Americans seldom deify their Founding Fathers any longer, but they do still tend to venerate the Constitution and the republican government that the founders created. Strikingly, the founders themselves were far less confident in what they had wrought, particularly by the end of their lives. In fact, most of them—including George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, John Adams, and Thomas Jefferson—came to deem America’s constitutional experiment an utter failure that was unlikely to last beyond their own generation. Fears of a Setting Sun is the first book to tell the fascinating and too-little-known story of the founders’ disillusionment.
As Dennis Rasmussen shows, the founders’ pessimism had a variety of sources: Washington lost his faith in America’s political system above all because of the rise of partisanship, Hamilton because he felt that the federal government was too weak, Adams because he believed that the people lacked civic virtue, and Jefferson because of sectional divisions laid bare by the spread of slavery. The one major founder who retained his faith in America’s constitutional order to the end was James Madison, and the book also explores why he remained relatively optimistic when so many of his compatriots did not. As much as Americans today may worry about their country’s future, Rasmussen reveals, the founders faced even graver problems and harbored even deeper misgivings.
A vividly written account of a chapter of American history that has received too little attention, Fears of a Setting Sun will change the way that you look at the American founding, the Constitution, and indeed the United States itself.
Awards and Recognition
- A Wall Street Journal Best Politics Book of the Year
- A World Magazine Best Book of the Year
"Very illuminating. Much recommended."—Jamelle Bouie, New York Times columnist
"An astute discussion of the American founders’ suspicions that the republic they had created wouldn’t, in the end, make it. . . . Gracefully written and fair in its judgments. . . . Timely."—Barton Swaim, Wall Street Journal
"Written in simultaneously accessible and brilliant prose, Rasmussen crafts a flowing narrative built on the writings of the founders themselves. This narrative is further illuminated by his commentary and mastery of the secondary literature. This book can (and should) be enjoyed by nonspecialists, but this does not diminish the originality of the work."—Kenly Stewart, Los Angeles Review of Books
"Fascinating."—Steve Donoghue, Christian Science Monitor
"An illuminating account of how the founding fathers worried about the future of America. . . . 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."—Publishers Weekly, starred review
"Making the striking argument that all but one of the major founders of the U.S. died disillusioned with their creation, Rasmussen nevertheless offers hope for our current predicaments . . . an authoritative and convincing argument in disarmingly artful prose."—Kirkus Reviews
"Rasmussen has produced a well-researched study that is a salutary read. He writes accessibly, explaining what motivated and worried each of [the founders]. Concern for future generations and the fate of the republic is a recurring theme, and will also resonate with many readers today."—Library Journal
"Magisterial . . . creative and thought-provoking at every turn . . . a delightful book. . . . Rasmussen has superbly placed the story of the Founders’ growing ideological concerns about their creation in the context of their own often eccentric personalities."—John O. McGinnis, Law & Liberty
"On my history book of the year short list."—Marvin Olasky, World
"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."—Thomas Koenig, The Dispatch
"Very timely . . . a fascinating and completely new perspective on the Founders and their view of the country they helped create . . . highly engaging and thought-provoking, showing the very human side of politics in early America."—Jerry D. Lenaburg, New York Journal of Books
"Compelling and compulsively readable. . . . In putting leading founders’ disillusionment with the Constitution at the center of his thoughtful scholarly analysis, Rasmussen vividly brings to light the fact that the founders themselves were often the Constitution’s most perceptive and powerful critics."—George Thomas, American Political Thought
"Rasmussen’s book also offered me some new insights and interesting facts. . . . Fears of a Setting Sun helps in understanding some of the roots of our contemporary political struggle and the fear of the decay of American democracy."—Pia Herzan, H-Soz-Kult
"Fears of a Setting Sun is an engaging, indeed fun, read, nicely written and deftly argued. More than that, it is a useful reminder at this political moment that while things ain’t what they used to be, they never were in the first place."—Steven Conn, Origins
“In this painfully timely volume, Dennis Rasmussen demonstrates that many of America’s founders understood the potential fragility of their unprecedented creation. He rescues the founders, and the Enlightenment of which they were exemplars, from the caricature that they were unreasonably serene about the ability of reason to tame reality.”—George F. Will, author of The Conservative Sensibility
“In a series of compelling, deftly wrought portraits, Dennis Rasmussen shows how the Founding Fathers came to fear for the future of America’s bold experiment in republican self-government. Polarized parties, foreign interference, and seemingly intractable conflicts of interest and ideology threatened to destroy the union they struggled to create. Their anxieties put our own more modest divisions in reassuring perspective.”—Peter S. Onuf, author of Jefferson’s Empire
“In this brilliant book, Dennis Rasmussen brings to vivid life the profound fears of some of America's leading founders about the future of their nation. Their urgent concern was whether the destruction of the nascent republic was on the horizon; given the current political instability in America, it is also ours. Fears of a Setting Sun is well worth reading for its historical analysis and for the lessons we might draw for the future of our great experiment in republican government.”—Colleen A. Sheehan, author of The Mind of James Madison
“In a time when we have experienced a stress test on the Constitution, it is not surprising that many are doubting the success of our system of government. Dennis Rasmussen gives us a tour through the doubts of the framers themselves about the system they helped to create. Fears of a Setting Sun reveals the origins of the Constitution's weaknesses and may help readers discover a way to save our founding document—and the system of government it shaped.”—Corey Brettschneider, author of The Oath and the Office: A Guide to the Constitution for Future Presidents