Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

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 wrongheadedness 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 expected or feared the dissolution of the United States within decades or even years of their own deaths. That this didn’t happen does not, however, necessarily prove their fears were misplaced. What if the same bad trends merely took longer to metastasize?

Two of the four fears that ­Rasmussen treats are easily dealt with. George Washington’s dismay over the partisanship that engulfed American politics as soon as he left office (and was brewing before that, though the parties tried to veil it out of deference to his feelings), is well-known. But that dismay might, in hindsight, have been one of the great man’s few blind spots. Partisanship in one form or another is as old as politics and may be said to be ­coeval with it. Men inevitably disagree about the good, or at the very least how to achieve it, and their disagreements tend to coalesce around a small number of possible courses of action to which partisans attach themselves. To fret about something inescapable—to foresee doom from a dynamic that, however troublesome, has often (if not always) proved ­manageable—must in some respects be counted a failure of sagacity.

Partisanship ultimately means the tension between rich and poor, which can never be eradicated but can be mitigated. The founders’ wise Constitution did much to prevent that tension from boiling over into conflict. Hence Washington’s fears look to some extent like doubts over the efficacy of his and his fellow founders’ handiwork.

Before we write off Washington’s concerns, we must admit that while partisanship is as old as the hills, organized political parties as they were emerging in the second half of the eighteenth century were indeed something new. In their novelty, they appeared to Washington (and many others) as something very bad: the deliberate formalization of the kind of strife that had torn apart republics for more than two thousand years.

But others, beginning with ­Niccolò Machiavelli (whom, among the American founders, only John Adams dared to quote approvingly) made a positive case for partisanship as something not merely inevitable but, if properly channeled, potentially useful. According to the former ­Florentine secretary, the conflict between haves and have-nots, which often manifests itself as dangerous tumult, is a sign of salutary energy and can serve to safeguard liberty. The very fact that each class is strong enough to cause, yet too weak to prevent, tumult acts as a check against either one’s becoming dominant. Despite Machiavelli’s best efforts, however, partisanship remained disreputable for another two-and-a-half centuries, when Edmund Burke began its rehabilitation. This was too little, too late for Washington—but not for the rest of the founders, most of whom eagerly embraced party government.

It is plausible, if disputable, that party divisions served the American republic mostly well. One-party states tend to be sclerotic, inefficient, blinkered, and half-blind. Healthy competition keeps partisans on their toes, prevents either side from going too far, and forces all to moderate their demands. At any rate, it’s hard to see how partisanship of the type Washington feared brought us to the present morass. It seems more likely that the absence of political ­competition—the consolidation of nearly all power in a handful of private and governmental entities facing little or no opposition—inspires those in power to loot, bully, harass, and insult with impunity.

Jefferson’s greatest fear, by contrast, was obviously correct: America was riven by sectional conflict over slavery, and the nation almost came apart as a result. That it didn’t is a testament to Lincoln’s statesmanship, the bravery of Union soldiers, and partisanship (in the form of the newly created Republican party).

It’s easier, though, to find a silver lining in partisan bickering than in civil war. About the best one can say is that the war was necessary to preserve and fulfill what the founders had wrought. And even that assertion will be hotly rejected by a minority, if not a plurality, of those on the right who see in Lincoln’s and the Republicans’ wartime measures the beginning of the megastate-corporate tyranny throttling us today.

Since this fight is fruitful only for those who delight in seeing the right quarrel about the past rather than uniting to improve our future, I shall say no more about it, except that it offers an apt segue to Hamilton’s great fear. Does anyone think that a too-weak federal government is our main problem today? Or even a historical cause of our present woes?

This is not to ­disparage Hamilton—a man who, in Talleyrand’s apt phrase, “made the fortune of his country.” Justice requires that we understand the republic as he saw it: young, still-poor and undeveloped, surrounded by outposts of great empires, riven by internal divisions, and so suspicious of political power as to believe that any authority was likely to consolidate into tyranny. In these circumstances, the dangers of too little power can seem vastly to outweigh the dangers of too much.

That things worked out differently is not Hamilton’s fault. He more or less lost the argument in his own time and for generations thereafter, until the rise of Progressivism, which advocated a new kind of state power alien to Hamilton’s vision, and which he almost certainly would have ­opposed.

Which leaves us, finally, with the misgivings of John ­Adams. In a libertine age that defines morality as “correct” opinion on matters of race and sexual orientation, it’s easy to laugh at Adams as an irascible Brahmin bluenose. Rasmussen often seems to do this (while, to be fair, also allowing Adams to speak for himself).

For those of us who are, let us say, not quite so in tune with the times, Adams’s concerns are harder to dismiss. Rasmussen is doubtless correct when he writes that, among the founders, Adams

was unsurpassed in the depth of his knowledge about politics, history and law. No one in that age of remarkably learned political leaders—not even ­Madison—read as voraciously or ranged as widely as Adams in contemplating the proper underpinnings of government.

Maybe, then, we should listen to him?

Adams’s concerns were hardly novel. Since the beginnings of philosophy, thinkers have connected good government with virtue, some going so far as to insist that the proper and highest end of government is the cultivation of virtue. Adams’s dedication to liberty was too strong for him to go quite that far. He didn’t want the state ordering people around, and he detested the ancient world’s “republics of pure manners,” in which citizens were expected to subordinate every private interest to the legislator’s idea of the common good.

But he did insist that liberty must be balanced with good behavior, or, as Leo Strauss would later put it, that the political problem par excellence is “to reconcile order which is not oppression with freedom which is not license.” For Adams (and all the founders), liberty is both an unalienable natural right and a prerequisite for human flourishing, whereas morality is at once conducive to human happiness, necessary for the maintenance of liberty, and simply the right thing to do. I will spare readers a repetition of Adams’s well-worn quotes on this topic. (Those who need a refresher can search his name along with the words “moral,” “­religious,” and “constitution.”) But being well-worn doesn’t make them less true.

