Miller Center

American President

A Reference Resource

Domestic Affairs

The "American System"

President John Quincy Adams wholeheartedly supported the role of the federal government in the sponsorship of projects and institutions designed to improve the conditions of society. He had no constitutional doubts about the authority of the President and Congress to construct a system of internal improvements, ranging from roads and canals to harbors, bridges, and other public works. In this, he supported the "American System" first proposed by Henry Clay while Clay was Speaker of the House. The general plan rested upon the notion of a self-sufficient, but regionally specialized, national economy. Both Adams and Clay believed that a factory-based northern economy would provide markets for southern cotton and western foodstuffs. In exchange, the South and West would purchase northern manufactured goods. Alexander Hamilton had proposed a similar idea in the 1790s, only to be blocked by southern opponents who believed that such a national economic network of interdependent parts would enhance the power of the federal government.

In his first annual message to Congress, President Adams presented an ambitious program for the creation of a national market that included roads, canals, a national university, a national astronomical observatory, and other initiatives. Many congressmen, even his supporters, had trouble with his proposals. His critics challenged the supposed arrogance of a President who had been narrowly elected by the House. In their minds, Adams was not entitled to act as though he had received a national mandate for action. They mockingly criticized his observatories as Adams's "lighthouses of the skies."

Others pointed out that the President's internal improvements would benefit some parts of the nation more than others and bring the federal government into regional affairs. Nevertheless, through the use of military engineers for survey and construction operations, public land grants, and governmental subscription to corporate stock issues, the administration achieved considerable progress in support of harbor improvement and road and canal development. Some of the specific projects included extending the Cumberland Road into Ohio with surveys for its continuation west to St. Louis, beginning the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal, constructing the Delaware and Chesapeake Canal and the Portland to Louisville Canal around the falls of the Ohio, connecting the Great Lakes to the Ohio River system in Ohio and Indiana, and enlarging and rebuilding the Dismal Swamp Canal in North Carolina.

The Tariff of Abominations

Henry Clay's ardor in support of protective tariffs was well known, but there was considerable uncertainty regarding Adams's views. His New England constituency was divided between long-standing concern for promotion of foreign commerce and newly developing interest in protection of domestic industry. A further complication was the fact that administration supporters had lost control of Congress in the election of 1826. Senator Martin Van Buren had supported William H. Crawford for the presidency in 1824, opposed Adams's election, and remained hostile to the administration throughout Adams's tenure. Recognizing the divisions that marked the Adams administration's position on the tariff, Van Buren led a campaign designed to set high tariffs to protect mid-Atlantic and western agricultural interests—levies on raw wool, flax, molasses, hemp, and distilled spirits. In the end, Congress forced Adams to accept a stricter tariff than he would have preferred by refusing to consider more moderate proposals. Adams had to choose between a stringently protective tariff or no tariff at all, and Adams accepted the former.

The Tariff of 1828 had new rates that were particularly restrictive of textile imports and damaging to a market of British manufacturers upon whom southern planters were dependent. One southern legislature after another denounced the tariff as unconstitutional, unjust, and oppressive, and the Virginia legislature called it the "Tariff of Abominations." (See Jackson biography, Domestic Affairs section, for a more detailed discussion of this tariff, which required implementation after Adams left office.) Vice President Calhoun's opposition was so strong, he condemned the tariff and drafted the South Carolina Exposition, asserting the right of a state to nullify federal laws that were obviously harmful to state interests.