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George Washington’s Rules of Civility
Timeless wisdom for Charleston’s elected officials
Lee Walton

As we celebrate the birthday of our Republic’s First President, it is appropriate to ponder which of the 110 precepts that guided Washington in war and peace would be applicable today to Charleston’s Mayor and members of City Council. These seemingly simple notions like courtesy, honesty, humility and respect contributed far more to the legislative process 220 years ago than those practiced today. Those who now occupy positions of public trust in Charleston’s City Council Chambers rely upon cleverness, guile, stubbornness, coercion, and raw, often ruthless political power to govern the citizens of Charleston. With a little imagination and knowledge of their idiosyncrasies, it’s really quite easy to select an appropriate Rule or two for each:

Fishburne – 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.

Morinelli – Rule 49

Use not reproachful language against any one, neither curse nor revile.

Lewis – Rule 69

If two contend together take not the part of either unconstrained, and be not obstinate in your own opinion. In things indifferent be of the major side.

Mitchell – Rule 48

Wherein you reprove another be unblameable yourself, for example is more prevalent than precepts.

Gallant – Rule 54

Play not the peacock, looking every where about you, to see if you be well deck’t, if your shoes fit well, if your stockings sit neatly, and clothes handsomely

Gilliard – Rule 61

Utter not base and frivolous things among grave and learn’d men, nor very difficult questions or subjects among the ignorant, or things hard to be believed. Stuff not your discourse with sentences among your betters nor equals.

Waring – Rule 35

Let your discourse with men of business be short and comprehensive.

Evans – Rule 40

Strive not with your superiors in argument, but always submit your judgement to others with modesty

Tinkler – Rule 41

Undertake not to teach your equal in the art himself professes; it savours of arrogancy.

Shirley – Rule 73

Think before you speak, pronounce not imperfectly, nor bring out your words to hastily, but orderly, distinctly.

Bleecker – Rule 18

Read not letters, books, or papers in company, but when there is a necessity for the doing of it you must ask leave. Come not near the books or writings of another so as to read them unless desired, or give your opinion of them unasked. Also look not nigh when another is writing a letter.

Wilson – Rule 82

Undertake not what you cannot perform but be careful to keep your promise.

Mayor Riley - Rules 86 & 110

In disputes, be not so desirous to overcome as not to give liberty to each one to deliver his opinion and submit to the judgement of the major part, specially if they be judges of the dispute.

Labor to keep alive in your breast that little spark of celestial fire called conscience.

These rules should, and could, apply today; they are more than just a quaint historical curiosity. Washington’s Rules of Civility remain today as timeless reminders of uncompromised wisdom and uncommon clarity.

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