Nowadays, the land policy of Henry Clay is often noted for his advocating the distribution of federal land revenue among the states in the 1830s, but the actual filling of lands mattered as much to him as the raising of revenue because of the impact of settlement—by men of average means—on the social structure, economic stability, and moral character of the West. Though never tested as policy in Clay’s own time—categorized then, and later, as elitist and undemocratic—the Whig land program may well have held greater potential for a West of economic opportunity, individual advancement, and basic regard for law than any of the alternatives of the day. As Whigs and Democrats continued to debate the distribution of land revenue, an equally difficult part of the western lands question lingered throughout the so-called Jacksonian period: preemption, a legal recognition of squatters’ claims on the public domain. Clay ardently opposed preemption even after some of the most conservative Whig statesmen, including Daniel Webster, accepted it. Why? The answer has to do with who Clay was—both as a politician and an economic thinker. There is more to be said about the political economy of the American System, especially the place of Clay’s land policy views within that framework, and the larger vision of western development that he saw as key to the strengthening of the Union and the steady enrichment of its citizens.


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pp. 337-378
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