Before he died in 1799, George Washington wrote that his young nation had become so poisoned by partisanship that if Republicans ran a broomstick for office and called it "a true son of liberty," the stick would "command their votes in toto!" Declaring himself "gloomy in the extreme," Alexander Hamilton confided to a fellow Federalist in 1795 that the cause of good government in the US had been put to the test — with "the verdict against it."
In 1776, before his doubts deepened and calcified, John Adams was already alarmed at the pervasiveness of "so much Rascallity, so much Venality and Corruption, so much Avarice and Ambition, such a rage for Profit and Commerce among all Ranks and Degrees of Men even in America, that I sometimes doubt whether there is public Virtue enough to support a Republic." As for the author of the Declaration of Independence, toward the end of his life Thomas Jefferson was a cranky old fellow prone to mouthing talking points of a slaveocracy.
In his new book, "Fears of a Setting Sun: The Disillusionment of America's Founders," Dennis Rasmussen grapples with the founding generation's deep and abiding doubts about their experiment. I interviewed the author, a professor of political science at Syracuse University, via email earlier this week. A lightly edited transcript follows.
Wilkinson: Your book enters the political bloodstream at a moment when doubts about the capacity of American democracy are widespread. Should small-d democrats be bolstered by your account of the founders' skepticism, even despair, about the prospects of republican government? Or is their lack of confidence simply further evidence that democratic scaffolding is inherently rickety?
Rasmussen: One could take the founders' disillusionment in either direction. On the one hand, their deepest causes for worry — extreme partisanship, an ineffective federal government, a lack of civic virtue, sectional divisions within the country — are very much still with us. That they've been here from the beginning suggests that they aren't likely to go away any time soon. On the other hand, the Constitution has endured for more than 230 years despite these problems, suggesting that they're less likely to doom the republic than we often fear.
Personally, I tend toward the latter view. There's a certain (ironic) comfort in the fact that the founders voiced worries similar to our own and yet the constitutional order that they created has proven far more durable than they themselves expected.
The intense partisanship of the late 1790s under President John Adams, with accusations of domestic intrigue and foreign skullduggery, seemed to inspire a general alarm among the founding generation. Even George Washington succumbed, calling Jefferson's Republicans a "cancer." Yet this fierce competition soon gave way to a period of one-party (and one state) dominance under Jefferson, Madison and Monroe. How did the partisan bubble — and the Federalist claim to power — deflate so quickly?
Rasmussen: It's a fascinating question how a partisan conflict that reached an apex in 1798, during the Quasi-War with France, all but disappeared just a few years later. (Many would like to see something similar happen today.) There were at least three important factors at work: (1) the passage of the Alien and Sedition Acts, which was a deeply unpopular piece of Federalist legislation, (2) the Louisiana Purchase, which was a highly popular Republican achievement, and (3) a schism between Alexander Hamilton's "High Federalists" and John Adams and his more moderate followers.
The founders' fears varied by temperament and ideology. Hamilton was alarmed by an enfeebled central government, which Jefferson, in turn, perceived as an overreaching behemoth. We keep repeating these arguments through history. In our current iteration, we overlay a fierce culture war. Yet even the seeds of our culture clash were evident among the founders, weren't they?
Rasmussen: Absolutely. Jefferson and the Republicans regarded the Federalists as elitists — even monarchists — who wanted to elevate the power of the moneyed few over the common people, while Hamilton and the Federalists regarded the Republicans as Jacobins bent on instituting mob rule. Hamilton thought that Jefferson's self-image as the apostle of humble farmers was especially hypocritical coming from a rich, well-connected slaveholder.
Jefferson doesn't come off quite as high-stepping in your telling as in the Broadway version, but he also never seems to grow more self-aware, and his sectional loyalties become more alarming as Civil War looms. I found myself projecting the aged Jefferson onto a La-Z-Boy watching Fox News and cheering every effort to "own the Feds." Yet he's also author of the incandescent declaration that "all men are created equal" — a claim he didn't appear to believe in any real-world context. Did the youthful Jefferson get carried away by his own rhetorical flight? Or did the old man lose the thread of the revolution he helped ignite?
Rasmussen: I'm afraid that Jefferson — especially the older Jefferson — doesn't come off terribly well in the book. For most of his life he was a master at turning a blind eye to anything in the real world that he didn't want to be there. (See: the French Revolution.) I do think that his early idealism was genuine, which is one reason his eventual disenchantment with American politics was so profound. I don't know whether he would be a fan of Fox News, but by the end of his life he did admit that the only newspaper that he read was the Richmond Enquirer, which was dogmatically pro-Southern.
John Adams seems unique among the leading founders in his insistence that the real fault of the republic was a paucity of "virtue" among the people themselves. Given the lack of moral courage and political will to confront slavery — which most founders recognized as both abhorrent and destructive — in a way Adams was right, wasn't he?
Rasmussen: I suppose so. To be clear, slavery wasn't Adams's main worry. He was opposed to slavery, of course, but he always said that the problem was "too big" for him and that he would leave it to the Southerners to deal with. His worry, rather, was that the people wouldn't consistently put the common good ahead of selfish interest; they wouldn't be faithful public servants like Adams himself. But given that most people at the time realized slavery was one of the biggest long-term threats to the republic, their failure to address it in any meaningful way could be viewed as a lack of patriotism, taken in the highest sense.
James Madison, whose constitutional system was specifically designed for imperfection, emerges as the most confident believer in the republic's durability. As we evaluate America's democratic prospects in the 21st century, should we be more like Madison or more like the founding worrywarts?
Rasmussen: Madison, who outlived all the other founders, and who always had fairly moderate expectations of politics, was the one who retained his (relative) confidence in the American experiment to the very end. Pessimism always makes one sound smarter and more intellectually serious in harrowing times like the present. My inclination is to go in the opposite direction and adopt a more hopeful, Madisonian outlook. There are plenty of very good reasons for worry as we look at the political landscape today. But the more history you read, the more you realize that the country has faced most of these problems before — not just once, say, during the Civil War, but throughout much of American history.
As I suggest in the book's epilogue, in many respects the political situation was far worse when our beloved founders presided over the nation. This book probably won't put readers' minds entirely at ease — I hope it doesn't — but I do think that we should try to summon a broader sense of perspective before we leave American democracy for dead.
Disclaimer: This article first appeared on Bloomberg, and is published by special syndication arrangement