When Americans think about their country’s Founding Fathers, they tend to think of them as cool and competent figures, who were supremely confident in the superiority and longevity of the republican government they had created.
But my guest says that nearly all the founders experienced great internal and external conflict in conjunction with the new government, and came to be greatly pessimistic about the future of the democratic experiment they had helped birth. His name is Dennis C. Rasmussen and he’s a professor of political theory and the author of Fears of a Setting Sun: The Disillusionment of America’s Founders. Today on the show, Dennis unpacks how four of the founders — George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, John Adams, and Thomas Jefferson — ultimately came to worry that the American republic wouldn’t last past their own generation, based on concerns that ranged from the rise of partisanship to a lack of virtue amongst the American citizenry. Dennis also discusses why it was that one founder, James Madison, remained optimistic about the future of the country. We end our conversation with why the disillusionment of the founders actually carries a message of hope for us.
If reading this in an email, click the title of the post to listen to the show.
- How did Dennis first pick up on this sense of disillusionment from the founders?
- What was the genesis of Washington’s disillusionment with the government he helped create?
- Washington’s military vs. civil leadership
- What was partisanship like during the founding era?
- Alexander Hamilton’s intense rivalry with John Adams
- Why Adams was concerned with Americans’ lack of civic virtue
- How Adams’ reading impacted his worldview
- Why Jefferson was optimistic about America’s prospects for so long
- What is it that ultimately caused Jefferson to lose heart?
- Why James Madison never grew pessimistic about the American experiment
- Why there’s hope to be found amidst the pessimism of America’s founders
Resources/Articles/People Mentioned in Podcast
- Washington, Arnold, and Valiant Ambition
- The 10 Best Biographies of American Presidents
- The Best John Adams Quotes
- Thomas Jefferson’s Recommended Reading
- American Honor — Creating the Nation’s Ideals During the Revolutionary War
- A Citizen’s Bill of Responsibilities
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Read the Transcript!
Brett McKay: Brett McKay here, and welcome to another edition of The Art of Manliness podcast. Now, when Americans think about their country’s Founding Fathers, they tend to think of them as cool and competent figures who were supremely confident in superiority and longevity of the republican government they had created, but my guest says that nearly all the founders experienced great internal and external conflict in conjunction with the new government, and can be greatly pessimistic about the future of the democratic experiment they had helped birth.
His name is Dennis C. Rasmussen, he’s a professor of Political Theory and the author of, Fears of a Setting Sun: The Disillusionment of America’s Founders. Today on the show, Dennis unpacks how four of the founders, George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, ultimately came to worry that the American republic wouldn’t last pass their own generation, based on concerns that ranged from the rise of partisanship, to the lack of virtue amongst the American citizenry.
Dennis also discusses why it was that one founder, James Madison, remained optimistic about the future of the country. We end our conversation with why the disillusionment of the founders actually carries a message of hope for us. After the show’s over. Check out our show notes at aom.is/foundingfathers.
Brett McKay: Dennis Rasmussen, welcome the show.
Dennis C Rasmussen: Thanks for having me.
Brett McKay: So you have a new book out, Fears of a Setting Sun: The Disillusionment of America’s Founders. Now, I think when most Americans think of the Founding Fathers, they’re almost like demigods, they likely imagine these men in powdered wigs who were high-minded and who coolly and rationally created a government that would last for the ages.
But in your book, you make the case that most of the Founding Fathers, most of the signers of the constitution were disillusioned with the government they had created, and a lot of them thought it even wouldn’t even last a generation. So how did you pick up on this disillusionment?
Dennis C Rasmussen: Well, in some ways, I guess it was hiding in plain sight. Like many Americans, I’ve long enjoyed reading the big popular biographies of the founders that seem to come out almost every year, by folks like Joseph Ellis, Ron Chernow, Gordon Wood and the like. But it often struck me over the years that the stories were generally meant to be inspiring and uplifting, but the endings were rarely very happy.
On the contrary, almost all of the leading founders ended up being, later in their lives, rather disappointed in the government, the nation they’d helped to create. And this seemed like a really interesting fact, of course. I was surprised when I looked around at the scholarship on the period that no one had really pursued this point in a systematic way, so I decided to have a go at it myself.
And once I did, once I started systematically going through the founders’ letters and other writings, frankly, disillusionment was really all over the place. I’m not pulling at strings here or trying to infer disillusionment from a few stray comments here or there, there’s just a vast historical record attesting to their anxieties and disappointments, and sometimes even despair about the country’s future.
Which is all the more striking, given that they’re all keenly aware that everything they wrote would be poured over by posterity, and still their growing disappointment in what America had become was something that… It wasn’t even something that they tried to hide from the future generations.
