George Washington goes down in history as one of the most loved presidents of all time, in large part because of his character. When he was just 16 years old, the future president copied some etiquette rules that seem to have had a major impact on his sense of morality and civility. The Washington Post reports that these “Rules of Civility and Decent Behavior in Company and Conversation” came from an English translation of a 16th-century Jesuit treatise.
Our first president may have followed these rules, dubbed George Washington’s rules of civility by later generations. But many presidents, including Donald Trump (page 18), have broken Washington’s rules over the years.
1. Thomas Jefferson
- In office: 1801 to 1809
- Rule that he broke: “Think before you speak. Pronounce not imperfectly, nor bring out your words too hastily but orderly and distinctly.”
It’s widely believed that Thomas Jefferson was terrified of public speaking. So it seems safe to say that Jefferson probably wasn’t great at delivering speeches — and likely didn’t follow George Washington’s to “pronounce not imperfectly.” The Thomas Jefferson Foundation notes that we don’t know how many of Jefferson’s written speeches he actually delivered in public. Jefferson delivered two inaugural addresses that were described as so quiet they were only partially audible, and he delivered his annual addresses to Congress in writing.
Next: This president loved to go skinny-dipping.
2. John Quincy Adams
- In office: 1825 to 1829
- Rule that he broke: “Put not off your clothes in the presence of others, nor go out your chamber half-dressed.”
The etiquette rules that George Washington copied out warned against walking around half-dressed or naked. But a long line of presidential skinny-dippers has disregarded that rule. One example? John Quincy Adams, whom New Republic characterizes as “the founding father of skinny-dipping.” His morning routine involved a naked dip in the Potomac River. And as New Republic notes, he didn’t keep the ritual secret from Washington insiders — including journalists, who knew exactly where to find him.
Next: This president taught his parrot to curse.
3. Andrew Jackson
- In office: 1829 to 1837
- Rule that he broke: “Use no reproachful language against any one, neither curse nor revile.”
Andrew Jackson goes down in history as one of the most foul-mouthed presidents. So of course, he broke George Washington’s rule against cursing and using coarse language. A man who fought duels, outfitted the White House with spittoons, and beat a would-be assassin with his cane, Jackson likely surprised no one by occasionally uttering obscenities. What did surprise people was the string of obscenities that his pet parrot let loose during the former president’s funeral.
Next: This president delivered the longest inaugural address — and died shortly thereafter.
4. William Henry Harrison
- In office: 1841 to 1841
- Rule that he broke: “Let your discourse with men of business be short and comprehensive.”
William Henry Harrison broke the rule about keeping your speeches short with his record-setting inaugural address, which exceeded 8,000 words. Harrison also holds an unfortunate record as the shortest term in office, as he died only a month after taking office. As History explains, “the man with the shortest White House tenure delivered the longest inaugural address in history, which may have been his undoing.” It took Harrison an hour and 45 minutes to deliver his speech on a cold March morning — and he caught a cold that developed into a fatal case of pneumonia.
Next: This president didn’t dress neatly.
5. Zachary Taylor
- In office: 1849 to 1850
- Rule that he broke: “Wear not your your clothes foul, ripped, or dusty, but see they be brushed once every day at least, and take heed that you approach not to any uncleanness.”
Zachary Taylor is one of several presidents who broke George Washington’s rules about dressing neatly. Taylor dressed sloppily, with The Presidential Ham reporting that he simply wore whatever was comfortable. The publication notes that “even as a soldier, [Taylor] typically appeared in a hodgepodge of civilian and military dress.” He was also farsighted and walleyed, so he wore reading glasses and often squinted.
Next: This president spoke about unpleasant subjects, including strangely prophetic dreams.
6. Abraham Lincoln
- In office: 1861 to 1865
- Rule that he broke: “Speak not of doleful things in a time of mirth or at the table. Speak not of melancholy things as death and wounds, and if others mention them change if you can the discourse. Tell not your dreams, but to your intimate friend.”