Following Machiavelli, Adams admits that unfree governments can do without, or at least do not depend upon, popular virtue. But he absolutely insists that virtue is the bedrock of any republic. By virtue, he meant more or less what Aristotle did: a suite of habits that, when practiced, bring out the best in human nature and produce good outcomes for practitioner and neighbor alike.

Adams speaks more about religion than Aristotle did, whether out of genuine faith or out of mere respect for its utility can never be known. It is common for scholars to assume the latter and categorize Adams as a “deist.” But unlike (say) Franklin or Paine, Adams did not call himself a deist and was also careful to craft his writings so as not to give the impression that he thought religion untrue but beneficial. (Setting aside other considerations, insinuating the former undermines the latter.) Adams rather appears to have been a sincere, if somewhat unorthodox, Christian. But his personal beliefs matter less than the rigor of his public arguments. Even if in his secret heart Adams was a deist, this would hardly disprove his carefully thought-out statements on the indispensability of morality and religion to free government.

What this means for us today seems clear enough. Adams was right, but too soon. The American people of whose habits he despaired were in fact virtuous enough not only to keep the republic going but, in time, to make it the greatest nation in the history of the world. The vices of which Adams principally ­complained—­ambition, avarice, selfishness, and venality—likely contributed to America’s breakneck expansion, just as the theory of “self-interest rightly understood” would seem to predict. That, in the older America, these “vices” were yoked to more traditional virtues, such as temperance, fidelity, honesty, industry, and thrift, probably also had something to do with it.

Do those virtues still abound today? Is “self-interest” still “rightly understood”—and practiced? The modern political philosophers who formulated that theory meant to reconcile the intrinsically noble with the advantageous (to oneself) by yoking incentives to outcomes. Self-interest is not, in this understanding, mere selfish indulgence but the prudent calculation that what is good for oneself in the long run is also, in the short and long run, good for everyone. Economically, that means there’s no shame in getting rich (contra the classics, who discouraged the accumulation of wealth beyond certain limits), so long as it is done honestly and benefits many, including workers, consumers, communities, and the nation. Outsourcing, importing foreign serfs, share buybacks, and other corporate tricks to maximize profits while harming the common good were not part of the original vision. Neither was the wholesale indulgence of private lusts and quirks, combined with the demand that all society be rearranged to honor what used to be denounced as perversion and sin.

The correlation between the decline of liberty and the decline of religiosity is so nearly one-to-one that one cannot but suspect some measure of causation. It’s possible the causation works both ways. That is, the less religious we become, the less fit for or capable of liberty—but also, the more nannyish the regime becomes, the less we look to God for guidance and solace, and the more we depend on the corporo-state. As ­Adams would (or should) have learned from ­Machiavelli, though fear of God may be indispensable in republics, it can also be replaced by fear of a prince.

If I have a complaint, it is less with Rasmussen than with the founders themselves. Certainly, I bow to few in my awe of that “race of statesmen” (as a phrase from the early republic had it). But it must be noted that none of them appear to have predicted the specific threat to liberty that has actually killed the republic and subjugated the people. So focused were the founders on preventing tyranny of the majority that they paid insufficient attention to tyranny of a ­minority—to the warping not just of state power but of all institutions to serve private interests at public expense, in indifference to or defiance of the common good.

It is true, yet ultimately no excuse, to observe that tyranny of the majority had been the most common destroyer of republics since ancient times. For tyranny of a minority, though less common, had proved no less dangerous and had felled the founders’ ­ur-example, Republican Rome.

Still, if America has been conquered from within by a predatory elite, then we must admit that the people let it happen or failed to prevent it. Whether because Americans were insufficiently virtuous or insufficiently jealous of their liberties, events would seem to vindicate ­Adams’s pessimism. Oligarchic, ­two-tier, arbitrary, anarcho-­tyrannical woke America would not have come to be in the teeth of spirited, virtuous popular resistance.

I’d prefer, though, to end on a high note—as does Rasmussen, who concludes with a discussion of James Madison, the one major founder who went to his maker confident in his country’s future. I can’t go that far, but I can admire what the founders accomplished and pay them deserved gratitude for the great goods they bequeathed to so many, not least to me and mine.

Some problems are insoluble. How to order a regime to be both perfect and perpetual appears to be one of them. If our long continental story is ending at last, was 245 years really so short a time? The Roman republic lasted more than twice as long. But it’s at least plausible that in the premodern world, absent the mind-numbing and soul-sapping technology ubiquitous today, virtue just took longer to deteriorate. That’s to say nothing of the momentous changes—the deaths of the polis and paganism, the Roman conquest of the ancient world, the sundering of civil and religious law, the introduction and spread of Christianity, the splitting of Christendom into competing and often hostile sects—and other unique circumstances that faced the American founders. I don’t know how I or anyone could have done any better. 

Michael Anton is a lecturer in politics and research fellow at Hillsdale College’s Washington, D.C. campus.

Dear Reader,

Your charitable support for First Things is urgently needed before July 1.

First Things is a proudly reader-supported enterprise. The gifts of readers like you— often of $50, $100, or $250—make articles like the one you just read possible.

This Spring Campaign—one of our two annual reader giving drives—comes at a pivotal season for America and the church. With your support, many more people will turn to First Things for thoughtful religious perspectives on pressing issues of politics, culture, and public life.

All thanks to you. Will you answer the call?

Make My Gift