Thursday, August 19, 2021

Fears of a Setting Sun: The Disillusionment of America's Founders (Dennis C. Rasmussen)

Our nation’s Founders were revered (if not worshipped) for generations until we learned more and reckoned more with their flaws as humans. However, the documents they generated, especially the Declaration of Independence and Constitution, are still held in incredible regard by many as important parts of America’s institutions. Author Dennis Rasmussen’s Fears of a Setting Sun talks about how several of the nation’s Founding Fathers deemed the American constitutional experiment a failure that was unlikely to last.

The author pulls the pessimism from a variety of individuals and for a variety of reasons: Washington hated increasing American partisanship; Hamilton did not think America’s federal government was strong enough; Adams believed Americans lacked civic virtue; and Jefferson expressed concerns about the rise of sectionalism and factionalism. Not all Founders shared such doubts about America’s future; James Madison was quite optimistic about the future of the country and offered a much more level-headed analysis of his fellow citizens.

The sun that is referenced in the book title alludes to a story that came out of the end of the Constitutional Convention in 1787. Ben Franklin alluded to a half-sun that was carved in the back of George Washington’s chair, remarking “I have often looked at that picture (carving) behind the President without being able to tell whether it was rising or setting. I have the happiness to know that it is a rising and not a setting sun.” Rasmussen’s analysis that many Founders, as they aged, would have felt differently may come as a surprise. However, given America’s trajectory over the past 230 years, the sun arguably has risen, despite our imperfections and major warts, and Rasmussen astutely notes that many of their fears never came to pass.