Dennis C. Rasmussen

political theorist

Curriculum vitae

dcrasmus [at]


This page contains information about my books and edited volumes. See my CV for links to my journal articles, book chapters, popular press essays, and print, podcast, radio, and television interviews.
Strikingly few Americans know who wrote the Constitution. Even fewer know that he was a peg-legged ladies’ man with a wicked sense of humor, a staunch opponent of slavery, and an unabashed elitist. Gouverneur Morris, who has been described as “the most colorful man in North America” at the time of the founding, was a dominant figure at the Philadelphia Convention of 1787. In fact, he spoke more often, proposed more motions, and had more motions adopted than any other delegate. He also put the Constitution into its final form, choosing the arrangement and much of the wording of its provisions, not to mention composing the famous preamble (“We the people of the United States . . .”) nearly from scratch. The Constitution’s Penman is the first book to explore the constitutional vision of this fascinating, neglected, and influential American.

As Dennis Rasmussen deftly shows, some aspects of Morris’s political thought were intriguingly idiosyncratic, such as his argument that the Senate should be an aristocratic body whose members would serve life terms without pay. Other aspects of his vision for America’s constitutional order, however, were astoundingly prescient. Morris saw as clearly as any of the framers the need for a powerful executive with a popular mandate, the central role that parties would play in American politics, and the unfathomable evils that slavery would visit on American life. Rasmussen demonstrates that it is impossible to fully understand the Constitution without appreciating the central role that Morris played in shaping it.

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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—including George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, John Adams, and Thomas Jefferson—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.

As Dennis Rasmussen shows, the founders’ pessimism had a variety of sources: Washington lost his faith in America’s political system above all because of the rise of partisanship, Hamilton because he felt that the federal government was too weak, Adams because he believed that the people lacked civic virtue, and Jefferson because of sectional divisions laid bare by the spread of slavery. The one major founder who retained his faith in America’s constitutional order to the end was James Madison, and the book also explores why he remained relatively optimistic when so many of his compatriots did not. As much as Americans today may worry about their country’s future, Rasmussen reveals, the founders faced even graver problems and harbored even deeper misgivings.

A vividly written account of a chapter of American history that has received too little attention, Fears of a Setting Sun will change the way that you look at the American founding, the Constitution, and indeed the United States itself.

The story of the greatest of all philosophical friendships—and how it influenced modern thought.

David Hume is widely regarded as the most important philosopher ever to write in English, but during his lifetime he was attacked as “the Great Infidel” for his skeptical religious views and deemed unfit to teach the young. In contrast, Adam Smith was a revered professor of moral philosophy, and is now often hailed as the founding father of capitalism. Remarkably, the two were best friends for most of their adult lives, sharing what Dennis Rasmussen calls the greatest of all philosophical friendships. The Infidel and the Professor is the first book to tell the fascinating story of the friendship of these towering Enlightenment thinkers―and how it influenced their world-changing ideas.

The book follows Hume and Smith’s relationship from their first meeting in 1749 until Hume’s death in 1776. It describes how they commented on each other’s writings, supported each other’s careers and literary ambitions, and advised each other on personal matters, most notably after Hume’s quarrel with Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Members of a vibrant intellectual scene in Enlightenment Scotland, Hume and Smith made many of the same friends (and enemies), joined the same clubs, and were interested in many of the same subjects well beyond philosophy and economics―from psychology and history to politics and Britain’s conflict with the American colonies. The book reveals that Smith’s private religious views were considerably closer to Hume’s public ones than is usually believed. It also shows that Hume contributed more to economics―and Smith contributed more to philosophy―than is generally recognized.

Vividly written, The Infidel and the Professor is a compelling account of a great friendship that had great consequences for modern thought.

  • Subject of a symposium in the Adam Smith Review
This is a study of the political theory of the Enlightenment, focusing on four leading eighteenth-century thinkers: David Hume, Adam Smith, Montesquieu, and Voltaire. Dennis C. Rasmussen calls attention to the particular strand of the Enlightenment these thinkers represent, which he terms the "pragmatic Enlightenment." He defends this strand of Enlightenment thought against both the Enlightenment’s critics and some of the more idealistic Enlightenment figures who tend to have more followers today, such as John Locke, Immanuel Kant, and Jeremy Bentham. Professor Rasmussen argues that Hume, Smith, Montesquieu, and Voltaire exemplify an especially attractive type of liberalism, one that is more realistic, moderate, flexible, and contextually sensitive than most other branches of this tradition.

Adam Smith is popularly regarded as the ideological forefather of laissez-faire capitalism, while Rousseau is seen as the passionate advocate of the life of virtue in small, harmonious communities and as a sharp critic of the ills of commercial society. But, in fact, Smith had many of the same worries about commercial society that Rousseau did and was strongly influenced by his critique.

In this first book-length comparative study of these leading eighteenth-century thinkers, Dennis Rasmussen highlights Smith’s sympathy with Rousseau’s concerns and analyzes in depth the ways in which Smith crafted his arguments to defend commercial society against these charges. These arguments, Rasmussen emphasizes, were pragmatic in nature, not ideological: it was Smith’s view that, all things considered, commercial society offered more benefits than the alternatives.

Just because of this pragmatic orientation, Smith’s approach can be useful to us in assessing the pros and cons of commercial society today and thus contributes to a debate that is too much dominated by both dogmatic critics and doctrinaire champions of our modern commercial society.

Adam Smith and the Death of David Hume: The “Letter to Strahan” and Related Texts, ed. Dennis C. Rasmussen (2018)

The Letter to Strahan is an ostensible letter that Adam Smith wrote on the last days, death, and character of his closest friend, the philosopher David Hume, and published alongside Hume’s autobiography, My Own Life, in 1777. Other than his two books, it is the only work that Smith published under his name during his lifetime, and it elicited a great deal of commentary and controversy. Because of Hume’s reputation for impiety, Smith’s portrayal of his friend’s cheerfulness and equanimity during his final days provoked outrage among the devout. Smith later commented that this work “brought upon me ten times more abuse than the very violent attack I had made upon the whole commercial system of Great Britain”—meaning, of course, The Wealth of Nations. This is the first annotated version of this fascinating and important work.

Along with the Letter to Strahan, the volume also includes Hume’s My Own Life, the work to which the Letter was a kind of companion piece; two personal letters related to the Letter; and three published responses to the Letter—two viciously critical and one generally favorable. A substantial editor’s introduction discusses the context, composition, publication, and significance of the Letter, along with the strong reaction that it provoked. Taken together, the works included in the volume provide an entertaining and accessible entrée into some of the most controversial debates over religion and morality in the eighteenth century.

Adam Smith and Rousseau: Ethics, Politics, Economics, ed. Maria Pia Paganelli, Dennis C. Rasmussen, and Craig Smith (2018)

This collection brings together an international and interdisciplinary group of Adam Smith and Jean-Jacques Rousseau scholars to explore the key shared concerns of these two great thinkers in politics, philosophy, economics, history and literature.

Rousseau (1712–78) and Smith (1723–90) are two of the foremost thinkers of the European Enlightenment. They both made seminal contributions to moral and political philosophy and shaped some of the key concepts of modern political economy. Among Smith’s first published works was a letter to the Edinburgh Review where he discusses Rousseau’s Discourse on the Origin of Inequality. Smith continued to engage with Rousseau’s work and to explore many shared themes such as sympathy, political economy, sentiment and inequality. Though we have no solid evidence that they met in person, we do know that they shared many friends and interlocutors. In particular, David Hume was Smith’s closest intellectual associate and was also the one who arranged for Rousseau’s stay in England in 1766.