The best books on the American founders from a political theorist

Dennis C. Rasmussen Author Of Fears of a Setting Sun: The Disillusionment of America's Founders
By Dennis C. Rasmussen

Who am I?

I’m a political theorist at Syracuse University’s Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs. I spent the first fifteen years or so of my career working on the Scottish and French Enlightenments (Adam Smith, David Hume, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Montesquieu, Voltaire), but in recent years I’ve been drawn more and more to the American founding. In addition to Fears of a Setting Sun, I’m also the author of The Constitution’s Penman: Gouverneur Morris and the Creation of America’s Basic Charter, which explores the constitutional vision of the immensely colorful individual who—unbeknownst to most Americans—wrote the US Constitution.

I wrote...

Fears of a Setting Sun: The Disillusionment of America's Founders

By Dennis C. Rasmussen,

Book cover of Fears of a Setting Sun: The Disillusionment of America's Founders

What is my book about?

My book tells the surprising story of how George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, John Adams, and Thomas Jefferson came to despair for the future of the nation they had created.

Americans seldom deify their Founding Fathers any longer, but they do still tend to venerate the Constitution and the republican government that the founders created. Strikingly, the founders themselves were far less confident in what they had wrought, particularly by the end of their lives. In fact, most of them came to deem America’s constitutional experiment an utter failure that was unlikely to last beyond their own generation. Fears of a Setting Sun is the first book to tell the fascinating and too-little-known story of the founders’ disillusionment.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of Friends Divided: John Adams and Thomas Jefferson

Why did I love this book?

Gordon Wood is often described as the dean of historians of the American founding, and all of his books are eminently worth reading. I was lucky enough, as a postdoc at Brown University, to sit in on the last course that he taught on the American Revolution before his retirement. Of the many volumes that Wood has written, I picked this dual biography of John Adams and Thomas Jefferson not only because it’s a delightful read, but also because it’s the book that I was reading when the idea for my book struck me.

By Gordon S. Wood,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Friends Divided as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A New York Times Book Review Notable Book of 2017

From the great historian of the American Revolution, New York Times-bestselling and Pulitzer-winning Gordon Wood, comes a majestic dual biography of two of America's most enduringly fascinating figures, whose partnership helped birth a nation, and whose subsequent falling out did much to fix its course.

Thomas Jefferson and John Adams could scarcely have come from more different worlds, or been more different in temperament. Jefferson, the optimist with enough faith in the innate goodness of his fellow man to be democracy's champion, was an aristocratic Southern slaveowner, while Adams, the…

Book cover of Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation

Why did I love this book?

Joseph Ellis is probably the most popular historian of the founding period, and for good reason: he has few rivals as a storyteller. As with Wood, Ellis has written at least a dozen books that could be included in my list, but Founding Brothers is probably his most well-known, as well as my personal favorite. I assign small bits of it in my American political thought course as a supplement to the primary texts, and students often comment on how much they enjoy reading it.

By Joseph J. Ellis,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Founding Brothers as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In this landmark work of history, the National Book Award—winning author of American Sphinx explores how a group of greatly gifted but deeply flawed individuals–Hamilton, Burr, Jefferson, Franklin, Washington, Adams, and Madison–confronted the overwhelming challenges before them to set the course for our nation.

The United States was more a fragile hope than a reality in 1790. During the decade that followed, the Founding Fathers–re-examined here as Founding Brothers–combined the ideals of the Declaration of Independence with the content of the Constitution to create the practical workings of our government. Through an analysis of six fascinating episodes–Hamilton and Burr’s deadly…

Book cover of Plain, Honest Men: The Making of the American Constitution

Why did I love this book?

Even after stripping away the mythology that has persistently surrounded it, the Philadelphia Convention of 1787 remains one of the most remarkable events in political history. There are, unsurprisingly, many books that tell its tale, but in my judgment Plain, Honest Men is the best of them, both because it is the most comprehensive and because it does the best job of giving the reader a real sense of what it was like to be there. Beeman’s Our Lives, Our Fortunes and Our Sacred Honor does something similar for the independence movement.

By Richard Beeman,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Plain, Honest Men as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In May 1787, in an atmosphere of crisis, delegates met in Philadelphia to design a radically new form of government. Distinguished historian Richard Beeman captures as never before the dynamic of the debate and the characters of the men who labored that historic summer. Virtually all of the issues in dispute—the extent of presidential power, the nature of federalism, and, most explosive of all, the role of slavery—have continued to provoke conflict throughout our nation's history. This unprecedented book takes readers behind the scenes to show how the world's most enduring constitution was forged through conflict, compromise, and fragile consensus.…

Book cover of Ratification: The People Debate the Constitution, 1787-1788

Why did I love this book?

For all the drama of the Philadelphia Convention, it would have been an empty exercise had the American people not ratified the charter that it produced. Pauline Maier’s Ratification tells the surprisingly dramatic story of the state-by-state ratification process, one that encompasses not only the famous figures of the period but also everyday citizens. Maier’s book on the Declaration of Independence, American Scripture, is also excellent.

By Pauline Maier,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Ratification as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Synopsis coming soon.......

Book cover of Hamilton, Adams, Jefferson: The Politics of Enlightenment and the American Founding

Why did I love this book?

This book is not as acclaimed as the others on this list, but it is a hidden gem. Staloff deftly weaves together the lives and ideas of three of the most notable founders, and the ways in which they were influenced by their Enlightenment forebears. Precisely because the book is relatively little-known, I recommend it all the time to colleagues and students.

By Darren Staloff,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Hamilton, Adams, Jefferson as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Where The Ideas for which We Stand came from.

In this incisively drawn book, Darren Staloff forcefully reminds us that America owes its guiding political traditions to three Founding Fathers whose lives embodied the collision of Europe's grand Enlightenment project with the birth of the nation.

Alexander Hamilton, the worldly New Yorker; John Adams, the curmudgeonly Yankee; Thomas Jefferson, the visionary Virginia squire—each governed their public lives by Enlightenment principles, and for each their relationship to the politics of Enlightenment was transformed by the struggle for American independence. Repeated humiliation on America's battlefields banished Hamilton's youthful idealism, leaving him a…

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