So for each of them, there are just dozens and dozens of letters and other writings, maybe hundreds in the case of John Adams, in which they bemoan the fate of the country that they’d help to create, often in very overwrought hysterical terms. And I just think that given the perennial interest that Americans have in their founders, it’s really an amazing thing that this isn’t better known or more talked about.
Brett McKay: Okay, so in your book, you focus on the disillusionment of four Founding Fathers. You have George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, John Adams, and Thomas Jefferson, and each one grew pessimistic about the government they formed for different reasons. So let’s start with George Washington. What drove his disillusionment with the constitution and the government he helped form?
Dennis C Rasmussen: Well, the key source of Washington’s disillusionment was the rise of political parties in partisanship, which he thought were just fatal to republican government. And these worries really set in for him, I think I’d say in 1792, in the run-up to the second presidential election. So he thought basically that the country’s first couple of years went pretty great, all things considered, but then during that time, partisanship sort of began to brew beneath the surface, starting within his own cabinet.
So it was led by Alexander Hamilton, who’s of course the Treasury Secretary, as well as the leading figure in the emerging Federalist Party, and Thomas Jefferson, who’s Secretary of State and the leader of the Republican Party. And the Hamilton-Jefferson rivalry, really their hatred for one another, stayed mostly beneath the surface, I think for the first year or two.
But by 1792, it started to break out into the press, to spread across the public more broadly, and Washington was just filled with disgust. So everyone at the time, at least professed an aversion to parties, but Washington really meant it. This was something from the beginning to the end of his public life, he’s constantly worried about parties, he’s constantly warning his fellow citizens about the dangers of partisanship.
But of course, partisanship just continued to grow and grow, certainly over the course of the second term even moreso I’d say during his short retirement. So by the time of his death in 1799, he was convinced that not just the Hamiltons and Jeffersons, not just the political elite, but also the American people more broadly, were thoroughly and irretrievably partisan.
He had always insisted since his days commanding the Continental Army that republican government just couldn’t survive under those circumstances, and this is why I think it’s not really that surprising that his later letters are just littered with predictions that some kind of some kind of crisis was imminent.
And that’s why I suggest that in some ways, Washington’s political career was the reverse of his military career, so in politics, he won every election unanimously, he got his way on almost every policy dispute, but in the end, he failed in what he saw as the key effort to prevent partisanship from overrunning the country. So I say in politics, unlike in the revolution, he won most of the battles, only to lose the larger war.
Brett McKay:Can you explain Washington’s [0:06:28.1] ____ party politics so much? ‘Cause most of the founders publicly would say, “Yeah, it’s terrible.” But Washington, this was like, this meant a lot to him. So what drove that?
Dennis C Rasmussen: That’s a good question. I think part of it was that he thought that partisanship was just a sign of a bad character, so if you’re being partisan, that means you’re being partial, you’re putting the interests of some parochial group ahead of the public good, which meant that you weren’t a true patriot, you weren’t exhibiting the kind of disinterested virtue that Washington so prized.
But he also thought that parties would be, as I said before, fatal to republican government, he thought that parties would sow conflict among the people, they would open the door to corruption and foreign intrigue. They would prevent the government from being well-administered, when there’s a sort of standing opposition party whose job it is, is to try to prevent the President… The leaders of Congress from getting things done.
Now, of course, today it sounds almost impossibly naive to have supposed that parties would never emerge in America, but most of the other founders frankly had the same expectation, the Constitution itself was designed under the assumption that parties wouldn’t play much, if any role in American politics. So today, I think most political scientists would say that we need parties, democracies can’t really function without parties, but that’s, it’s just one area where Washington and the other founders had a very different vision for what democracy would look like.
Brett McKay: One interesting point that I liked a lot, an insight you had about Washington, why he didn’t like partisanship, it was likely influenced by his experience as a general of the military too, where in the military, you had everyone on the same page or else you wouldn’t win. And he likely carried over that idea to his civil leadership.
Dennis C Rasmussen: That’s right. And I think it was also a partisanship within the Continental Congress, the kind of partisan bickering that often prevented him from getting the money and the troops that he needed. So certainly that. He thought you needed national unity for any kind of great undertaking, whether it’s winning independence or launching this new government.
Brett McKay: Can you give us an idea, ’cause I think when we think about party politics, our reference is what’s going on now in our country in the last 20, 30 years. What was the acrimony like amongst the parties back in 1790s?
Dennis C Rasmussen: Sure. It is a striking thing. We have these, as you described, group of very high-minded figures. They all profess this aversion to partisanship, and yet they very quickly, within a year or two, they split up into a pair of hostile opposing ideological groups. Partly, I think it was frankly a matter of personality. As I suggested, Hamilton and Jefferson really just hated one another.
