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Henry Clay’s “In Defense of the American System”: Pre-Speech Outline and Final Manuscript Sent For Publication of One of the Most Important Economic and Political Speeches in American History
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Henry Clay’s philosophy of developmental capitalism focused on achieving economic independence and national self-sufficiency, allowing the United States to grow internally and expand its reach into global markets. His “American System,” spelled out while Speaker of the House in 1824, included four main components: tariffs to protect and promote American industry; a national bank to control the money supply and foster commerce; federal subsidies for roads, canals, and other “internal improvements” to move products, services, and capital to markets; and high prices for public land to generate revenue for the federal government. His system was designed to balance states’ rights with national interests. Though the industrializing northeast, the predominantly agricultural west and the cotton-growing south had diverging interests, the plan supported the growth of the whole.

But in 1828, with low-priced imports driving northern industries out of business, revisions were called for. In theory aiming to protect American manufactures and forestall even higher future rates, the “Tariff of Abominations” was actually designed to fail. Southerners opposed to tariffs joined in writing the bill, adding heavy taxes on materials imported by New England. Despite the ploy’s success in galvanizing opposition, the bill surprisingly garnered just enough votes to pass, aided by members willing to sacrifice short term and sectional interests in favor of longer term national benefits. Knowing that it would be a political liability, President John Quincy Adams still signed it into law. Higher tariffs resulted in higher prices and reduced British exports to the U.S., which impacted Britain’s ability to pay for Southern cotton. And Westerners, though appreciating tariff support for agriculture, disliked the high price for public lands, believing that northeastern factory owners sought to prevent westward migration that would deplete the labor pool and force higher wages—and in turn keeping the region underrepresented in Congress. Both southerners and westerners distrusted the Bank of the United States, which they viewed as only a prop for northeastern manufacturers. 

Clay and his supporters sought to make adjustments while preserving the general policy, but the whole system came under increasing attack, especially in South Carolina.  In January 1832, Senator Robert Y. Hayne (1791-1839) gave a noted speech assaulting the Tariff of Abominations. Over three days in early February, Clay, having just been elected to the Senate, gave a masterful response that is widely regarded as one of the most important speeches in American history. (Later that same year, Hayne would chair the South Carolina Nullification Convention, a bold challenge to federal authority that was firmly opposed by Jackson.

HENRY CLAY. This remarkable offering consists of two unique steps in the creation and dissemination of his speech: 1) Clay’s 21-page autograph manuscript notes, used to prepare for or deliver the speech in the Senate, plus 2) Clay’s 67-page autograph manuscript signed, preparing and delivering the text to the printer. With a copy of the published text, Speech of Henry Clay, in Defence of the American System, against the British Colonial System: with an Appendix, by Gales & Seaton, 1832, 43 pp.2/2/1832.

Inventory #23830       PRICE ON REQUEST

1. Clay’s Outline For His 1832 Senate Speech Defending the “American System”

“This true and gratifying condition of the country has proceeded mainly from American regulation protecting American industry agst foreign legislation…. It is now proposed to destroy the system to which we owe so much.

HENRY CLAY (1777-1852).  Autograph Manuscript. “Notes For Speech on the Tariff & Am System.” [Washington D.C., late January – early February 1832]. 21 pp, in three stitched gatherings, folded vertically for a total of 24 pp. (including two blanks and one with only docketing). 9¾ x 4 in. 

Clay defends the successes of his work on the protective tariffs of 1816 and 1824, which he had helped craft as  a member of the House of Representatives. Clay’s notes begin with brief thoughts, and continue in outline style. He delivered the speech in the Senate in February 1832.”



<1> “Destiny of the Country. / Effects of a decision one way / Consequences of a contrary decision  / Stands here the humble but zealous advocate not of one State or of  seven, but of the whole Union....”

 <1-2> “Eight years ago it was my painful duty to present an unexaggerated picture of the general distress of the Country. Now I have to perform the more pleasing duty of exhibiting a picture of the most unparalleled prosperity. Cultivation has greatly extended the face of the whole country is improved, our people are fully and profitably employed, and the public countenance generally exhibits contentment & happiness.

