The Twenty-First Century Could Easily Learn From the Eighteenth a Few Lessons in Manners

Terrence Moore

March 1, 2004

When it came to the education of children, the eighteenth century had a wonderful capacity for what we would call today “multi-tasking,” the ability to kill two birds with one stone. When learning to read and write, eighteenth-century students also learned to become virtuous and well-mannered human beings. One young man in colonial Virginia, somewhere between the ages of twelve and fifteen most likely, acquired an elegant penmanship by copying a text called “The Rules of Civility and Decent Behavior in Company and Conversation.” Everything we know about the subsequent life of this man indicates that these 110 rules were not simply copied, handed to someone for marking, and then forgotten. Rather, they were internalized and served as a constant rule of conduct for perhaps the most genteel and distinguished man this country has ever produced. For that young man was none other than George Washington.

Many of these rules we might find quaint or even comical today. Rule 9: “Spit not into 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.” Rule 13: “Kill no vermin, or fleas, lice, ticks, etc. in the sight of others; if you see any filth or thick spittle put your foot dexterously upon it; if it be upon the clothes of your companions, put it off privately, and if it be upon your clothes, return thanks to him who puts it off.” Rule 100: “Cleanse not your teeth with the table cloth napkin, fork, or knife; but if others do it, let it be done without a peep to them.” We have to worry less about fireplace etiquette nowadays, and the various vermin torment us less due to improved hygiene and a liberal use of pesticides.

Notwithstanding the obsolescence of some of these rules, the bulk of these precepts to which the young Washington committed himself are just as appropriate today as they were two and a half centuries ago. Rule 49: “Use no reproachful language against any one; neither curse nor revile.” Rule 50: “Be not hasty to believe flying reports to the disparagement of any.” Rule 56: “Associate yourself with men of good quality if you esteem your own reputation; for ’tis better to be alone than in bad company.”

Men and women in the eighteenth century, sometimes called the Age of Politeness, were addicted to good manners. They may seem strange to us for adopting over one hundred rules of good breeding when we moderns have learned no more than half a dozen. Indeed, many parents and teachers nowadays are reluctant to correct unmannerly behavior in children since manners are thought to constrict their “natural” (and therefore good) instincts. This is an unfortunate capitulation on the part of adults and one that ultimately does a disservice to children and the larger society. Manners are simply the regard that we show to others in ordinary situations; they allow our transactions with them to proceed smoothly and pleasantly. Though at times manners seem entirely optional or merely “the icing on the cake,” they are far more necessary than we might at first think. For example, when driving to work or school we encounter multitudes of other drivers on the road. They are trying to get somewhere just as quickly as we are. If people did not mind proper manners, traffic would become completely chaotic. Indeed, most traffic accidents are more the result of bad manners than deliberate breaking of the law. Manners are also necessary in gyms and recreation centers. When we replace our weights after using them, when we allow others to “work in,” when we use a towel to keep our sweat off the bench so others will want to use it, we are simply practicing good manners.

A characteristic statement of the eighteenth century occurred when the British statesman Edmund Burke recommended someone for membership into the London Literary Society. “He is a man of gentle manners,” said Burke. “Sir,” replied the great lexicographer Samuel Johnson, “when you have said a man of gentle manners, you have said enough.” Of how many men, young and old, could that be said today?

Terrence Moore is an Adjunct Fellow of the Ashbrook Center. He is the Principal of Ridgeview Classical Schools in Fort Collins, Colorado.