Abraham Lincoln fought clinical depression his entire life, and didn’t exactly observe George Washington’s advice to avoid speaking of melancholy subjects. The Atlantic notes that Lincoln’s friends referred to him as profoundly melancholy. He often wept in public. And he recited maudlin poetry. Additionally, he didn’t follow the rules’ advice to avoid discussing his dreams. Lincoln told his friends about dreams that now seem strangely prophetic, including two that seemed to foretell his assassination.
Next: This president didn’t have good taste in friends.
7. Ulysses S. Grant
- In office: 1869 to 1877
- Rule that he broke: “Associate yourself with men of good quality if you esteem your own reputation; for ‘is better to be alone than in bad company.”
George Washington learned that a gentleman should keep good company. Many presidents complied with that rule, with one particularly notable exception: Ulysses S. Grant. Grant infamously chose a Cabinet that became plagued by corruption and scandal. U.S. News explains that Grant named both incompetent and corrupt friends and associates to key jobs in his administration. Consequently, his presidency underwent a series of embarrassing scandals as Grant naively enacted lax policies that enabled businessmen to make millions.
Next: This president loved to eat.
8. William Howard Taft
- In office: 1909 to 1913
- Rule that he broke: “Make no show of taking great delight in your victuals, feed not with greediness. Cut your bread with a knife, lean not on the table neither find fault with what you eat.”
George Washington’s rules, like many other guides to civility, warned against gluttony (and bad table manners). But William Howard Taft didn’t listen. As the Miller Center notes, Taft “typically ate a dozen eggs, a pound of bacon, and mounds of pancakes for breakfast, leaving him sluggish for most of the morning.” The Village Voice reports that “There is no question that Taft was a glutton, and his tastes ran to lengthy meals featuring multiple meats, fishes, and fowls in rotation.”
Next: This president didn’t always make rational decisions.
9. Woodrow Wilson
- In office: 1913 to 1921
- Rule that he broke: “Let your conversation be without malice or envy, for ‘is a sign of a tractable and commendable nature. And in all causes of passion, admit reason to govern.”
Though you may know Woodrow Wilson for leading America through World War I or laying out a plan for the League of Nations. But Wilson didn’t quite live up to George Washington’s rules about avoiding malicious behavior or letting rational thinking guide your actions. The New York Times notes that Wilson “claimed for the United States the right to speak for the peoples of the world.” And irrationally “convinced that he spoke for the voiceless masses, he was blind to the inconsistencies in his own behavior.” That included his actions to undermine racial equality at every turn.
Next: This president famously lost his temper.
10. Harry S. Truman
- In office: 1945 to 1953
- Rule that he broke: “Never express anything unbecoming, nor act against the rules moral before your inferiors.”
While George Washington would likely have wanted subsequent presidents to always maintain their composure, presidents have lost their tempers many times over the years. One notable incident involved Harry S. Truman, who The University of Virginia reports “penned a scorching rebuke” to a music critic who disliked a performance by Truman’s daughter. Truman wrote numerous insults, even threatening, “Some day I hope to meet you. When that happens you’ll need a new nose, a lot of beefsteak for black eyes, and perhaps a supporter below!”
Next: This president wasn’t exactly discreet.
11. John F. Kennedy
- In office: 1961 to 1963
- Rule that he broke: “Be not immodest in urging your friends to discover a secret.”
The etiquette rules that George Washington copied down also taught that some things are better kept a secret — a lesson that John F. Kennedy disregarded on at least a few occasions. Slate counts Kennedy among the presidents who have revealed classified information to foreign governments. (The Kennedy administration revealed spy-plane photos showing Soviet missile positions in Cuba.) Additionally, Kennedy wasn’t exactly discreet about his philandering or what New Republic characterizes as his penchant for “taking outlandish risks after he entered the White House.”
Next: This president routinely played a mean joke on his visitors.
12. Lyndon B. Johnson
- In office: 1963 to 1969
- Rule that he broke: “Show nothing to your friend that might affright him.”
While you could make many critiques of Lyndon B. Johnson’s character, one of the most unique concerns his defiance of Washington’s rule against showing a friend something that might scare him. Johnson routinely broke this rule by pranking advisers with his Amphicar (an amphibious car built in Germany in the 1960s). Business Insider reports that the vehicle looked like an ordinary automobile. Johnson would offer to drive guest around his ranch, then barrel the vehicle down a hill into a lake, telling passengers that the brakes had malfunctioned.
