No Taxation without Representation

A fundamental difference of opinion had developed between British authorities and the Americans on the related issues of taxing the colonists and their representation in Parliament.

On the surface, the Americans held to the view of actual representation, meaning that in order to be taxed by Parliament, the Americans rightly should have actual legislators seated and voting in London. James Otis argued for this form of representation in the Stamp Act Congress in 1765, but few other delegates supported him.

The British, on the other hand, supported the concept of virtual representation, which was based on the belief that a Member of Parliament virtually represented every person in the empire and there was no need for a specific representative from Virginia or Massachusetts, for example. Soame Jenyns, a member of Parliament, displayed the contempt felt by many in that body towards the American arguments when he wrote, "As these are usually mixed up with several patriotic and favorite words, such as liberty, property, Englishmen, etc., which are apt to make strong impressions on that more numerous part of mankind who have ears but no understanding, it will not, I think, be improper to give them some answers."

In fact, virtual representation was not unknown in America. Legislators in the Virginia House of Burgesses could live in one district while representing another one. It could also be argued that property-owning adult males in much of colonial America virtually represented non-voting women, slaves and men without property.

Yet the differentiation between actual and virtual representation was really a convenient fiction from the American side. Most colonists realized the total impracticability of sending representatives across the Atlantic. London was too far away, too much time would be needed to issue instructions to colonial representatives, and any American representation would be so badly outnumbered as to make it totally ineffectual.

If taxes were necessary, then the Americans wanted their own assemblies to impose them. Further, the colonists wanted Parliamentary recognition of this perceived right. Essentially, "No taxation without representation" really meant, "No taxation by Parliament. No representation in Parliament. Let us run our own affairs."


See timeline of the American Revolution.

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