Their clash was sort of an unusual one, in so far as Hamilton was cast as a champion of the economic elite, despite being himself a self-made immigrant, whereas Jefferson liked to present himself at least, as the apostle of humble farmers, whereas he himself was a rich, well-connected slaveholder.
But of course, there’s far more than just personality at play. So the two sides, the Federalists and Republicans had very different visions, policy visions for what the new government should do. So one of the big flash points for controversy was that Hamilton created this sweeping financial program that was designed to try to get the country on a sound economic footing. And it was… It did. It was amazingly successful. But Jefferson and the Republicans saw it as part of a vast conspiracy by scheming money men to fleece the poor, to corrupt the young nation.
More generally, the Federalists advocated a robust exercise of federal power, especially by the President, whereas Jefferson and his followers tend to prefer reserving more power for the state governments. Foreign affairs came into play too, the Federalists tended to side with Britain in foreign affairs, whereas the Republicans sided with revolutionary France. But when it came down to it, each side really saw the other as an almost existential threat to the country.
The Federalists tended to see the Republicans as more or less unreconstructed anti-federalists, which is to say opponents of the Constitution, opponents of the government under which they were living. They thought that the Republicans basically wanted to go back to the disastrous situation that the country been in under the Articles of Confederation.
And the Republicans on the other side thought that the Federalists were essentially monarchists at heart, that they wanted to put a crown on Washington’s head, making him the new King George. And so having each side see the other as effectively treasonous, it didn’t exactly foster reasonable compromise between the two sides, of the kind that Washington expected.
Brett McKay: Well, you make this case too with Washington, so throughout his career, he tried to stay above partisanship, but then as he got older, after he was President, he actually kinda became increasingly partisan. What happened there?
Dennis C Rasmussen: Yeah, I think some historians would say that Washington was a partisan, a Federalist all along, from the very beginning of his political career. I think that’s too strong. I think for his first term at least, he managed to steer a pretty even course between the two sides. So he had a small cabinet, only four people, and it was evenly balanced. You had Hamilton and Henry Knox, Federalists, on one hand, and Jefferson and Edmund Randolph, who were Republicans, on the other hand.
And so he was always, for every policy issue or question that came up, he’s always presented with both sides, he tried to sort of balance, mediate between them himself. And I think he did a fair job. The fact, the very fact that he kept Jefferson and Hamilton in the same cabinet for almost four years is something of a miracle.
But then as time went on, by the end of his second term, Jefferson and Randolph had both left the cabinet, as had Hamilton and Knox, for that matter, and Washington was eventually, maybe forced I guess isn’t too strong a word, he eventually replaced them all with rock-ribbed, second rate Federalists, which I think is a sure sign of how far he’d drifted into that camp.
And then he went even further during his retirement. During those three years, he corresponded almost exclusively with Federalists. In his correspondence, he started referring to Republicans as the “French party” rather than true Americans. So I think he did eventually succumbed to the kind of partisan rancor that he so abhorred.
I don’t know if there’s one thing that we can point to that would explain this conversion. Part of it surely was that the Republican press started attacking him openly and rather viciously during his second term, which I’m sure put him off. The Republicans unwavering support for the French Revolution, even after it turned monumentally bloody, also had a lot to do with it.
And it was just true that Jefferson and Madison spent a lot of time working against his administration, his policies, even while Jefferson was still in the cabinet. And so, I guess in some ways, it’s not surprising that he drifted into the Federalist camp, but it’s also a sure sign of just how deeply he failed, and they failed, that by the mid to late 1790s, less than a decade into the new government, this partisan divide is so wide that even George Washington, even this figure of almost Olympian stature, can’t manage to straddle the two.
Brett McKay: Okay, so Washington, partisanship was the thing that got him disillusioned. Let’s talk about Alexander Hamilton, what drove his disillusionment with the government?
Dennis C Rasmussen: So Hamilton’s main worry was that the national government wouldn’t have sufficient vigor or energy, particularly in relation to the state government. So Hamilton was a more consistent, more unabashed proponent of a strong central authority than any of the founders were. From the very beginning, he was convinced that the Constitution didn’t do enough to set up this kind of energetic government that he wanted, so he gave a really remarkable speech at the Constitutional Convention, in which he basically said that they should imitate the British system as closely as they could.
For instance, that he said that President and Senators should, after being elected, should serve for life. And then on the last day of the convention, he said that, “No man’s ideas were more remote from the Constitution than his were.” So essentially, he thought that the government had to have a great deal of energy, as he called it, so that it could stand up to the states, so that it could stand up to other countries, and just so that it could govern effectively and protect people’s liberties and the like.
And so Hamilton spent most of the 1790s, the first half of which he’s in Washington’s cabinet, the second half of which he’s out of politics, formal politics, but he spends the whole decade basically doing everything he can think of to build up the government, to enhance its powers.
