Washington’s Rules of Civility and Decent Behavior: Outrageous Offenders


January 25, 2018
by Joshua Shepherd Also by this Author


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Long before he became the father of his country, a young George Washington copied out 110 maxims governing appropriate conduct for young gentlemen. Handwritten in the back of his notebook, the proverbs originally appeared in French in 1595; a standard English version was published in 1640.[1] By the time Washington was a young teenager, the rules offered reliable guidelines on socially acceptable behavior.

Modern readers often snicker at what might be considered the quaint maxims of a bygone age. Some of the rules, for instance, address how one should show deference to social superiors, such as doffing one’s hat to lords and nobles. Another rule outlines the appropriate protocol for disposing of vermin, fleas, and lice. For some reason, there also seems to have been a lot of saliva in the wrong places during the eighteenth century. Several rules admonish the aspiring gentleman to “spit not in the fire,” “bedew no man’s face with your spittle,” and “if you see any filth or thick spittle put your foot dexteriously upon it.”

But the vast majority of the Rules of Civility transcend the ages, offering timeless advice on dignified behavior. Many of the maxims cover such mundane topics as personal grooming and table etiquette, but at their core, the Rules primarily deal with treating everyone, regardless of title or occupation, with dignity. For some of the misguided characters in the following stories, it would have been helpful to remember that, but it’s a good reminder for all of us. The very first rule copied out by a young George Washington summed it up the best: “Every Action done in Company, ought to be with Some Sign of Respect, to those that are Present.”[2]

79: Be not apt to relate News if you know not the truth thereof. In Discoursing of things you Have heard Name not your Author always.

Barber shops are notorious for the amount of gossip that gets thrown around within their walls, but for one unlucky colonial hairdresser, a bit of seemingly harmless tittle-tattle resulted in one of the most bizarre street brawls of the Revolution. It all started on March 6, 1776 in the shop of Alexander Lesslie, a New York City wig maker who also ran a barber shop out of his establishment. Somehow, a rumor surfaced that three counties in Virginia had sided with Loyalist Governor Dunmore, who had landed an armed force in the Old Dominion. Without thinking much of it, Lesslie repeated the story to Col. Rudolphus Ritzema.

By the following day, the gossip was beginning to spread, a fact which riled Capt. John Johnson. Johnson, who was apparently annoyed that Lesslie was spreading information that could be considered pro-British propaganda, vowed that he would cane the source of the rumor. When he saw Lesslie on the street, he confronted the hapless wig maker and demanded to know who told him the story. Lesslie implicated one Samuel Burling as the author of the tale, and Johnson, for the time being, let the matter drop. It seems he went looking for Burling but couldn’t find him; he was out of town.

Later that afternoon, Johnson bumped into Lesslie on Broadway and asked if he had “found out the author of the report.” Lesslie demurred, said that the story was common knowledge, and that it originally came from an unidentified patron who had come for a shave. At that, Johnson snapped. “You damned rascal,” he barked, “you and Samuel Burling deserve to be caned; and had I him here, I would cane him immediately; and if you, you scoundrel, do not get along about your business, I will cane you.”

Without warning, Johnson shoved his cane into Lesslie’s face, then commenced swinging at his head. Lesslie instinctively threw up his arms to protect himself, then lunged for a loose paving stone nearby that he thought would make a good club. As he lunged for the stone, Johnson took another swing with his cane, but Lesslie, who had some pretty fast moves for a wig maker, was able to grab the cane and jerk it out of Johnson’s hand. When Lesslie took a wild swing at Johnson, the cane flew from his hand, and Johnson drew his sword. Figuring he was no match for cold steel, the unarmed Lesslie took off at full speed, Johnson following close on his heels. As he ran, Lesslie caught sight of an axe that had been left in the street. Grasping it, he then turned to defend himself. While the two combatants stared each other down, Colonel Ritzema approached Johnson and, talking some sense into him, diffused the fight.

Lesslie walked off to a tavern to lick his wounds, but when he later headed for home, he ran into Johnson again. His nemesis had gotten his cane back and was looking none too cordial. Once again, Lesslie took off at the run, followed by Johnson and several other officers. The fleet-footed wig maker headed for the one place that could afford safety, the meeting chambers of the New York provincial congress. Lesslie burst through the doors but, alas, the lawmakers weren’t in session.

