As I wrote yesterday, most sources credit James Otis, Jr., with coining the phrase “taxation without representation,” but he never actually used that phrase in his writings, and no contemporary quoted him directly as doing so. Otis certainly wrote about the problem, putting it at the center of the American objections to Parliament’s taxes in the 1760s and 1770s, but not in that exact way.
So is the phrase “taxation without representation” authentically Revolutionary, or actually a coinage of later years applied backwards, as the terms Intolerable Acts, lobsterback, and tricorn appear to be?
And I’m pleased to report that yes, we can document the phrase being used in the Revolutionary years. In 1769 the Rev. John Joachim Zubly (1724-1781) of Georgia authored a pamphlet titled An Humble Enquiry into the Nature of the Dependency of the American Colonies upon the Parliament of Great-Britain, and the Right of Parliament to Lay Taxes on the Said Colonies. He wrote:
In England there can be no taxation without representation, and no representation without election; but it is undeniable that the representatives of Great-Britain are not elected by nor for the Americans, and therefore cannot represent them...The available databases being incomplete, I’m not entirely sure Zubly coined the phrase “no taxation without representation,” but so far his pamphlet is the earliest use I’ve seen.
James Burgh (1714-1775) also used the phrase in his long work Political Disquisitions; or, An Enquiry into Public Errors, Defects, and Abuses, published in 1774. He even titled the second chapter of his Book II “Of Taxation without Representation.”
So “taxation without representation” is authentically American! Well, it’s a little more complicated than that. Zubly was Swiss by birth and, though he represented Georgia in the Second Continental Congress, advocated reconciliation with Britain. He was driven out of Savannah when it was under independent government and returned there and died under royal rule.
As for Burgh, he was a Scottish by birth, and a clergyman in a parish near London. He advocated the American cause, and Political Disquisitions became quite popular in the U.S. of A. But, like Zubly, Burgh considered himself British.
But don’t worry! I’ve also found some examples of Americans using the phrase. “Taxation without representation” appears in statements issued by Dover, New Hampshire, on 10 Jan 1774; by York, Massachusetts (Maine), on 20 Jan 1774; and by John Smith on 6 July 1775, while he was locked up in “Strafford Prison” as a suspected Loyalist. But the fact that I didn’t stumble across more citations might indicate that the phrase wasn’t as dominant as we’ve come to expect.
“Taxation without representation” appeared in several early histories of the conflict:
- David Ramsay’s History of the Revolution of South-Carolina (1785) and History of the American Revolution (1789).
- William Gordon’s History of the Rise, Progress, and Establishment, of the Independence of the United States of America (1789).
- Tobias Smollett’s The History of England, from the Revolution to the End of the American War, and Peace of Versailles in 1783 (1796), discussing how the same issue was raised in Ireland.