George Washington is the president who towers over all others in stature and importance

Although renamed in popular culture as “Presidents’ Day,” the federal holiday we celebrate the third Monday of each February remains, officially, “Washington’s Birthday.”

We should make sure it remains as such.

Don’t get me wrong. Abraham Lincoln is rightfully credited with saving the union in the midst of a devastating civil war. He is regarded by many as our best and possibly most important U.S. president. I don’t quarrel with Honest Abe’s outsized status in comparison with other commanders in chief.

Nonetheless, one president towers over all others in stature and importance — George Washington, so memorably eulogized as “first in war, first in peace and first in the hearts of his countrymen.”

As a black American, I readily acknowledge that Washington’s “ownership” of slaves blemishes his legacy, and we must not overlook or excuse this fact of history. We’ll return to this subject momentarily.

We celebrate the life of George Washington, imperfect though he was, because he was the indispensable man who held our fragile republic together in its formative years.

But forty-four men have taken the presidential oath, but only one was indispensable to the founding of the United States. While all other presidents had predecessors to emulate or follow, Washington had only the Constitution and the will of the people. Relying on these guides, he invented the institution of the American presidency. That he was touched by divine providence in this endeavor there can be little doubt.

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As a military hero, General Washington was the face of the colonies’ rebellion against the British Empire. He built an effective army out of ragtag freedom-loving irregulars to wage battle against the mightiest war machine the world had ever yet known. Contemporaries often questioned Washington’s military prowess, criticizing him for retreating in battle after battle. That strategy, however, allowed him to preserve his army for the final decisive battle at Yorktown.

Following that victory, which effectively sealed American independence, there was at least a smattering of talk about crowning Washington king — a notion that he abruptly denounced before resigning his military commission. Despite his enormous popularity, he simply returned to his home as Citizen Washington. Yet he could not escape the continuing call to public service.

After presiding over the constitutional convention, Washington was unanimously elected president by the Electoral College. He remains the only person ever to accomplish this feat, and he did it twice.

During his two terms, Washington declined titles and traditions that might be deemed grandiose or associated with royalty. He instead governed with humility, restraint and wisdom as the first “Mr. President.”

And then, after eight years of precedent-setting leadership, President Washington did the unimaginable. He voluntarily walked away from his high office, putting into practice the Constitution’s vision of the peaceful transition of power.

In his farewell address, Washington admonished all the nation’s public officials to “confine themselves within their respective constitutional spheres.”

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He warned against “the baneful effects of the spirit of party” and urged avoidance of the sort of tribalism that “kindles the animosity of one part against another.”

Further, he emphasized that “virtue or morality is a necessary spring of popular government” and expressed distrust of the idea “that morality can be maintained without religion.”

In talking about America, Washington struck the tone of a caring and proud “father of his country.”

And yes, the birth of our nation came with that aforementioned defect. The institution of slavery was the brutally inhumane paradox of the American Revolution that left a stain upon many Founding Fathers’ calls for individual freedom.

Washington in 1786 expressed his desire “to see some plan adopted by the legislature by which slavery in this Country may be abolished,” but he did not emancipate his own slaves until his death, by instructions set forth in his will. Washington never led any effort to abolish slavery in his lifetime, but his colossal contributions to our nation’s well-being as commander in chief remain unparalleled to this day.

We celebrate the life of George Washington, imperfect though he was, because he was the indispensable man who held our fragile republic together in its formative years.

There will never be another George Washington, but every civic-minded American alive today can find ways to help make our country better and stronger.

“Every post is honorable,” Washington once wrote, “in which (one) can serve his country.”

As we observe Washington’s Birthday again this year, all Americans should remember the truth of those words.