Next: This president didn’t intend to quickly accomplish his campaign promises.
13. Richard Nixon
- In office: 1969 to 1974
- Rule that he broke: “Undertake not what you cannot perform but be careful to keep your promise.”
Even though George Washington’s rules warned against making promises you can’t keep, many presidents failed to keep their campaign promises. One easy example? Richard Nixon. Nixon ran on a promise to end the Vietnam War. But to win the election, he needed the war to continue. So Nixon acted to stall the Vietnam peace talks before he assumed office. After he became president, Nixon expanded the war into Laos and Cambodia. And it wasn’t until 1973 that he settled for a peace agreement that could have been achieved in 1968.
Next: This president had bad teeth (somewhat like George Washington).
14. Gerald Ford
- In office: 1974 to 1977
- Rule that he broke: “Keep your nails clean and short, also your hands and teeth clean, yet without showing any great concern for them.”
We don’t have anything bad to say about Gerald Ford’s hands or fingernails. But as the Tuft University Dental Alumni Association notes, Ford had famously bad teeth, defying Washington’s rule about keeping one’s teeth clean. (However, we think Washington wouldn’t have much room to complain, as he seems to have worn a set of false teeth that included teeth pulled from his slaves.) Ford didn’t seem to get good dental care, and likely had periodontal disease.
Next: This president chose the wrong kind of pastime.
15. Bill Clinton
- In office: 1993 to 2001
- Rule that he broke: “Let your recreations be manful not sinful.”
George Washington’s rules warned that gentlemen should choose activities and hobbies that are “manful” but not “sinful.” Bill Clinton seems to have broken with that advice by cheating on his wife with White House intern Monica Lewinsky. The Atlantic notes that Clinton was “very credibly” accused of sex crimes in the 1990s, including an alleged violent assault. “But Clinton was not left to the swift and pitiless justice that today’s accused men have experienced,” the publication notes, a phenomenon that had its own consequences.
Next: This president spoke hypocritically.
16. George W. Bush
- In office: 2001 to 2009
- Rule that he broke: “Wherein you reprove another be unblameable yourself; for example is more prevalent than precepts.”
George Washington’s rules warned against hypocrisy, a lesson that George W. Bush didn’t seem to completely understand even as Donald Trump took office. Vice noted that Bush hypocritically rebuked Trump for his “cruelty.” Bush’s own record includes terrible treatment of Muslim and Middle Eastern detainees. Bush is responsible for the Iraq War and its death toll in the hundreds of thousands. And he also enacted Islamophobic immigration policies and surveillance programs. And as Slate explains, Bush also hasn’t acknowledged that “had there been no Bush, there’d be no Trump.”
Next: Discover the rule that Barack Obama broke.
17. Barack Obama
- In office: 2009 to 2017
- Rule that he broke: “Kill no vermin as fleas, lice, ticks, etc. in the sight of others. If you see any filth or thick spittle, put your foot dexterously upon it. If it be upon the clothes of your companions, put it off privately, and if it be upon your own clothes, return thanks to him who puts it off.”
The list of etiquette rules that George Washington copied down included a rule against killing insects “in the sight of others.” Barack Obama famously broke this rule when he killed a fly in the middle of an interview with CNBC. Many Americans found the incident funny, and some were even impressed by Obama’s fast reflexes in dispensing of the pest. But as Politico notes, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) called the incident an “execution,” and admonished Obama to show compassion for even “the least sympathetic animals.”
Next: Discover the rule that Donald Trump broke.
18. Donald Trump
- In office: 2017 to present
- Rule that he broke: “Every action done in company ought to be with some sign of respect to those that are present.”
The Washington Post notes that some think George Washington triumphed by following the rules, while Donald Trump has prevailed by flouting them. One good example? Trump routinely breaks Washington’s rule about showing respect for others. Serving as “the first white president” in the famous words of Ta-Nehisi Coates, Trump has used some pretty unpresidential rhetoric about black people, Muslims, Hispanics, and other groups. Even beyond what critics characterize as racist and Islamophobic comments, Trump routinely insults people and groups of people on his Twitter account — sort of the opposite of what Washington would have advised.
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