"The two main parties saw and treated each other not just as opponents who advocated the wrong policy, but rather as enemies of the Constitution who actively sought to subvert the basic principles of the (American) Revolution.”
While that statement may seem like a future historian’s account of today’s politics, it is an assessment of politics during the early light of the United States and just one of the social tensions that caused even those who hand-crafted a new nation governed by democracy to worry its future, as Dennis Rasmussen explores in his new Princeton University Press book, “Fears of a Setting Sun: The Disillusionment of America’s Founders.”
As Rasmussen writes, it comes as something of a surprise for Americans “to learn that the founders themselves were, particularly by the end of their lives, far less confident in the merits of the political system that they had devised, and that many of them in fact deemed it an utter failure that was unlikely to last beyond their own generation.”
And while generally missing from scholarly studies and history books, there was “a pervasive pessimism, a fear that their revolutionary experiment in republicanism was not working out as they expected,” a point found in the later writings of George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, John Adams, and Thomas Jefferson — each losing faith at different times and for different reasons.
Washington became disillusioned above all because of the rise of partisanship and partisan politics.
As Rasmussen notes, the first president and commander-in-chief during the American Revolution’s “long-term disillusionment began to set in during the election year of 1792” when Jefferson and James Madison began a campaign against Washington’s trusted advisor and Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton, breaking the nation into two political parties: the Federalists and the Republicans.
While the Republicans saw the Federalists, and Hamilton in particular, as supporting a government with monarch-like powers, the Federalists saw the Republicans as proponents of mob rules.
Rasmussen writes that Jefferson and Madison’s plan, hidden from Washington, to organize opposition to the Hamilton-led Federalist program involved one of Madison’s former classmates at the College of New Jersey (now Princeton University), Phillip Freneau.
“Jefferson offered (the fiery journalist) a sinecure as a translator in the State Department, and they gently suggested that he might also wish to start a national newspaper. Jefferson and Madison rightly regarded the leading periodical of the time, John Feeno’s Gazette of the United States, as a staunchly pro-Hamilton outlet — it received a sizable chunk of its advertising directly from the Treasury Department — and they hoped to counter its effects on public opinion with more critical commentary.
“Freneau launched the National Gazette in October 1791, and within a few months it emerged as a fawning admirer of Jefferson and vicious critic of Hamilton. Freneau was unrelenting in his attack: every aspect of Hamilton’s financial program was depicted as deliberate ploy to fleece everyday Americans and further enrich greedy merchants, as well as a dangerous power grab on behalf of the federal government that would inevitably pave the road toward monarchy.”
Since his personal devotion to the ideals of the American Revolution and egalitarianism held the country together during its early days, Washington was disappointed. And late in life he wrote that “a party exists in the United States . . . who oppose the government in all its measures, and are determined (as all their conduct evinces) by clogging its wheels . . . to subvert the Constitution” and one of his final letters, “I have, for sometime past, viewed the political concerns of the United States with an anxious, and painful eye. They appear to me, to be moving by hasty strides to some awful crisis; but in what they will result — that Being, who sees, foresees, and directs all things, alone can tell.”
Hamilton’s disappointment and fears stem from his belief in a strong federal government and that it would be impossible to maintain a regime of liberty without one.
As Rasmussen notes, Hamilton’s “ideological and partisan opponents were so suspicious of the exercise of political power, he believed, that they had blinded themselves to the need for stability and energy in order for liberty to endure. This was most obviously true on the international stage: If the decentralizing impulse were to prevail and the union were to break up into multiple competing confederacies, then they would be easy prey for the European monarchies. Even in the domestic sphere, however, Hamilton insisted that the federal government needed to be strong enough to ensure order and carry out its duties, precisely in order to protect liberty.”
Hamilton was also “deeply disappointed in the Constitution as it emerged from the convention. He believed that the narrow interests of the small states and the widespread by unwarranted apprehension about centralized power had prevailed even within the group of (mostly) nationalist Federalists that had gathered in Philadelphia.”
