Fears of a Setting Sun: The Disillusionment of America’s Founding Fathers by Dennis C. Rasmussen. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2021. Hardback. 288 pp. $29.95.
Benjamin Franklin’s 1787 observation to a woman that the United States was “a republic, if you can keep it” has become so ubiquitous that its original foreboding tone has almost been lost entirely. The phrase in our own day has become almost a cheerful maternal admonition. “Kids, go be good Americans and keep the republic today,” we might think of our republican mothers saying as they cheerfully send their citizen children out to the schoolhouse, or playground, or sports field. Associate Justice Neil Gorsuch’s memoir uses the phrase at its title. The book’s cover features an amber wave of grain, a barn and a quaint farmyard, and in the distance, a majestic mountain, assumedly onE of the Colorado Rockies of Gorsuch’s home state. The Revolutionary generation that wrote the United States Constitution and shaped the American republic’s regime treated the phrase not so much as a kindly or triumphalist admonition, but as a threat with consequences that were near at hand. Many of the so-called Founding Fathers ended their lives convinced not only that their efforts at shaping a virtuous republican citizenry had failed, but that the republic had not been kept at all.
Dennis C. Rasmussen’s Fears of a Setting Sun tells the story of the profound sense of disillusionment that plagued major political actors of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century United States: George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, John Adams, and Thomas Jefferson. Each of these men believed that various fatal flaws in the republican order had been allowed to fester, either through the incompetence or perfidy of their enemies, or their own impotence. Rasmussen’s book is a necessary corrective, and also offers a helpfully subtle and thoughtful criticism of the originalist dogmatism that typifies conservative intellectual, legal, and political thought in the United States. The generation of American politicians and thinkers who wrote the fundamental laws of the United States did not stop thinking about politics or the nature of the regime they created when the Constitution was ratified in 1788. The founders, argued Rasmussen, should be understood as statesmen who believed their regime would have to respond on some level to historic, political, and social developments. This did not mean they affirmed the notion of a living constitution a la the late twentieth century progressives; but neither did it mean they were constitutional or legal antiquarians. Their society had failings, and their politics had failings. Far from being triumphalist American exceptionalists, the founders believed their regime was always closer to destruction than moderns have realized.
Washington looms large in Rasmussen’s narrative, for good reason. The first president shaped the office and by proxy the American regime in important ways. Washington created the presidency even if he was not its statutory progenitor. Forrest McDonald in his The Presidency of George Washington argued that the creation of the presidency was as impressive as the creation of the Constitution. Washington’s imprinting of the office could rightly be said to be as impressive as the ideological and intellectual ideas stamped on to the American republic’s constitution. Washington never saw the regime he oversaw as safe, however, largely because he believed that the development of what he called “factions” would inevitably lead to the downfall of the republic. Factions, or parties, inflamed political passions and infected everything with their divisive spirit. Washington’s two terms saw parties divide the American populace over everything from foreign policy to economics. Rasmussen is careful to note that Washington was not naïve. The first president did not believe that American politicians or their policies would be the province of pure-minded selfless individuals, nor did he think that corruption would be proscribed entirely. He did, however, assume that party conflict would be relatively short-lived, and that it would only define political life in the American republic at irregular intervals during times of acute political controversy. Parties would rise, fight out the issue that needed resolution, and then fade again quickly after. The fact that parties became permanent fixtures in the American political milieu worried Washington to the degree that he believed factional disagreements would kill the republic.
No Federalist politician defined Washington’s administration more than Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton, and no prominent politico had graver concerns over the very nature of the American republic from the outset of its creation. Hamilton feared as early as the 1780s that the newly created central government that succeeded the Articles of Confederation would not have sufficient energy, or vitality. Hamilton’s dispositions, Rasmussen noted, ran counter to the intellectual and political mood of the Federalist Era. Federalism—the states retaining a significant measure of power vis a vis the central government—of some sort remained the goal of most congressmen in the last decade of the eighteenth century; Hamilton’s robust nationalism found its outlet in financial and economic policy.
Hamilton’s nationalism stemmed from his own massive personal ambition and his ambitions for the United States. More so than any other member of the founding generation, Hamilton used the language of empire in its traditional sense. The model state in his mind remained Great Britain. An American republic that never developed in to anything more than a North American confederation of loosely-joined states would never achieve the type of greatness that would allow the United States to eventually compete on the world state with the great empires of the day: Britain, France, Spain, and Russia, all of which retained territorial ambitions on the North American continent in 1790. Nationalism, and the centralizing of control of the republican empire in the federal government, fixed Hamilton’s political mind on the role of state authority in the early national United States. That his fellow Americans worried more about the potential rise of monarchy, and seemed blissfully unconcerned about anarchy, drove Hamilton’s disquiet to the point where he flirted with notions of militarism and other forms of authoritarianism in the years following Washington’s death in 1799.
Hamilton’s bête noire when he left power in 1797 was not Thomas Jefferson or other prominent followers of Jefferson. Rather, Hamilton clashed most prominently with Washington’s successor, John Adams. The second president, unlike Washington or Hamilton, worried more over the moral and social condition of the American people than the potential structural or institutional weaknesses in the republic’s political framework. Adams famously insisted that the United States’ constitution was only fit for a religious people. The tie between religion and virtue was never very far from Adams’ mind, and he seemed unconvinced that Americans exemplified the appropriate degree of virtue to maintain republic government. Adams warned particularly about American avarice. Certain classes of men slouched towards penury almost by nature, and this sort of greed and social climbing eventually could overwhelm the constitutional framework. Like classical Rome, the United States could be subverted by designing men who used the greed and class resentment of the masses against the natural aristocrats that Adams believed should rightly rule the United States. His solution was, Rasmussen notes, to institutionalize potential class conflict in respective federal institutions and give them a voice—a political release valve—that ensured their concerns might be addressed before they metastasized into a grave social ill that threatened the republic.
Thomas Jefferson didn’t share Adams’ low view of humanity, but he did share an ominous sense that the republic he worked so long to create in the American Revolution was not long for this world. Jefferson in particular worried that the agrarian republic he hoped the Constitution might sustain was being quickly turned into a crass society of urban bankers, lawyers, and capitalists who would import all the vices of the British Empire that the War for Independence had just thrown off. Jefferson is often portrayed as a silent brooding presence in American politics, but Rasmussen notes that in some ways Jefferson’s despair for the American republic was interrupted more regularly than other figures analyzed in the book. Jefferson’s election to the presidency in 1800 and the United States’ victory in the War of 1812 provided evidence for the Virginian that all was not lost for the republic. The main source of fear for Jefferson in his last years was not Hamiltonian Federalists—they had been thoroughly vanquished by 1820 and his Republicans ruled the American republic—but the status of slavery and how it might affect the Union. The controversy over slavery, the third president prophesied, would be the death knell of the Union.
Rasmussen has offered a valuable and important volume not only for scholars, but for interested laypeople and religious ministers as well. The men who very literally created the American political order did not view American politics as static or sacrosanct. Changes, and significant changes, might be needed from time to time to keep the republic from falling into anarchy and its people into license. The founders, to their credit, didn’t sacralize their moment in history; they saw the social and political ills of their time with eyes wide open. So too should their successors in American politics and intellectual life.
Miles Smith IV is a visiting assistant professor at Hillsdale College and a historian of the Old South and Atlantic World. He took his BA from the College of Charleston and holds a PhD in History from Texas Christian University. He is a native of Salisbury, North Carolina.