Thursday, July 29, 2021 | 2 a.m.
It is old hat to note that Americans have deified the Founding Fathers as saints — secular or otherwise. What is a little less obvious is how that deification has frozen them in time.
We hail the Thomas Jefferson of 1776, not the one of 1806; the James Madison of 1787 rather than the one of 1827. We remember George Washington the triumphant military leader of 1783 more than George Washington the reluctant president of 1793.
The extent to which the founders are frozen in time is most apparent in how they’re used for present-day political purposes. Truth of the matter aside, when speakers say, “This is what the Founders intended,” they tend to mean, “This is what the Founders intended at the Philadelphia Convention.”
The problem is that the men we call the Founders did not stop thinking or writing or acting in politics with ratification of the Constitution. Nor did they stop after serving in office. Even when retired from public life, they continued to comment on current affairs, to express their highest hopes and aspirations as well as their deepest fears and apprehensions.
Those fears and apprehensions are the subject of a recent book by Dennis C. Rasmussen, a political scientist at Syracuse University. In “Fears of a Setting Sun: The Disillusionment of America’s Founders,” Rasmussen walks readers through the later-in-life correspondence of Jefferson, Washington, Alexander Hamilton and John Adams, each of whom feared for the fate of the American republic following their service in the government they created. And for good reason.
“There were few precedents or fixed poles to guide the nation’s lawmakers,” Rasmussen writes, “and the very fate of republican liberty seemed to them to hinge on their every decision.” A “sense of crisis pervaded the era” and the Founders’ correspondence was “littered with predictions of imminent collapse.”
Washington, Rasmussen notes, was consumed with fear of “faction” — political parties and their consequences for the future of the republic. “Until within the last year or two,” he told Jefferson in a July 1796 letter, “I had no conception that Parties Would, or even could go, the length I have been Witness to.”
Over the previous year, Washington had been embroiled in a swirling political storm over the Jay Treaty. Negotiated by John Jay, then the chief justice of the United States, the treaty attempted to resolve a number of issues still outstanding after the end of the Revolutionary War. Attacked as a brazen giveaway to Britain, the treaty inspired furious reaction from Washington’s Republican opposition, which emerged in his second term under the leadership of Jefferson and Madison. “The backlash against the treaty,” Rasmussen writes, “was like nothing” Washington “had experienced before.”
The Republican press turned its sights squarely on the once-untouchable president, using every term of abuse it could muster and leveling every charge it could concoct, no matter how implausible. Washington was senile; he was a blasphemer; he was a womanizer; he had embezzled public funds; he was a tool of the British crown or desired a crown of his own; Hamilton not only controlled him behind the scenes but was somehow also his illegitimate son; Washington had been a secret British agent during the Revolutionary War, and his efforts to betray the patriotic cause were foiled by Benedict Arnold beating him to the punch.
Washington’s famous farewell address — in which he warned against faction — was as much about the circumstances of his own administration as it was a warning to future Americans. In his final year, however, Washington seemed to surrender to the reality of parties and factionalism. Asked to consider a third term for president, he told the governor of Connecticut, Jonathan Trumbull, that he was “thoroughly convinced I should not draw a single vote from the Anti-federal side” and that character was irrelevant to the outcomes of elections. “Let that party set up a broomstick, and call it a true son of Liberty, a Democrat, or give it any other epithet that will suit their purpose, and it will command their votes in toto!”
John Adams, who devoted his life to the republic and the revolutionary cause, feared the consequences of peace and prosperity for the moral fiber of the American people. Writing to his son, John Quincy, in October 1814, he remarked that
human Nature cannot bear Prosperity. It invariably intoxicates Individuals and Nations. Adversity is the great Reformer. Affliction is the purifying furnace. Prosperity has thrown our dear America into an easy trance for 30 years. The dear delights of Riches and Luxury have drowned all her intellectual and physical Energies.
But this was in the midst of the second war with Britain, and the nation’s willingness to fight had made Adams cautiously optimistic that “the Germ of Virtue” was not destroyed and that “The Root of the matter is Still in us, and alive.”
