History, History Column


by ©2019 Sarah Becker


“So let us begin anew—remembering on both sides that civility is not a sign of weakness, and sincerity is always subject to proof,” President John F. Kennedy (D-MA) said on January 20, 1961.  The Oxford American Dictionary defines civility as politeness; courtesy, respect and amiability.

George Washington’s Rules of Civility, Rule 1: “Every action done in Company ought to be with Some Sign of Respect to those that are Present.”  Incivility, according to The American Heritage Dictionary, is described as rudeness.  “I cannot charge myself with incivility, or, what in my opinion is tantamount, ceremonious Civility,” George Washington wrote in 1775.   

“I have just repeated word for word the oath taken by George Washington 200 years ago,” President George H.W. Bush (R-TX) said on January 20, 1989.  “It is right that the memory of Washington be with us today…he remains the Father of our Country.”

“America is a proud, free nation, decent and civil, a place we cannot help but love,” Bush explained.  “[But] we need compromise…We have seen the hard looks and heard the statements in which not each other’s ideas are challenged, but each other’s motives.  And our great parties have too often been far apart and untrusting of each other.  It has been this way since Vietnam.  That war cleaves us still…no great nation can long afford to be sundered [separated] by a memory.”

  “[T]he old bipartisanship must be made new again,” Bush continued.  “The American people await action.  They did not send us here to bicker.  They ask us to rise above the merely partisan.”   

“No President, no government, can teach us to remember what is best in what we are,” Bush concluded.  “But if the man you have chosen to lead this government can help make a difference; if he can celebrate the quieter, deeper successes that are not made of gold and silk, but of better hearts and finer souls; if he can do these things, then he must.”

Civilly speaking— obliging, not rude—America is on a downward spiral.  Perhaps we are “sundered by” a more recent memory; the memory of 9/11, ISIS, and the vagaries of limited war.  The public is divided.  The electorate is tired.  A Republican tax cut is now in effect.  Still America’s debt continues to rise.    

“Remember, any jackass can kick over the barn, but it takes a carpenter to build one,” Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives Sam Rayburn said in 1953.  Donald Trump (R-NY), the country’s 45th President defines civility how?       

Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives Tip O’Neill’s Political Checklist, Rule 12:  “Tell the truth the first time and you don’t have to remember what you said.”  O’Neill was first elected Speaker in 1977.

“Honesty in its widest sense is always admirable,” Robert E. Lee noted.  “The trite saying that ‘Honesty is the best policy’ has met with the just criticism that honesty is not policy.  This seems to be true.  The real honest man is honest from conviction of what is right, not from policy.”

George Washington’s Rules of Civility, Rule 110: “Labor to keep alive in your Breast that Little Spark of Celestial fire Called Conscience.”  Conscience is a moral sense of right and wrong.  So The Oxford American Dictionary says.

  Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives Tip O’Neill’s Political Checklist, Rule 1: “Vote your conscience, your country, your district, your leadership, in that order.”

U.S. Senator Barry Goldwater (R-AZ) authored The Conscience of a Conservative in 1960.  “Jack Kennedy considered Goldwater a friend and admired him for his many virtues,” Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., wrote as part of the 2007 edition.  “These included…his sense of duty and ferocious loyalty to principle, his civility, his decency and his integrity…Martin Luther King knew Goldwater’s conservatism was…motivated not by greed or racial animosity, but by his peculiar vision of America…It is a different world from the one where President Kennedy could imagine debating Barry Goldwater, head-to-head, around the country, on matters of general principle—as rivals but also as friends.”   

George Washington’s Rules of Civility, Rule 50: “Be not hasty to believe flying Reports to the Disparagement of any.”

George Washington’s Rules of Civility, Rule 58: “Let your Conversation be without Malice or Envy, for ‘tis a Sign of a Tractable and Commendable Nature: And in all Causes of Passion admit Reason to Govern.”

