American author John C. Maxwell once stated, “A leader is one who knows the way, goes the way, and shows the way.” Since the beginning of time, nations across the world have needed a leader to organize and motivate their following. Whether this leader is a king or a president, they all must keep their citizens satisfied with the decisions that they make. Because of this idea, stories about the blissful reign of a good king, or the substandard reign of a bad king began to emerge in the arts and literature.
The epic story of Beowulf, translated by Seamus Heaney, and Macbeth, the dramatic tragedy written by William Shakespeare, highlight the aspects of a king’s reign that can make or break the way the next generations perceive them. George Washington, The United States of America’s first president, is generally perceived as a good leader in that he set the precedent for what a good president should do for America.
Joseph Ellis’ excerpt from Founding Brothers, entitled “The Farewell,” analyzes the presidency of Washington. Based on the parameters found in the works of literature, Beowulf and Macbeth, George Washington is a good “king” as described in “The Farewell.”
George Washington proves to be a good king as he shares elements of the kings found in Beowulf. The first king mentioned in Beowulf is Shield Sheafson. He is described as “A wrecker of mead-benches, rampaging among foes” (Heaney 5). In the context of Beowulf, Shield Sheafson is a strong warrior in battle.
This martial, or war-like, mindset allows Sheafson to lead his army in a way that increases the probability of victory. Similarly, Washington is honored as a great military leader. During an expedition against the French in 1755, a young George Washington “joined with Daniel Boone to rally the survivors, despite having two horses shot from under him and multiple bullet holes piercing his coat and creasing his pants” (Ellis 120). Washington was willing to go into the heat of battle for his soldiers, proving his worth in battle and in life. George Washington is also known as a good king because he is recognized for great reign throughout the entire United States of America. Shield Sheafson’s legacy also lived on in later generations in Beowulf when Heaney states, “In the end each clan on the outlying coasts
Beyond the whale-road had to yield to him/And begin to pay tribute. That was one good king” (Heaney 9-11). George Washington’s great reign as president of the United States is reminded to citizens of America everyday as the dollar bill and the quarter dollar have Washington’s face printed on it. The American state of Washington and the American capitol, Washington D.C, are both named after the first president. “The Farewell” states that “If there was a Mount Olympus in the new American Republic, all the lesser gods were gathered farther down the slope” (Ellis 120). This means that George Washington is so far above all of the other leaders in America’s history, making him the most remarkable American leader of all time, and deeming him a good “king”.
George Washington is also characterized as a good king as he possesses the attributes that make a good king found in Macbeth. The traits of a good king, as referenced by Malcolm, are as follows: “justice, verity, temperance, stableness,/Bounty, perseverance, mercy, lowliness,/Devotion, patience, courage, fortitude” (Shakespeare 4.3 92-94). In addition to the traits of a good king, Malcolm lists all the traits that plague the character of bad kings. These traits include: “Luxurious, avaricious, false, deceitful,/Sudden, malicious, smacking of every sin/That has a name” (Shakespeare 4.3 57-60). Lowliness is a trait that is easily seen in George Washington’s character throughout his presidency. At the tail end of his presidency, Washington did not want to make America a monarch by taking all the power for himself. He was so well known and popular as a leader, it would have been easy for Washington to get greedy with power and take over. He did not allow the power to get to his head, however, by “resigning voluntarily” (Ellis 123). Washington’s stepping down was his “ultimate statement as America’s first and last benevolent monarch” (Ellis 123). This action shows the humility of George Washington, as he refused to allow America to become a monarch like the country that they just won independence from. This act also disproves the avaricious aspect of a bad king. Had Washington been avaracious, or greedy, he would have seized power of the newly formed United States of America and turned it into an monarchy much like Great Britain. Instead of becoming too ostentatious, Washington set the precedent of the length of a presidential term, leaving a legacy for the next generations to admire.
Based on the traits of a good and bad king given by Malcolm in Macbeth and the reign of Shield Sheafson in Beowulf, America’s first president, George Washington, is a good “king”. He is within the parameters that make a good king, and he does not allow the traits of a bad king to enter his heart and influence his decisions. Washington’s legacy will live on forever in America, and he will be remembered as a good king for eternity.