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.”
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.
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
Compare and Contrast: Consider factors like cost, weather, topography, efficiency — what are the relative advantages and disadvantages of toll roads, railroads, and canals?
Why is it important for the government to invest in these kinds of infrastructure? In what ways does it impact your daily life?
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?
The War of 1812 was, in a sense, a second war of independence that confirmed once and for all the American break with England. With its conclusion, many of the serious difficulties that the young republic had faced since the Revolution disappeared. National union under the Constitution brought a balance between liberty and order. With a low national debt and a continent awaiting exploration, the prospect of peace, prosperity, and social progress opened before the nation.
National pride and the lull in partisanship following the collapse of the Federalist Party led to a period often called the Era of Good Feelings.
Riding on the wave of newfound national pride, politicians such as Henry Clay of Kentucky, John C. Calhoun of South Carolina, and John Q. Adams of Massachusetts, following in Alexander Hamilton’s footsteps, pushed an agenda to strengthen and unify the nation. The system, which came to be known as the American System, called for high tariffs to protect American industry and high land prices to generate additional federal revenue. The plan also called for strengthening the nation’s infrastructure, such as roads and canals, which would be financed by tariffs and land revenue. The improvements would make trade easier and faster. Finally, the plan called for maintaining the Second Bank of the United States (chartered in 1816 for 20 years) to stabilize the currency and the banking system, as well as the issuance of sovereign credit. Congress also passed a protective tariff to aid industries that had flourished during the war of 1812 but were now threatened by the resumption of over seas trade. The Tariff of 1816 levied taxes on imported woolens and cottons, as well as on iron, leather, hats, papers, and sugar.
Although portions of the system were adopted (for example, 20-25% taxes on foreign goods, which encouraged consumption of relatively cheaper American goods), others met with roadblocks. Only two major infrastructure achievements were made in the form of the Cumberland Road and the Erie Canal. The Cumberland Road stretched between Baltimore and the Ohio River, facilitating ease of travel, trade, and providing a gateway to the West for settlement. The Erie Canal extended from the Hudson River at Albany, New York, to Buffalo, New York, at Lake Erie, thus vastly improving the speed and efficiency of water travel in the northeast.
Opposition to the American System mostly came from the West and the South. Clay argued, however, that the West should support the plan because urban workers in the northeast would be consumers of Western food, and the South should support it because of the market for the manufacture of cotton in northeastern factories. The South, however, strongly opposed tariffs and had a strong British market for cotton anyway.
In short, the American System met with mixed results over the 1810s and 1820s due to various obstacles, but in the end, American industry benefited, and growth ensued.
During the early part of the 19th century individual states were finally able to build better infrastructure. The 1790s had seen the construction of two toll roads, Pennsylvania’s Philadelphia and Lancaster Turnpike and New York State’s Great Western Turnpike. Now states such as Virginia, North Carolina, and Massachusetts built canals, vast artificial waterways to move vast quantities of goods and people. Unlike the rivers, canals were maintained without shallows or rapids through the use of locks and dams to maintain water height. Whereas steamboats had to fight the current, canal boats were drawn by horses or oxen along their placid way. In 1817 New York State authorized construction of the great Erie Canal. With the aid of roads, steamships and canals, people and goods could be swept from inner towns to the great East Coast markets, and to ships going abroad.
The increased levels of trade and manufacturing resulted in what has been termed the Market Revolution – no longer were individual Americans subsisting or trading only on a local level, but increasing numbers of them were driven by the promise of profit that could result from long distance, large scale trade. This would give rise to the first true factories, as well as to the idea that people might work in factories for wages, rather than make their own hours on their own farms.
The Second Great Awakening
By the end of the 18th century, many educated Americans no longer professed traditional Christian beliefs. In reaction to the secularism of the age, a religious revival spread westward in the first half of the 19th century.
This “Second Great Awakening” consisted of several kinds of activity, distinguished by locale and expression of religious commitment. In New England, the renewed interest in religion inspired a wave of social activism. In western New York, the spirit of revival encouraged the emergence of new denominations. In the Appalachian region of Kentucky and Tennessee, the revival strengthened the Methodists and the Baptists, and spawned a new form of religious expression—the camp meeting.
