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“No taxation without representation.” Most recognize this as a rallying cry of the American Revolution. Indeed, various tax laws like the Stamp Act or the Townshend Act deeply upset colonists and are frequently cited as a primary grievance. However, Britain was not exactly financially oppressing the colonist; their taxes were much lower than citizens residing in Great Britain.


Adam Smith’s Canons of Taxations are considered to be the standard for just taxation. However, the British did not believe that they were violating these canons or at least not to any worse degree than with their citizens in Britain. From their perspective, the colonists were complaining about lower taxes with admittedly no representation, but even some cities in England lacked representation.


By 1770, well before the Revolutionary War started, the British had even repealed many of the tax acts, but pointedly kept the tax on tea. Yet still the colonists persisted their mantra, “no taxation on representation.” Why did they still care so much?

Inciting a Revolution

It has shifted from purely a matter of practicality to one of principle. The colonists resented that the British could raise taxes, despite their lack of representation and despite the fact the Atlantic was between them. The British benefited greatly from selling consumer goods to the colonists, even going so far as to impose a monopoly on tea.


Although doing so made tea cheaper for the average colonist, it also forced out colonists who worked as middlemen importing tea. It also represented an authoritarian degree of control to an already resentful population. Some felt threatened by the act itself— if the British could monopolize the tea trade, what industry was next? However, the eventual Boston Tea Party was fueled more by the idea that the British could control the colony’s economy to this degree.


These taxes did more than incite demonstrations, however, they incited organization among the colonists. One of the best ways to protest British taxes was to boycott relevant products, and Committees of Correspondence were formed to keep other colonies notified of these boycotts and other resistance efforts. Many of the Committees served as a foundation for independent colonial governments, and ultimately they allowed for the organization and communication necessary for the Revolution.

Governing Our Own Taxation

Taxation has always been a problematic issue, even after the war. The Articles of Confederation did allow for Congress to enforce the collection of taxes. This was a partly a knee-jerk reaction against the British centralized government. People feared that too much power centralized in the national government would be too similar to the previous monarchy. The Articles’ creators seeked to create a system of government where the states still retained increased independence. While citizens of Virginia were represented in their national as well as state legislature, state legislatures were a more direct line of representation. They were more focused on local issues, as it is today.


However, this predictably resulted in Congress not securing enough funds, and since both state and federal governments could issue money, this resulted in inflation. Excessive inflation is on the of the leading causes for an economic recession, and the new United States suffered greatly from a lack of central financial authorization. In the end, the US scrapped the Articles of Confederation and created the Constitution instead, which gave the federal government much more power, including the power to enforce taxation.


Taxes will always be a contentious issue in American politics. Colonists resented the dependency that British taxes represented, so much so that even lowering the taxes did not not pacify them. Even when governing their own taxation, they struggled to centralize. The formation of the United States in part lies with a taxation frustration, so perhaps it’s no surprise that it continues to be a dividing issue.