Forget Presidents Day: George Washington Deserves His Own National Holiday | Opinion

Pedestrians walk around the George Washington statue in front of Federal Hall September 5, 2002 in New York City. Spencer Platt/Getty Images

The story of how we got from Washington's Birthday to Presidents Day is long. It's a tale of bureaucratic imperatives and commercial opportunities and not having enough regard for history. The day once set aside to honor the nation's first president has seen its importance to our natural culture systematically devalued, ever since 1968, when Congress moved it from February 22 to nearest Monday, to load up the calendar with three-day weekends

Washington is certainly no longer the icon he was. His picture is no longer ubiquitous in the nation's public school classrooms. He remains on the dollar bill and the quarter dollar coin and his name is still affixed to streets and counties and high schools, at least for the moment. But on the increasingly rare occasions this once revered name is invoked, it is more often used as a synonym for a dysfunctional, out-of-control federal government, than spoken reverently as that of perhaps the one essential founder of our American system.

Little children no longer excitedly repeat and may not even know the (admittedly apocryphal) story of young George admitting to having chopped down his father's cherry tree because he could not tell a lie. His historic crossing of the Delaware River to surprise the British at Trenton during the American Revolution is now spoofed in a television spot hawking car insurance.

This is not as it should be. Consider the way his actions still influence life in America. After leading the American forces in the war for independence, he was offered a kingdom but turned it down to return to his at Mt. Vernon and life as a gentleman farmer. He was content to let others form the political structure and leadership of what after nearly a decade of struggle had become the United States of America, but when they could not do it successfully, he once again answered the call to serve as president of the republic under a new Constitution, after presiding over the convention that wrote it.

Washington is the model of the citizen-statesman that most every one of those who followed him into the nation's highest office has sought to emulate. The cultural forces that shape what it means to be an American, however, appear to have gotten over him. Washington the despot, Washington the slave owner, indeed, Washington, symbol of the stain our nation carried since inception, after the founders failed to resolve the problem of slavery, that Washington is so much more in vogue. His advice and counsel on how to fashion a country, limit the powers of its government, and over time create the greatest, freest, most prosperous, most generous society on the face of the Earth is no longer needed in this new polyglot of a nation where those who write the history are in fact rewriting it in order to change it.

We neglect to reverse this trend at our own peril. There has been some excellent new scholarship about Washington in the last few years, with considerably more to emerge now that the Mt. Vernon Ladies Association has established a Washington presidential library and research facility on the grounds of his home on the banks of the Potomac River. So, his place in history should not be allowed to go into that goodnight gently; it will be a fight all the way—and so much the better.

In the meantime, there are those among our elected leaders who could advance the caused considerably by assisting in efforts to rebrand the holiday as Washington's Birthday It is vital to the civic life of the nation and the civic education of future generations that George Washington be branded alone as worthy of study; that he is unique and set apart from all other presidents—as is the case with Abraham Lincoln, whose own national holiday should be the focus of a battle still to come.

For that to happen we need to place a premium on Washington once again. And there's no better way to do that than by restoring the status of his birthday as a national holiday honoring him alone, separate and apart from his successors.

He is worthy. Washington was a towering figure, standing head and shoulders above most all his contemporaries. He was, as he was eulogized, "first in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen." He was not first in line at the white sale of the guy who could help you get the best deal at the lowest price on that new 4 x 4 you've had your eye on since last summer.

Newsweek contributing editor Peter Roff has written extensively about politics and the American experience for U.S. News and World Report, United Press International, and other publications. He can be reached by email at Follow him on Twitter @PeterRoff.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own.​​​​​