The Founding Fathers and Etiquette

So distinguished! [Via Wikimedia Commons]

So distinguished! [Via Wikimedia Commons]

While they weren’t busy declaring independence, fighting a revolution, or bringing forth a new nation, the founding fathers were also writing a bit about etiquette!

George Washington

It makes sense that the most famous founding father was the only one to write a whole BOOK of etiquette. Washington wrote his Rules of Civility at the tender age of 15 in 1745, as part of an educational exercise, probably copying from a European manual of etiquette. As a young man, his social prospects were not that high- his father had died when he was a young teenager and had left a lot of land but not much money to support his mother and four younger siblings. Part of his purpose in learning these rules might have been to better his station in life. Highlights:

  • In the Presence of Others sing not to yourself with a humming Noise, nor Drum, with your Fingers or Feet.
  • Kill no Vermin as Fleas, lice ticks &c in the Sight of Others, if you See any filth or thick Spittle put your foot Dexteriously upon it if it be upon the Cloths of your Companions, Put it off privately, and if it be upon your own Cloths return Thanks to him who puts it off
  • Do not puff up the Cheeks, Loll not out the tongue rub the Hands, or beard, thrust out the lips, or bite them or keep the lips too open or too close.
  • Shew not yourself glad at the Misfortune of another though he were your enemy
  • In Speaking to men of Quality do not lean nor Look them full in the Face, nor approach too near them at lest Keep a full Pace from them.
  • Be not tedious in Discourse, make not many Digressions, nor repeat often the Same manner of Discourse
  • Take no Salt or cut Bread with your Knife Greasy.
  • Let your Recreations be Manfull not Sinfull.
  • Labour to keep alive in your Breast that Little Spark of Celestial fire called Conscience.

Thomas Jefferson

Jefferson believed “it would have been better, in a new country, to have excluded etiquette all together.” When he took office in 1801, he took the opportunity to bring his “republican simplicity” (quite the hypocritical statement for someone who brought a French chef and 86 packing crates full of books, household goods, art, and other fine things back with him from France) to the Executive Branch. He described it as suppression of “all those public forms and ceremonies which tended to familiarize the public eye to the harbingers of another form of government [ie monarchy].”

Washington and Adams had had “presidential levees” which were receptions held by the President and First Lady. Levee was a word that came from European courts and so Jefferson abandoned them in favor of small informal dinners. He also made sure to never be mistaken for a king- choosing to shake hands rather than bow, riding out unaccompanied, and dressing informally. He most famously introduced a “pell mell” policy for dinners and public ceremonies- rather than the guests proceeding in according to rank, they came in in no particular order. This angered a lot of important diplomats, but Jefferson stuck firm to it. Some of Jefferson’s more republican policies were later changed back to a more formal etiquette by subsequent presidents.

Alexander Hamilton

I don’t know if you realized, but recently a musical came out about Alexander Hamilton and it’s pretty good! Though it doesn’t specifically speak about Hamilton’s opinion’s about etiquette, there is a great song called The Ten Duel Commandments that outlines all the rules of the code duello that duelers like Alexander Hamilton (and PS that duel with Aaron Burr was not his first time at the dueling rodeo- he was in at least 10 others before!). Hamilton, being a pretty good guy, actually threw away his first shot by trying not to hit Burr- very gentlemanly of him! But that got him killed, so I guess maybe being a gentleman isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be ¯\_(ツ)_/¯.

Hamilton did actually comment on etiquette occasionally (how could he not have? The man wrote NON-STOP!) In fact, he advised Washington on what protocols seemed correct for a new republic. In a letter from 1789, Hamilton recommends three things:

  1. That the President have a levee once a week for visitors (see Thomas Jefferson above).
  2. That the President not accept invitations but give 2-4 formal dinners per year- on Independence Day, the anniversary of his Inauguration, the day of the Treaty with France, and the day of the final Treaty with Britain. He saw these dinners consisting of high ranking US officials and some foreign officials.
  3. That on levee days, the President host informal dinners for members of the legislature. At all these events, the President was not to stay too long.

In addition, as a loving father, he advised his children on etiquette matters, among other things- writing to daughter Angelica in 1793, he says, “We hope you will in every respect behave in such a manner as will secure to you the good-will and regard of all those with whom you are. If you happen to displease any of them, be always ready to make a frank apology. But the best way is to act with so much politeness, good manners, and circumspection, as never to have occasion to make any apology.” Good advice!

Benjamin Franklin

Among many achievements, the polymath composed a list of 13 virtues to live by as a young man in 1726. While not strictly etiquette, they form the basis on which good etiquette is built upon:

  • Temperance: Eat not to dullness; drink not to elevation
  • Silence: Speak not but what may benefit others or yourself; avoid trifling conversation.
  • Order: Let all your things have their places; let each part of your business have its time.
  • Resolution: Resolve to perform what you ought; perform without fail what you resolve.
  • Frugality: Make no expense but to do good to others or yourself; i.e., waste nothing.
  • Industry: Lose no time; be always employ’d in something useful; cut off all unnecessary actions.
  • Sincerity: Use no hurtful deceit; think innocently and justly, and, if you speak, speak accordingly.
  • Justice: Wrong none by doing injuries, or omitting the benefits that are your duty.
  • Moderation: Avoid extremes; forbear resenting injuries so much as you think they deserve.
  • Cleanliness: Tolerate no uncleanliness in body, clothes, or habitation.
  • Tranquility: Be not disturbed at trifles, or at accidents common or unavoidable.
  • Chastity: Rarely use venery but for health or offspring, never to dullness, weakness, or the injury of your own or another’s peace or reputation.
  • Humility: Imitate Jesus and Socrates.


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