Dennis C. Rasmussen

Nov 18, 2021

Fears of a Setting Sun

The Disillusionment of America's Founders

Princeton University Press 2021

When Americans conjure the image of the signing of the Constitution of the United States, they often think about the various paintings that depict the Founders looking to George Washington on the dais at the convention. It is this snapshot of history that embodies Americans’ perceptions of the Founders and their conviction in the creation of the great nation. What Americans fail to understand about America’s Founding is the overwhelming anxieties that many of the Founders experienced, especially as they lived in the new republic that they had created. Not only did they find themselves anxious about the future of the new country, but many were also explicitly pessimistic about the future that they noted in so much of their later writings and letters. Dennis C. Rasmussen, in his new book Fears of a Setting Sun: The Disillusionment of American Founders, addresses this gap in research on the American Founding, and on the Founders themselves. Washington, Hamilton, Adams, Jefferson, and Madison all wondered whether the system they had worked to establish, build, and defend would live beyond their own generation.

In Fears of a Setting Sun: The Disillusionment of America's Founders (Princeton UP, 2021), Rasmussen explores the enduring arguments made by George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton, and John Adams that convinced them of America’s inevitable demise. Modern Americans conceptualize the founding of the United States as an isolated moment in time, and rarely consider the reality of how the Founders spent the remainder of their lives putting the Constitution to work. Rasmussen places the founders’ fears in context of the ongoing chaos of the late 1700’s where other countries were facing revolution, treason, and anarchy. Fear of a Setting Sun’s purpose is not to disregard the founders’ optimism in the system they created, and in fact the book heralds James Madison’s lifelong optimism and belief that the American experiment would prevail—though he is at odds with the other major Founders in this regard. Fear of a Setting Sun explores the Founders’ disillusionment in order to provide a fuller meaning of American constitutionalism and the value that is formed in its implementation. Rasmussen provides a perspective that changes what scholars and the general public believe and know about the founding of the republic, the historical stakes at the time of the founding, and how the Founders generally grew more pessimistic over time about the potential for the new republic to achieve its great potential.

This book will be of interest to political scientists, historians, students and scholars of the founding period and the ideas and personalities that dominated the early days of the American republic.

Shaina Boldt assisted with this podcast.

Lilly J. Goren is professor of political science at Carroll University in Waukesha, WI. She is co-editor of the award winning book, Women and the White House: Gender, Popular Culture, and Presidential Politics (University Press of Kentucky, 2012), as well as co-editor of Mad Men and Politics: Nostalgia and the Remaking of Modern America (Bloomsbury Academic, 2015). Email her comments at or tweet to @gorenlj.

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Lilly J. Goren is professor of political science at Carroll University in Waukesha, WI.

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