Dennis C. Rasmussen


On his book Fears of a Setting Sun: The Disillusionment of America's Founders

Cover Interview of June 16, 2021

In a nutshell

Fears of a Setting Sun tells the story of how most of the American founders came to feel deep anxiety, disappointment, and even despair about the government and the nation that they had helped to create. The title alludes to a quip from Benjamin Franklin on the last day of the Constitutional Convention. As the last of the framers affixed their names to the Constitution, Franklin called attention to the high-backed mahogany chair that the president of the Convention, George Washington, had occupied at the head of the room all summer; it had a decorative half-sunburst carved into the crest. He remarked that painters often found it difficult to differentiate, in their compositions, a rising sun from a setting sun. “I have,” he said, “often and often, in the course of the session, and the vicissitudes of my hopes and fears as to its issue, looked at that [sun on the chair] behind the President, without being able to tell whether it was rising or setting: but now at length, I have the happiness to know, that it is a rising and not a setting sun.”

This anecdote is often taken to be emblematic of the optimism that the founders felt at the new government’s birth. But my book shows that almost none of them carried that sense of hope to their graves. Franklin survived to see the government formed by the Constitution in action for only a single year, but most of the founders who lived into the nineteenth century—or even to the dawn of the new century, like Washington—eventually grew disillusioned with what they had wrought.

The book focuses principally on four of the preeminent figures of the period: George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, John Adams, and Thomas Jefferson. These four lost their faith in the American experiment at different times and for different reasons, and each has his own unique story. In a nutshell, Washington became disillusioned above all because of the rise of parties and partisanship, Hamilton because he felt that the federal government was not sufficiently vigorous or energetic, Adams because he believed that the American people lacked the requisite civic virtue for republican government, and Jefferson because of sectional divisions that were laid bare by conflict over the spread of slavery.