Taxation Without Representation: What It Means and History

What Is Taxation Without Representation?

The phrase taxation without representation describes a populace that is required to pay taxes to a government authority without having any say in that government's policies. The term has its origin in a slogan of the American colonials against their British rulers: "Taxation without representation is tyranny."

Key Takeaways

  • Taxation without representation was possibly the first slogan adopted by American colonists chafing under British rule.
  • They objected to the imposition of taxes on colonists by a government that gave them no role in its policies.
  • In the 21st century, the people of the District of Columbia are citizens who endure taxation without representation.

Taxation Without Representation

History of Opposition to Taxation Without Representation

Although taxation without representation has been perpetrated in many cultures, the phrase came to the common lexicon during the 1700s in the American colonies. Opposition to taxation without representation was one of the primary causes of the American Revolution.

The Stamp Act Triggers Colonists

The British Parliament began taxing its American colonists directly in the 1760s, ostensibly to recoup losses incurred during the Seven Years’ War of 1756 to 1763. One particularly despised tax, imposed by the Stamp Act of 1765, required colonial printers to pay a tax on documents used or created in the colonies and to prove it by affixing an embossed revenue stamp to the documents.

Violators were tried in vice-admiralty courts without a jury. The denial of a trial by peers was a second injury in the minds of colonists.

Revolt Against the Stamp Act

Colonists considered the tax to be illegal because they had no representation in the Parliament that passed it and were denied the right to a trial by a jury of their peers. Delegates from nine of the 13 colonies met in New York in October 1765 to form the Stamp Act Congress, better known as the Continental Congress of 1765.

William Samuel Johnson of Connecticut, John Dickinson of Pennsylvania, John Rutledge of South Carolina, and other prominent colonials met for 18 days. They then approved a "Declaration of the Rights and Grievances of the Colonists," stating the delegates’ joint position for other colonists to read. Resolutions three, four, and five stressed the delegates’ loyalty to the crown while stating their objection to taxation without representation.

Trial Without a Jury

A later resolution disputed the use of admiralty courts that conducted trials without juries, citing a violation of the rights of all free Englishmen.

The Congress eventually drafted three petitions addressed to King George III, the House of Lords, and the House of Commons.

After the Stamp Act

The petitions were initially ignored, but boycotts of British imports and other financial pressures by the colonists finally led to the repeal of the Stamp Act in March 1766.

It was too late. After years of increasing tensions, the American Revolution began on April 19, 1775, with battles between American colonists and British soldiers 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.

A Statement of Intent

The first part was a simple statement of intent, including the declaration that all men were created equal and have unalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. A second section listed the colonists’ grievances and declared their determination to achieve 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, with the signing occurring primarily on Aug. 2, 1776. 

Taxation Without Representation in Modern Times

Taxation without representation was by no means extinguished with the separation of the American colonies from Britain, not even in the U.S.

Residents of Puerto Rico, for example, are U.S. citizens but do not have the right to vote in presidential elections and have no voting representatives in the U.S. Congress (unless they move to one of the 50 states.)

In addition, the phrase taxation without representation appeared on license plates issued by the District of Columbia beginning in the year 2000. The addition of the slogan was meant to increase awareness of the fact that residents of the District pay federal taxes despite having no voting representation in Congress.

In 2017, the District's City Council added one word to the phrase. It now reads "End Taxation Without Representation."

Which Tax Triggered the Rebellion Against Great Britain?

The Stamp Act of 1765 angered many colonists as it taxed every paper document used in the colonies. It was the first tax that the crown had demanded specifically from American colonists.

Did Taxation Without Representation End After the American Revolution?

Yes and no. While the states in the newly formed country had representation, federal districts like Washington, D.C., and territories like Puerto Rico still lack the same representation on the federal level in the modern era.

Does Taxation Without Representation Refer to Local or Federal Government?

Today, the phrase refers to a lack of representation at the federal level. As an example, Puerto Rico has the same structure as a state, with mayors of cities and a governor, but instead of senators or representatives in Congress, they have a resident commissioner that represents the people in Washington, D.C. Puerto Ricans can only vote for president if they establish residency in the 50 states.

Article Sources
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  2. Library of Congress. "Magna Carta: Muse and Mentor - No Taxation Without Representation."

  3. DC Vote. "Important Milestones."

  4. Library of Congress. ”Documents from the Continental Congress and the Constitutional Convention, 1774 to 1789.”

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  6. University of Michigan Library, Text Creation Partnership. "BOSTON, June 1765 - Proceedings of the Congress at New York - Pages 2-27."

  7. University of Michigan Library, Text Creation Partnership. "Proceedings at the Congress at New York - SATURDAY, October 19, 1765, A. M."

  8. University of Michigan Library, Text Creation Partnership. "Proceedings of the Congress at New York - TUESDAY, October 22, 1765, A. M."

  9. University of Michigan Library, Text Creation Partnership. "Proceedings of the Congress at New York - WEDNESDAY, October 23, 1765, A. M."

  10. Yale Law School, The Avalon Project. "Great Britain : Parliament - An Act Repealing the Stamp Act; March 18, 1766."

  11. American Battlefield Trust. "Lexington and Concord."

  12. Library of Congress. "Declaring Independence: Drafting the Documents."

  13. National Archives. "Declaration of Independence: A Transcription."

  14. Harvard University, Declaration Resources Project. "Unsullied by Falsehood: The Signing."

  15. U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. "Voting Rights in US Territories," Page 4.

  16. Library of Congress. ”American Perceptions, Puerto Rican Realities.”

  17. Council of the District of Columbia. "B21-0708 - End Taxation Without Representation Amendment Act of 2016."

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