Dennis Rasmussen is Professor of Political Science at Syracuse University. This interview is based on his new book, Fears of a Setting Sun: The Disillusionment of America’s Founders (Princeton University Press, 2021).
JF: What led you to write Fears of a Setting Sun?
DR: Like many Americans, I’ve long enjoyed reading popular biographies of the founders. It often struck me, though, that while the stories were generally meant to be inspiring and uplifting, the endings were never entirely happy. On the contrary, almost all the leading founders ended up being, for one reason or another, rather disappointed in the government and the nation that they’d 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. I decided to have a go at it myself, and this book is the result.
JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of Fears of a Setting Sun?
DR: Most of the founders who lived into the nineteenth century—or even to the dawn of the new century, like George Washington—came to feel deep anxiety, disappointment, and even despair about America’s constitutional order. In particular, Washington became disillusioned because of the rise of parties and partisanship, Alexander Hamilton because he felt that the federal government was not sufficiently vigorous or energetic, John Adams because he believed that the American people lacked the requisite civic virtue for republican government, and Thomas Jefferson because of sectional divisions that were laid bare by conflict over the spread of slavery.
JF: Why do we need to read Fears of a Setting Sun?
DR: This is a side of the founders that is relatively little known today. We tend to focus on their “heroic” deeds during the founding period—above all securing America’s independence and setting up a new government based on new principles which has lasted, with some modifications, to this day. But 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’d created. In order to achieve the fullest possible understanding of their outlooks, we need to look beyond the founding to the views that the these figures held later in life, which were, after all, shaped by greater real-world experience.
JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?
DR: Alas, I’m not an American historian! I’m a political theorist, although my specialty within political theory is the history of political thought, which is of course closely related to history. And there’s quite a bit of history in the book, which sets the context for my examination of the founders’ political thought. But prior to this book most of my research was on the Scottish and French Enlightenments—Adam Smith, David Hume, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Montesquieu, Voltaire. I suppose you could say that, to the extent that I am an American historian, I became one in order to write this book!
JF: What is your next project?
DR: I’m going to stick with the American founding for at least a little while longer: I’m currently writing a book on Gouverneur Morris’s role at the Constitutional Convention. Morris is an utterly fascinating and immensely colorful figure whose impact on the Constitution—through both his dominant presence within the Convention debates and his role as the charter’s main drafter—is far greater than is generally known.
JF: Thanks, Dennis!