cover image Fears of a Setting Sun: The Disillusionment of America’s Founders

Fears of a Setting Sun: The Disillusionment of America’s Founders

Dennis C. Rasmussen. Princeton Univ, $29.95 (288p) ISBN 978-0-691-21023-0

Political scientist Rasmussen (The Infidel and the Professor) delivers an illuminating account of how the founding fathers worried about the future of America. With the notable exception of James Madison, Rasmussen writes, the country’s early leaders, including George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and Alexander Hamilton, were pessimistic that the American experiment in republican democracy would endure. Washington’s fears stemmed from concerns that political partisanship would inevitably tear the country “asunder.” Adams distrusted the people’s ability to put aside their self-interest in favor of the greater public good, according to Rasmussen, while Jefferson anticipated that regional divisions—exemplified in differing attitudes toward slavery—would doom the American enterprise. Hamilton, meanwhile, worried that the federal government lacked the energy or authority to successfully govern the states. One factor behind Madison’s relative optimism, Rasmussen notes, was his lower expectations for how the new country would operate. Rasmussen lends weight to his arguments with revealing—and often sobering—quotes from primary sources (Hamilton, for instance, called the Constitution “a frail and worthless fabric”), and enlivens the proceedings with flashes of wit (“with enemies like Jefferson, slavery hardly needed friends”). This standout history provides useful context for understanding the roots of contemporary political turmoils and may comfort those who fear that American democracy is in dire peril. (Mar.)