The American System: How We Return To An Economy That Lifts All Americans

| May 06, 2020

(Adapted from Rediscovering a Genuine American System, in the American Compass series on Rebooting the American System.)

On February 2, 1832, Henry Clay rose on the Senate floor to defend a bold national economic agenda that he had christened eight years earlier “a genuine AMERICAN SYSTEM” (emphasis in original). He had already advanced a number of measures critical to his vision: a national bank, protective tariffs for manufacturing, and infrastructure to connect commercial centers to the expansive frontier. But the political revolution in 1828 that drove Clay’s National Republican Party from power and installed a backcountry populist in the White House was threatening to undo these projects.

Speaking over the course of three days, Clay documented the “unparalleled prosperity” that the American System had produced. He explained how this “long established system” was “patiently and carefully built up, and sanctioned, … by the nation and its highest and most revered authorities.”

His opponents’ alternative, he alleged, was vacuous at best: “When gentlemen have succeeded in their design of an immediate or gradual destruction of the American System, what is their substitute?” Clay asked. “Free trade! Free trade! The call for free trade, is as unavailing as the cry of a spoiled child. … It never has existed; it never will exist.”

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Wells King is the research director at American Compass.