He develops this sweeping financial program, he worked to build up the military during the Whiskey Rebellion and what was known as the Quasi-War with France, he did everything he could to expand the President’s powers in both domestic and foreign affairs, especially while Washington, the war hero Washington is in office, and it’s just kind of harder for people to object too much.
But he was never convinced that he’d done enough. Jefferson and Madison and the Republicans were always there fighting him, hounding him, keeping him from realizing the full extent of his vision. So he just never thought that the federal government they created was sufficiently energetic.
Brett McKay: I thought it was interesting too, you talk about the… You’re talking about another rivalry that have Hamilton had, he had a rivalry with John Adams, who was also a Federalist. But this rivalry, it seemed more personal than political. Then you also highlighted, sometimes Hamilton, these ill feelings towards Adams, it caused him to cut off his own political nose, just to spite Adams.
What was the acrimony between those two, and how did that get in the way of Hamilton pushing his idea about the country should have a strong national or federal government?
Dennis C Rasmussen: Yeah, so Hamilton and Adams did hate each other despite being members of the same party, despite having, in the broadest terms, similar worldviews. Part of it here too is just personality, they’re both headstrong, kind of volatile, and so maybe they were bound to clash. But I also think Adams never wanted to go quite as far as Hamilton did in building up the government, and especially building up the army during the Quasi-War.
And as a result, as you hinted in your question, in the election of 1800, Hamilton published this really outrageous creed about, basically how unfit for the presidency Adams was, which in turn all but ensured that Hamilton’s archenemy Jefferson became the next President. So you had this split between the Federalist Party, between Hamilton and Adams and their followers. This opens the door for the Republicans to step in.
And that’s really when I think Hamilton’s hopes for the future were essentially dashed for good. He’d always feared that the government was too weak, and now here Jefferson and the Republicans are elected with a mandate to pare down its power still further. And so in 1802, a couple of years into Jefferson’s presidency, Hamilton wrote this really, I think touching letter to his friend, Gouverneur Morris, in which he lamented that after all he’d done, after so many years to try to make this work, to try to make the government work, it just wasn’t gonna happen.
He went so far as to call the Constitution, “A frail and worthless fabric,” and he lamented that, “This American world was not made for me.” So by the end of his life, by the time of his famous duel with Aaron Burr, Hamilton thought that the already weak government was only going to get weaker over time, and that little but disillusion and disorder could be expected for the foreseeable future.
Brett McKay: Okay, so another guy, end of his life, didn’t think it was gonna happen, the country. I was talking about John Adams. What was his disillusionment about?
Dennis C Rasmussen: His worries centered on the lack of civic virtue among the American people. He thought that republican government depended not just on having the right institutions set up, but also on the people having the right character, that people needed a sense of patriotism, of duty, a willingness to put public good ahead of their own selfish interest. This is something he insisted on from the beginning to the end of his long career in politics. He thought that people needed to be willing to sacrifice on behalf of the public, as he himself so often did, at least in his own eyes.
Early on during the Revolutionary War, Adams sometimes dared to hope that, “Well, maybe this will happen. Maybe the people will be sufficiently virtuous once we’ve attained independence.” But at least by the 1780s, mid-1780s, if not earlier, he was convinced otherwise. And so his disillusionment came quite a bit earlier than it did for the other figures in the book, before the Constitution is even a twinkle in the framers’ eyes.
And it lasts so long, he doesn’t die until 1826, so it lasts for almost a half century. One of my favorite quotations from the book comes from a letter that Adams wrote just a month or so after being inaugurated as the nation’s first Vice President. So he’s writing to Abigail, asking her to come to New York, New York is where the first temporary capital was.
And he says to her, “We have to think of New York as our home for the next four years, assuming of course that the government lasts that long.” So he’s not even sure that the Constitution or the government that it created, it’s gonna last for four years. But really there are dozens, if not hundreds of these wonderfully colorful and cranky letters from throughout Adams’ life, where he constantly bemoans the character of the American people, the follies, the vices of his fellow citizens.
He’s really one of the first great critics of the idea of American exceptionalism, this idea that the American people are somehow innately more virtuous or more fit for democracy than other peoples are.
Brett McKay: Where did this sort of high-minded, extremely idealistic idea of the type of character a citizen of republic needs to have in order for a republican government to last, where did Adams get that from?
Dennis C Rasmussen: I think it was mostly from reading. Remember, there’s hardly any republics in the world at this time, certainly none as big as the United States was, even then, limited to the first 13. So there weren’t a whole lot of concrete examples to look at or to draw on, but Adams was very well-read. He as well-read in political theory and history and the like, as any of the founders were.
