Fears of a Setting Sun: The Disillusionment of America’s Founders

David George Moore

I like to read history and Dennis Rasmussen’s book, Fears of a Setting Sun: The Disillusionment of America’s Founders, is one of the best books I have read in some time. If you like books by Joseph Ellis and David McCullough you will enjoy Fears of a Setting Sun.

I am grateful to John Fea (currentpub.com) for bringing Rasmussen’s terrific book to my attention.

Dennis Rasmussen is professor of political science at Syracuse University. He is the author of the highly respected, The Infidel and the Professor: David Hume, Adam Smith, and the Friendship that Shaped Modern Thought. The Infidel and the Professor: David Hume, Adam Smith, and the Friendship That Shaped Modern Thought: Rasmussen, Dennis C.: 9780691192284: Amazon.com: Books

Moore: Give us an overview of what your book is about.

Rasmussen: It tells the story of how most of the American founders eventually came to feel deep anxiety, disappointment, and even despair about the government and the nation that they had helped to create. The book focuses especially on four of the main figures of the period: George Washington, who became disillusioned above all because of the rise of parties and partisanship; Alexander Hamilton, who became disillusioned because he felt that the federal government was not sufficiently vigorous or energetic; John Adams, who became disillusioned because he believed that the American people lacked the requisite civic virtue for republican government; and Thomas Jefferson, who became disillusioned because of sectional divisions that were laid bare by conflict over the spread of slavery.

Moore: I was already familiar with some of this history, but I am incredulous that no one had ever written an entire book on this subject. Is this also true of doctoral dissertations? It is a great subject for a doctoral student in American history.

Rasmussen: I was shocked too! Until fairly recently most of my work was on the Scottish and French Enlightenments—figures like Adam Smith, David Hume, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Montesquieu, and Voltaire. I mostly read biographies of the founders for fun, and it often struck me that while the stories were generally meant to be inspiring and uplifting, the endings were never entirely happy. I assumed that someone must have written a book, or at least an article or a dissertation, about the founders’ late-life disappointments, but as far as I can tell no one had, so I decided to have a go at it myself.

Moore: The relevance to the present challenges in our country are on every page of your book. What are a few things that the hard left and hard right could learn by reading your book?

Rasmussen: I hadn’t thought about the book in quite these terms until you posed this question, but I suppose I would hope that readers on the right might come away with a greater appreciation for the fragility of America’s political institutions. For all their alleged fealty to the founders and the Constitution, many on the right have proven all too willing to abandon them when it suited the interests of their party and their president. Some on the left, for their part, could use a reminder that these institutions alone can’t save us, and that the people’s character matters too.

Moore: There are three “f” words that I keep seeing in my own reading of American history and cultural analysis: fracture, fragility, and factionalism. I remember hearing various people warn of the fragility of the American experiment and thought it was good they warn us. However, it seemed we had nothing too serious to worry about. I no longer think this, and signs of our fragility abound. What can we do as we move forward to maintain the best of the American experiment in democracy?

Rasmussen: As I note in the conclusion of the book, the founders themselves, for all their late-life bitterness and disillusionment, never ceased to devote themselves to the American republic as long as they felt that they had something left to give. Here I think especially of John Adams, who grew disenchanted much earlier than the other founders—at least by the mid-1780s—but continued to dutifully serve his country for many more years as a diplomat in various European countries, in the thankless role of vice president, and as president. After he finally reached the pinnacle of power, he sacrificed his presidency in order to save the nation by sending a peace delegation to France in 1799. The founders’ penchant for meeting deep disappointment with steadfast resolve is one that we would do well to emulate in the face our own political tribulations.

Moore: Staying with my previous question, I have been thinking quite a bit about Madison’s Federalist 10. My thoughts were triggered by the storming of the Capitol in January of this year. As you well know, Madison believed there were two ways to stave off the power of factions: quash them which is an undesirable option for a freedom-loving people or allow them to exist. Allowing factions to exist will limit their power since the various factions will kind of keep each other in check thereby limiting the power of any one faction. I am not so sure I believe anymore that Madison was correct in this assessement. What do you think?

Rasmussen: I must say that, for all its fame, I’ve always found this argument of Madison’s to be somewhat suspect. As you suggest, his main solution to the problem of majority faction is to multiply the number of factions so that they have a harder time achieving a majority—divide and conquer, essentially. There are at least two problems with this solution. First, the entire point of political parties—which Madison did not expect to emerge when he made this argument—is to form coalitions among reasonably like-minded groups in order to achieve an electoral majority. Second, even minority factions can still cause a great deal of damage and chaos, as the recent attack on the Capitol sufficiently demonstrates.

Moore: What are a few things you would like readers to take from your book?

Rasmussen: I hope that readers take away a fuller understanding of the founding and the founders. We tend to focus on their “heroic” deeds during the founding period—above all securing America’s independence and setting up a new government based on new principles which has lasted, with some modifications, to this day. But their views of the pitfalls and possibilities of republican government continued to develop over the succeeding decades, shaped by the struggles and successes of the constitutional order that they had created. In order to achieve the fullest possible understanding of their outlooks, we need to look beyond the founding to the views that the these figures held later in life, which were, after all, shaped by greater real-world experience.

David George Moore is the author of the forthcoming Stuck in the Present: How History Frees and Forms Christians (Leafwood/Abilene Christian University Press). https://amazon.com/Stuck-Present-David-George-Moore/dp/168426460X.