Build Your Own American System

This lesson can be used with The United States: An Open Ended History, a free online textbook.  Adapted in part from open sources.

The American System was an economic plan that played an important role in American policy during the first half of the 19th century. Rooted in the “American School” ideas of Alexander Hamilton, the plan “consisted of three mutually reinforcing parts: a tariff to protect and promote American industry; a national bank to foster commerce; and federal subsidies for roads, canals, and other ‘internal improvements’ to develop profitable markets for agriculture.” Congressman Henry Clay was the plan’s foremost proponent and the first to refer to it as the “American System.”

state outlines Fresh United States America USA Free Maps Blank In Us Map State
Right click to download.

Use this map to plan infrastructure improvements to 19th Century United States.  Link different regions to improve economic connections between different regions – remember, you have to sell your plan to Congress, so you need to make it profitable to as many states as possible in order to secure their votes.

Label:

  • the borders of the United States circa 1840
  • The most important big cities circa 1840: New York, Chicago, St. Louis, Boston, Atlanta, Baltimore, Washington, DC, Philadelphia, Charleston, New Orleans, Cleveland, Detroit, Indianapolis, Jacksonville, Pittsburgh
  • The rivers: Mississippi, Ohio, Missouri, Potomac
  • The mountain ranges
  • The Great Lakes (by name)
  • Proposals for the routes of at least three canals linking various regions (naming at least one commodity that will travel in each direction – find out what resources/products come from the cities you’re linking)
  • Proposals for the routes of at least three railroads linking various regions (name the commodities)
  • Proposals for the routes of three toll roads (name the commodities)

The Bottom Line

  1. Compare and Contrast: Consider factors like cost, weather, topography, efficiency — what are the relative advantages and disadvantages of toll roads, railroads, and canals?
  2. Why is it important for the government to invest in these kinds of infrastructure?  In what ways does it impact your daily life?
  3. We often refer to the United States as a capitalistic country, successful because the government’s lack of intervention in the economy.  Does the existence of the American System support or refute this label?

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