We Should All Be Madisonians

Less than a year before he died, George Washington privately worried that “the Union … [was] hastening to an awful crisis.” As an elderly man, John Adams claimed there was a through line from the American Revolution to the terrors of the French Revolution. He thus lamented: “Have I not been employed in Mischief all my days?” Two years prior to his death at the hands of Aaron Burr, Alexander Hamilton lambasted the Constitution as a “frail and worthless fabric,” and decided that “the prospects of our Country are not brilliant.” By the final year of his life, Thomas Jefferson was privately referring to the federal government as the “foreign department” and contemplating whether “the dissolution of our union” would be preferable to “submission to a government without limitation of powers.”

Depressing sentiments like these permeate Dennis C. Rasmussen’s new book, Fears of a Setting Sun: The Disillusionment of America’s Founders. Drawing on reams of personal correspondence between the Founders, Rasmussen persuasively argues that the vast majority of America’s Founders—including the likes of Washington, Adams, Hamilton, and Jefferson—went to their death beds disillusioned with the political order they had created. The causes of their disillusionment varied from insufficient civic virtue on the part of Americans to the growing sectional division over slavery, but their takeaways were similar: “most of the founders … came to feel deep anxiety, disappointment, and even despair about the government and the nation that they had helped to create.”

Why? And what can we learn from their profound political disillusionment?

The main lesson is to not place much hope in the amount of happiness, amity, and social progress that politics alone can produce. And the great teacher of that lesson, the lone Founder who retained a great deal of optimism about the American future, is James Madison. 

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  • "A politics that grows less messy and instead becomes a matter of A vs. B who see one another as existential threats"

    I found that statement interesting. It seems to be saying that good politics should or at least will be messy, and points to something that's worse than messy, and from what we've been seeing I tend to agree. But I'd like to see some elaboration with examples of what's meant by messy. Perhaps it will turn out that we need a better way of framing it than the word "messy." Is there something healthy underlying what seems to be a mess?

  • This was very interesting, although there is an issue I would like to see addressed.
    I would love to know what the reaction of Madison would be to the relative decline of Federalism and the ability that modern technology has to connect persons who hold mutual interests across geographic areas once only loosely tied together.
    Federalist 51's defenses against faction are twofold.
    Firstly, by dividing not only the new Federal goverment into branches with different interests, but also in having the various State governments exert control over the Federal government as it in turn exerts control over the States.
    Secondly, in the vastness of the new Republic, whose "society itself will be broken into so many parts, interests, and classes of citizens, that the rights of individuals, or of the minority, will be in little danger from interested combinations of the majority."

    We now have a dominant Federal governement with a weak Congress and strong Executive in a vast Republic which has become unified by online connections unforeseen by the Founders.
    If the factionalism inherent in man has remained the same, surely our defenses against it have eroded?

    1. Moreover, in Fed 10, Madison explicitly cites the size of the nation as a mitigant to the ability of factions to coalesce. He viewed geographic dispersion as highly anti-factionalist. The internet has completely eroded that ameliorant.

  • Thanks for a book review that is very thought provoking. BTW I checked out other works by the author (of this article, not the book) and I found this one to be very nuanced and insightful as well:


    1. Thanks. Now I know I will follow him on Twitter.

    2. PS: It's about the end of the Civil War as the true founding of the US as a nation, not just an alliance of sovereign states. The "1865 was the Second Founding" idea isn't new but this work explores it very well.

  • This is going towards the top of my "to read" pile.

    1. Ditto.

  • You have to treat the founders separately. Adams suffered from a form of depression throughout most of his life so you will see his views swing back and forth. Read his “Defense” of democracies, which he wrote while he was the minister to England, when he missed the constitutional convention. Because he didn’t have any contributions to the Constitution, he sometimes tended to disparage it.
    Jefferson was a Francophile, with a more positive view of French Revolution. His view was that America should remain a mostly agrarian society with a weaker federal government, and was not a fan of the Constitution. Though as president he used and extended the executive powers.
    Hamilton was the master political manipulator, in some devious ways. Even though he was a Federalist, he organized opposition to Adams, as did Jefferson.
    It is interesting to note that after Adams and Jefferson reconciled in their later years, Adams often tried to bait Jefferson into admitting his errors. Jefferson never took the bait.
    But Washington’s intense dislike of factions is something he developed early, for during the revolution there was a strong anti-Washington faction in the congress. Which Adams occasionally engaged with.

    1. Great comments here which I endorse in full

    2. I certainly think that the tendency for both fans and critics to treat "The Founders" as a monolithic bloc is very misleading. And I am not sure the thesis of the book is totally accurate as some of it seems to be starting with a conclusion that "the Founders were on the whole disillusioned and pessimistic about the prospects of the country at the end of their lives" and looking for information to support it.

      I think the point about Adams actually NOT being at the Constitutional Convention because he was minister to England is important. And while you don't mention it, neither was Jefferson! (He was minister to France). So it's somewhat ironic that both are still seen as marquee Founding Fathers.

    3. Reading your comment, I heard in the back of my head an old teacher with his constant refrain: "History: it's more complicated than you think."

      1. As a youth, I read science fiction, then I started to read history and thought “you can’t make this stuff up”. Far more intriguing.

  • I look forward to reading this book -- and am grateful for The Dispatch reviewing it here. The jaundiced views many of the Founders had in their later years is something that would surprise many Americans, but I think that disillusionment can be a bit oversold -- primarily because the putative "optimism" of their earlier years can be greatly overstated as well, with the exception of the idealistic Jefferson.

    Hamilton as a teenager was writing that it "was not safe to trust in the virtue of any people," and would spend most of his adult life expressing skepticism about American republicanism.

    Washington's formative years were spent trying to lead a regiment of militia, an experience which by itself disillusioned him of any fantasy he might have otherwise had about the virtue and public spirit of the people. He would spend the years of the War of Independence exhorting his soldiers' and Americans' patriotism, but in private would vent his spleen at the venality and selfishness of various segments of Americans who were detracting from the war effort.

    Adams... was John Adams, and was never convinced there was any reason to be that optimistic about the American people -- or any people -- from the days that he was a teenager until his death.

    If anyone is interested, I have published a few articles on the Founders' skepticism and disillusionment here (https://allthingsliberty.com/2019/03/hamiltons-revenge/) and here (https://allthingsliberty.com/2018/04/jeffersons-reckoning-the-sage-of-monticellos-haunting-final-years/).

  • This was a fascinating piece. This type of writing is what distinguishes The Dispatch! I’m buying this book right now.

  • This was a fascinating piece. This type of writing is what distinguishes The Dispatch! I’m buying this book right now.

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