Henry Clay's American System of Economics

The powerful politician advocated policies to develop home markets

Illustrated portrait of Henry Clay
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The American System was a program for economic development championed in the era following the War of 1812 by Henry Clay, one of the most influential members of Congress in the early 19th century. Clay's idea was that the federal government should implement protective tariffs and internal improvements and a national bank should help develop the nation's economy.

Clay's basic argument for the program was that by protecting American manufacturers from foreign competition, ever increasing internal markets would spur American industries to grow. For example, companies in the Pittsburgh region could sell iron to manufacturers on the East Coast, replacing iron imported from Great Britain. Various other regions of the country sought protection from imports that could undercut them in the marketplace.

Agriculture and Manufacturing

Clay envisioned a diversified American economy in which agricultural interests and manufacturers would exist side by side. Essentially, he saw beyond the argument of whether the United States would be an industrial or agricultural nation. It could be both, he insisted.

When he advocated for his American System, Clay focused on the need to build growing home markets for American goods. He contended that blocking cheap imported goods would ultimately benefit all Americans.

Nationalist Appeal

His program had strong nationalist appeal. Developing home markets would protect the United States from uncertain foreign events. Self-reliance could ensure that the nation was protected from shortages of goods caused by distant conflicts. That argument resonated strongly, especially in the period following the War of 1812 and Europe's Napoleonic Wars. During those years of conflict, American businesses suffered from disruptions.

The ideas put into practice included building the National Road, America's first major highway; chartering the Second Bank of the United States, a new national bank, in 1816; and passing the first protective tariff the same year. Clay's American System was essentially in practice during the Era of Good Feelings, which corresponded with the presidency of James Monroe from 1817 to 1825.

Controversy Arises

Clay, who had served as a representative and senator from Kentucky, ran for president in 1824 and 1832, advocating extending the American System. But by that time sectional and partisan disputes made aspects of his plans controversial.

Clay's arguments for high tariffs persisted for decades in various forms but often met with stiff opposition. In the late 1820s tensions over the role the federal government should play in economic development escalated to the point that South Carolina threatened to withdraw from the Union over a tariff in what became known as the Nullification Crisis.

Clay's American System was perhaps ahead of its time. The general concepts of tariffs and internal improvements became standard government policy in the late 1800s.

Clay ran for president in 1844 and remained a potent force in American politics until his death in 1852. He, along with Daniel Webster and John C. Calhoun, became known as the Great Triumvirate of the U.S. Senate.