The Rules

Time-tested secrets for becoming father of our country.

George Washington: Writings
Selected by John H. Rhodehamel
Library of America; 1,149 pages; $40

Rules of Civility: The 110 Precepts That Guided Our First President in War and Peace
By George Washington
Edited and with commentary by Richard Brookhiser
Free Press; 90 pages; $16

George Washington was virtuous, but was virtuousness altogether a good thing? This entirely reasonable question turns out to be extremely old. Stendhal posed it in the 1830s in his novel Lucien Leuwen, in which the wealthy young Parisian hero contemplates fleeing the corruptions of monarchical old France for a new start in virtuous republican America. But would Stendhal’s hero be able to stand the virtuous republicans? He considers paying a visit on George Washington himself–America’s greatest man–at home on his farm. But would he find Washington’s conversation bright and sparkling?

“Washington would have bored me to death,” Stendhal’s hero concludes. (American readers are aghast.) “I would prefer by a hundred times the elegant manners of a corrupt heart.”

Now comes the Library of America, with a handsome new edition (published on elegant paper with a lustrous black cover) of the writings of Washington himself, more than a thousand pages of letters and documents of every sort, which allows us to judge for ourselves. The book makes a strange impression. The Library of America, in its admirable effort to present America’s literature and classic political documents in pristine form, has adopted the rather extreme policy of publishing its volumes without any sort of introductory guide, which is probably just as well in the case of literary authors whose work is easily approached.

Some authors require an introduction, though–political writers, especially. The Library of America produced a fat 1,500-page volume of Jefferson some years ago, but Jefferson’s writings turned out to be a shapeless heap of private letters and peculiar jottings intermixed with an occasional manifesto of immortal grandeur–and to make your way through them unaided was nearly impossible. Likewise with the new Washington volume. Washington was not a book writer, or any kind of writer at all, professionally speaking, but took quill in hand merely to address particular situations as they arose. His Writings, as a result, offer a puzzling mass of personal letters, military records, presidential orations, ringing statements, and random insignificant scribblings, all of them put into chronological order by the Library of America–which is to say into very little order at all, except that of chance.

Still, the patriotic reader plunges in–and instantly discovers, in the volume’s first entry, a document of capital importance in re the insidious, Gallically anti-American accusation offered by Stendhal’s novel. The opening document, dating from 1747, when Washington was 15, is a numbered catechism of dos and don’ts called “Rules of Civility & Decent Behavior in Company and Conversation.” Whether this document belongs in a collection of Washington’s writings seems a little dubious, given that (as the assiduous reader will discover with a glance at the note on page 1,094 by the volume’s editor, John Rhodehamel) Washington did not actually write these Rules but merely copied them from an English translation of a French-language Jesuit text from the 16th century.

The Rules contain 110 numbered passages offering such worthy bits of advice as this, from No. 12, “[B]edew no mans face with your Spittle, by approaching too near him when you Speak,” or this, from No. 16, “Do not Puff up the Cheeks, Loll not out the tongue, rub the Hands, or beard, thrust out the lips, or bite them or keep the Lips too open or too Close.” No. 90 says, “Being Set at meat Scratch not neither Spit Cough or blow your Nose except there’s a Necessity for it.” And, at once, from the opening document of Washington’s Writings, the suspicion arises that the Father of Our Country was, in truth, a hideous Bore.

Alas! But what makes the unhappy discovery truly appalling is the further incredible discovery that Washington’s earnest and humorless Rules are considered by experts to be the key to his entire career, and therefore, in some respect, a key to America’s two centuries of national success. Last year a conservative writer named Richard Brookhiser published a biography, titled Founding Father: Rediscovering George Washington, which made the point that Washington, by keeping in mind his carefully inscribed numbered Rules throughout his momentous life, conducted himself correctly in all the Little Ways (no bedewing of others with Spittle, Hats properly Doffed, and so forth), which led to right conduct in the Big Ways, too, thus to political and military triumph.

Supremely convinced of this point, Brookhiser has gone ahead and brought out his own little edition of Washington’s rules under the title Rules of Civility: The 110 Precepts That Guided Our First President in War and Peace, slightly altered to eliminate the 18th-century idiosyncrasies (a pity) and emended with small commentaries by Brookhiser himself, some of them pertaining to events in Washington’s life, others solemnly applying of Washington’s rules to circumstances of today.

Yet, even Brookhiser, for all his sober devotion to civility as the key to everything, cannot escape noticing something ridiculous, therefore comic, in Washington’s rules. And so, bravely embracing what he cannot deny, Brookhiser, in his edition of the rules, throws in some jocularity of his own, with the sure lightness of touch you would expect from an author who has based his biography of Washington on a guide to etiquette. Washington’s Rule No. 2 proclaims (in the Library of America’s superior 18th-century version), “When in Company, put not your Hands to any Part of the Body not usually Discovered.” To which Brookhiser gruesomely adds, in his own edition, “A rule often flouted by rap singers and pitchers.” Washington’s Rule No. 4 says, “In the Presence of Others Sing not to yourself with a humming Noise, nor Drum with your Fingers or Feet.” To which Brookhiser adds, “Don’t carry a boom box either.” And the embarrassments pile up, one upon the other, and the patriotic reader wilts in his chair, and Washington ends up too ludicrous for words.

At least the Library of America’s Writings contains an endless supply of additional material. There are military entries full of wampum and warpaths (during the French and Indian War) and complaints to Congress (during the Revolutionary War), which are interesting to read, even if Washington–unlike Grant and Sherman from the Civil War–was not much of a military writer. There is a long amiable letter to the young Lafayette in 1779, in which Washington, in a giddy mood, drifts into a reverie about competing for Lafayette’s young wife with Lafayette himself–a funny bit of teasing, followed abruptly by a rueful reassurance, worthy of Stendhal himself, that “amidst all the wonders recorded in holy writ no instance can be produced where a Woman from real inclination has preferred an old man.” It is interesting to see how warm he grew toward Alexander Hamilton (he signed his letters “I am Your Affectionate”), and how awkward and self-conscious toward Jefferson, whose allies were berating Washington “in such exaggerated and indecent terms as could scarcely be applied to a Nero; a notorious defaulter; or even to a common pick-pocket.”

Naturally, the Library of America edition also contains, hidden here and there in impossible-to-find locations, a number of solemn and stirring documents of state–for instance, the reply, genuinely dear to my own multiculturally American Jewish heart, that Washington made, as president, to a letter from the Hebrew Congregation of Newport, R.I. The congregation had written to congratulate him about something or other (unspecified by the notes), and Washington replied:

The Citizens of the United States of America have a right to applaud themselves for having given to mankind examples of an enlarged and liberal policy: a policy worthy of imitation. All possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship. It is now no more that toleration is spoken of, as if it was by the indulgence of one class of people that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights. For happily the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens, in giving in on all occasions their effectual support. …

May the children of the Stock of Abraham, who dwell in this land, continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other Inhabitants; while every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and figtree, and there shall be none to make him afraid.

The letter is wonderfully gracious–and yet, the graciousness owes everything to Washington’s feelings about republican revolution, and nothing at all to what could be learned from a 16th-century Jesuit manual of courtly behavior.