Never in my adult life has there been a greater sense of political dejection in America. Riots broke out in the big cities that summer, and that winter, for the first time, a riot prevented the electoral college from being counted. At home, polarization and partisanship are at historic highs. Abroad, a more powerful and smarter communist opponent has emerged in China than ever before.
In fear of a setting sun: The disenchantment of the American founders, a judicial review of the founders’ deep pessimism about the likely fate of our republic, brings Dennis Rasmussen a paradoxically optimistic message. If these sages were so doubtful of the nation’s prospects in their own troubled times, and the nation nonetheless survived and ultimately thrived, perhaps we should become more confident about our own future. The dynamic society that they have left behind has fueled, overcome, or at least contained, a series of dire problems one after another.
Virtue, partisanship and democracy
Rasmussen’s compilation of the founders’ deep doubts about America is creative and thought-provoking at every turn. He looks at George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison. After leaving office, all but the last were in despair of the nation they had worked so long to create and maintain. Rasmussen outlines how everyone got unhappy in their own way.
George Washington feared that the rise of the parties would lead to the fall of America. He had hoped to head a government with a unified approach to the common good, but even in his own cabinet, Hamilton and Jefferson fundamentally disagreed, and the latter soon formed the Democratic-Republican Party to oppose – secretly and at first then in the open – many of Washington’s guidelines. Washington voiced its concern about partiality in its famous farewell speech. As Rasmussen well points out, his warnings about alien entanglements should also be understood by this prism. Ideological ties to nations abroad, whether France or Great Britain, led to divisions at home.
But Rasmussen may not sufficiently remark that the farewell speech may reflect Washington’s own partisan impulses. In 1796 he rejected the draft that Madison had written four years earlier after Madison had defected to the Democratic Republican Party. For example, the religious statements that Hamilton helped draft appear to reflect one of the most important attacks by the federalists on Democratic Republicans – that, like the French revolutionaries, they were deist enemies of traditional religion and thus threatened a solid constitutional order. Rasmussen notes that at the end of his life Washington spoke disparagingly of the Democratic-Republican Party.
In his final years, Washington’s first treasury secretary and effective chief of staff, Hamilton, was even more desperate, saying he was still working to uphold “the fragile and worthless fabric of the constitution.” Hamilton had found the Constitution flawed from the start because it did not give the federal government enough authority to move the nation to greatness, both commercially and militarily. But even more than the document’s weaknesses, he disapproved of the growing democratic spirit that Jefferson’s party portrays as detrimental to order and public safety. Like Washington, he thought a return to religious impetus might be the nation’s only salvation.
A constitution is not a machine that works by itself, but an organism that brings to life the social and political culture around it. And that culture has been as unfriendly to our union as it has been at any point in modern United States history.
John Adams had always been somewhat pessimistic. While he had written a long defense of the state constitutions as the establishment of a satisfactory political balance, he feared from the start that such controls would not be enough to sustain a society without virtuous citizenship. And while impressed by the patriotism and self-sacrifice of the American people during the revolution, he saw a radical decline in these virtues in peace politics: “The nation rose at an amazing rate in population and opulence, and declined proportionally in luxury, sloth, and vice. “
Jefferson’s concerns were unsurprisingly the downside of Hamiltons. If Hamilton saw the energy shortage in the federal government as a fatal defect, Jefferson worried about the national consolidation of power and the resulting threat to local democracy. The worst consolidator of them all was the Supreme Court under its distant cousin John Marshall, the leader of “a subtle corps of pioneers and miners who are constantly working underground to undermine the very foundations of our Confederate fabric.” And while Hamilton was concerned about excessive democracy, Jefferson saw the spirit of commerce as an aid in that consolidation and weakening of local ties that supported virtue and compassion.
The only great founder who was confident was James Madison. One important reason was that he spent much of his retirement reliving his part in establishing the constitution. Not only has he reorganized his voluminous notes on the Philadelphia Convention, but also revised it, as Mary Sarah Images recently suggested. He was less concerned about factions than Washington because he believed the constitutional structure, especially in the large, ever-growing republic, was well designed to contain them.
Written constitutions and good company
Fear of the Setting Sun is a delightful book. Rasmussen has placed the story of the founders’ growing ideological concern about their creation superbly in the context of their own often eccentric personality. Adams, in particular, is different from the stubborn, sullen character that can sometimes be found in the history books. It’s a joke with a self-deprecating sense of humor: “Wasn’t it all my days at Mischief? Didn’t the American Revolution produce the French Revolution, and has not the French Revolution since produced all the catastrophes and devastation for humanity and the whole globe? I meant it well. “
Among Rasmussen’s conclusions today are two of particular relevance. First, we should encourage the founders’ fears. America has gone through times so difficult that even its founders were desperate, but it still came into being. This confidence-building claim certainly has something to offer. Second, we should remember that, disaffected as the Founders got, they never gave up America and its Constitution. That message of perseverance is good too.
But Rasmussen missed the opportunity to work out a common theme of the different fears of the founders, which may also have a less cheerful relevance for our time. Everyone but Madison concluded that a written constitution is not enough to create a good or stable society. An adequate culture on which to base this constitution was also needed. They did not all agree on the elements of this culture. Washington stressed the need for some unity of purpose, which the parties disrupted. Hamilton attacked overly democratic politics and saw trade as a potential source of unity, while Jefferson saw trade as a threat and local bond as a bond that holds people together. Adams was a classic Republican for whom virtue was key. However, everyone agreed that checking and weighing up a written constitution may be necessary, but not enough on its own.
In fact, only Madison emerges as someone who is familiar with the tenets of modern liberalism, where pluralist factions ceaselessly fight, and politics is an endless argument without a common understanding of the common good. For the other founders, a common purpose in virtue, religion, or local ties had to be found. Otherwise the basis on which a written constitution depends would not apply.
The central problem these founders identified has only gotten more acute today. The 1619 project even questions the possibility of having a center based on a shared understanding of a respected past, let alone shared current goals. And the fragmentation, stemming from both social media and identity politics, makes the divisions that the founders knew seem relatively understandable. In reading this remarkable book, I wish I could share the author’s final feelings. But as an older man, much like the founders at the time Rasmussen promoted them, I worry that there is a fundamental problem with the permanence of written constitutions, even a big one like the American Constitution.
A constitution is not a machine that works by itself, but an organism that brings to life the social and political culture around it. And that culture has been as unfriendly to our union as it has been at any point in modern United States history. This may not be a constitutional accident, but a consequence of the liberal society that upheld it. Precisely because of its success in giving everyone the opportunity to pursue different goals and now even claim different identities, a liberal constitution washes away the common ground, however thin it may be, which is necessary for its preservation. That we kept enough of it in the past is no guarantee that we will in the future.