Dennis C. Rasmussen

 

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

Cover Interview of June 16, 2021

Lastly

The most notable founder who did not come to despair for his country—the proverbial exception that proves the rule—was the one who outlived them all, James Madison. The book devotes a pair of chapters to exploring why Madison retained his faith in America’s constitutional experiment when so many of his compatriots did not. There were a variety of reasons for Madison’s continued confidence, but one of them was precisely that he had lived so long and seen so much in company with the nation that he had helped to found. Madison reasoned that if the Constitution and the union managed to survive the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798 (a harsh crackdown on civil liberties spurred by war hysteria), the War of 1812 (during which much of the capital went up in flames under Madison’s own watch), and the Missouri crisis of 1819-21 (the biggest confrontation yet over the nation’s most divisive issue, the expansion of slavery), then surely it could withstand a good deal more. The longer the nation endured, the more durable it seemed.

If Madison could find solace in the fact that America’s constitutional order had managed to weather nearly a half-century’s worth of storms by the time he reached old age, then perhaps we should be cheered to recall that it has now survived for more than two hundred and thirty years. We might also take a certain comfort in the fact that, however appalling the state of American politics might be at the moment, the political situation was even worse when the founders whom we so admire presided over the nation.

Most obviously, we no longer countenance widespread chattel slavery or the routine dispossession and even massacre of indigenous tribes; on the contrary, basic civil and political liberties have never been extended to more people. Political violence is far less common today, the recent attack on the Capitol notwithstanding; the nation’s first decade saw thousands of armed citizens march on an army outpost in rebellion against a tax at one point, and legislators brawl on the floor of the House of Representatives with canes and fire pokers at another. The ugliness of the last presidential election pales in comparison to that of the election of 1800—a contest between Jefferson and Adams, two of our most revered founders. Today’s much-maligned “mainstream media” is in reality far more responsible and fact-based than the newspapers of the 1790s. And so on.

None of this is grounds for complacency. Today’s political ills are both serious and pressing, as Washington, Hamilton, Adams, and Jefferson would surely remind us. Madison, though, would encourage us to summon a broader sense of perspective before announcing the doom of the republic.