J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Saturday, April 25, 2009

Who Coined the Phrase “No Taxation Without Representation“?

The American Revolution Blog alerted me to a new meme, or misapprehension, about the famous phrase “No taxation without representation.” Brad Hart’s article on the Astroturfed “tea parties” earlier this month said that phrase “had been coined in 1750 by Reverend John Mayhew.”

That should be Jonathan Mayhew (1720-1766; shown here courtesy of NNDB.com), but it’s a minor slip. The real question is what evidence suggests that Mayhew wrote those words a full decade before the Boston Whigs started sparring with Gov. Francis Bernard and fifteen years before the Stamp Act.

Mayhew did deliver a famous sermon in 1750 which some people see as a forerunner of the Revolutionary movement. It has this catchy title:


In that discourse Mayhew was looking back to a previous conflict within the British Empire, not ahead. He was arguing that the Puritans who deposed and killed Charles I had acted justly because that king had turned into an oppressor. Along the way, Mayhew took swipes at the notion of the divine right of kings and the Church of England. This was the voice of the unrepentant New England Puritan.

But Mayhew’s sermon didn’t include the words “taxation” or “representation.” Nor did he address those political issues. In hindsight, Boston Whigs and chroniclers looked back on Mayhew’s preaching (including a sermon in 1765, shortly before the Stamp Act riots) as offering a theological justification for resistance to the new government measures. But that was just the groundwork, not an actual argument for that resistance. Mayhew actually spent much of his last five years preaching against the Anglican Church and its missionaries rather than about the basis of civil government.

Did Mayhew coin “No taxation without representation” in some other 1750 sermon or essay? I haven’t even found another published, much less cited. Is the phrase in Mayhew’s 1754 Election Sermon, which also touched on a lot of political issues? Nope. Instead, the attribution of that famous phrase to Mayhew seems to have appeared on the internet in the last five years, and we may be able to date it precisely.

On 2 Nov 2005, at 20:21 by the server’s clock, an anonymous user started an article on Wikipedia about the Old West Church in Boston, stating along the way:
Jonathan Mayhew, the church’s second Congregational pastor, coined the phrase, “no taxation without representation” in a sermon in Old West.
There was no source cited for that statement. A minute later, the same user added this sentence to Wikipedia’s entry on “No taxation without representation”:
(The phrase was originally coined by Rev. Jonathan Mayhew in a sermon at Old West Church, Boston, Massachusetts.)
And a few minutes after that this statement appeared in the entry on Jonathan Mayhew:
He is credited with coining the phrase “no taxation without representation”, and with very early advocacy of what became Unitarianism.
Since then, the Unitarianism part of that sentence has been removed, though the Mayhew article still describes the minister’s unorthodox Congregationalism.

TOMORROW: So who did coin the phrase “taxation without representation”?

8 comments:

Anonymous said...

Good grief, do you actually believe the current political "tea parties" are astroturf? If so, the reliability of your judgment about historical events loses a lot of credibility.

On the other hand, you probably have excellent natural insight into the mindset of the British government circa 1774.

Rob Velella said...

Fascinating! I hope there will be a part two...

...and that people reclaim the word "unriddled" for everyday use.

Robert S. Paul said...

Yes, obviously the current "tea parties" (which have nothing to do with tea taxes, or really, taxes at all) were NOT created by MSNBC or Fox News. They are totally a grass roots endeavor.

I'm so glad anonymous users are here to show us the facts with all their citations!

J. L. Bell said...

To the anonymous commenter, when Newscorp spent weeks promoting the upcoming “tea parties” as a spontaneous event, those events ceased to be spontaneous (and Newscorp lost its claim to report the news and revealed itself as manufacturing it).

When well-funded Washington-based lobbying organizations provided national coordination, websites, and guidance for “tea parties,” they ceased to be grass-roots events. In this region, the A.F.P. even claimed to “host” the “tea party” in Concord, New Hampshire.

When the National Republican Congessional Committee urged people to attend “tea parties,” and Republican officeholders arranged to speak at them, in some cases multiple times, they ceased to be a bottom-up political event.

Ron Paul presidential supporters started to use the “tea party” theme as early as Dec 2007. What we’ve seen this year, however, has been a seizure of those symbols by right-wing media and organizations in Washington, promoted back out to the country to attract a mishmash of protest instead of a coherent political platform.

HistoryBuff said...

At the risk of getting back on topic... Once upon a time, I removed the odd claim that Jonathan Mayhew coined the phrase "no taxation without representation" from the Wikipedia article on that phrase. Wikipedia being Wikipedia, someone put it back!

Robert S. Paul said...

Plus, unlike the original Tea Party, we actually have representation (except DC I guess).

Even if you don't like the representation, you still have representation.

Anonymous said...

Actually, the phrase `no taxation without representation' is a central demand in the magna Carta, 1215 AD.

J. L. Bell said...

The Magna Carta was written in Latin, so it didn’t contain any English phrase.