Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2021
288 pp. $9.99 (Kindle)

Is America on its last leg? Will some Edward Gibbon of the next generation be writing The Rise and Fall of the American Empire? And if so, will the knockout punch come from the “woke” left—or from reactionary national conservatives; from a Chinese social media company—or from WWIII? Or more pathetically, will it go out in a chorus of “c’mon man” answered with self-aggrandizing superlatives?

In Fears of a Setting Sun, Syracuse University political science professor Dennis C. Rasmussen doesn’t weigh in on whether the sky is falling or how. He provides something significantly more valuable: historical perspective. Throughout the Constitutional Convention, Benjamin Franklin had looked at the sun painted on the back of Washington’s chair and wondered if it was rising or setting. When the founders adjourned on September 17, 1787, with a workable constitution in hand, he pronounced it a rising sun—a symbol of promise for the new republic.

But, notes Rasmussen, Franklin was the eldest there (age eighty-one) and did not live to see many depressing developments that followed. In time, such optimism would become the minority opinion among America’s founders. Almost to a man, they came to despair that things had gone dreadfully awry and that their creation would soon crumble. In lucid prose rare among academics, Rasmussen paints the scene, showing that although every founder had highs and lows, almost all ended in a trough of dashed hopes for the new nation.

Washington—ever the portrait of stoic resolve—was, in fact, seething with frustration over the partisanship that reared its ugly head in newspapers, popular opinion, and even within his own cabinet. Jefferson and Hamilton, in particular, were like oil and water. Detailing their conflicts—stemming from Hamilton’s “liberal reading of the nation’s fundamental charter” and his constant push “to strengthen the government in every way that he could think up”—Rasmussen observes, “The fact that Washington managed to keep them together in the administration for as long as he did—nearly four years—was itself a noteworthy accomplishment; one can only imagine how vitriolic the enmity between them would have grown without his steady presence at the helm” (78, 64, 31–32). Distraught, Washington told Jefferson in 1792,

Without more charity for the opinions & acts of one another in Governmental matters . . . it will be difficult, if not impracticable, to manage the Reins of Government or to keep the parts of it together: for if, instead of laying our shoulders to the machine after measures are decided on, one pulls this way & another that, before the utility of the thing is fairly tried, it must, inevitably, be torn asunder—And, in my opinion the fairest prospect of happiness & prosperity that ever was presented to man, will be lost—perhaps for ever! (29)

The “dangers of factionalism” were to become “the great theme” of one of the greatest political documents in American history—Washington’s Farewell Address, which disclosed his “most ardent wish,” that Americans set party disputes aside and “banish those invectives which proceed from illiberal prejudices and jealousy.” In other words, as Rasmussen states, Washington’s “most heartfelt wish . . . was that the very nature of American politics would change in a fundamental way” (46–48). Until his final days, the great man’s worries would rarely abate. “I have, for sometime past, viewed the political concerns of the United States with an anxious, and painful eye,” he wrote, just weeks before his death. “They appear to me, to be moving by hasty strides to some awful crisis” (58).

Hamilton, who drafted Washington’s address, came to agree. In fact, as Rasmussen points out, he “was among the most disappointed in the national charter even at the outset,” largely for fear that “the federal government would not have sufficient vigor or ‘energy,’ particularly in relation to the state governments” (61). Thus, even though he worked as hard as anyone defending the Constitution, he viewed it as a shadow of what it could have been, and he worked tirelessly as secretary of the treasury to rectify this. . . .

Most of America's founders came to despair that things had gone dreadfully awry and that their creation would soon crumble. What can their disillusionment teach us about America's future?
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1. Thomas Jefferson, Notes on the State of Virginia: An Annotated Edition, edited by Robert Pierce Forbes (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2022), 250.

2. James Madison, The Federalist Papers: No. 48, February 1, 1788, https://avalon.law.yale.edu/18th_century/fed48.asp#:~:text=The%20legislative%20department%20is%20everywhere,into%20which%20they%20have%20fallen.

3. Quoted in Oliver Dunford, “State of the Modern Administrative State,” Pacific Legal Foundation, March 5, 2024, https://pacificlegal.org/state-of-the-modern-administrative-state/.

4. Thomas Jefferson, “First Inaugural Address,” The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, vol. 33 (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2006), 148–52, https://jeffersonpapers.princeton.edu/selected-documents/first-inaugural-address-0.

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