When George Washington was a young man, he copied out a list of 110 “Rules of Civility and Decent Behavior in Company and Conversation.”
The 110th. read - “Labor to keep alive in your breast that little spark of celestial fire called conscience.”
As the biographer Richard Brookhiser has noted, these rules were not just etiquette tips. They were designed to improve inner morals by shaping the outward man.
Washington took them very seriously. He worked hard to follow them. Throughout his life, he remained acutely conscious of his own rectitude.
In so doing, he turned himself into a new kind of hero, not only a military or political hero. As the historian Gordon Wood has written, “Washington was acclaimed as a classical hero because of the way he conducted himself during times of temptation. It was his moral character that set him off from other men.”
Washington absorbed, and later came to personify what you might call the dignity code. The code was based on the same premise as the nation’s Constitution — that human beings are flawed creatures who live in constant peril of falling into disasters caused by their own passions. A system would have to be created to balance and restrain these desires.
The dignity code commanded its followers to be disinterested and to endeavor to put national interests above personal interests. It commanded its followers to be reticent to never degrade intimate emotions by parading them in public and to be dispassionate. To distrust rashness, zealotry, and fury.
The old dignity code has not survived in modern times. The costs of its demise are there for all of us to see.