Tuesday, July 27, 2021

The Pessimism of the Aging Founders

Jamelle Bouie has a long review by in the Times of Fears of a Setting Sun: The Disillusionment of America’s Founders by Dennis Rasmussen. Rasmussen's book documents how pessimistic America's founders came to be as they got older. Washington, as many Americans know, was upset about the rise of parties and the partisan spirit, and once commented that if the Democratic faction were to "set up a broomstick, and call it a true son of Liberty," it would get all their votes. "Character," he wrote, "counts for nothing."

Hamilton feared that the national government was too weak to hold the country together or defend its interests against foreign powers. He also despaired over America's anemic economic growth and slow industrialization and the failure of state governments to promote banking, industry and trade.

John Adams took the opposite tack and thought Americans were being ruined by peace and prosperity:

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.

Jefferson turned his rhetorical talents to doom-mongering and became pessimism's poet. He despaired about everything: the rise of industry, the decline of yeoman farmers, the tendency of all power to turn tyrannous, the impossibility of resolving the slavery question. The fight over the Missouri Compromise in 1820 inspired pages of despairing letters to friends and old allies: 

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.

Jefferson could see perfectly well that if America was going to fight over slavery the existing governmental arrangements were not adequate to resolve the conflict, so the nation was headed for dissolution.

It is an important lesson in two opposite senses. In the first sense, it shows that all eras have problems that seem apocalyptic to people who live through them, but in fact apocalypse is rare. The history of the US before the Civil War has always struck me as rather melancholy: the ongoing conquest and displacement of Indians, staggeringly uneven economic growth, a parade of towns founded but never populated and business started only to fail, repeated recessions and bank failures, high rates of violence, and of course the sad reality of slavery and the looming collision over its fate. But on the other hand, the population boomed, new cities blossomed, and new technologies transformed the land.

So in one sense the period is a lesson of how people can thrive in the midst of perpetual crisis. Even among the enslaved, the population surged and there was much creativity in music and other areas. But in another sense, Jefferson was right, and the inability to end slavery by some sort of gradual manumission doomed millions to needless suffering and the nation to catastrophe.

And this, I think, is a reason to be optimistic about our own time. We have problems aplenty, and doom-mongering in spades. But we do not, I think, have any underlying issue like slavery –so important, so emotional, so economically vital – that is fated to tear us apart.

1 comment:

szopen said...

re slaves, Jefferson seem an old hypocrite