Johnson ran in after him and commenced swinging his cane at Lesslie’s head. Lesslie finally succeeded in grasping the cane, but Johnson continued the beating with his fists. During a round of chaotic grappling, an apoplectic Johnson sank his teeth into Lesslie’s hand. Bystander Sampson Dyckman succeeded in prying the two men apart, and Johnson then ordered several other officers to take Lesslie to the guardhouse. One of them, a good bit embarrassed by Johnson’s behavior, told Lesslie that he had little choice because the captain was his superior officer and he was “obliged to obey him.”

When members of the provincial congress were informed of the donnybrook later that day, they were outraged. Both Johnson and Lesslie were called to testify in the house, and a motion was immediately forwarded to cashier Johnson. After a short debate, he was let off with little more than a slap on the hand. Johnson was forced to make a public apology to the house, received a reprimand, and was warned to steer clear of Lesslie, “whom he has grossly injured.”

Lesslie, who returned to his wig making, received no formal apology.[3]

49: Use no Reproachful Language against any one neither Curse nor Revile.

When it comes to outrageously unexpected behavior, it just doesn’t get much more alarming than the peculiar story of John Gilfroy. A boatswain on the Pennsylvania ship Montgomery, Gilfroy was present for action on the Delaware River on November 4, 1777; unfortunately for everyone involved, he was armed, irritable, and “in liquor.” For reasons known only to himself, Gilfroy chose the middle of battle as the best time to stage an audacious one-man mutiny. John Wilson, the ship’s sailing master, explained that during the fighting he heard a ruckus, and found Gilfroy engaged in an unexplained shouting match with Lt. Robert Collins. After Gilfroy cut loose with a profane storm of “many abusive words”, the altercation got physical.

When Collins prepared to fire a cannon at the enemy, Gilfroy barked “Damn you if you shall” and lunged at him with a handspike. Collins was knocked over the barrel of his gun, then drew a pistol and shouted that he’d blow Gilfroy’s brains out. Gunner William Lamb, who rushed to the scene to help Collins, put an abrupt end to the fracas when he knocked Gilfroy to the deck with a not-so-gentle blow from a crowbar.

Gilfroy remarkably escaped immediate punishment but, clearly nursing a grudge, he deserted to British-occupied Philadelphia, as he said, to visit “his Wife and Family, in order to support them.” He was eventually picked up in Patriot territory; his court-martial, held at Trenton, New Jersey on May 19, 1778, was an open and shut affair. The presiding officers reached the dreadful conclusion that “sd prisoner, John Gilfory, is worthy of death.” Fortunately for his family, and thanks to the kindly forbearance of Pennsylvania’s Supreme Executive Council, Gilfroy’s temper didn’t cost him his life, and he was pardoned in July of that year.[4]

76: While you are talking, Point not with your Finger at him of Whom you Discourse nor Approach too near him to whom you talk especially to his face.

Long-running feuds can be a pretty ugly business, but for two particularly scrappy officers – Maj. Gen. Alexander McDougall and Col. Henry Beekman Livingston – personal vendetta was perfected to an art form. At the time of their epic squabble their respective ages were forty-five and twenty-six, although by their actions one might suspect they were five and six. The trouble started during the aftermath of a British raid on Peekskill, New York. McDougall was more than a little displeased with Livingston’s performance during the raid, and confronted him at headquarters on March 23, 1777. The two argued violently about the particulars of regimental returns before things really got ugly.[5]

Raising his voice at Livingston, an enraged McDougall asked him “Can you look me in the face and say it was done by my order?” Glaring back, Livingston angrily responded “I can, Sir.” McDougall, threatening to place Livingston under arrest, then called him a liar, to which Livingston shot back “By G__d you lie Sir.” Livingston was the first man to ever call him a liar, McDougall shouted, and if he wasn’t Livingston’s superior officer he would kill him. Livingston responded that McDougall might not be able to kill him. After more screaming and wild gesticulation, McDougall had enough and offered a duel. “I will go no further with you,” he snarled, “I will give you a Gentlemans satisfaction.”

Livingston walked out the door onto the porch, but McDougal followed him, shaking his finger in his face and claiming that Livingston was nothing but “a Pest to the Army.” Livingston readied to defend himself, clenched his fist, and warned McDougall “don’t put your fist in my face.” Uncomfortable fellow officers, who probably stared in disbelief at the ugly confrontation, then watched as Livingston was placed under arrest.

