Visit Your Local PBS Station PBS Home PBS Home Programs A-Z TV Schedules Watch Video Donate Shop PBS Search PBS
Rediscovering George Washington
Washington: Father of His Country The Washington Collection
Washington in the Classroom About the Program
Timeline: George Washington's Life Milestones
Multimedia Room Search the Site
Book of Etiquette
Battles of Trenton & Princeton
Battle of Monmouth
Letter to Lewis Nicola
Speech to Officers at Newburgh
Constitutional Convention
First Inaugural Address
Letter to Hebrew Congregation at Newport
The First Thanksgiving
Farewell Address
Free Slaves in Last Will and Testament
Read About Listen
Book of Etiquette

Book of Etiquette 1747

The most famous story of George Washington's boyhood in rural Virginia is of his cutting down a cherry tree and finding himself unable to lie about it. This story first appeared in print in a biography of Washington written by Rev. Mason L. Weems shortly after Washington's death, and was in all likelihood a fabrication. But even if fabricated, it proved insightful in suggesting youthful origins of the extraordinary rectitude for which Washington was universally noted by his contemporaries.

Washington's concern for morality can be dated back at least to a list of “Rules of Civility and Decent Behavior” that he copied into his school writing book when he was 16. Most of these 110 rules, which have been traced to a late-16th century French etiquette manual, concern manners in both speech ("Mock not nor jest at anything of importance") and deed ("When in company, put not your hands to any part of the body not usually discovered"). But several address also the habits of the mind ("Be not hasty to believe flying reports to the disparagement of any"). The last rule reads: "Labor to keep alive in your breast the little spark of celestial fire called conscience." Conscience here refers to man's innate grasp of, or ability to reason about, moral right and wrong. When the American Founders would later declare independence from Great Britain in 1776, it was by virtue of this "spark of celestial fire" that they would establish the principles of human equality, unalienable rights, and government by consent as the foundations of American constitutional government.

Rule 58 insists that "in all cases of passion, [we should] permit reason to rule." Man's passions will overthrow his conscience if he does not subject them to reason. This will lead a free man to dissolution or lawlessness. Socially and politically, untempered passions will cause a free people to become slavish or tyrannical. Perhaps foremost among the rules copied into his school book by the young Washington, No. 58 suggests the key to his future ability to exemplify the well-ordered life of freedom in a way to inspire the nation to do the same.