"Let your Countenance be pleasant but in Serious Matters Somewhat grave." "Wear not your Cloths, foul, unript or Dusty." "When Another speaks be attentive your Self." "Reprehend not the imperfections of others for that belongs to Parents Masters and Superiours." In 1747, an eager and ambitious George Washington, at the green age of fifteen, was already concentrating on making his way in the world. Meticulously, he copied a list of 110 exacting rules of conduct and civility from the English translation of a French seventeenth-century manual on good manners, the equivalent of a modern self-help book, a kind of How to Be a Gentleman in One Hundred and Ten Easy Lessons. Unlike many other seventeenth-century French maxims, these contained few penetrating psychological insights. But they taught that there was little difference between moral qualities and social ones; they explained that one lived one's life among others, and that, to be successful in society, one must be polite, modest, pleasing, and attentive to others; one must strive to win their confidence and respect. They gave instructions on how to behave with men of greater rank and how to balance deference to the mighty with one's own dignity and ambition.
"Associate yourself with Men of good Quality if you Esteem your own Reputation." "In company of those of Higher Quality than yourself Speak not till you are ask'd a Question." "Strive not with your Superiors in argument, but always Submit your Judgment to others with Modesty." "Contradict not at every turn what others Say." Many of these rules of conduct would serve and steady Washington for the rest of his life—and he would pass on their wisdom to others. "Offer your sentiments with modest diffidence—opinions thus given are listened to with more attention than when delivered in a dictatorial stile," he would write to his nephew in 1787.
The young Washington also turned his attention to men's fashion: he designed a new coat for himself, specifying for the tailor such features as the width of the lapels and the placement of all twelve buttons. "First impressions are generally the most lasting," Washington would write more than forty years later to another nephew, advising the young man that, if he wished "to make any figure upon the stage," it was absolutely necessary to "take the first steps right." Washington's letter of advice contained oneline on the acquisition of knowledge, one on moral virtues, one on economy and frugality, twelve on choosing well one's friends, and thirty-four on clothing.
Excerpted from GEORGE WASHINGTON, The American Presidents Series: The 1st President, 1789-1797, by James MacGregor Burns and Susan Dunn. Copyright (c) 2004 by James MacGregor Burns and Susan Dunn. Reprinted by permission of Times Books, an imprint of Henry Holt and Company, LLC. All rights reserved.
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