“We’re now more divided than ever before.”
“I’m not sure if our democracy can survive this.”
“If he gets elected, America is finished.”
Not a week goes by that I do not hear some version of disillusionment sentiment expressed in regard to the state of our union. In fact, if I’m being honest, catastrophic political rhetoric has been around for my entire life. In our polarized political climate, forecasts of gloom and prophecies of doom have become a basic daily staple of the American political diet. If we’re being honest, such apocalyptic language keeps us coming back for more. We maintain interest only when we perceive the stakes as high. Evening news networks have a financial interest in keeping the stakes high, so they have mastered the art of keeping fears, anxieties, and outrage constantly stoked.
Such sentiments usually fit within a declension narrative that goes something like this: Our wise founders created the greatest political system the world has ever seen. Since the ratification of the Constitution in 1788, our nation has been involved in a battle to maintain the ideals of liberty, equality, and rights for all. In recent years, this battle is being lost. The Right blames the Left. The Left blames the Right. They all agree on only one thing: We are in trouble.
Dennis C. Rasmussen’s new book Fears of a Setting Sun: The Disillusionment of America’s Founders argues that the declension narrative that America has lost its way has been around for a very long time. In fact, Rasmussen, who serves as professor of political science at Syracuse University’s Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs, shows that such pessimism is as old as the nation itself. Disillusionment sentiments, in fact, dominated the imaginations of America’s founding generation.
Rasmussen focuses, in depth, on the despair of four major founders: George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, John Adams, and Thomas Jefferson. By devoting three chapters to each figure, Rasmussen reveals the complexity of each perspective. They did not all reach despair at the same time or for the same reasons. Washington was troubled by partisanship, Hamilton by a weak federal government, Adams by a perceived lack of virtue among America’s citizens, and Jefferson by sectional divisions. Washington’s gloom persisted during his presidency, while Jefferson grew more pessimistic in the old age of retirement.
Differences aside, Rasmussen provides convincing documentary evidence that each man, by the end of his life, settled into a position of doubting whether the young nation would even survive. Further, these founders were not alone in such sentiments. In a separate chapter, Rasmussen demonstrates that pessimistic gloom was the dominant perspective of nearly the entire generation, including such influential figures as Samuel Adams, Patrick Henry, John Jay, George Mason, James Monroe, and Benjamin Rush.
James Madison provides the lone exception to the disillusionment thesis. Madison never lost his optimism, even to the end. For that reason, Madison provides a contrast that invites the reader to ask, “What made him different?” Rasmussen does not disappoint. While Madison seems to have possessed a more optimistic temperament than many of the others, Rasmussen probes even deeper and shows that Madison maintained positivity by tempering his expectations for politics. According to Rasmussen, “Madison … pointedly refused to let the perfect be the enemy of the good” (219).
While Rasmussen calls Madison a “pragmatist,” in that he eschewed idealism and settled for small victories, perhaps “realist” is more appropriate, in that he allowed his political theory to be shaped by a realistic view of human nature. Unlike Washington, Madison expected partisanship when imperfect human beings get together to form a society. Therefore, instead of despairing over its presence, he sought to minimize its impact. Unlike Adams, Madison kept expectations for a virtuous citizenship in check. He worked with the materials at hand rather than with the idealized dreams of many of his co-founders.
Rasmussen’s book does not have a hero, but the contrast of Madison, at the very least, shows that disillusionment is not necessary. Political idealism leads to disappointment. Realism and tempered expectations lead to the realization that, while not perfect, this system of government has held up quite well for nearly two-and-a-half centuries now. We can work toward improving our beloved America without expecting utopia. We can tolerate the other side for four more years in hopes of a better tomorrow.
Rasmussen has achieved something quite rare with this book. He has written a work of credible history that has deep political implications without forcing history to serve a pre-selected political agenda. Rasmussen’s research speaks for itself. The lessons apply naturally from his commitment to communicating historical truth. While I would like to see further research on the ideological roots underlying Madison’s unique political perspective, that thesis does not belong to Rasmussen’s work.
Scholars have not usually agreed about the nature of Madison’s religious commitments. Like all of the founders, he lived in a deeply religious world and was raised in the church. Accidental or not, his commitment to political realism demonstrates an ideological outlook that took human sin seriously. Madison’s political optimism was certainly consistent with the Augustinian notion of living in a world intermixed between the city of man and the city of God. In such a world, we work with what we have toward improvement without ever expecting utopia. Our ultimate hope does not derive from within but from outside as we await the return of true righteousness in the return of our King.