George Washington’s Rules of Civility, Rule 79: “Be not apt to relate News if you know not the truth thereof.”

Washington’s Rules of Civility and Decent Behavior in Company and Conversation are of 16th century origin.  They originated in France; were compiled by Jesuits in 1595 and translated into English in 1640.  Washington “wrote out a copy” of the 110 Rules in his school book when was 14-15 years old.  The original manuscript remains among The Library of Congress’ Papers of George Washington.

George Washington’s Rules of Civility, Rule 49: “Use no Reproachful Language against any one; neither Curse nor Revile.”

“The General is sorry to be informed that the foolish, and wicked practice, of profane cursing and swearing (a Vice heretofore little known in an American Army) is growing into fashion,” Washington warned in 1776. “He hopes the officers will, by example, as well as influence, endeavor to check it, and that both they, and the men will reflect, that we can have little hopes of the blessing of Heaven on our Arms, if we insult it by our impiety, and folly…every man of sense, and character, detests and despises it.”

To revile is to criticize abusively.  Sadly, President Donald Trump’s Twitter tweets violate most every Rule.  George Washington’s Rules of Civility, Rule 65: “Speak not injurious Words neither in Jest nor Earnest Scoff at none, although they give the Occasion.”

“Our country needs a setting for political debate that is both frank and civil,” former President George H.W. Bush said in 2011.  Together he and former President Bill Clinton (D-AR) served as honorary chairmen of the University of Arizona’s National Institute for Civil Discourse, a nonpartisan center for advocacy, research and policy regarding the civility of public discourse.

The University opened the institute in response to the January 8, 2011 shooting of Arizona Congresswoman Gabbie Giffords and 18 others.  “Although the Tucson shootings were not linked to public discourse,” University of Arizona provost Meredith Hay then said, “they ‘created a space for us to think about civil discourse.’”

“The growing problem of the culture of violence…is the changing atmosphere in the country—the growing rudeness, the pushing and shoving, the threats and name-calling,” Stan & Jan Berenstain wrote in No Guns Allowed. “It’s contagious, like measles.”   

Actor and Academy Award winner Richard Dreyfuss began his civics Initiative in 2011 also.  “American civilization is in a precarious state, the political environment has never been more toxic, and there is a dire need for more civility in our public life,” Dreyfuss told a National Press Club audience.  “Technology is one of the major causes of our national unease.”

“Twitter was ‘an aberration,’” Dreyfuss continued.  Aberration is defined as a deviation from the normal, proper or expected course; a defect of focus.  “Civility is not the absence of critical analysis.  It’s friendly discourse.  It’s tolerance and it would cost us nothing to bring it back.”

“America is never wholly herself unless she is engaged in high moral purpose,” President George H.W. Bush professed in 1989.  “We as a people have such a purpose today.  It is to make kinder the face of the Nation and gentler the face of the world…To my friends—and yes, I do mean friends—in the loyal opposition—and yes, I mean loyal: I put out my hand.”

Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives Tip O’Neill’s Political Checklist, Rule 3: “It’s a round world—what goes around, comes around.”

“It may well be that we will have to repent in this generation,” Rev. Martin Luther King said on March 31, 1968.  “Not merely for the vitriolic words and the violent actions of the bad people, but for the appalling silence and indifference of the good people.”  Dr. King was assassinated four days later, on April 4 in Memphis, Tennessee.


Sarah Becker started writing for The Economist while a graduate student in England. Similar publications followed. She joined the Crier in 1996 while serving on the Alexandria Convention and Visitors Association Board. Her interest in antiquities began as a World Bank hire, with Indonesia’s need to generate hard currency. Balinese history, i.e. tourism provided the means. The New York Times describes Becker’s book, Off Your Duffs & Up the Assets, as “a blueprint for thousands of nonprofit managers.” A former museum director, SLAM’s saving grace Sarah received Alexandria’s Salute to Women Award in 2007. Email abitohistory53@gmail.com 

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