For the remainder of his years, Rasmussen notes, Adams would oscillate between a kind of optimism and a disillusionment with the American experiment: “I fear there will be greater difficulties to preserve our Union, than You and I, our Fathers Brothers Friends Disciples and Sons have had to form it,” Adams wrote to Jefferson in 1816. During the administration of James Monroe, Adams wrote on an even darker note to John Quincy that, “If there is any Thing Serious in this World, the Selfishness of our Countrymen is not only Serious but melancholy, foreboding ravages of Ambition and Avarice which never were exceeded on this Selfish Globe.”
The “distemper in our Nation is so general,” he concluded, “and so certainly incurable.”
Whereas Washington was worried about the politics of the nation, and Adams the character of its people, Hamilton was worried about its institutions. He feared the national government would be too weak — too weak to stand as an equal on the international stage and too weak to rebuff greedy and self-interested state governments. With the decline of John Adams and the Federalists — who favored a powerful executive and strong federal authority — and the ascension of Thomas Jefferson and the Republican Party, Hamilton became convinced that the republic’s days were numbered.
Because of the underlying weaknesses of the political order, even the greatest successes of the Federalists had proven fleeting: “What will signify a vibration of power, if it cannot be used with confidence or energy, & must be again quickly restored to hands which will prostrate much faster than we shall be able to rear under so frail a system?”
To Rufus King, Hamilton wrote that “the prospects of our Country are not brilliant. The mass is far from sound.”
Jefferson was practically defined by his optimism about and enthusiasm for the American experiment. But he too saw dark tidings as he came to the end of his life, spurred on by the nation’s mounting conflict over slavery. “The source of Jefferson’s frustration and despondency,” Rasmussen writes, “was not the continued failure of the South to finally put slavery on the road to extinction, but rather the North’s opposition to its expansion.”
That opposition flared during the Missouri statehood crisis of 1820. The white majority in Missouri had approved of slavery in its constitution when it applied for statehood. If Congress admitted Missouri into the union with slavery intact, it would break the sectional balance in favor of the South. Northern lawmakers tried to stop this outcome with an amendment to the statehood bill that would have forced a system of gradual emancipation on existing slaveholders in the state.
Jefferson, who backed the South’s position, saw the conflict in apocalyptic terms. Here’s Rasmussen again:
If Congress could impose a gradual emancipation scheme on Missouri as a condition of statehood, [Jefferson] reasoned, then it “may, and probably will next declare that the condition of all men within the U.S. shall be that of freedom, in which case all the whites South of the Patomak and Ohio must evacuate their states; and most fortunate those who can do it first.”
After Congress passed its compromise on the issue — admitting Missouri as a slave state, admitting Maine as a free state and prohibiting slavery in the remaining territories of the Louisiana Purchase north of the of the 36°30’ parallel — Jefferson expressed his belief that the divide, represented by that line, would prove intractable:
“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,” he wrote in an April 1820 letter to John Holmes, a Republican from Maine.
Jefferson went on:
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.
If there was a counterpoint to all of this pessimism, Rasmussen points out, it came from James Madison, who outlived his peers to see the union survive political crisis, partisan rancor and social transformation. “I have never despaired,” he said in his final public speech, nine months into the presidency of Andrew Jackson, “notwithstanding all the threatening appearances we have passed through. I have now more than a hope, a consoling confidence that we shall at last find that our labors have not been in vain.”
Madison was no Pollyanna. What he had was a strong sense of the possible and a willingness to live with imperfections. “No Government of human device, & human administration can be perfect; that which is the least imperfect is therefore the best government,” he wrote in 1834. Or, as Rasmussen puts it, “Long experience had persuaded Madison beyond a doubt that the American form of government was preferable to the alternatives.”
Millions of Americans are, at this moment, fearful for the future of their democracy. Millions more are deeply dissatisfied with the nation’s institutions and skeptical of its ability to tackle the challenges ahead of us. It is clarifying to confront both facts knowing that the Founders themselves were as pessimistic about their future as we are about ours. It is nice to have perspective.
The American republic survived against their expectations, but that does not mean their pessimism was unwarranted. Jefferson’s fear of disunion, in particular, was prophetic.
What, then, is there to take from the Founders, knowing what we know now about their fear and disillusionment? Perhaps we can take some of that despair and channel it toward critique rather than defeat. And perhaps, from Madison, we can take the faith that American democracy still holds the resources to revitalize itself — and us along with it.
Jamelle Bouie is a columnist for The New York Times. This column originally appeared here.