Fears of a Setting Sun: The Disillusionment of America's Founders
BY DENNIS C. RASMUSSEN
PRINCETON, 288 PAGES, $29.95
The founders would be appalled" is a common sentiment in American politics, expressed mostly by the right. Those on the left, by contrast, are overjoyed at the thought of appalling the founders, whom they accuse of a raft of unforgivable sins, which can be expiated (and even then, only partially) solely by destroying the founders' republic.
For conservatives, by contrast, it is a lament: When, how, and why did things go so disastrously wrong? How did the glories of the Revolution, the genius of the Constitution, the struggles of the early republic, the preservation of the Union and abolition of slavery, the settling of the West, the building of the world's greatest economy, the invention of the lightbulb, airplane, telephone, and internet, victories in two World Wars and the Cold War, the moonshot, and so much else degenerate into ... this?
It's a very large question, which thinkers have barely begun to answer. Doing so requires drawing on both history and political philosophy (and the history of political philosophy). Dennis Rasmussen's book Fears of a Setting Sun, an account of the founders' worries for the future of their country, will be a useful aid.
It should be stated that Rasmussen does not share conservative pessimism about the state of America. He seems to think things are going fine, or as well as can reasonably be expected. He also (I would say) overestimates the present regime's observance of the letter and spirit of the Constitution, as well as the people's fealty to the same. (Take a look, for instance, at how well the Electoral College, the equality of states in the Senate, and the First and Second Amendments poll these days.)
The book, then, is a new twist on two old themes: the fallibility of the American founders, and the wrong-headedness of doomsayers. You think things are bad now? Wish you could go back to the good old days? Guess who agrees with you: George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, John Adams, and Thomas Jefferson, that's who! And look how it all turned out! There's really nothing to worry about.
Happily, this glibness is confined to a short prologue and even shorter epilogue. Most of the book is dedicated to explaining straightforwardly what the founders' concerns actually were. Their specific fears--Washington's, of partisanship; Hamilton's, that the federal government would prove too weak; Adams's, of insufficient virtue in the people; and Jefferson's, of sectional conflict--will not be new even to casual students of the founding. Yet in fleshing out the content of those fears with quotes from letters and other documents, Rasmussen provides useful history (he is surely correct that there is nothing else like it in the literature) but more importantly, material for philosophic reflections. It is the latter which concerns us here.
Rasmussen is also right that the founders' concerns were, to some extent, overblown, in that the four statesmen on whom he focuses...