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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Monday, April 27, 2009

Looking for “Taxation Without Representation”

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.
So historians might have snatched up that quick, three-word formulation of the colonies’ problem soon after the war, and it became one of the major ways we remember the American Revolution.


Historical Society of Watertown said...

Sorry to intrude, but I thought the first person to utter those words "No taxation without representation" was Rev. George Phillips in 1632. It is part of the Founders Monument depicting Sir Richard Saltonstall and decorated with the bas-relief of Roger Clap’s landing and the anti-tax protest of 1632. The monument and bas-reliefs were sculpted by Henry Hudson Kitson, who also sculpted the Capt. Parker Minuteman Statue on Lexington Green, and the statue of Roger Conant in Salem, MA. Our Founder’s Monument is located at the intersections of Riverside St. and Charles River Road. It will be rededicated in about a month on Saturday, June 6, 2009 at 1 PM... btw, it's also my birthday ;^} Sincerely Karl H. Neugebauer

J. L. Bell said...

Phillips was one of many people who have based political protests on the principle of “no taxation without representation (or some other say in the taxation process)” over the centuries. But I don’t see any contemporaneous account saying he used that phrase, which is what I’m looking for.

Best wishes for your birthday!

Bridgefinder said...

Hello, I don't know if you will see a comment on a post that is two years old, but I wanted to say "Thank you" for your work on this. Your account of how "No Taxation without Representation" worked its way into the Wikipedia account of the Declaration of Independence was most illuminating. It is highly encouraging to me that there are people out there in the ethernet that are paying at this level.

I am preparing for a Sunday Morning Conversation at Bluebonnet Hills Christian Church, and your comments were helpful. Landon Shultz, Austin, TX

Unknown said...

I am the 8th great grandson of Rev George Phillips. My 8th Great Grandfather Rev Phillips is in fact the first person to Protest "No taxation without representation". There is a lot of documentation to this fact, so much so that there is a park with historical designation at the sight that this first protest occurred at. My understanding is not only was he first to protest, he is the first free man.

J. L. Bell said...

As the first sentence of the posting above says, and the second comment above repeats, I was looking for the phrase “taxation without representation.”

I’ve read articles about the Rev. George Phillips of Watertown. They don’t quote him, his supporters, or his opponents using that phrase. If you have period writings to show that the phrase appeared during that mid-1600s controversy, I would be pleased to see it. After the American Revolution and John Adams’s letter on James Otis’s writs of assistance article, many authors have projected the “taxation without representation” argument back in time, but none have cited a document with that phrase from before 1768.

“Freeman” was a legal term in 17th-century Massachusetts, designating someone with the right to vote. The Winthrop Society has transcribed the list of freemen from 1630 and subsequent years. George Phillips appears on that list but not first.