Do you have words of wisdom to live by?

Ned Jilton • Jan 15, 2020 at 9:30 PM

During earlier times, one of the ways people would try to improve themselves was through the reading, collecting and writing down of maxims, or rules to live by.

At the age of 13, George Washington began writing down rules for how to conduct himself in public and private life. He started by copying a translation of a 1595 French manuscript: “Good Manners in Conversation among Men.” This would later be added to and become Washington’s “Rules of Civility.”

Years later, another Virginian, Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson, would seek to improve himself in much the same manner.

Orphaned at an early age, the rough and tumble Jackson didn’t get the polished upbringing that Washington had. It wasn’t until he went to West Point that Jackson begin to learn how to maintain his appearance and carry himself as a gentleman.

It was after the Mexican-American War in 1848, when he was in his 20s, that Jackson begin collecting maxims as he worked to improve his character and fit into society. Among the books he used to add to his list were “The Pilgrim’s Progress,” by John Bunyan, and the “Works of Lord Chesterfield, Including His Letters to His Son.”

By 1853, Jackson had finished the basics of his list of maxims. But he would continue to study them and occasionally tweak or add to the text. Then came the Civil War.

Jackson would be wounded at the Battle of Chancellorsville in 1863 and die shortly thereafter. His book of maxims that he worked so long and so hard on, and had discussed with close friends, disappeared.

In the 1980s, Prof. James I. Robertson, from Virginia Tech, begin a nationwide search for materials to use to write his biography of Jackson. One of the first responses he received was from Tulane University.

Robertson travelled to New Orleans, where he examined the collection that had been donated to the university. In the very first box opened was Jackson’s book of maxims. With the permission of the university, Robertson published the book.

Many of Jackson’s maxims echo those of Washington.

Washington, in his maxims, said, “Associate yourself with men of good quality if you esteem your own reputation. For ’tis better to be alone than in bad company.” While Jackson stated plainly, “A man is known by the company he keeps.”

In addition, Jackson added, “There is danger of catching the habits of your associates” and he urged that one should “Seek those who are intelligent and virtuous and if possible those who are a little above you, especially in moral excellence.”

Both men had several maxims dealing with conversations with others.

Washington said, “In the presence of others, sing not to yourself with a humming noise, nor drum with your fingers or feet.” He later added, “Sleep not when others speak. Sit not when others stand. Speak not when you should hold your peace. Walk not when others stop. Shift not yourself in the sight of others, nor gnaw your nails.”

In a similar vein, Jackson wrote, “Never interrupt another but hear him out. There are certain individuals from whom little information is to be desired such as use wanton obscene or profane language. Let your words be as few as will express the sense you wish to convey and above all let what you say be true.”

Much like Washington, Jackson added, “Sit or stand still while another is speaking to you. Do not dig in the earth with your foot nor take your knife from your pocket and pare your nails nor other such action.”

Of the two men, Jackson comes away with the most quoted maxim, though not verbatim.

Jackson wrote, “You may be what ever you will resolve to be.” This was the inspiration for the Army’s recruiting slogan, “Be all that you can be.”

Is there anyone out there today who keeps a list of maxims or rules to live by?

Both Washington and Jackson wrote on many more topics in their maxims than what I have touched on here. The books of both men, Washington’s “Rules of Civility” and Jackson’s “Book of Maxims,” can be found or ordered at your local bookstore.

Ned Jilton II is a page designer and photographer for the Times News as well as the writer of the “Marching with the 19th” Civil War series. You can contact him at njilton@timesnews.net.