And the lesson that he drew from his studies was, again, that republican government required civic virtue. So as he saw it, monarchical government didn’t require the same kind of virtue, because the people aren’t in charge, you don’t need as much virtue among the people. But under a system of popular self-government, he thought that if people were always looking out for their selfish interests, then politics would just be an insoluble clash of conflicting interests.
Brett McKay So there’s times where Adams was hopeful, like during the Revolutionary War he was kind of helpful, he saw Americans sort of embracing this idea of civic virtue that he had, making sacrifices for something bigger than themselves. What was it about, that he saw after the Revolutionary War and the formation of the Constitution, he was like, “Yeah, no, Americans, they’re corrupt. They lack virtue.”? What was it that he saw, that he pointed to?
Dennis C Rasmussen: Well, I think he just looked around and saw people not living up to the expectations, the frankly impossibly high expectations that he’d set for them. He would see people… Again, during the war for independence, sometimes you would see people rallying over on the flag, rally against the British, and he’d think, “Okay, maybe this will work.”
But then every time a soldier deserted the army, every time someone showed that they care more about making money than the public good, he’d dash off a letter to Abigail or one of his friends lamenting how selfish and corrupt and addicted to luxury Americans were. Some of this came when he was abroad, so for most of the 1780s, he was serving abroad in various posts as an envoy for the United States.
And he would get lots of letters from people back at home telling him what Hamilton was doing with this big financial program, how addicted to luxury Americans were. And so, some of it was even secondhand, but once he returned and got back into politics, he would see the partisan bickering, the selfishness, he just… People never lived up to the expectations he’d set for them.
Brett McKay: Speaking of these cranky letters he would write, there’s one, I forgot who he’s writing too, I think it’s Mercy Otis Warren, and he said, “But madam, there’s one difficulty which I know not how to get over, virtue and simplicity of manners are indispensably necessary in republic among all orders and degrees of men, but there’s so much rascality and so much venality and corruption, so much avarice and ambition, such a rage for profit and commerce among all ranks and degrees of men, even in America, that I sometimes doubt whether there is public virtue enough to support a republic.” He was pretty pessimist.
Dennis C Rasmussen: And if I’m remembering, I think that was from 1776. This is very early on.
Brett McKay: Right, 1776. So he didn’t think Americans had the character to be self-governing, so he started thinking, “Well, maybe this isn’t gonna last,” so he started coming up with some ideas later on in his life on how they could sustain a country or a government, even though the people weren’t, didn’t have the virtue for it. What were some of those ideas that Adams had?
Dennis C Rasmussen: Okay, so there’s a brief time, just before and during the Constitutional Convention, so he’s in London at the time, but he writes his magnum opus, it’s a big sprawling three-volume work called, Defense of the Constitutions of the United States. And by “the constitutions” he meant the state constitutions, since the US Constitution hadn’t been written yet.
In this work, he’s at least toying with the idea that if you have a properly balanced government, could that solve the problem, could the country survive under a republican form without virtue. But I think those hopes didn’t really last for that long. Once he returned to the United States and saw the way things were working, he didn’t think the right balance was being struck, and so I think those hopes went away fairly quickly.
He toyed with the idea in the early 1790s that, well, if we have enough kind of pomp and splendor, especially surrounding the President, surrounding Washington, maybe that will get people to revere the government and be attached to the government enough. He at times even hinted that maybe we would have to introduce some element of hereditary rule, that maybe the President and/or Senators would need to be passed down from father to son, and that this would keep the commotions that surrounded elections at bay.
I think maybe the most interesting, I don’t know if it was an idea so much as a sort of reprieve from his habitual pessimism came during the war of 1812, so this is in the midst of his long retirement. So during the war of 1812, he looks around and he sees Americans rallying together against the common enemy once again, Britain, and exhibiting sort of unity, patriotism that he hadn’t seen since the Revolutionary War, and this sort of buoyed his hopes for the nation’s future, at least for a few years.
And at this point, he came to think or maybe to worry that war may be necessary to inculcate civic virtue, to get people sufficiently attached to their country, to arouse patriotic feelings, and thus that war might be necessary to maintain the long-term health of republican government.
And he writes a number of letters to John Quincy and others at this time, that maybe too much peace and prosperity is a bad thing, maybe it’s inevitably gonna lead to decadence and corruption and the like. But he’s also obviously discomforted by this idea that, well, people can’t be virtuous without murdering one another, as he put it. [chuckle]
Brett McKay: Okay, so it seems like Adams, he would sometimes be optimistic, sometimes get pessimistic. At the end of his life, was he pessimistic or optimistic?
Dennis C Rasmussen: He sort of seemed to go back and forth. I think during the Revolutionary War, and then again at the very end of his life, he veered back and forth day-to-day, even sometimes within the same letter, he would seem to go back and forth. The last letter he ever wrote was about the 50th anniversary, that they were gonna celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, July 4th, 1826, as many listeners will probably know, that ended up being the day that he and Jefferson both died.
