Hauenstein speaker: Founding Fathers grappled with disillusionment over their young nation

Syracuse professor Dennis Rasmussen speaks with the Hauenstein Center's acting director Brent Holmes
Syracuse professor Dennis Rasmussen, right, speaks with the Hauenstein Center's acting director Brent Holmes on Novemner 17 at the Loosemoore Auditorium.
Image credit - Valerie Hendrickson

No sooner had the Constitution been ratified than some of the Founding Fathers began to wonder if the republic they established would survive. Benjamin Franklin is famously quoted when he was asked what type of government he and the founders had created.

“A republic, if you can keep it,” Franklin said.

Franklin was not alone in his assessment of the young nation, said Dennis Rasmussen, professor of political science at Syracuse University’s Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs and author of “Fears of a Setting Sun: The Disillusionment of America’s Founders.”

The Hauenstein Center for Presidential Studies welcomed Rasmussen to discuss his book and the views of four of the Founding Fathers — George Washington, John Adams, Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson — on November 17 at the DeVos Center on the Pew Grand Rapids Campus.

Disillusionment was common among the Founding Fathers, Rasmussen said. One of the reasons he wrote the book, he added, was to present a richer, more holistic view of these four men. 

Rasmussen said while the words and deeds of these men during the historic periods of the Revolution and the Constitutional Convention are scrutinized continuously, it’s important to study their activities and beliefs later in their lives for a deeper appreciation of their experiences.

“I hope what readers take away is a fuller understanding of the founders than you sometimes get by just looking at the founding period itself,” Rasmussen said. 

“When we are tempted to think that the founders had all the answers, or that their will or intent must be obeyed in all things, it’s worth remembering that they themselves had some severe doubts about the constitutional order they founded."

Some of the same misgivings the four founders had about the burgeoning American political system are the same which still rack American society today.

Washington’s foremost wish, Rasmussen said, was to establish a nation free of political parties and partisanship. 

Hamilton, principal author of The Federalist Papers, which defended the Constitution, was surprisingly most disappointed in the document from the onset. 

Adams, described as a pessimistic curmudgeon by Rasmussen, was awestruck by the avarice and selfishness and lack of civic virtue in American society. 

Jefferson too grew increasingly disappointed in the young nation, particularly over the divide arising between northern and southern states, Rasmussen said. 

“Even Jefferson, the congenital optimist, ended up losing his faith in the American experiment in his final years in a big way,” Rasmussen said. 

Despite all of the founders’ fears and worries remaining with the United States nearly 250 years since its founding, Rasmussen said he finds optimism in that fact.

“If we realize that many of our current political ills have been present since the very founding of the country, maybe we will be less apt to be surprised by these problems,” he said. 

“Maybe these problems are less likely to doom the republic than we sometimes fear. The looming demise of American democracy has been announced countless times throughout the nation’s history."


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