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

Image of Fears of a Setting Sun: The Disillusionment of America's Founders
Release Date: 
March 2, 2021
Princeton University Press
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This entirely fresh look at the inner thoughts of our country’s early political titans is both highly engaging and thought provoking, showing the very human side of politics in early America.”

The Constitution has received a remarkable amount of attention in the first few months of 2021, and this book is very timely to enlighten the discussion on whether the American form of government can endure the current highly charged political climate.

The author takes on what can only be described as the contrarian viewpoint on what some of our most important Founding Fathers thought about the Republic they founded. Examining the writings of four of these men—George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Jefferson, and John Adams—both during and after their public careers,  the author makes a compelling case that each of them had a particular issue with the government they had formed, expressing strong reservations whether the rapidly expanding United States could survive the growing pains of the world’s first constitutional republic.

Washington’s misgivings about the rise of political partisanship are fairly well known and he addresses them quite frankly in his masterpiece Farewell Address.  Washington’s two terms as the first pesident were marked by the increasingly bitter rivalry between Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton. Although Washington tried to stay above the fray of bitter denunciations between the burgeoning Federalist and Republican parties with their barrages of outright polemics through the press of the day, when he finally left office in 1796 he had become embittered by what he felt were unfair attacks on his character and achievements and was convinced the rising level of partisan politics was a threat to the country’s long-term stability.

Hamilton had a far different view of the new government than the other three main figures, wanting a vigorous Federal government that could create sweeping programs to build infrastructure and industry for the new country. His brilliant but controversial plan as the nation’s first Secretary of the Treasury to manage the massive debts incurred by the colonies during the Revolution has been credited with getting the new country on sound financial footing, but his insistence on Federal primacy over long established state political powers left him facing a determined opposition led by Thomas Jefferson.

John Adams was the most irascible of the four, criticizing his fellow Americans throughout his life for what he viewed as their self-centered outlook and lack of civic virtue. Although he was a brilliant thinker and served the country faithfully, he felt all citizens should have his sense of duty and was frequently disappointed to find they did not. He had the misfortune to follow Washington into the presidency and has been considered a mediocre president by most historians, serving only one term, and losing the highly contested and bitter election of 1800.  As the author notes, Adams had the longest retirement from public life of any of the four protagonists and he wrote extensively on the issues of the day, alternating between hope and gloom about whether Americans could make the civic sacrifices needed to keep their republic alive.

Jefferson was the most complex of the four men, worrying about the effects of slavery and the growing sectional divide between North and South even as he remained a plantation owner dependent on slaves for his livelihood. As the author notes, Jefferson had a number of concerns throughout his life about the direction the new government was taking, particularly what he saw as the centralization of power at the Federal level and the increasingly assertive Supreme Court.

Rasmussen describes in great detail Jefferson’s trepidations about the Missouri Compromise of 1820, the first of many attempts to reconcile two increasingly divergent opinions on the expansion of slavery into the rapidly organizing territories formed out of the Louisiana Purchase, noting his fear that the compromise would cause more long-term challenges than it purported to fix, while increasing the tension between northern and southern states.

To provide a balanced perspective, Rasmussen ends with a short section on James Madison, the founder probably more responsible for our Constitution than any of the other four men, who did not seem to suffer the same disillusionment as the others, likely because, as the author notes, he had a more sanguine view of politics and what was actually achievable within the American system of government.

This was a fascinating and completely new perspective on the Founders and their view of the country they helped create. Even as they all worked to launch this new venture of government by the people and seldom doubted the rightness of their cause—at least publicly—privately they all harbored deep misgivings about the long-term prospect of America’s political future. This entirely fresh look at the inner thoughts of our country’s early political titans is both highly engaging and thought provoking, showing the very human side of politics in early America.