“Do they look happy?”


“That concept of happiness comes from Aristotle and later, from the Enlightenment, which our Founding Fathers were a part of and read about,” says Ken Faunce, WSU associate professor of history. Specifically, it came from English philosopher John Locke who wrote about life, liberty, and the pursuit of property. In the early US, you had to own property in order to vote. Jefferson liked the idea of owning property, so he combined it to say that by owning property, you are a true US citizen, and you have a voice. This gives you well-being, therefore, happiness. Therefore, it should be pursuit of happiness. “So, it wasn’t just let’s be happy but because you own property, you have money and political representation, therefore your well-being is good, so you’re happy,” he says. “Though at the time, Jefferson was only referring to wealthy white men.” Nevertheless, Faunce says the idea of well-being and happiness crept into general American culture from our earliest days, with Europeans noticing that Colonial Americans smiled a lot and seemed to be happier.

“It really took off in the early nineteenth century as the US became more urban and industrial with people working outside the home and for longer hours,” he says. “Then, you begin to see a push for recreation and fun to counterbalance all that hard work. It started with adults but over time transitioned to children. By the early twentieth century, child rearing books stressed that happiness was essential to your child’s well-being.” The notion ramped up after World War I, as the United States began mass producing goods during the 1920s. For the first time, average citizens could afford to buy formerly out-of-reach luxury items. During that period, Sigmund Freud’s American nephew, Edward Bernays, capitalized on Freud’s ideas and used them to sell more products, says Faunce. Bernays began by adapting propaganda techniques used in WWI.

In his 1928 book Propaganda, Bernays said that by understanding the group mind, it would be possible to manipulate people’s behavior without their even realizing it. He went on to rebrand the word propaganda as public relations and became known as the father of PR. “He used these techniques to tap into people’s inner desires and then provide that new car or trendy product for them to buy resulting in happiness,” says Faunce. “It was called ‘The Happiness Machine.’ In the past, people bought things for how functional and long-lasting they were. Now, it’s about how this product makes you feel. So, that consumerism coming out of the 1920s was all due to Bernays.” Faunce says there were many related developments occurring around the same time.

In the 1930s, for example, the “Happy Birthday” song became popular, and people began wishing each other “Happy Birthday.” It was again tied to consumerism because what makes a birthday happy? Presents, of course. “You can see it happening in popular culture, like with Disney, which started in the ’30s but became big in the 1950s with television programs and Disneyland,” says Faunce. “Disney was geared to making kids happy, which in turn makes their parents happy. Here’s this enchanted place and movies and cartoons⁠—the Happiest Place on Earth. A big part of what he was doing was selling happiness to families. “If you think about it,” he adds, “McDonald’s began in the 1950s and eventually came out with Happy Meals. World War II is over, and everyone wants to be happy again⁠—there’s this mix of consumerism and making people content. Then, in the 1960s and ’70s, we got the yellow Smiley Face and ‘Have a Happy Day!’”

Even America’s Founders Were Disillusioned With America
by Francis Wilkinson  /  March 22, 2021

“Before he died in 1799, George Washington wrote that his young nation had become so poisoned by partisanship that if Republicans ran a broomstick for office and called it “a true son of liberty,” the stick would “command their votes in toto!” Declaring himself “gloomy in the extreme,” Alexander Hamilton confided to a fellow Federalist in 1795 that the cause of good government in the U.S. had been put to the test — with “the verdict against it.”


In 1776, before his doubts deepened and calcified, John Adams was already alarmed at the pervasiveness of “so much Rascallity, so much Venality and Corruption, so much Avarice and Ambition, such a rage for Profit and Commerce among all Ranks and Degrees of Men even in America, that I sometimes doubt whether there is public Virtue enough to support a Republic.” As for the author of the Declaration of Independence, toward the end of his life Thomas Jefferson was a cranky old fellow prone to mouthing talking points of a slaveocracy.

In his new book, “Fears of a Setting Sun: The Disillusionment of America’s Founders,” Dennis Rasmussen grapples with the founding generation’s deep and abiding doubts about their experiment. I interviewed the author, a professor of political science at Syracuse University, via email earlier this week. A lightly edited transcript follows.

Wilkinson: Your book enters the political bloodstream at a moment when doubts about the capacity of American democracy are widespread. Should small-d democrats be bolstered by your account of the founders’ skepticism, even despair, about the prospects of republican government? Or is their lack of confidence simply further evidence that democratic scaffolding is inherently rickety?

