At age 16, George Washington’s intimate friendship with the Fairfax family leads him to write out 110 “Rules of Civility and Decent Behavior in Company and Conversation”

September 27, 2012

Lawrence Washington, 1718–1752.

The attachment of Lawrence Washington to his brother George seems to have acquired additional strength and tenderness on their father’s death; he now took a truly paternal interest in his concerns, and had him as frequently as possible a guest at Mount Vernon. Lawrence had deservedly become a popular and leading personage in the country. He was a member of the House of Burgesses, and Adjutant-General of the district, with the rank of major, and a regular salary. A frequent sojourn with him brought George into familiar intercourse with the family of his father-in-law, the Hon. William Fairfax, who resided at a beautiful seat called Belvoir, a few miles below Mount Vernon, and on the same woody ridge bordering the Potomac.

A sketch of the Belvoir Mansion, seat of the Fairfax family in colonial Virginia.

William Fairfax was a man of liberal education and intrinsic worth; he had seen much of the world, and his mind had been enriched and ripened by varied and adventurous experience. Of an ancient English family in Yorkshire, he had entered the army at the age of twenty-one; had served with honor both in the East and West Indies, and officiated as governor of New Providence, after having aided in rescuing it from pirates. For some years past he had resided in Virginia, to manage the immense landed estates of his cousin, Lord Fairfax, and lived at Belvoir in the style of an English country gentleman, surrounded by an intelligent and cultivated family of sons and daughters.

George Washington, painted by John Trumbull, who's most famous work, “The Declaration of Independence,” appears on the back of the two dollar bill.

An intimacy with a family like this, in which the frankness and simplicity of rural and colonial life were united with European refinement, could not but have a beneficial effect in molding the character and manners of a somewhat homebred schoolboy. It was probably his intercourse with them, and his ambition to acquit himself well in their society, that set him upon compiling a code of morals and manners which still exists in a manuscript in his own handwriting, entitled “Rules for Behavior in Company and Conversation.” It is extremely minute and circumstantial. Some of the rules for personal deportment extend to such trivial matters, and are so quaint and formal, as almost to provoke a smile; but, in the main, a better manual of conduct could not be put into the hands of a youth. The whole code evinces that rigid propriety and self-control to which he subjected himself, and by which he brought all the impulse of a somewhat ardent temper under conscientious government.

Washington Irving, Life of George Washington (New York: The Co-operative Publication Society, Inc., n.d.), Vol. I, pp. 49-50.

Short Stories on Honor, Chivalry, and the World of Nobility—no. 216

 

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