He wrote a letter about the upcoming celebration, in which, I’m sure the people who are writing to him asking for a comment on it, were expecting a kind of tribute to American democracy from one of its venerable founders, something that they could read amid the fireworks and parades.
But instead, he kind of punctures their hopes a little bit, he says, “Basically, it’s too soon to tell. Was the American Revolution the brightest or the blackest page in American history? We’ll find out, we’ll see what people make of this country after I’m gone.” And so he ends up going out hurling posterity a challenge.
Brett McKay: Okay, so let’s talk about Thomas Jefferson now, and you make the case that he took the longest to get disillusioned, in fact, he was pretty much optimistic about America up until late in his career. Why was that? And what drove Jefferson’s disillusionment?
Dennis C Rasmussen: Right, so Jefferson was the perennial optimist among the founders for the vast majority of his life, he had this deep abiding faith in the American people. He believed in the idea of American exceptionalism that Adams found so wrong-headed. So even when things didn’t go his way during the 1790s, so even when Hamilton enacted his financial program, later in the decade when the Federalists passed the Alien and Sedition Acts, even when things didn’t go his way, he was always sure that things would turn out right in the end.
Because he was confident that sort of deep down at the bottom of their hearts, the American people were almost all good Republicans with a small R, and in fact also Jeffersonian Republicans with a capital R, that they’re really on his side. And he thought that things did turn out right in the end, in 1800.
So in 1800, he’s elected President. The Republicans swept to power in Congress. And he saw this election not just as the temporary victory of a political party, he saw this as the permanent triumph of Republican liberty in America. He writes all these sort of self-congratulatory letters to his friends where he says, “We made it. We won after all. The ship is in port. America succeeded.”
And then of course, he spends eight years as President, he’s succeeded for another eight years by his closest political ally, James Madison, and then another eight years after that, he’s succeeded by his acolyte, James Monroe. So some ways it’s totally predictable, of course, that he’d retained his optimism for so much longer. The Republican Party that he founded basically won, his Federalist opponents essentially disappeared from the political scene.
But then in the last, I’d say decade or so of his life, between 1816 and 1826, even more starting in let’s say 1820, even he lost heart. So there’s a variety of reasons for Jefferson’s disillusionment, we had things like the spread of industry, the rage for banks and financial speculation, where he always preferred a more agrarian society. He was worried by what he saw as the usurpations of the Supreme Court under the leadership of his cousin, Chief Justice John Marshall.
He was very worried about the consolidation of more and more power in the federal government, even with the Republicans themselves in charge. But I think the thing that really led to his outright despair was the division between the North and the South over the spread of slavery, which came to the fore especially during the Missouri crisis of 1820, 1821.
So during this time, he writes a very famous letter where he says that, “This conflict woke me, it filled me with terror like a fire bell in the night. I considered it at once as the death knell of the Union.” And so Jefferson basically foresaw the path of the Civil War. Once there’s a geographic line dividing the country with a deep moral principle, deep moral opposition between the two, it is never gonna go away, that every event, every year is just gonna mark it deeper and deeper.
And Jefferson concluded this letter with a just, I think unforgettable expression of regret. I don’t have it in front of me, but he says something like, “I’m now going to die believing that everything that we fought for in 1776 was in vain. It’s all going to be thrown away by the present generation. My only consolation is that I won’t myself live to weep over the destruction of the republic.”
Brett McKay: Yeah, that’s heavy. That’s really heavy.
Dennis C Rasmussen: Very.
Brett McKay: Well, you fleshed this out about Jefferson, why he thought the Missouri Compromise, the Missouri crisis would cause this rancor. And this is really interesting because you really, you bring to the forefront these self-contradictory paradoxical views Jefferson had about slavery.
‘Cause on the one hand, this is the guy who wrote the Declaration of Independence, this document about human freedoms and human liberties. Publicly, he denounced the institution of slavery, but we all know privately he held slaves. But then later on his life, even though earlier in his career he denounced slavery and made moves to make it illegal, he really started pushing for slavery or allowing states that, new states into the country, to allow them to be slave states.
So can you walk us through that? What was going on, what was going on in Jefferson’s mind?
Dennis C Rasmussen: Yeah, I mean, look, we could do a whole podcast on Jefferson and slavery and barely scratch the surface. There’s so much that could be said about it. But basically, early in his career, Jefferson, I think fought a reasonably forceful battle against slavery, at least in the political realm. So he not only wrote the declaration, “Races, all men are created equal,” and the like, he tried to include a rather stinging denunciation of the slave trade in the Declaration of Independence, it had to be taken out to get the Southern states to join on. But he wanted to include it in there.
