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Experience... is the best rule to walk by. --George Washington to John Parke Curtis, West Point, August 24, 1779

* SPRING 2003, Seattle
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WINTER 2002, Promotional:
“George Washington: A National Treasure” on Tour
Will the Real George W. Please Stand Up?
Pledge It Forward—Self to Service
Students in Pasadena, Texas Help Fund The Patriot Papers
Together, Museums Create Wall of Expression
A Blast From the Past
18th-Century Paradise Lost
In Other Words...

The Patriot Papers
print-friendly version WINTER 2002, PROMOTIONAL

In Other Words...
Mistress Goody’s Column of Advice on subjects other than politics and war.
Respectfully based on the Rules of Civility

—by t. powell harris

In 1745, in the colonial frontier town of Fredericksburg, Virginia, thirteen-year-old George Washington recorded The Rules of Civility in his workbook, probably as a dictation exercise. These “guidelines for the respectable gentleman” would influence him throughout his life, guiding him in both social and professional situations. Translations and variations abound, but all stress etiquette, chivalry, and courtesy, often rather elusive concepts in the 21st century.

Mistress Goody

Mistress Goody

Fortunately, there is one who understands the rules well; in fact, she still recommends their use today. Let us recall a character from the past to offer advice on life, love, and learning. We give you the “Toast of George Town”—our own Mistress Goody, always informed, always respectable, and very, very, good.

Mistress Goody,
There’s this really cool group of kids that I want to hang out with. Sometimes they do mean things to people. Like once I know they broke into a teacher’s car. They didn’t take anything. It was just a practical joke, sort of. My mom says I shouldn’t want to be associated with anyone who might lead me into trouble one day, but I think it’s all about a little fun. What do you say?

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.

I think you get Mistress Goody’s point!

Dear Mistress Goody, I heard a really bad thing about one of my best friends. I think our other friends should know how this girl is acting when we’re not around. Should I tell them?

Rule 79: Be not apt to relate news if you know not the truth thereof. In discoursing of things that you have heard, name not your author. Always, a secret discover not [that is, do not reveal].

In other words . . . don’t’ pass rumors if you’re not sure they’re true and if you do tell the rumor, don’t name the person who told you. Best to keep a secret a secret and not tell at all, unless her actions are such that they may do harm to her person or to that of another. Then ‘tis kind and quite your duty to reveal the truth to your superiors or loved ones.

Mistress Goody, At the lunch table most everyone eats and talks at the same time. I think that’s pretty gross. What do you think?

The rules of dining etiquette are quite clear; let them guide your acquaintances in all their culinary endeavors.

Rule 90: Being set at meat, scratch not neither spit, cough nor blow your nose, except when there is a necessity for it.

Rule 95: Put not your meat to your mouth with your knife in your hand; neither spit forth the stones of any fruit pie upon a dish, nor cast anything under the table.

Rule 100: Cleanse not your teeth with the tablecloth, napkin, fork, knife; but if others do it, let it be done with a pick tooth [i.e., a toothpick].

Mistress Goody, My very best friend just broke up with her boyfriend. But now he asked me out, and she’ll just die when she finds out. Should I go? What should I do? He’s awfully cute.

My, my, this is a distressing dilemma. If the gentleman were less handsome, the choice would not be such a difficult one. Mistress Goody recalls a situation of her own. It was 1796 at the George Town Ball. I cut quite a stunning figure that evening in my green taffeta gown and brocaded mules. Miss Faithful Petticoat of Philadelphia was pursued by a most evocative gentleman, but when her dance card was full, he pursued me! I’m afraid that a most unladylike tiff ensued in the ladies’ powder room shortly thereafter . . . but I digress.

My advice to you, my dear, is found in rule 22:

Rule 22: Show not yourself glad at the misfortune of another. To join the gentleman in frivolity so soon after her heartbreak is unconscionable, not to mention terribly tacky. It certainly shows little regard for your intimate friend and calls into question your upbringing. Heed also Rule 110:

Rule 110: Labour to keep alive in your breast that little spark of celestial fire called conscience. Have you misplaced yours, my dear?

Mistress Goody, I am a high school girl. I suppose the guys think I’m cute, because I get asked out on dates a lot. I go and have a nice time, but eventually one thing leads to another and they are ready to get “serious.” They all want to be my only boyfriend. My problem is I don’t know how to pick a good boyfriend. And that means I won’t know how to pick a good husband! I mean, what does a girl look for in a guy? Can you help me?

Mistress Goody has contemplated this very question many, many times. I’ve always found the male point of view regarding love and marriage most helpful. As a matter of fact, the most sage advice comes from George Washington in a letter he wrote to Martha’s granddaughter, Nelly Custis. I will share a portion of it with you here. I do hope this “checklist” of sorts helps to settle your quandary.

“When the fire is beginning to kindle, and your heart growing warm, propound these questions to it. Who is the invader? Have I competent knowledge of him? Is he a man of good character? A man of sense? For be assured a sensible woman can never be happy with a fool. What has been his walk in life? Is he a gambler? A spendthrift?, a drunkard? Is his fortune sufficient to maintain me in a manner I have been accustomed to live? And is he one to whom my friends have no reasonable objection? If these interrogations can be satisfactorily answered, there will remain but one more to be asked; that, however, is an important one. Have I sufficient ground to conclude that his affections are enjoyed on me? Without this the heart of sensibility will struggle against a passion that is not reciprocated.”
  —Go. Washington


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