Rasmussen adds, “It is easy enough to speculate about why Hamilton became such an uncompromising nationalist. First, he was born and spent his childhood in the West Indies. Given that he was well into his teen years by the time he immigrated to the United States, he lacked the strong sense of state loyalty that many native-born Americans almost instinctually felt. Just as importantly, Hamilton’s experience during the war — as a soldier, as Washington’s aide-de-camp, and eventually as filed commander — convinced him of the need for national unity and an effective central power.
“Still further, Hamilton’s predominant character trait was an all-consuming sense of ambition, which he felt on behalf of the nation as well as himself. His foremost dream for the new United States was that it would eventually achieve the kind of international prominence, military might, and economic prosperity that he knew embodied in all great European monarchies, particularly Britain. He yearned for America, no less than himself, to one day play a brilliant part on the world stage.”
John Adams’ concern was connected to his belief that the American people lacked the requisite civic virtue for republican government.
Even in the midst of the Revolution, Adams harbored some rather serious misgivings about the virtue of his fellow citizen, notes Rasmussen. “His appraisal of their character seemed to change from day to day — sometimes from paragraph to paragraph. At times it seemed to him that American people possessed every admirable character trait and they were destined to have the brightest future of any nation in history, while at others he felt sure that they were as selfish and corrupt as all prior peoples had been and their feeble attempt at self-government would soon meet with the usual swift demise.
As early as January 1776, after telling Mary Otis Warren that it was almost axiomatic that in a republic “the people must be wise virtuous and cannot be otherwise,” Adams immediately went on to cast doubt on that axiom: “But Madam there is one difficulty, which I know not how to get over. Virtue and simplicity of manners, as indispensably necessary in a republic, among all orders and degrees of men. But there is so much rascality, so much venality and corruption, so much avarice and ambition, such a rage for profit and commerce among all the ranks and degrees of men, even in America, that I sometimes doubt where there is public virtue enough to support a Republic.”
In another letter, he notes, “Our dear Americans perhaps have as much (public spirit) as any nation now existing, and New England perhaps has more than the rest of America. But I have seen all along my life, such selfishness, and littleness even in New England, that I sometime tremble to think that, altho we are engaged in the best cause that ever employed the human heart, yet the prospect of success is doubtful not for want of power or of wisdom, but of virtue.”
He was also concerned by his fellow citizens’ willingness to participate in the excessive aggrandizing of American leaders. While noting that Washington’s character was “the greatest our country ever produced,” he lamented that “the feasts and funerals in honor of Washington, Hamilton, and (Fisher) Ames are more hypocritical pageantry to keep in credit, bank funding systems and other aristocratical speculation. It is as corrupt a system as that by which saints were canonized and cardinals, popes, and whole hierarchical systems created.”
Although he was wary of central banking and industrialization, Jefferson’s main concerns grew from social and personal reckoning with slavery and the nation sectioning over the spread of slavery.
As Rasummens notes, “For all that was accomplished in terms of creating a new nation based on liberal principals and proving that republican government could work on a large scale, the American founding was marred by not just one but two original sins: the widespread presence of black chattel slavery and the persistent betrayals and occasional slaughter of various American Indian tribes.”
While Jefferson had been satisfied with a nation where the state rights were strong and the federal government was weak, his beliefs were challenged by a development by the application of a new state, Missouri.
“In 1819 the country was evenly split between 11 free states and 11 slave states, so a great deal appeared to hang in the balance when Missouri applied to Congress for statehood. In February of that year James Tallmadge, a New York Republican, proposed an amendment to the Missouri statehood bill that would have prohibited the further importation of enslaved people into the state and imposed a system of gradual emancipation on the slaveholders who currently resided there. Southerners exploded with indignation: The (white ) majority in Missouri had approved a constitution that permitted slavery, and proslavery members of Congress contended that the Tallmadge amendment would effectively deprive the state of its constitutionality guaranteed equality by allowing the federal government to overrule its decision. Northerners responded that the Constitution authorized Congress to regulate the slave trade after 1808 and to ‘make all needful Rules an regulations’ regarding the territories — not to mention that admitting Missouri as a slave state would give the South an advantage in the Senate at a time when it already enjoyed outsized influence in the House of Representatives and the electoral college thanks to the three-fifths clause.”
