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02/27/2021

John McGinnis Reviews Dennis Rasmussen's "The Disillusionment of America’s Founders"
Michael Ramsey

At Law & Liberty, John McGinnis: “Sinking in Luxury, Sloth, and Vice” (reviewing Dennis Rasmussen [Syracuse University],  Fears of a Setting Sun: The Disillusionment of America’s Founders (Princeton Univ. Press 2021)). From the introduction: 

Never in my adult lifetime has there been a greater sense of political despondency in America. This summer witnessed riots across major cities, and this winter, a riot for the first time impeded the vote-counting of the Electoral College. Domestically, polarization and partisanship are at historic highs. Abroad, a more powerful and shrewder communist adversary has emerged in China than we have ever faced before.

In Fears of a Setting Sun: The Disillusionment of America’s Founders, a magisterial survey of the Founders’ deep pessimism about the likely fate of our republic, Dennis Rasmussen brings a paradoxically optimistic message. If these wise men were so doubtful about the nation’s prospect in their own difficult times, and the nation nevertheless survived and ultimately thrived, perhaps we should become more confident about our own future. The dynamic society they bequeathed has powered on, surmounting, or at least containing, one set of dire problems after another.

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Rasmussen’s assemblage of the Founders’ profound doubts about America is creative and thought-provoking at every turn. He considers George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison. Upon leaving office, all but the last despaired of the nation which they had labored so long to create and nurture. Rasmussen sketches how each became unhappy in his own way.

In conclusion:

Indeed, only Madison comes off as someone comfortable with the tenets of modern liberalism, where pluralist factions ceaselessly battle, and politics is an unending argument without any shared understanding of the common good. For the other founders, common purpose needed to be found in virtue, religion, or local bonds. Otherwise, the foundation on which any written constitution depends would not hold.

That central problem that these Founders identified has become only more acute today. The 1619 project even challenges the possibility of having a center that rests on a shared understanding of a respected past, let alone unity on common present goals. And the fragmentation that comes from social media and identity politics alike makes the divisions the Founders knew seem relatively tractable. Reading this remarkable book, I wish I could share the author’s closing sentiments. But as an older man, much like the Founders at the time Rasmussen canvasses them, I worry that there is a fundamental problem with the endurance of written constitutions, even a great one like the American Constitution.

A constitution is not a machine that goes by itself but an organism that gets life from the social and political culture around it. And that culture has been as unfriendly to our union as at any time in the modern history of the United States. That may not be an accident of the Constitution but a consequence of the liberal society it has sustained. Precisely because of its success in giving everyone the opportunity to pursue disparate goals, and now even claim distinct identities, a liberal constitution washes away the common soil, however thin, that is needed for its preservation. That we retained enough of it in the past is no guarantee that we will do so in the future.

And here is the book description from Amazon: 

The surprising story of how George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, John Adams, and Thomas Jefferson came to despair for the future of the nation they had created

Americans seldom deify their Founding Fathers any longer, but they do still tend to venerate the Constitution and the republican government that the founders created. Strikingly, the founders themselves were far less confident in what they had wrought, particularly by the end of their lives. In fact, most of them―including George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, John Adams, and Thomas Jefferson―came to deem America’s constitutional experiment an utter failure that was unlikely to last beyond their own generation. Fears of a Setting Sun is the first book to tell the fascinating and too-little-known story of the founders’ disillusionment.

As Dennis Rasmussen shows, the founders’ pessimism had a variety of sources: Washington lost his faith in America’s political system above all because of the rise of partisanship, Hamilton because he felt that the federal government was too weak, Adams because he believed that the people lacked civic virtue, and Jefferson because of sectional divisions laid bare by the spread of slavery. The one major founder who retained his faith in America’s constitutional order to the end was James Madison, and the book also explores why he remained relatively optimistic when so many of his compatriots did not. As much as Americans today may worry about their country’s future, Rasmussen reveals, the founders faced even graver problems and harbored even deeper misgivings.

A vividly written account of a chapter of American history that has received too little attention, Fears of a Setting Sun will change the way that you look at the American founding, the Constitution, and indeed the United States itself.