George Washington’s Guide to Being a Gentleman

Timeless advice from the first president of the United States.
George Washington’s Guide to Being a Gentleman
In the 18th century, George Washington copied out a list of maxims for good behavior that remain just as relevant today. (Public Domain)
9/5/2023
Updated:
1/26/2024
0:00
George Washington, it’s famously said, was “First in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen.” Such firsts undoubtedly contributed to his other great achievements, including his election as president of both the Constitutional Convention and the United States.
In other words, Washington was not an average man. But his above-average nature didn’t happen overnight. At age 14, he copied out more than 100 maxims of good behavior in his school book, likely intending to implement them in his own life. Many of these are still applicable today. Following them can help modern men be true gentlemen who stand head and shoulders above the crowd in both character and conduct.

Cultivating Correct Conversation

In popular culture today, it’s not uncommon to see people use their mouths as weapons. According to Washington, a gentleman will “use no reproachful language against any one,” nor will he “curse nor revile.” 
A gentleman should also strive to keep his conversation “short and comprehensive,” Washington writes, making sure to avoid gossip, for “speak[ing] ... evil of the absent ... is unjust.”

Reading the Room

When thrust into the company of others, Washington hints that the gentleman will rely on body language and other cues to avoid offense. This includes respecting the personal space of those around you, “keep[ing] a full pace from them,” and being sensitive to those who are suffering, refraining from “express[ing] joy before one sick or in pain” so as not to increase the sufferer’s misery. Washington also exhorts us to refrain from boring others, encouraging us to “be not tedious in discourse or in reading unless you find the company pleased therewith.”

Mastering Mealtime 

The key to a man’s heart, it is said, is his stomach, but the way food makes its way to that organ is an indication of a true gentleman. “Feed not with greediness,” Washington exhorts, and “put not another bit into your mouth till the former is swallowed.” Similarly, he encourages gentlemen to avoid talking with their mouths full, “put[ting] not your meat to your mouth with your knife.”

Good Grooming Makes the Gentleman

When it comes to dress, the gentleman will keep himself clean, neat, and unpretentious. Washington exhorts men to “play not the peacock,” trying to get noticed by their fashion choices, but to “be modest and endeavor to accommodate nature,” having “respect to times and places.” In other words, a gentleman might consider avoiding trends such as sagging pants, tattoos, and flashy jewelry, as they tend to draw excessive attention to oneself, while also being cognizant of what an occasion requires and dressing up or down as appropriate.

Keeping Calm–and an Open Mind

“Be not obstinate in your own opinion,” Washington advises, “and in all causes of passion admit reason to govern.” Anger and stubbornness are never attractive in a gentleman, but a fair and congenial attitude is always appreciated. Disputes will inevitably come, and when they do, Washington advises a gentleman to avoid dominating the discussion, giving his opponent a chance “to deliver his opinion.” 
Annie Holmquist is a cultural commentator hailing from America's heartland who loves classic books, architecture, music, and values. Her writings can be found at Annie's Attic on Substack.