He drafted a couple of gradual emancipation laws for his home state of Virginia, he proposed to ban slavery from all the Western territories, included some really harsh denunciations of slavery in his book. And so, whatever he did in his personal life back at Monticello, where of course he kept hundreds of people in bondage, in the political realm, I think frankly, he did as much as he reasonably could have done in the 1780s. He went even further than most of his contemporaries even in the North would go, in fighting it.
But then basically he stopped trying. Even trying, after that. During the 1790s, he was much more worried about fighting Hamilton and the Federalists, so he sort of puts slavery on the back burner. As President, he does next to nothing to fight slavery, even when there’s this big question about, once he makes the Louisiana Purchase about slavery being expanded to the new territory, he basically doesn’t lift a finger to try to stop it from expanding.
And then during his retirement, he doesn’t just do nothing, he does worse than nothing, he, as you suggested, he actively advocated the expansion of slavery to Missouri, to the Western territories, which is something he himself had opposed when he was younger. And so the reason he did so was he adopted this theory, a rather crackpot theory, I think it has to be said, but the theory is known as “diffusion”.
And the basic idea is that, okay, if we allow slavery to expand to new territory, that’s not gonna lead to an increase in the number of enslaved people, it’s just gonna make them more spread out, and that spreading them out would have a number of benefits. So for instance, he thought that enslaved people would be treated better if they weren’t as concentrated, and so then the fear of slave rebellions wouldn’t be as prevalent.
But even more importantly, he thought that spreading out slavery would mean that emancipation would be easier to achieve, because if enslaved people are more spread out, each individual slaveholder holds fewer people in bondage, well then they have less to lose if slavery was to be abolished. But this was the idea.
Of course, it’s wildly delusional, I think, to have supposed that, “Well, we can really combat slavery by giving it free rein, let’s make it a big national problem rather than a narrow Southern sectional problem.” That’s like saying, “I have this fatal disease. Let me first let it spread throughout my body and then surely it will go away.”
Brett McKay: So as you say, what happened, so in 1820, there was the Missouri Compromise and basically said that territories above the 36-30 parallel, except for Missouri, those states, they’re gonna be free states. So Jefferson, when he saw that, he’s like, “Yeah, once you have that line, that’s just gonna cause… Once you have that geographic line, that’s just gonna cause division that you can’t… You can’t heal.”
Dennis C Rasmussen:That’s right, and that every time that there’s some new question, that the divide between the two will just be marked deeper and deeper. And so he, as I said, he basically foresees the path to the Civil War. He all but predicts what’s coming.
Brett McKay: Okay, so and then you go into detail with these four Founding Fathers, but then you also have a chapter where you kind of touch on the stories of other signers of the Constitution who were just like, “Yeah, this is a mistake, this isn’t gonna last.” But then you highlight there was actually one Founding Father, he never got disillusioned. And that’s James Madison our fourth President. Why didn’t Madison grow pessimistic about the American experiment?
Dennis C Rasmussen: Yeah, and I think this is a surprising one in some respects. I don’t think people think of James Madison as particularly optimistic. He’s very hard-headed and skeptical in certain ways. And he also lived so long, despite being a rather sickly hypochondriac, he’s certainly the least conventionally manly of the founders, but he outlived them all. He didn’t die until 1836, he lives well into Andrew Jackson’s second term.
And through all that time, he remained remarkably confident in the American experiment, despite some surprisingly deep reservations that he’d had at the outset. In the immediate wake of the convention, he wasn’t sure the Constitution was gonna work, despite us calling him the “father the Constitution”. He had deep reservations at the outset. But over time, he grew more and more confident, and this lasted through 1836.
And so I devote a couple of chapters toward the end of the book to exploring, why was he such an outlier in this regard? Here too, I think part of it was just personality, Madison was far more even-tempered, even-keeled than the other founders were, and this sort of unflappable-ness, I think surely contributed to his lack of despair.
Another factor, I think, was that he had lower expectations than the other founders did about what was politically possible, so his kind of skepticism maybe fed his optimism, in the sense that he never expected the American people to always surmount partisanship, like Washington, or always surmount selfishness, like Adams.
He never expected the nation to play this grand role on the world stage, to compete with the European imperial powers on their own terms the way Hamilton did. Nor did he even really expect, like Jefferson, that yeoman farmers would get together to wisely manage their political affairs on a local level. And so these lower expectations, I think meant that he was less likely to be disappointed in what America ultimately became.
I go through a few more in the book, let me just mention one more factor here that I think went into it, which is simply that by the end of his life, he’s the “last of the fathers”, as he’s sometimes called, by the end of his life, Madison had already seen the country endure so much. By that point, America’s constitutional order had already weathered any number of storms, the Alien and Sedition Acts, the War of 1812, the Missouri crisis and so on.
