When George Washington was a young man, he copied out a list of 110 “Rules of Civility and Decent Behavior in Company and Conversation.” Some of the rules in his list dealt with the niceties of going to a dinner party or meeting somebody on the street.Read the rest here.
“Lean not upon anyone,” was one of the rules. “Read no letter, books or papers in company,” was another. “If any one come to speak to you while you are sitting, stand up,” was a third.
But, as the biographer Richard Brookhiser has noted, these rules, which Washington derived from a 16th-century guidebook, were not just etiquette tips. They were designed to improve inner morals by shaping the outward man. Washington took them very seriously. He worked hard to follow them. Throughout his life, he remained acutely conscious of his own rectitude.
In so doing, he turned himself into a new kind of hero. He wasn’t primarily a military hero or a political hero. As the historian Gordon Wood has written, “Washington became a great man and was acclaimed as a classical hero because of the way he conducted himself during times of temptation. It was his moral character that set him off from other men.”
Washington absorbed, and later came to personify what you might call the dignity code. The code was based on the same premise as the nation’s Constitution — that human beings are flawed creatures who live in constant peril of falling into disasters caused by their own passions. Artificial systems have to be created to balance and restrain their desires.
The dignity code commanded its followers to be disinterested — to endeavor to put national interests above personal interests. It commanded its followers to be reticent — to never degrade intimate emotions by parading them in public. It also commanded its followers to be dispassionate — to distrust rashness, zealotry, fury and political enthusiasm.