Dennis C. Rasmussen

 

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

Cover Interview of June 16, 2021

The wide angle

Like many Americans, I have long enjoyed reading popular biographies of the founders—the kind that academic historians sometimes deride as “founders chic.” Until fairly recently my own research centered on the Scottish and French Enlightenments—Adam Smith, David Hume, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Montesquieu, Voltaire—so these books on the founders mostly served as a pleasant diversion. It often struck me, however, that while the stories were generally meant to be inspiring and uplifting, the endings were never entirely happy. Again, almost all of the leading founders ended up being, for one reason or another, rather disappointed in the government and the nation that they had helped to create. This seemed like a point worth pursuing, and I was surprised to find that no one had done so in a systematic way. For all of the tremendous amount that has been written on the founders, I was unable to find a single book, article, or even book chapter that takes the disillusionment of the founders as its theme.

Scholars and lay readers alike tend to focus on the founders’ “heroic” deeds during the founding period itself. There are perfectly good reasons for the emphasis on this period: this was, after all, when the country achieved its independence and when the charter by which we still live was devised and ratified. Still, it is important to remember that the founders’ thinking about politics did not somehow terminate with the ratification of the Constitution in 1788 or the Bill of Rights in 1791. Their views of the pitfalls and possibilities of republican government continued to develop over the succeeding decades, shaped by the struggles and successes of the constitutional order that they had created.

Given our continued attraction to the founders—our perpetual efforts to recover their ideas and renew their ideals—it seems sensible to try to achieve the fullest possible understanding of their outlooks, rather than confining ourselves to a snapshot taken at one moment in time. While their views during the founding period are eminently worthy of our attention, so too are their views in the succeeding years, which were, after all, shaped by greater real-world experience. I hope that my book’s focus on these years—roughly from the 1790s to the 1820s—helps to shed a different light on the founders’ outlooks.