George Washington's Rules of Civility Can Help Us Prevent Coronavirus' Spread | Opinion

In recent weeks, protests against coronavirus stay-at-home measures have cropped up across the country. President Donald Trump seems to be offering tacit support to those who seek to vindicate their rights. However, government can only remain limited if Americans are self-disciplined and voluntarily comply with necessary measures.

Perhaps, then, we should instead take some advice on the topic from a much earlier president. After all, George Washington would have no shortage of lessons for us on civility—and it seems that it's time we all pay them some heed.

When George Washington was 13 years old, he hand-copied 110 rules of civility. They serve as good reminders for the conduct that a functioning democracy requires of its citizens. And they especially matter in a pandemic.

Washington maintains the need for self-possession and discipline at the dinner table and in the company of others. At a very literal level, this obviously urges sanitation and distancing in the coronavirus era. Take rule 12, for instance, which reads, "Bedew no man's face with your Spittle, by approaching too near him when you Speak." We've known that coronavirus, in particular, is spread through respiratory droplets produced when an infected person coughs or sneezes, making Washington's rule—written before it was widely known how infectious disease spread—seem all the more prescient.

Rule five follows suit when it comes to practical personal hygiene: "You Cough, Sneeze, Sigh, or Yawn, do it not Loud but Privately; and Speak not in your Yawning, but put Your handkerchief or Hand before your face and turn aside." Washington even had insight into the importance of hand-washing for the health of community! Take rule 15: "Keep your Nails clean and Short, also your Hands and Teeth Clean yet without Showing any great Concern for them."

Long before the CDC issued similar guidance, Washington lent us advice about deciding at which point to call a doctor when caring for someone who is ill. The 38th rule suggests, "In visiting the Sick, do not Presently play the Physician if you be not Knowing therein."

Washington's rules also reveal the importance of self-restraint for a functioning society. Indeed, this is the deeper meaning of the rules in general. Dr. Anthony Fauci has said many times that people voluntarily opting to follow the guidance on social distancing is far more essential to mitigating transmission than are government measures. At one coronavirus briefing, Fauci said of the guidelines, "Some may look and say they're going to be really inconvenient for people, I'll say it over and over again...we hope the people of the United States will take them very seriously because they will fail if people don't adhere to them. We have to..., as a whole country, cooperate and collaborate."

Similarly, laced throughout Washington's rules is the importance of a disposition of self-sacrifice in all matters, both great and small. It's obvious that following the social distancing guidelines comes, for many, at a great cost. But voluntarily choosing to follow those guidelines despite those costs requires seeing beyond our own immediate needs and desires and acting for the good of our communities and our nation. Washington's rules 101—"rinse not your mouth in the presence of others"—and 89—"speak not evil of the absent, for it is unjust"—embody well this mandate. For a democracy of limited government like our own, such a disposition is essential—even more so during a pandemic.

Contrast our approach to the coronavirus in the United States, with strict laws and heavy fines for those who breach social distancing measures, to Sweden's, where leaders have disavowed draconian measures because they assert trust in citizens to self-impose limitations. By all appearances, Swedes are following the guidelines of authorities without either legislation or enforcement. As Bloomberg reported, "trips from Stockholm to Gotland—a popular vacation destination—dropped by 96 percent over the Easter weekend." Ultimately, it is the sacrifices we each make for the common good, for the sake of the broader physical health of our body politic, that will see us through this crisis and ensure our flourishing thereafter.

President George Washington
President George Washington Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images

Finally, Washington's rules remind us that we must be conscious of not just the visible effects of our actions, but also the invisible. The novel coronavirus is an excellent example of how individual actions matter most because of their aggregate effects. Civilization is held together by the cumulative effects of our individual decisions. It's important that our external actions be informed by an inner disposition to act well. Hence, Washington's final rule is especially salient: "Labor to keep alive in your breast that little spark of celestial fire called conscience."

To be sure, there were proponents of similar rules long before Washington. Washington's rules were originally derived from a 17th century Jesuit etiquette manual, which was in turn derived from Florentine Giovanni Della Casa's famous 16th century Il Galateo: The Rules of Polite Behavior. Della Casa himself drew from Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics. Washington's rules were thus merely a modern manifestation of a long tradition of those who argued for the importance of self-discipline for the sake of the health—both physically and socially—of community life.

Washington's rules, and their predecessors, remind us of the timeless value of civility in society. While the world is still in panic over the rapid spread of the coronavirus, we should celebrate the moral and cultural frameworks of self-restraint that support both a free society and the mitigation of pandemics. It is these frameworks—in addition to Washington's foresight—that will get us through this.

Alexandra Hudson is a Novak Fellow, a Young Voices contributor and a former civil servant at the U.S. Department of Education. Her work has appeared in Time, USA Today, The Wall Street Journal and other outlets. She is currently writing a book on civility and civil society in America.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.