Rasmussen: One could take the founders’ disillusionment in either direction. On the one hand, their deepest causes for worry — extreme partisanship, an ineffective federal government, a lack of civic virtue, sectional divisions within the country — are very much still with us. That they’ve been here from the beginning suggests that they aren’t likely to go away any time soon. On the other hand, the Constitution has endured for more than 230 years despite these problems, suggesting that they’re less likely to doom the republic than we often fear. Personally, I tend toward the latter view. There’s a certain (ironic) comfort in the fact that the founders voiced worries similar to our own and yet the constitutional order that they created has proven far more durable than they themselves expected.

W: The intense partisanship of the late 1790s under President John Adams, with accusations of domestic intrigue and foreign skullduggery, seemed to inspire a general alarm among the founding generation. Even George Washington succumbed, calling Jefferson’s Republicans a “cancer.” Yet this fierce competition soon gave way to a period of one-party (and one state) dominance under Jefferson, Madison and Monroe. How did the partisan bubble — and the Federalist claim to power — deflate so quickly?

R: It’s a fascinating question how a partisan conflict that reached an apex in 1798, during the Quasi-War with France, all but disappeared just a few years later. (Many would like to see something similar happen today.) There were at least three important factors at work: (1) the passage of the Alien and Sedition Acts, which was a deeply unpopular piece of Federalist legislation, (2) the Louisiana Purchase, which was a highly popular Republican achievement, and (3) a schism between Alexander Hamilton’s “High Federalists” and John Adams and his more moderate followers.

W: The founders’ fears varied by temperament and ideology. Hamilton was alarmed by an enfeebled central government, which Jefferson, in turn, perceived as an overreaching behemoth. We keep repeating these arguments through history. In our current iteration, we overlay a fierce culture war. Yet even the seeds of our culture clash were evident among the founders, weren’t they?

R: Absolutely. Jefferson and the Republicans regarded the Federalists as elitists — even monarchists — who wanted to elevate the power of the moneyed few over the common people, while Hamilton and the Federalists regarded the Republicans as Jacobins bent on instituting mob rule. Hamilton thought that Jefferson’s self-image as the apostle of humble farmers was especially hypocritical coming from a rich, well-connected slaveholder.

W: Jefferson doesn’t come off quite as high-stepping in your telling as in the Broadway version, but he also never seems to grow more self-aware, and his sectional loyalties become more alarming as Civil War looms. I found myself projecting the aged Jefferson onto a La-Z-Boy watching Fox News and cheering every effort to “own the Feds.” Yet he’s also author of the incandescent declaration that “all men are created equal” — a claim he didn’t appear to believe in any real-world context. Did the youthful Jefferson get carried away by his own rhetorical flight? Or did the old man lose the thread of the revolution he helped ignite?

R: I’m afraid that Jefferson — especially the older Jefferson — doesn’t come off terribly well in the book. For most of his life he was a master at turning a blind eye to anything in the real world that he didn’t want to be there. (See: the French Revolution.) I do think that his early idealism was genuine, which is one reason his eventual disenchantment with American politics was so profound. I don’t know whether he would be a fan of Fox News, but by the end of his life he did admit that the only newspaper that he read was the Richmond Enquirer, which was dogmatically pro-Southern.

W: John Adams seems unique among the leading founders in his insistence that the real fault of the republic was a paucity of “virtue” among the people themselves. Given the lack of moral courage and political will to confront slavery — which most founders recognized as both abhorrent and destructive — in a way Adams was right, wasn’t he?

R: I suppose so. To be clear, slavery wasn’t Adams’s main worry. He was opposed to slavery, of course, but he always said that the problem was “too big” for him and that he would leave it to the Southerners to deal with. His worry, rather, was that the people wouldn’t consistently put the common good ahead of selfish interest; they wouldn’t be faithful public servants like Adams himself. But given that most people at the time realized slavery was one of the biggest long-term threats to the republic, their failure to address it in any meaningful way could be viewed as a lack of patriotism, taken in the highest sense.

W: James Madison, whose constitutional system was specifically designed for imperfection, emerges as the most confident believer in the republic’s durability. As we evaluate America’s democratic prospects in the 21st century, should we be more like Madison or more like the founding worrywarts?

R: Madison, who outlived all the other founders, and who always had fairly moderate expectations of politics, was the one who retained his (relative) confidence in the American experiment to the very end. Pessimism always makes one sound smarter and more intellectually serious in harrowing times like the present. My inclination is to go in the opposite direction and adopt a more hopeful, Madisonian outlook. There are plenty of very good reasons for worry as we look at the political landscape today.

But the more history you read, the more you realize that the country has faced most of these problems before — not just once, say, during the Civil War, but throughout much of American history. As I suggest in the book’s epilogue, in many respects the political situation was far worse when our beloved founders presided over the nation. This book probably won’t put readers’ minds entirely at ease — I hope it doesn’t — but I do think that we should try to summon a broader sense of perspective before we leave American democracy for dead.”

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