Starting Points Journal: “The Founders’ Disappointments”
By Dennis C. Rasmussen
“On September 17, 1787, the delegates to the Constitutional Convention gathered one last time in the Assembly Room of what is now Independence Hall to sign the charter that they had spent the past four months crafting. As the last of the thirty-eight signers affixed their names to the Constitution, Benjamin Franklin called attention to the high-backed mahogany chair that the president of the Convention, George Washington, had occupied at the head of the room that summer, which had a decorative half-sunburst carved into the crest. Franklin remarked that painters often found it difficult to differentiate, in their compositions, a rising sun from a setting sun. “I have,” he said, “often and often, in the course of the session, and the vicissitudes of my hopes and fears as to its issue, looked at that [sun on the chair] behind the President, without being able to tell whether it was rising or setting: but now at length, I have the happiness to know, that it is a rising and not a setting sun.”
Franklin’s quip is generally taken to be emblematic of the great hopes that the founders had for the constitutional order that they had just formed. Whatever sense of optimism they may have felt at the new government’s birth, however, almost none of the founders carried it to their graves. Franklin survived to see the government formed by the Constitution in action for only a single year, but most of the founders who lived into the nineteenth century—or even to the dawn of the new century, like Washington—came to feel deep anxiety, disappointment, and even despair about the government and the nation that they had helped create. Indeed, by the end of their lives many of the founders judged the Constitution that we now venerate to be an utter failure that was unlikely to last beyond their own generation. My new book, Fears of a Setting Sun: The Disillusionment of America’s Founders (Princeton University Press, 2021), tells the story of their disillusionment…
Dennis C. Rasmussen is a Professor of Political Science at Syracuse University’s Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs. His research focuses on the Enlightenment, the American founding, and the virtues and shortcomings of liberal democracy and market capitalism. He is the author of four books, including The Infidel and the Professor: David Hume, Adam Smith, and the Friendship That Shaped Modern Thought (Princeton University Press, 2017), which was shortlisted for the Ralph Waldo Emerson Award and named a best book of the year by The Guardian, Bloomberg, Project Syndicate, Australian Book Review, and Five Books. His most recent book is Fears of a Setting Sun: The Disillusionment of America’s Founders (Princeton University Press, 2021).
Professor Rasmussen is a JMC fellow.
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