To Renew America, Look to the Past | Opinion

America is disjointed. Its people have split into factions. The government is dysfunctional, and the economy is beginning to sour. Nearly two-thirds of the nation say things are on the wrong track, according to the latest RealClearPolitics poll averaging various national polls, while only just 28 percent say things are headed in the right direction.

America needs a strong leader, a person of vision, an individual who will take up the responsibility for making the hard decisions necessary to renew the nation and its people. To take the helm of the ship of state to ensure our country is once again on a course that is straight and true.

To find them, however, we must look to our past, to George Washington.

Who among us today can boast they achieved anything close to what he accomplished in his lifetime? First president of the United States. He was the presiding officer at the convention at which the U.S. Constitution was written. Leader of the army that secured America's independence from Great Britain. Pioneer agronomist and planter. Successful farmer. Accomplished horseman and dancer. Lover. A leader who was a true man of the people.

What Washington told us about the need to limit the powers of the central government so that human freedom might flourish is as relevant today as it was then. His wise leadership has produced what has become the greatest, freest, most prosperous, most generous society ever to exist. No American should be allowed to forget that no matter how large a blot his ownership of slaves might have made on his copy paper.

At one time, Washington was celebrated because he was deemed worthy of the adulation shown him by a grateful nation. Today, with his birthday having been combined with Abraham Lincoln's to create Presidents' Day and with his reputation reduced by cultural commentators and pseudo-academics who insist on emphasizing his ownership of slaves above his many accomplishments, it has become unfashionable to talk of his greatness.

Portrait of President George Washington
Pedestrians walk past an advertisement at Christie's for a portrait of President George Washington. Spencer Platt/Newsmaker/Getty Images

This all comes with a cost. The effort to rewrite history to place Washington in a subordinate position over Americans of lesser accomplishments erases the cultural reference points that each generation of new Americans must look to for guidance in determining current civic virtues.

All this should have been foreseen when the nation chose, for the most mundane of reasons, to end the celebration of Washington's birthday as a separate holiday, a day on which we could consider the man, his flaws—which were mercifully few—and his greatness, which was evident in abundance throughout his life.

Washington the man was once a venerated American institution. He was held separate and apart from every other president and every other leader purposefully. Even those who do not subscribe to the so-called Great Man theory of history must acknowledge he was central to the creation of a new nation based on values like liberty that ended up changing the world, but only because his enlightened leadership in its earliest days allowed the United States to survive its infancy.

No American leader, before or after, can match his record of accomplishment. This we, his grateful descendants, did and should once again observe his birthday as a national holiday. It is time to put him back on the cultural pedestal of which he began to be pulled once his birthday became Presidents' Day on the cultural and commercial calendar.

Washington, a towering figure, stood head and shoulders above most of his contemporaries. He belongs in that place of honor, his birthday as a national day of celebration and remembrance bestowed upon him. We let those who would downgrade him succeed at our peril. We cannot forge ahead together toward a better day, and we cannot bring the nation and its people together if we do not have a fully informed understanding of where we began. It is time for Congress to strike a blow against historical revisionism by restoring Washington's birthday on the calendar and moving it back to Feb. 22, where it belongs.

In our contemplation of George Washington and his legacy, we can once again find the commonality of belief that made the United States what Lincoln later said made America "the last, best hope for mankind." Rather than even attempt to present a more balanced approach to his life and story, those who are happy with the eradication of his former stature from our collective memory see this as a necessary step toward removing him and the other founders from the pantheon of American heroes who are worthy of our admiration.

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 RoffColumns@GMAIL.com. Follow him on Twitter @PeterRoff.

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