The title of this book comes from a toast popular with Americans in the late 1790s—“millions for defense, not a cent for tribute.” Americans were incensed by demands for bribes from French diplomats and by France’s galling seizures of U.S. merchant ships, and as they teetered towards open war, were disturbed by their country’s lack of warships. Provoked to action, private U.S. citizens decided to help build a navy. Merchants from Newburyport, Massachusetts, took the lead by opening a subscription to fund a 20-gun warship to be built in ninety days, and they persuaded Congress to pass a statute that gave them government “stock” bearing 6 percent interest in exchange for their money.
Their example set off a chain reaction down the coast. More than a thousand subscribers in the port towns pledged money and began to build nine warships with little government oversight. Among the subscription ships were the Philadelphia, later lost on the rocks at Tripoli; Essex, the first American warship to round the Cape of Good Hope; and Boston, which captured the French corvette Le Berceau.
This book is the first to explore in depth the subject of subscribing for warships. Frederick Leiner explains how the idea materialized, who the people were who subscribed and built the ships, how the ships were built, and what contributions these ships made to the Quasi-War against France. Along the way, he also offers significant insights into the politics of what is arguably the most critical period in American history.