Clay's American System

Historical content: 
Slavery and Westward Expansion
Historical skills: 
Contextualization, Sourcing, Use of evidence



Use the documents and your knowledge of history to answer each of the questions that follow.

"In Defense of the American System," Henry Clay, 1832.
The United States Democratic Review, 1844.
Source text: 

Document A: This passage is from Kentucky Senator Henry Clay’s Senate speech, “In Defense of the American System,” from February 1832. Clay's American System called for higher tariffs to protect American industry, a central bank to control the money supply, and government support for public projects, such as canals, roads, and railroads. This portion of the speech concerns Clay’s tariff policies.

“[Now, eight years after the tariff of 1824], we behold cultivation extended, the arts flourishing, the face of the country improved, our people fully and profitably employed . . . our cities expanded, and whole villages springing up. . . ; our exports and imports increased and increasing; our tonnage, foreign and coastwise, swelling and fully occupied. . . . This transformation of the condition of the country from gloom and distress to brightness and prosperity, has been mainly the work of American legislation, fostering American industry, instead of allowing it to be controlled by foreign legislation.”

Document B: This article is from a May 1844 issue of The United States Democratic Review, a conservative 19th-century magazine that supported small government and minimal intervention by the federal government. The article is highly critical of Henry Clay's American System, particularly its support of higher tariffs. 

“This American system... what is it, but a fraudulent partnership between a portion of our politicians and capitalists…. States, whose products for export will soon reach a hundred million of dollars, will not suffer their markets abroad to be restricted or closed by our own laws…. The Constitution prohibits our taxing exports; and restrictions on imports.”

Question 1: In the 19th century, many Americans opposed increased government regulation of the economy. How does Document A provide evidence of this? 

Question 2: How does Document B also provide evidence that many Americans opposed increased government regulation of the economy?

About the Assessment

Like Opposition to the Philippine-American War, this assessment gauges students’ ability to reason about how evidence supports a historical argument.  Students must explain how Clay's speech defending his American System and an editorial critique of federal intervention both support the conclusion that many Americans opposed increased government regulation at the time.