GW: Life & Times

Slide 1 — George's School Days: The Rules of Civility

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This compilation image depicts the Parson Weems' Fable, painted by Grant Wood in 1939 [foreground], and Washington's own hand-written copy of the Rules of Civility & Decent Behavior in Company and Conversation, ca. 1744.

Unlike for later periods in his life, historians don't have much evidence about George Washington's boyhood. We have to take what other people wrote about him and then figure out what stories from his youth are true and which are myths.

For instance, we know that the tale of young George chopping down the cherry tree is a myth, created in 1809 by Parson Weems, a man who wanted to establish Washington as a role model for other Americans.

Of course, historians do have the basics: George Washington was born in 1732 at his father's plantation along the Potomac River in Virginia. When he was just 11, however, Washington's father died, leaving George, his mother and his five other brothers and sisters. While his two older half-brothers had been sent to England for their educations, George was probably instructed by a tutor at home.

Luckily for us, the future President saved his school exercise books, so we have some idea of what he was expected to learn. One of his assignments was to copy a long list of "rules of civility"–110 of them, to be exact. Not only was Washington supposed to improve his penmanship by rewriting the list, but he was also expected to pay close attention to the rules, so his behavior would always be appropriate for a young man hoping to achieve success and win respect.

Additional Resources


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