The American Whigs: An Anthology

By Daniel Walker Howe | Go to book overview

3
ECONOMIC NATIONALISM

Henry Clay


THE AMERICAN SYSTEM

Henry Clay ( 1777-1852) was the most powerful leader in the Whig party. In a real sense the party was an extension of his personal ambition: he was largely responsible for creating it, and when he died it did not outlive him. Clay was elected to the Kentucky constitutional convention at the age of twenty-two and spent practically all the rest of his life in politics. "Harry of the West" was an ardent nationalist with views very similar to those of John Quincy Adams, though in temperament the two men were utterly different. By supporting Adams for the presidency in 1824 Clay earned the undying enmity of Andrew Jackson. Thereafter Clay and Jackson gradually built up two rival political coalitions that became the Whig and Democratic parties.

The core of Whig policy was Clay's program of government aid to business enterprise, which he called "the American system" to distinguish it from "the British system" of laissez-faire. Clay delivered the following speech under historic circumstances. South Carolina was threatening to nullify the existing federal tariff law, which she blamed (not altogether correctly) for economic hard times in the state. The Union itself seemed threatened. Clay designed his defense of the tariff less to convert the South Carolinians -- a hopeless task -- than to rally supporters elsewhere. In his lifetime Clay was regarded as a spellbinding orator; this speech took three days to deliver and has had to be cut considerably. Clay's reputation as a speaker was exceeded only by his reputation as the "Great Compromiser." It is typical of Clay that, after making this vigorous vindication of his position, he shrewdly arranged a compromise that gradually lowered tariff rates over the next several years and resolved the constitutional crisis.

____________________

SOURCE. Henry Clay, "Speech in Defence of the American System, in the Senate of the United States, Feb. 2d, 3d, and 6th, 1832," The Life, and Speeches of Henry Clay, ed. Daniel Mallory ( New York, 1844), II, 5-55.

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