Livingston eventually got off with nothing but a reprimand, but while he was under arrest and had nothing better to do with his time, he took his revenge by penning an anonymous but venom-filled handbill which he then passed around camp. He clearly put a good bit of effort into writing a remarkable masterpiece of hatefulness. Despite the fact that McDougall was a general officer, readers were reminded that at one time he was nothing more than a sailor, milkman, and tailor’s apprentice. Before the war unduly elevated McDougall, wrote Livingston, the general had “so sensible an impression of the lowliness of his station that when passing a person who appeared to be above his circumstances, was glad to lift his hat as a mark of obeisance while his other hand was employed in preventing the companions of his morning, evening & noontide hours from disturbing his noxious parts of his filthy and infected person.”[6]

McDougall might have money, sniffed Livingston, but he was no gentleman, and remained “rough in his profession & mean as the meanest of race.” The grievances continued: McDougall was ignorant, unpolished, and unaccustomed to good company. And he was a shabby dresser with no sense of fashion. All in all, Livingston concluded that McDougall was nothing more than a “poor contemptible mean half starved Scotchman.”[7]

When McDougall finally got his hands on a copy of the handbill, he passed it on to Gen. George Clinton but took no further action. Considering Livingston’s pretentions to being a gentleman, McDougall thought it remarkable that he could have written such nastiness. “Poor boy,” McDougall wrote, “if he knew how little pain his scribbling gave me he could have saved himself the trouble of composing it.”[8]

38: In visiting the Sick, do not Presently play the Physicion if you be not Knowing therein.

Try as they might to be otherwise, some folks are just hopeless pessimists. That description certainly fit twenty-four-year-old Nicholas Cresswell, an unabashed Loyalist and gentleman adventurer who hoped to seek his fortune in Virginia. Cresswell was thoroughly disgusted by the Whig sentiments of his neighbors, and, if his diary is to be believed, the whole world was perpetually against him.

It certainly seemed that way during the sultry Virginia summer of 1774. Cresswell came down with a “cussed” malady that left him with a bad headache, high fever, and fainting spells. The local physician, Dr. Gustavus Richard Brown, advised Cresswell to “take some physic to clear my body and to drink a little more Rum.” Cresswell followed the doctor’s orders, happily consumed more rum, and in three days felt much better. Just to make sure Cresswell was on the mend, the doctor sent a new batch of pills, with orders to take two in the morning and two in the evening.

But something wasn’t quite right. The medicine didn’t seem to work, and left Cresswell with a bad taste in his mouth. The next morning Cresswell decided to increase his dose to four pills, which did little more than cause “a violent pain in my bowels all day.” Left with unslakable thirst and a foul taste in his mouth, Cresswell felt worse than ever. “I am afraid,” he wrote in his diary, “that I am poisoned with his confounded pills.”

His guess wasn’t far off the mark. When Dr. Brown arrived the following morning, he turned ashen when he looked at the bottle of pills. Quickly taking Cresswell’s pulse, he sheepishly confessed that his apprentice had inadvertently delivered the wrong medicine: “strong Mercurial pills.” Cresswell didn’t take the news very well. He immediately clenched his fist and hit Brown square in the face. “This discomposed his physical muscles a good deal,” recalled Cresswell, “and made him contract them into a most formidable frown.”

Despite further apologies from the good doctor, Cresswell was unrelenting, cursing and raving and then writing that “if I happen to die I hope this will appear against the rascal.” The furious young Englishman fortunately mended, and Dr. Brown eventually admitted that he had given Cresswell every reason for punching him in the face, and that he would accept no payment until Cresswell was fully recovered. It was little solace to Cresswell, who recorded a timeless complaint. “I understand,” he wrote, “their Doctors’ Bills in this country are very extravagant.”[9]

72: Speak not in an unknown Tongue in Company but in your own Language

Sometimes, a simple lack of communication can lead to unfortunate misunderstandings. That was certainly the case for Col. Stephen Moylan, commander of the Continental army’s 4th Light Dragoons, and John de Zielinski. The latter gentleman was a Polish volunteer, and, not conversant in English, generally communicated in French.

The pair initially had a falling out during the autumn of 1777. Moylan was tried before a court-martial for disobeying the orders of Brig. Gen. Casimir Pulaski and for “a cowardly and ungentlemanlike action in striking Mr. Zielinski, a Gentleman, and officer in the polish service When unarmed.” The fiery Moylan was acquitted of the charges on October 31, but the affront was neither forgiven nor forgotten.[10]

Two months later, Zielinsky was still nursing a grudge. According to the Polish version of events, it was mere happenstance when he came across Moylan on December 4.[11] Predictably, harsh words were exchanged and a dismissive Moylan brushed off Zielinski, saying that “he did not understand french.” Hoping to give Moylan a taste of his own medicine, Zielinski loosened his cloak and announced that “he would Teach him … to Speak french.” As it turns out, he was a pretty tough schoolmaster.

