1837 Hard Times Tokens:
Millions for Defense, Not One Cent for Tribute

1837 Hard Times Token

“No, no, not a sixpence, sir!” replied Charles Cotesworth Pinckney to France’s demand for tribute. Pinckney, along with Elbridge Gerry and John Marshall, was sent to France in 1797 by President John Adams to try to negotiate an end to French attacks on American ships.

As news of the French demand spread throughout America, “Millions for defense, but not one cent for tribute” eventually became the public rallying cry as anti-French feelings grew. But, contrary to what some Hard Times token and historical references say, it was not Charles Pinckney who first spoke the famous phrase.

Hard Times Tokens

Hard Times token collectors are familiar with this slogan because it appears on many different varieties of satirical tokens dated 1837 and 1841. Although the spelling of "defence" may look strange to today's Americans, this was the proper spelling at the time. The history surrounding the “Not One Cent” tokens makes them very desirable to collectors, yet the rarity of each variety ranges from very common to the extremely rare (i.e. 2 to 3 examples known). Thus, the “Not One Cent” group of tokens has something for everyone.

Charles Pinckney
Major General
Charles Pinckney

Lyman Low Catalog

In 1899, Lyman Low cataloged the Hard Times tokens known to him at that time, numbering them from 1 to 183. Some collectors still only collect the initial 183 tokens cataloged by Low. Later the Low numbers were expanded to include additional tokens. Today, Hard Times tokens are generally cataloged under an HT number system devised by Russell Rulau in his book Hard Times Tokens 1832-1844.

Many varieties of the “Not One Cent” tokens have both obverses and reverses that are similar to those found on the large cent of the time. Others have obverses that reflect the great political issues of the day. It is said that in order to avoid charges of counterfeiting, the phrase “NOT ONE CENT” was emphasized on the reverse of these tokens.

America’s First Undeclared War

Although most people know that France was our ally towards the end of the Revolutionary War, what they don’t know is that just a few years later, France also became our enemy in our first undeclared war against another country. France suffered its own revolution in 1789 that overthrew the monarchy.

Library of Congress Image

In 1797, France was run by a group of five men known as The Directory. The Directory wanted the United States to be an ally of theirs in a war against Great Britain. George Washington, on the other hand, wanted the United States to stay neutral. In 1794, the United States signed Jay’s Treaty with Great Britain which angered France. The French, in turn, unleashed their navy and privateers on American shipping.

Demand for Tribute

It was these events that led Pinckney and the others to travel to France to try to address the French grievances. When they got to France they were kept waiting by the French Foreign Minister Talleyrand.

During this time, they were approached by three individuals, later identified as X, Y, and Z in documents. Messengers X, Y, and Z informed the American party that before any negotiations could begin, the United States would have to pay the five members of The Directory $50,000 each and pay tribute to France in the form of a $10,000,000 loan. These demands are what prompted Pinckney’s “not a sixpence” response.

Robert Goodloe Harper
Robert Goodloe Harper
(Painting by St. Mémin)

Pinckney’s Not the Man

The history regarding the origin of the “millions for defense, but not one cent for tribute” phrase has been somewhat controversial over the years. From shortly after Pinckney’s trip to France, until fairly recently, Pinckney was given credit for giving this “not one cent” reply to the French.

Pinckney himself is said to have denied ever uttering the phrase in place of his “not a sixpence” response. In an October 1797 letter from Pinckney to Timothy Pickering, Pinckney wrote that he had replied to the French with the “not a sixpence” phrase.

So where did the phrase “Millions for defense, but not one cent for tribute” come from?

It's Harper!

Shortly after returning from France, John Marshall, who would eventually become the 4th Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, was honored at a dinner in Philadelphia on the night of June 18, 1798. Representative Robert Goodloe Harper of South Carolina, Chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, was one of those present at the dinner. Charles Pinckney was also present.

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