In his recent book, Fears of a Setting Sun: The Disillusionment of America’s Founders, Dennis C. Rasmussen skillfully draws on his expertise in the history of political thought to shed light on a subject rarely broached by historians: the founders’ expressed fears about the future of the United States.
Written in simultaneously accessible and brilliant prose, Rasmussen crafts a flowing narrative built on the writings of the founders themselves. This narrative is further illuminated by his commentary and mastery of the secondary literature. This book can (and should) be enjoyed by nonspecialists, but this does not diminish the originality of the work. The book follows some of the key protagonists of the American War of Independence into the contentious era of the Early Republic.
Despite a plethora of books and biographies about the founders, Rasmussen’s is the first book on their disillusionments — and there was ample material in the primary sources for such a work. The founders were anything but shy in expressing their fears that the United States would not survive, much less prosper. To help the reader grasp the extent of this pessimism, Rasmussen undertakes the herculean effort of producing a portrait gallery of five major founders: Washington, Hamilton, Adams, Jefferson, and Madison.
The sources of Washington’s disillusionment — partisanship and the rise of political parties — are mentioned throughout his farewell address. Rasmussen notes that the speech “is often read as a warning about potential dangers that he feared the country might someday face, but it was just as much a lament about ills that he was sure had already beset it.” Ironically, despite his own warnings, even “the father of the country” could not stay, as Rasmussen writes, “above the partisan fray.” By the end of his second term and especially during his brief two-year retirement, Washington was a partisan Federalist in all but name.
No founder’s rise was as connected to the establishment of the republic as Hamilton. He lacked strong ties to any state and so became the principal advocate for a strong central government. Rasmussen shows how, as the first treasury secretary, “Hamilton sought to bolster America’s constitutional order in every way that he knew how.” He made great strides in this task, getting an ambitious economic agenda through Congress that strengthened the power of the national government and helped quell the Whiskey Rebellion. By the end of his young life, Hamilton still bemoaned what he saw as a weak federal government, one unable to successfully combat the forces of populism (what he called “democracy”).
John Adams, meanwhile, did not necessarily grow disillusioned. He simply remained consistent in his natural state. “Adams’s disillusionment was in many respects the most predictable,” writes Rasmussen, for “he was notoriously irascible and curmudgeonly.” Adams’s despair about the nation’s future came from his judgment that the people lacked the virtue and public spiritedness necessary for self-government. A devoted student of history, veteran diplomat, and keen observer of human nature, Adams was not surprised by this failure. Confirmation of the unexceptional nature of Americans just heightened his preexisting trepidation.
“The Sage of Monticello,” Jefferson, walks away (or, more accurately, limps away) the most bruised of all those examined. Despite being, as Rasmussen states, “profoundly racist, even when judged by the standards of his time,” Jefferson viewed slavery as a moral evil. Rasmussen reviews Jefferson’s sincere early “efforts to combat slavery — however qualified and ultimately futile” — yet goes on to note that these efforts “all but ceased after the 1780s.” Jefferson remained optimistic until his final decade when he became convinced, quite prophetically, that a future war over slavery would tear the union apart.
In contrast to the other founders, Madison remained optimistic about the nation’s future. “He did occasionally harbor some real worries and experience some palpable disappointments, as might be expected,” but according to Rasmussen, “these concerns were never so deep and lasting as to lead to disillusionment.” By the time Madison died in 1836, he had witnessed almost 50 years of constitutional rule, and he simply “expected less from politics than most of the other founders.” Here, pessimism (or, more charitably, realism) about politics served as a source of hope.
“Formerly we used to canonise our heroes,” observed Oscar Wilde in 1890. “The modern method is to vulgarise them.” Hagiography or crass iconoclasm about the founders remains prevalent, especially in media or popular culture. Rasmussen does not traduce their laudable virtues of patriotism, sacrifice, courage, duty, intelligence, prudence, and, above all, passion for their new republic. Yet these extraordinary revolutionaries-turned-great-statesmen remained, as all people, flawed. Rasmussen never ignores one of their great moral failures, slavery, which eventually threatened the very existence of their beloved republic. We also glimpse their ordinary human traits: vanity, pettiness, ambition, self-pity, moody temperaments, and contradictions. In his epilogue, Rasmussen amply demonstrates that no one was more aware of their imperfections than the founders themselves. “Uncritical reverence for the founders,” he reminds us, “runs squarely against their own counsel.”
As the last delegates signed the Constitution in 1787, Benjamin Franklin, never one to waste an audience, spontaneously commented on the chair Washington had occupied throughout the convention. Improvising with his characteristic flair, Franklin proclaimed:
I have […] often and often, in the course of the session, and the vicissitudes of my hopes and fears as to its issue, looked at that [sun on the chair] behind the President, without being able to tell whether it was rising or setting; but now at length, I have the happiness to know, that it is a rising, and not a setting sun.
The question remains: is this democratic experiment a rising or setting sun? Rasmussen offers an answer in his striking final sentence:
[W]e must conclude that the sun that Franklin observed on the back of Washington’s chair in Independence Hall was neither simply rising nor simply setting, but rather beckoning the nation onward toward the horizon, on a never-ending quest to perpetuate and improve the founders’ creation.
Kenly Stewart is a freelance writer from North Carolina who writes about history, religion, and politics. He holds degrees in history and theology from Campbell University and Wake Forest University.