Taxation without Representation is Tyranny

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Taxation without Representation is Tyranny

TAXATION WITHOUT REPRESENTATION IS TYRANNY. There was no disagreement in Britain or America about the basic truth of this idea, first used by John Hampden in 1637 against Charles I, but by the middle of the eighteenth century "representation" had come to mean different things on opposite sides of the Atlantic. In theory, Parliament had the right to levy taxes in Britain because its members acted in the name and for the interest of the entire realm. Every Englishman was "virtually" represented in Parliament, whether or not he had actually participated in choosing its members. After the final French and Indian War, imperial officials who wanted to increase Britain's control over its colonies argued that the interests of the American colonists were represented in Parliament in the same way, and that Parliament thus had the right to levy taxes on the colonists to support the greater good of the whole empire. American colonists generally rejected the notion of "virtual representation." (The most notable argument was put forward by Daniel Dulany, an attorney from Maryland.) Their view of representation was based on the idea that delegates elected by voters to the local legislative assembly should "represent" the concerns of their constituents in a particular geographic locality. Since no men elected in North America sat in Parliament, that body could not fairly represent the colonists and thus could not levy taxes on people it did not represent.

Parliament had levied customs duties on parts of American trade before 1764, but that form of taxation had not become a widespread grievance because the duties were relatively easy to evade. In that year, however, imperial officials signaled that they were going to enforce a revised customs schedule and intended to levy a direct stamp tax on the colonists. These decisions generated an unprecedented level of resentment in the colonies, as much because Parliament was unilaterally changing the existing system as because of the tax itself. Many Americans concluded that taxing them in these ways was unconstitutional and "tyrannical." The slogan, "Taxation without representation is tyranny," summarized these beliefs, and variations on it became a powerful means of spreading the patriot message in 1764–1765. (John Adams remembered that James Otis had used the phrase in his famous oration against the writs of assistance on 24 February 1761, but Adams's memory was not always accurate.)

SEE ALSO Dulany, Daniel.

                         revised by Harold E. Selesky