What Would George Do? Revisiting George Washington's Etiquette Guidelines

Aug 8, 2014

Nan Marshall and her daughter Helen Broder think the nation has lost its way when it comes to manners.  Cell phones, e-mails and text messaging all beg for new rules of conduct.  So these two gentile ladies of the South set out to offer guidance with help from America’s original gentleman.  

Portrait of George Washington by Gilbert Stuart Williamstown

Nan Marshall is a retired teacher who noticed a paucity of good manners in her midst.  Daughter Helen Broder was a sports agent who thought Americans needed a little coaching when it came to courtesy.

“We’re all in just such a hurry and just forget to stop and think, ‘How are my actions affecting others?’”

So she and her mother decided to write a book, basing their advice on one of America’s most trusted role models - George Washington.  As a teenager, he had practiced penmanship by copying a list of 110 Rules of Civility written by Jesuit priests in 1595.

“They became rules he lived by, and even though they were older than Washington, the great majority of them applied in the 18th century and today, and that’s what’s fascinating - so many of them just about treating people with respect.”

Sure, Marshall admits some of Washington’s rules are dated.

“One is:  Do not spit in the fire.  Another is:  Do not scratch vermin, such as fleas, ticks and lice. Fortunately those are not issues today, but even some of the ones that originally seemed outdated like to bow to your superiors, we don’t exactly bow, but I think  this is a good reminder that when someone comes in the room, we need to recognize their existence.”

And she feels sure the nation’s first president would have wise advice about modern technology.

“George Washington was a very diligent correspondent.  Every night after dinner he would retire, and he would answer every letter he received, so I think he would have loved e-mail, but he would not have hit send until he paused a moment and re-read his e-mail, and I think he would have waited to make a phone call, had there been phones, until he was in a place that was quiet.”

Broder thinks Washington should also have the last word about fashion.

“Rule 52 is: In your apparel be modest and endeavor to accommodate nature rather than to procure admiration.  Fifty-four is: Play not the peacock looking everywhere about you to see if you be well decked, if your shoes fit well, if your stockings sit neatly and  close handsomely, so it was more like dress nice and respectful.  Show you care about yourself, but don’t be a show off.”

And her mother hopes modern men will follow Washington’s example when it comes to women. 

“One thing I recently read that I really loved was he was saying that he was going to be without issue, because if Martha should predecease him, he was not going to marry someone of an inappropriate age.  So I even like that. George Washington wasn’t going after the young chicks.”

As they promote the book, What Would George Do, Broder and Marshall find people receptive to Washington’s message, despite his wording.  Even in talking with students, the founder’s ideas shine through.

“It’s written in this old English style.  I’ll ask the kids to interpret it, and some of them are really sharp.  They’ll get some of them like that and love talking about it.”

Marshall and Broder have also loved talking about courtesy, ethics and about George Washington, so they’re planning another literary effort, this time featuring Benjamin Franklin.