Monday, May 05, 2003

A pirate, a Frenchman, and an FTC lawyer walk into a bar...

In his speech to the Colordao Medical Society yesterday, Nick Provenzo invoked the historical cry, "millons for defense, but not one cent for tribute!" This led to a disagreement between the two of us over the slogan's origin. Nick claimed it originated with the American war against the Barbary pirates under Thomas Jefferson's administration, while I claimed it was a retort to the French during the XYZ affair. Turns out we were both right, according to Dr. Rand Fishbein of Johns Hopkins University:

As America soon learned, a policy of accommodation only encouraged the brigands of the Barbary Coast to seize more ships and to take more captives. Far from providing safe passage to American and other foreign vessels, the North African rulers remained active accomplices to the crime of piracy, taking protection money while at the same time permitting the banditry to continue.

Things were to change, however, with the election of Thomas Jefferson. In addition to his reputation as an author, scholar and principal architect of the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson also was an outspoken opponent of the practice of tribute. He saw it not only as an affront to the nation’s dignity, but also as an ineffectual response to an abhorrent practice. He argued that ultimately the policy of appeasement would fail because, in conveying weakness, it also encouraged further treachery. He was right.

Jefferson’s response to renewed attacks on American shipping was swift and uncompromising. He dispatched a squadron of three frigates and one sloop to the region. They were ordered to observe the deteriorating situation and provide whatever escort was needed to ensure the safety of American merchant vessels. By the time the frigates arrived, Yusuf Karamanli, the Bey of Tripoli, had declared war on the United States.

For the next two years the U.S. Navy conducted running operations against the Barbary pirates, attacking their corsairs and bombarding the coastal forts that sheltered them. The battle cry, “millions for defense, but not one cent for tribute” (a slogan first used during the XYZ affair of 1798), resonated with a public tired of being held hostage to bandits and oriental potentates.

The XYZ affair involved French efforts to obtain bribes from American diplomats in exchange for negotiating a treaty to stop the seizure of U.S. ships by French privateers. When word got out about the French extortion, American passions were inflamed. Legend has Charles Pinckney, the U.S. minister to France, proclaiming "millions for defense, but not one cent for tribute." This is probably apocraphyl, as Pinckney's actual exclamation was “No, no, not a sixpence." Still, the "millions for defense" line became a popular one in the early 1800s, and it was quickly applied to the Barbary pirate situation. Either way, the message is still an important one: never compromise with those who threaten your rights. That applies to pirates, the French, and the Federal Trade Commission (whom Nick was speaking about when he revived the line yesterday.)

Still, this doesn't answer the question of who actually said the line first...

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