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By Bill Sullivan
Wasn’t George Washington’s Birthday last week? You saw the mattress sales, right? President’s Day was indeed Feb. 17, but our first president’s actual birthday is Feb. 22. So as we think about what lessons he might offer us today, let’s take a look at the lessons he learned as a teenager. (Not that anyone used the term “teenager” in the 1740s.)
Washington didn’t have much in the way of formal schooling. That’s part of the reason he wanted to make his mark as a soldier. But at the age of 14 or 15, while being educated at home, he copied into his notebook a list of 110 “Rules of Civility & Decent Behavior in Company and Conversation” that had originally been printed by French Jesuits in the 1590s. These maxims were all about how to become a proper gentleman (or lady) by exhibiting good manners.
Colonial Williamsburg is a research partner in a lively new version of those rules, published by National Geographic. “George Washington’s Rules to Live By: A Good Manners Guide from the Father of Our Country” highlights 50 of the lessons George copied down. The book is divided into chapters on table manners, citizenship, decorum, hygiene, courtesy and integrity, and includes the complete list of rules in an appendix. Fred Harper’s rollicking illustrations complement author K.M. Kostyal’s modern explanations of the rules and kid-friendly anecdotes about Washington’s life.