A slaveholder, southerner, and defender of state rights, Jefferson “lined himself up squarely behind the most extreme southern position of the right ‘to regulate the condition of the different descriptions of men composing a state’ belong exclusive to the state in question; Congress held no constitutional authority to dictate that a state — even a territory that was soon to become a state — must eliminate slavery.”
As Rasmussen reports, Jefferson had come to see slavery as a multiple of evils: “A great economic evil, insofar, as it crippled industry and promoted indolence; a great social evil, insofar as it both degraded the enslaved and gave slaveholders and their children a taste for tyranny; a great political evil, insofar as it undermined the love of liberty that is so essential in a republican citizenry; and a great moral evil, insofar, as it was an obvious violation of enslaved people’s inalienable rights. ‘Indeed,’ Jefferson declared, ‘I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just; that his justice cannot sleep forever.’ He even envisioned the almighty turning the ‘wheel of fortune’ so that one day it would be white people who were enslaved by black people, as retribution for their slaveholders’ manifold sins against humanity.”
Referring to the Missouri situation a death knell, Jefferson in a way presaged the Civil War by noting that “a geographical line, coinciding with a marked principle, moral and political, once conceived and held up to the angry passions of men will never be obliterated; and every new irritation will mark it deeper and deeper.” Jefferson concluded a letter with an unforgettable expression of regret: “I am now to die in the belief that the useless sacrifice of themselves, by the generation of ’76, to acquire self-government and happiness to their country, is to be thrown away by the unwise and unworthy passions of their sons, and that my only consolation is to be that I live not to weep over it.”
Adams also struggled with Missouri’s application to join the union for similar reasons and in a letter to his daughter said, “The Missouri question . . . hangs like a cloud over my imagination . . . I shudder when I think of the calamities which slavery is likely to produce in this country … You would think me mad if I were to describe my anticipations. If the gangrene is not stopped I can see nothing but insurrections of the blacks against the whites and massacres by the whites in their turn of the blacks … until at last the whites exasperated to madness shall be wicked enough to exterminate the negroes.
To another correspondent, Adams said that Missouri admittance would “stamp our National character and lay a foundation for Calamities, if not disunion.”
As the historian and professor of political science at Syracuse University’s Maxell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs writes, these individuals who participated and generated political upheavals lived in an eras that saw violent changes: “the king of France, guillotined; the king of Sweden, shot; the czar of Russia, strangled in his bed. The crowned heads of England Portugal had lost their reason; the rule of the Sicilies had lost his throne. Republics had fared no better — Venice, Switzerland, the Low Countries, all subverted or subdued.”
And the United States, the largest democratic experiment in history, “enjoyed no automatic immunity from such a fate” — and still doesn’t, as recent U.S. events have demonstrated.
Far from despondent, Rasmussen ends the book by focusing on the more sanguine James Madison, who fought in the Revolution (and was wounded in the Battle of Trenton), was a major contributor to the U.S. Constitution, and served as the fourth U.S. president.
“Madison announced in March 1836 that, however many ills the nation may face and however uncertain the future may be, “I am far … from desponding, of the great political experiment in the hands of the American people.”
A statement that touches on the book’s title and Benjamin Franklin calling attention to the sun on horizon design on the back of a chair used during the Constitutional Convention and rhetorically asking if it were rising or setting — and deciding on the former.
Fears of a Setting Sun: The Disillusionment of America’s Founders, Dennis C. Rasmussen, 280 pages, $29.95, Princeton University Press.