Descend into particulars we find, a people out of debt. Land rising slowly in value but in a secure and salutory degree. A ready market for all … of our industry.”

<3-4> The gradual destruction of this system is proposed and in lieu of it to substitute nominally  Free trade - Free trade! But really the British Colonial System…

<5> It is alleged that the Protective System operates prejudicially to the Cotton planter: By diminishing the foreign demand for his staple; That we cannot sell to G.B. unless we buy from her; That the import duty is equivalent to an export duty & falls upon the producer of cotton; That South Carolina pays a disproportional portion of the pubic revenue; That an abandonment of the Protective policy wd lead to an augmentation of our Exports to the amt. of 150 millions; And finally that the South cannot share the advantages of manufacturing, if there be any.”

<9> No 2. “Under the operation of the A. System all objects which it protects are purchased by the consumer at a cheaper price than prior to its existence. Such is the indisputable FACT…. This fact is worth a thousand ingenious theories.”

<12> The error of the opposite argument is in assuming one thing, what being denied, the whole fails: that is It assumes that the whole labor of the U.S. wd be employed withn manufactures. Now the truth is the system excites and creates labor and this new labor creates new wealth, and this new wealth additional powers of consumption...

<15> And finally that the substitution of the Free trade or British Colonial System would subject us to foreign legislation regulated by foreign interests instead of domestic, and would lead to the prostration of our manufactures, general impoverishment & ultimate ruin.

Danger to the Union of persevering in the system – The greater danger lies on the side of abandoning it….”[1]

<16> If ever one or several states being a minority can by threatening a dissolution of the Union, succeed in procuring the abrogation of measures vitally essential to the interests of the whole, the Union is gone - It may nominally remain and languish for a while, but it is annihilated to all practical & useful purposes.”

<17> No 3. The Tariff - Come to consider my resolution. That of the gentleman from So Carolina will be considered when he gives it the for which he finally wishes it to assume-…

The Poor- the Rich

Their system refuses to the poor luxuries, and altho it promises necessaries, deprives them of the power to get them- The American system secures to the Poor certainly necessaries, and admits , by their full employment and just rewards of their labor, of their reasonable enjoymt of luxuries….

<21> Our Southern friends believe the tariff injurious to them. Our convictions, on the opposite side, are equally strong. We believe its repeal wd injure them & ruin us.  Can we not unite on this common ground? … then deliberately examine the practicability of making any modifications which whilst they leave the system in its full vigor, may afford reasonable satisfaction.”

Provenance: “Notes for speech on the tariff delivered in U.S. Senate by Henry Clay -- given to A.S.O. from  L.J.O. (purchased from Henkels).” Stanislaus V. Henkels (and son) auction was active in Philadelphia until 1934.


2.  “In Defense of the American System” – Clay’s Autograph Manuscript for Publication of His 1832 Address to the Senate

“Free trade! Free trade! The call for free trade, is as unavailing as the cry of a spoiled child, in the nurse’s arms, for the moon or the stars that glitter in the firmament of heaven. It never has existed; it never will exist.”

An extraordinarily important manuscript defending his “American System” of protective tariffs and manufacturing against Andrew Jackson and the South Carolina nullifiers.

HENRY CLAY (1777-1852). Autograph Manuscript Signed at the beginning of the text (“Mr. Clay”), with his complete exhaustive defense of his “American System,” delivered before the Senate in debate on February 2, 3 and 6, 1832, with numerous ink corrections and emendations by Clay, together with penciled notations by an employee of Gales & Seaton, who published the address in Washington, D.C. shortly therefafter. 67 pages, 8 ¼ x 13 ½ in. Bound in a journal with marbled boards and leather spine lined with gilt, pages gilt on all edges. A few pages slightly rough at margins, one page bears a horizontal tear across one page (repaired on verso), the balance of the pages are mostly clean with occasional light soiling and a few contemporary ink smudges, overall fine condition.

