Tuesday is George Washington’s birthday and while most things many Americans assume to be true about him are not (no, his false teeth were not made from wood and he didn’t chop down the cherry tree), there is one fact that is true: He defined the conduct of the office of the president of the United States and set the tone for the nation’s protocol.
As he took office in 1789 and began to shape a functioning government from the loose concepts described in the Constitution, President Washington recognized the importance of ceremonies and etiquette in helping give the new nation credibility but was also keenly aware that Americans didn’t want a system that resembled the excesses of European royalty.
Washington strove to determine a balance between what he called “the dignity and respect that is due the first Magistrate” and the republican ideals for which the country fought. Among his first duties was creating an official seal and soliciting input about the tenor the new government should take not only for relations with citizens, but with other countries. It is because of his insights and wisdom, that our president doesn’t sit on a throne and that we don’t call him “your majesty,” or worse, as was suggested, “His Highness, the Protector of Our Liberties.” Instead, Washington opted for what John Adams called “common sense and consideration” as the basis for protocol.
Noted throughout his life for his courtesy and polished manners, many people are familiar with Washington’s little book, “Rules of Civility & Decent Behavior,” (available at mountvernon.org) which he copied at age 14 from a French source as an educational exercise. Of the 110 rules listed there, the majority still constitute the basis for polite behavior.
Happy birthday, President Washington, and thank-you.