What Is Taxation Without Representation?

Taxation without representation is the act of being taxed by an authority without the benefit of having elected representatives. The term became part of an anti-British slogan when the original 13 American colonies aimed to revolt against the British Empire.


Taxation Without Representation

Understanding Taxation Without Representation

Taxation without representation occurs when a taxing authority, such as the government, imposes taxes on its citizens and other entities but fails to provide them with a political voice through elected representatives. 

This was one of the main causes of the American Revolution. Those living in the colonies believed that if they were to pay taxes, then they should have adequate representation — and therefore, a political voice — in the British Parliament. And it still happens in some places today. 

History of Taxation Without Representation in the U.S.

To recoup losses Britain incurred defending its colonies during England’s Seven Years’ War (1756-1763), Parliament began taxing colonists directly. One tax, the Stamp Act of 1765, required affixing an embossed revenue stamp to printed documents used or created in the colonies. Stamp Act violators were tried in vice-admiralty courts that operated without a jury.

Revolt Against the Stamp Act

Colonists believed the tax was illegal because they had no parliamentary representation and were denied the right to a trial by jury. Delegates from nine colonies met in New York in October 1765 to form the Stamp Act Congress, also know as the Continental Congress of 1765. William Samuel Johnson from Connecticut, John Dickenson from Pennsylvania, John Rutledge from South Carolina and other prominent politicians met for 18 days. The delegates approved the Declaration of Rights and Grievances, stating the delegates’ joint position for other colonists to read.

Resolutions three, four and five clarified the delegates’ loyalty to the crown, stressing taxation without representation was the issue. A later resolution disputed admiralty courts conducting trials without juries, citing a violation of Englishmen’s rights. The Congress drafted three petitions for the king, House of Lords and House of Commons. Although initially ignored, boycotts of British imports and other financial pressure from the colonists led to the Stamp Act’s repeal in March 1766.

Due to years of increasing tensions over unjust laws and taxation, along with violence from British troops for nonconformance, the American Revolution began on April 19, 1775, with battles in Lexington and Concord. 

On June 7, 1776, Richard Henry Lee introduced a resolution to Congress declaring the 13 colonies free from British rule. Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, and Thomas Jefferson were among the representatives chosen to word the resolution.

The first part was a simple statement of intent, including phrases about all men being created equal and having unalienable rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. The second section listed the colonists’ grievances, including King George’s attempts to create tyranny, and why the colonists sought independence. The final paragraph dissolved the colonists’ ties with Britain.

Following debate, the Second Continental Congress adopted the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776, and the signing primarily occurred on August 2, 1776. 

Taxation Without Representation in Modern Times

The phrase "taxation without representation" is commonly used in the Washington D.C., as part of a campaign to raise awareness that district residents must still pay federal taxes despite the lack of representation in Congress. In 2000, the district's Department of Motor Vehicles began issuing license plates with "Taxation Without Representation" stamped on them. In 2017, the district's city council changed the phrase to "End Taxation Without Representation."