Clay crafted and perhaps delivered the speech using the 21-page outline above. Publisher Gales & Seaton, who also served as the official recorders of the Senate and House, likely transcribed the speech as he spoke, and then provided a copy to Clay. [2]  Shortly afterwards, the Senator, taking pains to massage his language, making stylistic changes where necessary, wrote this complete manuscript. Gales & Seaton published it within a month, closely matching the typeface choices noted in marginalia in this manuscript.[3]

Offering a blizzard of facts and figures, Clay deconstructs the arguments of his opponents, continually emphasizing how his American System had pulled the nation out an economic slump in the 1820s, reduced American dependence on British manufactures, and created widespread prosperity. At the same time, he accused his opponents of having offered no real alternative—save for “Free Trade” which he argued would lead to ‘recolonization’ by Great Britain.

<1> “In one sentiment … though, perhaps, not in the sense intended by him, I certainly concur (with Sen. Hayne)…. the decision on the system of policy embraced in this debate, involves the future destiny of this growing country. One way, I verily believe, it would lead to a general distress; general bankruptcy and national ruin, without benefit to any part of the Union: The other, the existing prosperity will be preserved and augmented, and the national will continue rapidly to advance in wealth, power, and greatness, without prejudice to any section of the Confederacy. Thus viewing the question, I stand here as the humble but zealous advocate, not of the interests of one State or Seven States only, but, of the whole Union….” 

Eight years ago it was my painful duty to present to the other House of Congress an unexaggerated picture of the general distress, pervading the whole land. We must all yet remember some of its frightful features. We all know that people were then oppressed and borne down by an enormous load of debt; that the value of property was at the lowest point of depression; that ruinous sales and sacrifices were every where made of real estate that stop laws and relief laws and paper money were adopted, to save the people from impending destruction….  <2> I have now to perform the more pleasing task of exhibiting an imperfect sketch of the existing state of the unparalleled prosperity of the Country. On a general survey, we behold cultivation  extended, the arts flourishing, the face of the improved, our people fully and profitably employed, and the public countenance exhibiting tranquility, contentment and happiness. And if we descend into particulars we have the agreeable contemplation of a people out of debt, land rising slowly in value, but in a secure and salutory degree; a ready though not extravagant market for all the surplus productions of our industry.”

<14> When gentleman have succeeded in their design of an immediate or gradual destruction of the American system, what is their substitute? Free trade! Free trade! The call for free trade, is as unavailing as the cry of a spoiled child, in the nurse’s arms, for the moon or the stars that glitter in the firmament of heaven. It never has existed; it never will exist. Trade implies at least two parties. to be free it should be fair, equal, and reciprocal. But if we throw our ports wide open to the admission of foreign productions, free of all duty, what ports of any other foreign nation shall we find open to the free admission of our surplus produce? We may break down all barriers to free trade on one part, but the work will not be complete until foreign powers shall have removed them... <15> Gentleman deceive themselves. It is not free trade that they are recommending to our acceptance. It is, in effect, the British Colonial System that were are invited to adopt, and, if their policy prevail, it will lead substantially to recolonization of these States under the commercial dominion of Great Britain.” 

Clay believed his program to be in the interest of all sections and classes of the country—and essential to national unity: 

<66> Let us then adopt the measure before us, which will benefit all classes: the farmer, the professional man, the merchant, the manufacturer, the mechanic; and the cotton planter more than all. A few months ago, there was no diversity of opinion as to the expediency of this measure. All then seemed to unite in the selection of these objects, for a repeal of duties, what were not procured within the Country. Such a repeal did not touch our domestic industry, violated no principle, offended no prejudice. Can we not all, whatever may be our favorite theories, cordially unite on this neutral ground? When that is occupied, let us look beyond it, and see if any thing can be done, in the field of protection, to modify, to improve it, or to satisfy those who are opposed to the System. Our Southern brethren believe that is injurious to them and ask its repeal. We believe that its abandonment will be prejudicial to them, andruinous to every other section of the Union. However strong their convictions may be, they are not stronger than ours. Between the points of the preservation of the System and its absolute repeal, there is no principle of union. <67> It is quite probably that beneficial modifications of the system may be made, without impairing its efficiency…. This is the spirit, and these are the principles only, on which, it seems to me, that a settlement of this great question can be made satisfactorily to all parts of our Union. ”

