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


February 7, 2022
by Geoff Smock Also by this Author


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BOOK REVIEW:  Fears of a Setting Sun: The Disillusionment of America’s Founders by Dennis C. Rasmussen (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2021)

I feel dutybound to confess something, before I tempt the reader further into this review of Dennis C. Rasmussen’s Fears of a Setting Sun: The Disillusionment of America’s Founders. I am somewhat embittered—envious even. Envy might be only one of the seven deadly sins, but, as I’ve learned over the last few years, it is the cardinal sin of writers. And I felt it reading this book from cover to cover, prologue to epilogue.[1]

I am envious because Mr. Rasmussen beat me to the punch: covering a subject completely that I have thought about and, in parts, written about only in particulates. His accounts of the twilight disillusionment—and often rank despair—of Washington, Hamilton, Adams, and Jefferson combine thorough research with keen historical analysis. Whether or not the gloom of these men as retired statesmen is really a surprise to the reader or not, Rasmussen’s individual-by-individual account is a fascinating dive into the ambiguities and contradictions the Revolutionary generation had to contend with.

Rasmussen excels himself further in his treatment of the elder Madison, who, unlike his colleagues, was far more optimistic in his final decades of life than he was during the prime of his public years. Different in disposition than the other Founders, Rasmussen writes that Madison also “had lower expectations than most of the other founders regarding what was politically possible, and he pointedly refused to let the perfect be the enemy of the good.”[2] His complaisance with the republic he had done so much to create in its adolescent stages—and his resilient optimism despite the ever-increasing sectional tension of the nineteenth century—provide an edifying window into Madison’s thinking that recontextualizes everything we might have thought about our fourth president.

If there is one quibble I have with Rasmussen’s narrative, it is here though—not in his assessment of Madison’s temperament, but in perhaps exaggerating the high expectations his contemporaries allegedly had about the United States and the “glorious cause” to which they had committed their lives.[3] At the best of times, with the exception of Jefferson, they were cautiously optimistic; and none of them, again with the exception of Jefferson, ever put much faith in the virtue or public-spiritedness of the people.

Whatever soaring understanding Washington may have had about human nature or the possibility for public virtue was firmly erased in the thankless years he spent commanding militia during the French & Indian War, who, despite his exhausting efforts, were perpetually “under such bad order and discipline, that they will go and come when and where they please; without regarding time, their officers, or the safety of the Inhabitants; but consulting solely their own inclinations.”[4]His lamentations would only continue verbatim through his years leading the Continental Army, his interregnum as a private citizen during the Confederacy Period, and especially during his two terms as president.[5]

Adams had an especially keen understanding of his own vices and vanities, and he extrapolated them upon his countrymen throughout his adult life.[6] Even on the eve of declaring independence from Great Britain, an act Adams had done more work than any to bring about, he was pessimistic:

The Furnace of Affliction produces Refinement, in States as well as Individuals. And the new Governments we are assuming, in every Part, will require a Purification from our Vices, and an Augmentation of our Virtues or they will be no Blessings. The People will have unbounded Power. And the People are extreamly addicted to Corruption and Venality, as well as the Great.—I am not without Apprehensions from this Quarter.[7]

Hamilton was more succinct, if no less skeptical: “It is not safe to trust to the virtue of any people.”[8] His public life and work would only reflect this fundamental conviction.

Washington, Adams, and Hamilton were by no means alone in their skepticism, a reflection of the fact that, for all the poetry through which we remember the Revolution—the inalienable rights, the life, the liberty, the pursuit of happiness, the “We the People”—the real work of winning the War of Independence and of crafting a workable form of government was very much done in prose. Between optimism and pessimism, hope and fear, the Constitution emphatically reflects the latter: fear of larger states overpowering the smaller states; fear of the states overpowering the national government; fear of the national government overpowering the states or the people; fear of popular passions; fear of king-like tyrants; fear of northerners trying to interfere with slavery; fear of everyone and everything.

Never mind the fact that almost immediately after the new government began, the revolution in France occurred: a bloody, ongoing drama that gave both those who feared too little government and those who feared too much government a real-life confirmation of their darkest suspicions at various points.

If the Washingtons, Adamses, and Hamiltons were gloomy in their sunset years, it was more because their deepest suspicions were being confirmed than it was their soaring hopes being disappointed (once again, with the exception of Jefferson).

Ironically, it is here that Americans today—as gloomy and embittered as ever—can find some hope, as Rasmussen eloquently reminds us in his epilogue. The very men who authored the American republic had anxieties much more existential than our own, frequently predicting that it would go to its grave before they went to theirs. Yet, even after three centuries of disunion, civil wars, depressions great and small, world wars, cold wars, and pandemics, it survives.

Our skepticism therefore, like those of our eminent forebears, is more a reflection of ourselves than the republic to which Americans belong:

If we compare the United States to an idealized vision of what we believe democracy could be or should be, as the founders frequently did, then we are bound to be disappointed. But if, like Madison, we temper our expectations and remind ourselves that the illiberal and undemocratic alternatives have proven far worse, then we will be more inclined to count our blessings.[9]

If there is one lesson that we should take from Mr. Rasmussen’s excellent work, it is a determination to count those blessings and to be more like James Madison: comforted and resolved that “the sun … 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 founder’s creation.”[10]

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[1]Dennis C. Rasmussen, Fears of a Setting Sun: The Disillusionment of America’s Founders (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001).

[2]Ibid., 219.

[3]George Washington to Andrew Montour, October 19, 1755,” Founders Online, National Archives, founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/02-02-02-0095.

[4]Washington to Robert Dinwiddie, October 10, 1756, in John Rhodehamel, ed., Washington: Writings (New York: Library of America, 1997), 81.

[5]See Geoff Smock, “Experience, Policies, Failures: President Washington and the Native Americans,” Journal of the American Revolution, March 14, 2017, allthingsliberty.com/2017/03/experience-policies-failures-president-washington-native-americans/.

[6]See Geoff Smock, “Portrait of the Artist as a Young Schoolmaster,” Journal of the American Revolution, February 23, 2017, allthingsliberty.com/2017/02/john-adams-portrait-founder-young-schoolmaster/.

[7]John Adams to Abigail Adams, Philadelphia July 3, 1776, in John Patrick Diggins, ed., The Portable John Adams (New York: Penguin Books, 2004), 156.

[8]Alexander Hamilton to John Jay, New York, November 26, 1775, in Joanna B. Freeman, ed., Alexander Hamilton: Writings (New York: Library of America, 2001), 43.

[9]Rasmussen, Fears of a Setting Sun, 230.

[10]Ibid., 232.

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