For those who predict that the American experiment can't last, and who worry the social fabric is disintegrating at a time of rising political division, it's worth remembering that back when the ink had barely dried on the Constitution, the Founding Fathers were deeply pessimistic about the future of the country they had created.
Alexander Hamilton called the Constitution a "frail and worthless fabric." George Washington lamented the growth of political factions. John Adams thought a lack of civic virtue doomed the republic. Jefferson watched sectional divisions between North and South with horror, and said that the "sacrifice" made "by the generation of '76" was "useless" because it would be "thrown away by the unwise and unworthy passions of their sons."
"My only consolation," he wrote, "is to be that I live not to weep over it."
"Their pronouncements may seem overly dramatic to the modern ear," says Syracuse University Professor Dennis C. Rasmussen. In his new book, Fears of a Setting Sun: The Disillusionment of America's Founders, Rasmussen wrestles with the Founding Founders' dour outlook on the future of the country.
"I think that's because they thought that so much was at stake. They really thought that the future of republican government and the future of human liberty was riding on this American experiment….The potential failure of that experiment they thought would be a world-historical calamity."
Should Americans see the Founders' dissolution as a sign that America is flawed beyond hope? We're still beset by many of the same fears.
"We hear people pronounce the end of American democracy at every turn," says Rasmussen. "The fact that it hasn't ended in the past 230 years suggests that maybe [it will] last a good deal longer."
"But the fact that these problems have been with us since the very outset, since the founders themselves, suggest that they might be more systemic, more baked in than we sometimes dare to hope."
Produced and edited by Meredith Bragg.