American Revolutionary rhetoric still leaves an indelible mark on our politics. Nearly every American can recall at least one phrase from the Revolutionary era—and it’s probably “No taxation without representation!” Indeed, many modern movements such as the Tea Party—which has, in Republican Ted Cruz, a serious contender for the U.S. presidency—are attracted to that language today. Yet despite the influence this period holds on our political idioms, its concrete political context gets less attention.
The Stamp Act of 1765, which inspired the “taxation without representation” cry, imposed specific taxes that outraged specific groups of people—taxes on a wide variety of items including, but not limited to, newspapers, legal documents, pamphlets, and playing cards. The consumers of such goods were mostly literate people engaged in legal and international business: lawyers, merchants, and printers. Those loudly proclaiming “no taxation without representation” were the ones most affected by the tax; they were also the people actually represented by colonial legislatures (voting had minimum property requirements, so not everyone was represented). Why, then, was this rhetoric so attractive that ordinary colonists throughout North America—those not directly affected by the taxes—rioted?
Part of the explanation is that because the Stamp Act targeted newspapers, they propagandized heavily against it. That meant that the rhetoric traveled quickly. As well, the stamp tax was imposed on the heels of the Currency Act of 1764, which, as described in the previous “Treasury Notes” column, banned the printing of legal tender paper money by the colonies. Thus this wide-ranging new tax was imposed at exactly the same time that colonists were deprived of a way to pay taxes (or to pay for anything else, for that matter).
There is not Specie in most of the said Colonies to Enable the people Settled there to Pay in Specie the several Duties required from them So that under their present Circumstances it is impossible for many of the Colonists to pay Obedience to the said Law….
Benjamin Franklin made a similar criticism of the act when he proposed a colony-wide system of land banks (described in this “Treasury Notes” column) that would at the same time raise revenue for the British and “furnish us with a Currency which we much wanted, and could not obtain under the Restrictions lately laid on us.” Of course, the principled objection that the colonial legislatures should be responsible for imposing taxation held some sway with colonists.
But the practical aggravations colonists endured probably offered more pressing reasons to get into the streets. Already irate about the lack of legal tender, the colonial masses were prepared to believe that that taxes levied by the Stamp Act were only the first of many more to come. Protest groups emerged to fight the Stamp Act, at first primarily attracting the people who were most affected by it. But the demonstrations began to draw masses of ordinary people and often got violent.
However, it is unclear that the majority of rioters were committed to abstract principles like “no taxation without representation.” This is crucial because, for all the contemporary rhetoric that gets repeated, it was the rioters who secured the resignation of stamp distributors and ensured that the stamp tax would be impossible to collect. Would there have been riots over a different imperial tax, perceived to be more fair and combined with colony-wide issuances of imperial paper money—as McCulloh suggested? Was Franklin right to think that his colony-wide land bank system would have been much more accepted? We’ll never know, but these contemporary alternatives to the Stamp Act capture the imagination and challenge our preconceived notions about ordinary colonists’ objections.
Whatever one thinks of the validity of such reforms, the fact is that though the lofty rhetoric has survived, the practical, nitty-gritty feature of the dispute has been overlooked: Without the ability to print paper money, the colonists lacked the means to pay. If authorities had addressed that problem, perhaps anti-taxation language and passion would not be as central to American politics as it is today.