Zielinsky handed his lance to a fellow officer, grasped a stick, and hit the Irishman twice. Moylan attempted to ward off the blows with his arms, then appeared to draw his sword. Zielinsky grabbed his lance again and “Struck Colonel Moylan over the Shoulder with the flat part of the Spear.” Witnesses didn’t think it was a very hard blow, but Moylan toppled from his horse. Having completed the French lesson, Zielinski spurred his horse and rode away. Moylan, furious and no doubt embarrassed, shouted out for a nearby dragoon to place Zielinsky under arrest. He was ignored.[12]

Despite George Washington’s recommendation of a court-martial, Pulaski seems to have brushed the affair under the carpet. The matter did, however, cost Zielinski a commission. “I cannot at any rate consent to your giving Mr Zelienski the Commission of first Lieutenant,” Washington informed Pulaski, as “his Character has not yet been cleared from a charge of a very serious nature brought against him by Colonel Moylen.”[13]

7: Put not off your Cloths in the presence of Others, nor go out your Chamber half Drest.

Unfortunately, the real heroes of history are often forgotten or unknown. That’s the sad fate of one obscure Patriot who went above and beyond the call of duty to express his contempt for the British Empire.

Little is known about “Mr. Coggeshall”, other than the report of his bravery on the morning of November 4, 1775. Being “somewhat drunk or crazy”, reported Rhode Island’s Newport Mercury, Coggeshall defiantly strode – or perhaps stumbled – down the Long Wharf to face the British single-handed. After throwing out some choice words, which sadly went unrecorded, Coggeshall abruptly “turn’d up his backsides toward the bomb brig in this harbour” and saluted the enemy.

British naval officers failed to see any humor in the gesture, ordering their crew to open fire with a 4 pounder. While Coggeshall scrambled, no doubt, for cover, one of the British solid shots crashed through the roof of Hammond’s Store and then “lodged in Mr. Samuel Johnston’s distillery.” Fortunately, no one was hurt.

Coggeshall’s intrepidity in action went unappreciated. The Rhode Islanders, hoping to avoid any more provocations, asked him to move along. “The man was soon after taken up,” reported the Mercury, “and sent out of town.”[14]


[1] Charles Moore, ed., George Washington’s Rules of Civility and Decent Behaviour in Company and Conversation (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1926), x.

[2] Dozens of versions of the Rules of Civility have gone to print. This article relies on the above version by Charles Moore, which also includes facsimiles of the original contained in Washington’s notebook.

[3] Peter Force, ed., American Archives (Washington: M. St. Clair and Peter Force, 1844), Series 4, 5:349-352.

[4] Samuel Hazard, ed., Pennsylvania Archives (Philadelphia: Joseph Severns & Company, 1853), 1st series, 6:527.

[5] The following description of the confrontation comes from Proceedings of a General Court Martial Held at Peekskill by order of Major General Putnam, in Calendar of Historical Manuscripts Relating to the War of the Revolution (Albany, New York: Weeds, Parsons and Company, 1868), 2:153-158.

[6] Roger J. Champagne, Alexander McDougall and the American Revolution in New York (Schenectady: Union College Press, 1975), 125.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Alexander McDougall to George Clinton, in Public Papers of George Clinton (New York: Wynkoop Hallenbeck Crawford Co., 1900), 2:38.

[9] Nicholas Cresswell, The Journal of Nicholas Cresswell, 1774-1777 (New York: The Dial Press, 1924), 22-25.

[10] General Orders, October 31, 1777,” Founders Online, National Archives, founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/03-12-02-0058.

[11] Casimir Pulaski to George Washington, December 4, 1777,” Founders Online, National Archives, founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/03-12-02-0505.

[12] Ibid, Note 2.

[13] Washington to Pulaski, February 4, 1778,” Founders Online, National Archives, founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/03-13-02-0373.

[14] William Bell Clark, ed., Naval Documents of the American Revolution (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1966), 2:905.

One thought on “Washington’s Rules of Civility and Decent Behavior: Outrageous Offenders

  • Thanks! Very interesting, creative, and well-written! BTW, Washington’s “Rules of Civility and Decent Behavior” are sometimes said to be written when he was 16 years old. Doing some research for my book, I found this to be unlikely, as at that age he was off to be a surveyor. More likely, he was between 12 and 15 years old when he did this penmanship exercise, which certainly helped him later in life, when clearly written orders were important to his military success. http://www.LibertyKey.US

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