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  • Hemp & Henry Clay:Binding the Bluegrass to the World
  • Andrew P. Patrick (bio)

In the early days of 1812, Congressman John Rhea of Tennessee seemed unable to understand the strident, aggressive tone that his western colleague Henry Clay struck in favor of enlarging the navy. Rhea mockingly expressed his "surprise to hear [that Clay] . . . desire[d] ships of war to protect the interests of the Western country" and quipped that the Kentuckians must be planning "to use them against the Indians."1 Yet Clay and the Kentucky hemp farmers he represented took a broader, strategic view based on their precarious place within the economy of the Atlantic World. They believed that the success or failure of their region hinged on secure access to favorable markets for their agricultural produce, especially hemp. Led by Clay, they argued for the government policies, such as expanding the navy and levying tariffs, that would ensure Kentucky farmers and manufacturers could sell their hemp and hemp goods from an advantageous market position.

In the remarks that drew Congressman Rhea's derision, Clay recalled an economic crisis of the previous decade. He remembered the fury and frustration many Kentuckians felt at the 1802 closure of the Mississippi River to American trade, which essentially prevented [End Page 39] the new state from exporting their agricultural surplus. Clay pointed out that the state "was in [a] commotion; and, at the nod of Government, would have fallen on Baton Rouge and New Orleans" to punish "the treachery of a perfidious" Spanish empire and seize the Louisiana territory for the United States in order to restore their access to international markets.2

Kentucky's location near the western edge of American expansion in the early 1800s might seem a strange place to find the influence of the economy of the Atlantic World. Some four hundred fifty miles from the ocean and fifty miles from the Ohio River, which is the nearest major waterway that provided tenuous access to the Mississippi almost one thousand miles above New Orleans at the river's mouth, the Inner Bluegrass region of Kentucky nonetheless quickly became attuned to the currents shaping the broader Atlantic economy. Indeed, these currents shaped the seemingly landlocked frontier region of Kentucky in a variety of ways during the decades after Euro-American settlement. The imprint of the Atlantic World was evident in many important developments for the regional environment ranging from the physical landscape itself to the priorities of Bluegrass political leaders. Henry Clay and his agricultural estate, Ashland, provide an ideal case study to demonstrate these connections between Kentucky hemp and the Atlantic World.3 From their earliest years, Bluegrass hemp farmers and manufacturers operated within the tangled web of the Atlantic economy and their interests helped define fundamental international policy positions held by [End Page 40] Kentucky's politicians on questions from whether or not to declare war to the proper role for tariffs and slavery.

Early settlers foresaw an agricultural system patterned on those they had left behind in the eastern colonies-turned-states. They anticipated the need to adapt their agricultural practices to the local environment, but white settlers' ideas about its overall structure, function, and purpose survived the journey largely intact. In broad strokes, they assumed their new settlements would entail private individuals owning the land, cultivating domesticated crops, raising livestock, trading their surplus in local markets, and establishing commercial connections to the wider Atlantic World. Like the Long Hunters before them, the geographic distance between the new settlers and coastal settlements can give the incorrect impression that these people were fleeing from the commercial economy in order to pursue independence supported by agricultural self-sufficiency.4 To be sure, the settlers grew or hunted the vast majority of the materials that supported their physical lives, but settlers' aspirations always exceeded simply meeting their basic biological needs.5 By 1780, members of the eastern elite clearly recognized the commercial potential of the west; James Madison, for example, argued that in "a very few years after peace . . . this country will be overspread with inhabitants" cultivating surpluses of "wheat, corn, beef, pork, tobacco, [and] hemp." He anticipated such vast surpluses that Kentucky would "not only supply an...


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