In contrast to the Great Awakening of the 1730s, the revivals in the East were notable for the absence of hysteria and open emotion. Rather, unbelievers were awed by the “respectful silence” of those bearing witness to their faith. The evangelical enthusiasm in New England gave rise to interdenominational missionary societies, formed to evangelize the West. Members of these societies not only acted as apostles for the faith, but as educators, civic leaders, and exponents of Eastern, urban culture. Publication and education societies promoted Christian education. Most notable among them was the American Bible Society, founded in 1816. Social activism inspired by the revival gave rise to groups working toward the abolition of slavery and the Society for the Promotion of Temperance, as well as to efforts to reform prisons and care for the handicapped and mentally ill.
Western New York, from Lake Ontario to the Adirondack Mountains, had been the scene of so many religious revivals in the past that it was known as the “Burned-Over District.” Two important religious denominations in America—the Mormons and the Seventh Day Adventists—got their start here. After a great deal of violence and persecution from more traditional Christians, Mormons would find their way west, isolating themselves in the relative safety of the remote Salt Lake region.
In the Appalachian region, the revival took on characteristics similar to the Great Awakening of the previous century. But here, the center of the revival was the camp meeting, a religious service of several days’ length, for a group that was obliged to take shelter on the spot because of the distance from home. Pioneers in thinly populated areas looked to the camp meeting as a refuge from the lonely life on the frontier. The sheer exhilaration of participating in a religious revival with hundreds and perhaps thousands of people inspired the dancing, shouting, and singing associated with these events. Probably the largest camp meeting was at Cane Ridge, Kentucky, in August 1801; between 10,000 and 25,000 people attended.
The Second Great Awakening exercised a profound impact on American history. The numerical strength of the Baptists and Methodists rose relative to that of the denominations dominant in the colonial period—Anglicans, Presbyterians, and Congregationalists. The growing differences within American Protestantism reflected the growth and diversity of an expanding nation.
Extension of slavery
Slavery, which up to now had received little public attention, began to assume much greater importance as a national issue. In the early years of the republic, when the Northern states were providing for immediate or gradual emancipation of the slaves, many leaders had supposed that slavery would die out. In 1786 George Washington wrote that he devoutly wished some plan might be adopted “by which slavery may be abolished by slow, sure, and imperceptible degrees.” Virginians Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe and other leading Southern statesmen made similar statements.
The Northwest Ordinance of 1787 had banned slavery in the Northwest Territory. As late as 1808, when the international slave trade was abolished, there were many Southerners who thought that slavery would soon end. The expectation proved false, for during the next generation, the South became solidly united behind the institution of slavery as new economic factors made slavery far more profitable than it had been before 1790.
Chief among these was the rise of a great cotton-growing industry in the South, stimulated by the introduction of new types of cotton and by Eli Whitney’s invention in 1793 of the cotton gin, which separated the seeds from cotton. At the same time, the Industrial Revolution, which made textile manufacturing a large-scale operation, vastly increased the demand for raw cotton. And the opening of new lands in the West after 1812 greatly extended the area available for cotton cultivation. Cotton culture moved rapidly from the Tidewater states on the East Coast through much of the lower South to the delta region of the Mississippi and eventually to Texas.
Sugar cane, another labor‑intensive crop, also contributed to slavery’s extension in the South. The rich, hot lands of southeastern Louisiana proved ideal for growing sugar cane profitably. By 1830 the state was supplying the nation with about half its sugar supply. Finally, tobacco growers moved westward, taking slavery with them.
As the free society of the North and the slave society of the South spread westward, it became politically necessary to maintain a rough equality among the new states carved out of western territories. In 1818, when Illinois was admitted to the Union, 10 states permitted slavery and 11 states prohibited it; but balance was restored after Alabama was admitted as a slave state. Population was growing faster in the North, which permitted Northern states to have a clear majority in the House of Representatives. However, equality between the North and the South was maintained in the Senate.
In 1819 Missouri, which had 10,000 slaves, applied to enter the Union. Northerners rallied to oppose Missouri’s entry except as a free state, and a storm of protest swept the country. For a time Congress was deadlocked, but Henry Clay arranged the so-called Missouri Compromise: Missouri was admitted as a slave state at the same time Maine came in as a free state. In addition, Congress banned slavery from the territory acquired by the Louisiana Purchase north of Missouri’s southern boundary. At the time, this provision appeared to be a victory for the Southern states because it was thought unlikely that this “Great American Desert” would ever be settled. The controversy was temporarily resolved, but Thomas Jefferson wrote to a friend that “this momentous question, like a fire bell in the night, awakened and filled me with terror. I considered it at once as the knell of the Union.”