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:
Non-Resistance to the Higher Powers:
With some Reflections on the Resistance made to King Charles I.
And on the Anniversary of his Death:
In which the Mysterious Doctrine of that
Prince’s Saintship and Martyrdom is Unriddled.
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”?