ground rules, I wondered, what would happen if Washington’s mid 1700’s ground rules were adopted today? We, of course, would need a different method for enforcing ground rules as duels are not practical or legal.
I sifted through the list to find key guidelines. Picking a top 10 from the original 110 rules wasn’t easy. A few of the rules that didn’t make the final cut are still great for staff meetings, such as rule #5, use a handkerchief when you cough or sneeze, or #6, “Sleep not when others Speak, Sit not when others stand, Speak not when you Should hold your Peace …”
Still, a top ten WWWD (what would Washington do?) list for public meetings follows:
- Every Action done in Company, ought to be with Some Sign of Respect, to those that are Present.
- When in Company, put not your Hands to any Part of the Body, not usually Discovered.
- Use no Reproachful Language against any one neither Curse nor Revile.
- Speak not injurious Words neither in Jest nor Earnest Scoff at none although they give Occasion.
- If two contend together take not the part of either unconstrained; and be not obstinate in your own Opinion, in Things indifferent be of the Major Side.
- While you are talking, Point not with your Finger at him of Whom you Discourse nor Approach too near him to whom you talk especially to his face.
- In Disputes, be not So Desirous to Overcome as not to give Liberty to each one to deliver his Opinion and Submit to the Judgment of the Major Part especially if they are Judges of the Dispute.
- Let thy carriage be such as becomes a Man Grave Settled and attentive to that which is spoken. Contradict not at every turn what others Say.
- Be not tedious in Discourse, make not many Digressions, nor repeat often the Same manner of Discourse.
- Speak not Evil of the absent for it is unjust.
These ground rules echo ones I use in public meetings today. Civility in the public dialogue is practical for the efficient functioning of governance and respectful of those who engage in it. Calls for civility are not new or partisan.
Some may accuse me of being selective, cherry picking a list to prove a point. This is true. As an example, the WWWD list doesn’t include #13, “Kill no Vermin as Fleas, lice or ticks in the Sight of Others. If you See any filth or thick Spittle put your foot Dexterously upon it. If it be upon the Cloths of your Companions, Put it off privately, and if it be upon your own Cloths return Thanks to him who puts it off.” (Although, in retrospect I should rethink this, as it seems to be good advice.)
In fact most forays to the past are selective. Context does matter. What need not change is a foundational belief in a form of government strong enough to consider multiple points of view. Knowing this, we can affirm that respectful listening and civil exchange are worthwhile endeavors.