Besides the tariff, Clay’s support for the national bank was another cause of conflict with President Jackson. The efforts of Robert Morris and Alexander Hamilton, during and after the American Revolution, to place the fledgling United States on a sound economic footing had resulted in the creation of the First National Bank of the United States. Chartered for twenty years, in 1811 the Senate refused to re-authorize it.  After the War of 1812 devastated the economy, the Second Bank of the United States was chartered in 1816, again for 20 years. It’s friends passed a bill re-chartering it four years early, in 1832. Andrew Jackson, with his firm belief in limited federal government and states’ rights, viewed the bank as a corrupt monopoly that helped only rich northerners and foreigners who owned much of its stock. He vetoed the rechartering. This became a major issue in the Presidential election of 1832, pitting Clay and his National Republican party against the incumbent Jackson.

A remarkable survival, and the only autograph manuscript of one of Clay’s major speeches we have ever seen in private hands. 

Ex- Sotheby Parke Bernet, New York, May 3, 1977, Lot 35.


3.  The Final Printed Speech

HENRY CLAY. Pamphlet. Speech of Henry Clay, in Defence of the American System, Against the British Colonial System.... Washington, D.C., Gales and Seaton, 1832. 43 pp. Disbound. The final, separately published version of the above referenced items.


Aftermath.  After President Jackson won re-election, he removed federal deposits from the bank. Inflation, easy credit and land speculation swept the West. To counter that, in 1836 Jackson issued a Specie Circular requiring payment for land in gold or silver. The economic panic that started in 1837 was the worst depression to that point in American history; banks and businesses failed and thousands of Americans lost their land and homes.

Henry Clay (1777-1852) was a major figure in American politics for much of the first half of the 19th century, Clay served three terms as Speaker of the House of Representatives, and was John Quincy Adams’s Secretary of State from 1825-29. Clay represented Kentucky in the U.S. Senate from 1831-1842, and again from 1849 until his death in 1852. He was a nominee for President of the United States three times. This speech was “one of Clay’s more triumphant efforts at influencing the minds and votes of his colleagues. It buttressed logical arguments with statistical data, all compellingly presented with humor, grace, passion, a touch of sarcasm here and there, and the force of personality and language.”

Abraham Lincoln delivered the eulogy for Clay in the Springfield, Illinois House of Representatives, on July 6, 1852:

“In the effective power to move the heart of man, Clay was without an equal…  And in our last internal discord, when this Union trembled to its center -- in old age, he left the shades of private life and gave the death blow to fraternal strife …  in a series of Senatorial efforts, which in themselves would bring immortality, by challenging comparison with the efforts of any statesman in any age.”




- The 1824 “American System” Speech By Speaker Henry Clay of Kentucky:

- “Classic Senate Speeches: “Senator Henry Clay’s 1832 “In Defense of the American System”:


[1] The printed speech, p. 31, reads:  “The danger to our Union does not lie on the side of persistence in the American System, but on that of its abandonment. If, as I have supposed and believe, the inhabitants of all North and East of James river, and all West of the  mountains, including Louisiana, are deeply interested in the preservation  of  that System, would they be reconciled to its overthrow? Can it be expected that two-thirds, if not three-fourths, of the People of the United States would consent to the destruction of a policy, believed to be indispensably necessary to their prosperity? When, too, this sacrifice is made, at the instance of a single interest, which they verily believe will not be promoted by it?”


[3] Gales & Seaton’s 1833  Register of Debates, which recorded all the proceedings of both chambers, matches the text but does not change typeface in the same places as the separately-published edition.

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