Our first president left us lessons on civility and humility

July 3, 2022 9:00 am

George Washington created a model for civility. (Photo illustration by Iowa Capital Dispatch. Flag image via Canva. Washington portrait courtesy of the Library of Congress)

When George Washington was 6 years old, he received a hatchet as a gift and immediately tested it on his father’s cherry tree. His father saw the damaged tree and asked his son if he had done the deed. The boy confessed with his most famous maxim: “I cannot tell a lie.”

The story itself is a lie, invented by Washington’s 1800 biographer, Mason Locke Weems.

Nevertheless, Washington at age 14 copied in a notebook French maxims from the 16th century accepted as virtuous during his time. They became known as “110 Rules of Civility.”

To be sure, some of those maxims are hopelessly outdated, such as:

  • Spit not in the fire, nor stoop low before it, neither put your hands into the flames to warm them, nor set your feet upon the fire especially if there be meat before it.

But consider these worthy practices:

  • Every action done in company ought to be with some sign of respect, to those that are present.
  • Show nothing to your friend that may affright him.
  • Read no letters, books, or papers in company but when there is a necessity for the doing of it you must ask to leave.
  • Reproach none for the infirmities of nature.
  • Show not yourself glad at the misfortune of another though he were your enemy.
  • When you see a crime punished, you may be inwardly pleased; but always show pity to the suffering offender.
  • Do not laugh too loud or too much at any public spectacle.
  • Use no reproachful language against anyone, neither curse nor revile.
  • Be not hasty to believe flying reports to the disparagement of any.
  • Let your conversation be without malice or envy.
  • Think before you speak.
  • Be not curious to know the affairs of others, neither approach those that speak in private.
  • Undertake not what you cannot perform but be careful to keep your promise.

Can you name any current politician or public servant in the White House, Congress or Supreme Court who respects all in their presence; is considerate of others, no matter their station in life; stows away cell phones in public; shows compassion to enemies and offenders; refuses to spread rumors; acts without malice or envy; and keeps their promises?

Those should be qualifications for anyone seeking public office.

Washington may have been civil but also was fallible and, on occasion, immoral. Do you recall the myth about his wooden teeth? After the cherry tree, this is the second most popular misconception about the first president. He did suffer from bad teeth through most of his adult life. But none of those dentures were made of wood; they were fashioned from animal teeth, carved ivory and human teeth from enslaved people.

At the time of his death, Washington owned 123 slaves. Shortly before his death, he freed them and supported others in perpetuity who were too ill to find work.

Washington’s contributions to democracy are many, from his victory over the English at Yorktown in the Revolutionary War to his promises to the American people in his two terms as commander in chief.

Washington set an example for presidents to follow that they should leave office gracefully upon the completion of their terms, a tradition that continued until Donald. J. Trump and the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection.

To understand Washington’s essence, consider his second inaugural address, the shortest in history, at 135 words:

“Fellow Citizens: I am again called upon by the voice of my country to execute the functions of its Chief Magistrate. When the occasion proper for it shall arrive, I shall endeavor to express the high sense I entertain of this distinguished honor, and of the confidence which has been reposed in me by the people of united America.

“Previous to the execution of any official act of the President the Constitution requires an oath of office. This oath I am now about to take, and in your presence: That if it shall be found during my administration of the Government, I have in any instance violated willingly or knowingly the injunctions thereof, I may (besides incurring constitutional punishment) be subject to the upbraidings of all who are now witnesses of the present solemn ceremony.”

He promised to serve with dignity. If he violated his oath, he would duly suffer shame and punishment.

His most important tenet in the “Rules of Civility” is the final one, 110: “Labor to keep alive in your breast that little spark of celestial fire called conscience.”

Washington’s values — trust, respect, courtesy, dignity and honor — all fall under the moral umbrella of humility.

Philosophers define humility as an aspect of the conscience — that still, small voice guiding our actions — based on an inner knowledge of our own goodness and, more importantly, limitations. “Immodest people have, among other things, an inflated sense of themselves, their accomplishments, and their place in the world.”

That would define most politicians and their bombast in advance of the 2022 midterms. The public deserves better.

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Michael Bugeja
Michael Bugeja

Michael Bugeja is the author of "Living Media Ethics" (Routledge/Taylor & Francis) and "Interpersonal Divide in the Age of the Machine" (Oxford Univ. Press). He is a regular contributor to Iowa Capital Dispatch and is writing a series of columns on the topic of "Living Ethics." Views expressed here are his own.