Dennis C Rasmussen:And so Madison believed or hoped at least that that meant it could weather a good deal more. So the more the nation endured, the more durable it seemed to him.
Brett McKay: So with this idea that your book is called, “Fears of a Setting Sun, where did that idea of a setting sun come from?
Dennis C Rasmussen: So the title comes from a quip from Benjamin Franklin on the last day of the Constitutional Convention. So this is September 17, 1787. It’s the last day, the delegates are getting together to sign the document, they line up at the front of the room to put their names at the bottom of the charter they’d spent the whole year crafting.
And according to James Madison’s notes, Franklin pointed to the chair that Washington had sat in at the front of the room all summer. So Washington was the president of the convention, and he occupied this high backed mahogany chair, which you can still see, it’s on display at Independence Hall, but the chair had a sort of decorative half Sunburst carved into the crest.
And so the story goes that Franklin called attention to the sun, and he said, “I’ve often wondered over the course of this summer, looking at that sun on the chair, I’ve often wondered was it a rising or a setting sun? Now, I have the happiness to know that it is a rising and not a setting sun.”
And so this is supposed to be sort of emblematic of the founders’ optimism, their great hopes for the new government during the founding period itself, and then the play on that for the book’s title, Fears of a Setting Sun, is of course that later in their lives, most of the founders, with Madison as really the lone exception, feared that in fact, maybe the sun was setting rather than rising.
Brett McKay: What do you hope people walk away with thinking after they finish your book?
Dennis C Rasmussen: Well, certainly, I hope that they walk away with a fuller picture of the founders and their worldviews than you get by just looking at the founding period itself. Which we often do. I think we need to remember that they didn’t somehow stop thinking about politics in 1788 after the Constitution’s ratified. They of course kept living, kept observing, kept thinking about what they’d wrought. And their later views were also informed by more real world experience, and so I think it’s worth taking a more holistic view of what they said and did.
It might sound funny to say for a book on disillusionment, but I hope that readers also walk away with this sort of certain kind of hopeless about today’s world. So there’s no question, of course, that the founders’ key causes for worry are still very much with us. So partisanship, the frequent fecklessness of the federal government, the lack of civic mindedness, the geographical divisions, all of these are still problems.
They’re certainly not the only problems with American politics, you only have to read the newspaper every day to see that all is not well with the republic, but if we take a page from Madison’s book, the fact that we’ve lived with these problems since the founding, for more than 230 years, suggest that, well, maybe they’re not as likely to doom the country as we sometimes fear.
We’re constantly told that, “The death of American democracy is nearly upon us,” but then people have consistently said that since the very founding of the country, and it hasn’t happened yet. On the contrary, the country has grown into history’s greatest economic and military superpower.
So, however appalling the state of American politics might be at the moment, and I’m frequently pretty discussed with it myself, but it’s important to remember that things were far worse in many respects when the founders, whom we so admire, when they presided over the country. So most obviously, we no longer have widespread chattel slavery, we no longer see the routine dispossession, even massacre of indigenous tribes. On the contrary, basic civil political liberties have never been extended to more people.
We no longer face serious repeated threats of secession and civil war, as the founders constantly did. It seems like every event in the era of the founding, caused one group or another to threaten the breakup of the Union. We see political violence far less today, even not withstanding the recent pretty harrowing attack on the capital, but we don’t see legislators brawling on the House of Representatives with canes and fire pokers, we don’t have uprisings like the Whiskey Rebellion and so on.
Our elections, our presidential elections, as nasty as they can be, don’t really hold a candle in that respect to the election of 1800, which pitted Adams against Jefferson, two of our most revered founders. Even our media, our mainstream media that gets so much criticism today, is far more responsible and fact-based than the partisan newspaper of the 1790s were. And so on and so forth.
And so I don’t think any of this is grounds for complacency by any means. We have serious pressing problems that we should try to meet, but I do hope that a fuller understanding of the founders and the founding, at least helps to summon a broader perspective on these problems.
Brett McKay: Well, Dennis, this has been a great conversation. Is there some place people can go to learn more about the book and your work?
Dennis C Rasmussen:Well, I’m not on social media, but they can go to either the Princeton University Press website, or to my Amazon author page for more on this book and my other books.
Brett McKay: Fantastic. Well, Dennis Rasmussen, thanks for the time. It’s been a pleasure.
Dennis C Rasmussen: Thank you, Brett. I appreciate it.
Brett McKay: My guest today was Dennis Rasmussen. He’s the author of the book, Fears of a Setting Sun: The Disillusionment of America’s Founders. It’s available on Amazon.com and bookstores everywhere. Also check out our show notes at aom.is/settingsun, where you find links to resources, where you can deeper into this topic.
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