No Taxation without Representation

No Taxation without Representation


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A fundamental difference of opinion had developed between British authorities and the Americans on the related issues of taxing the colonists and their representation in Parliament.On the surface, the Americans held to the view of actual representation, meaning that in order to be taxed by Parliament, the Americans rightly should have actual legislators seated and voting in London. James Otis argued for this form of representation in the Stamp Act Congress in 1765, but few other delegates supported him.The British, on the other hand, supported the concept of virtual representation, which was based on the belief that a Member of Parliament virtually represented every person in the empire and there was no need for a specific representative from Virginia or Massachusetts, for example. Soame Jenyns, a member of Parliament, displayed the contempt felt by many in that body towards the American arguments when he wrote, "As these are usually mixed up with several patriotic and favorite words, such as liberty, property, Englishmen, etc., which are apt to make strong impressions on that more numerous part of mankind who have ears but no understanding, it will not, I think, be improper to give them some answers."In fact, virtual representation was not unknown in America. It could also be argued that property-owning adult males in much of colonial America virtually represented non-voting women, slaves and men without property.Yet the differentiation between actual and virtual representation was really a convenient fiction from the American side. London was too far away, too much time would be needed to issue instructions to colonial representatives, and any American representation would be so badly outnumbered as to make it totally ineffectual.If taxes were necessary, then the Americans wanted their own assemblies to impose them. Essentially, "No taxation without representation" really meant, "No taxation by Parliament. Let us run our own affairs."


See timeline of the American Revolution.


Britain Says No to 'No Taxation Without Representation'

This is Rich Kleinfeldt. And this is Sarah Long with THE MAKING OF A NATION, A VOA Special English program about the history of the United States.

Today, we tell about relations between the American colonies and Britain after the French and Indian War about two hundred fifty years ago.

The French and Indian War was one part of a world conflict between Britain and France. It was fought to decide which of the two powerful nations would rule North America.

The British defeated the French in North America in 1763. As a result, it took control of lands that had been claimed by France. Britain now was responsible for almost two million people in the thirteen American colonies and sixty thousand French-speaking people in Canada. In addition to political and economic responsibilities, Britain had to protect all these colonists from different groups of Indians.

This would cost a lot of money. Britain already had spent a lot of money sending troops and material to the colonies to fight the French and Indian War. It believed the American colonists should now help pay for that war.

The colonists in America in 1763 were very different from those who had settled there more than one hundred years before. They had different ideas. They had come to consider their colonial legislatures as smaller -- but similar -- to the Parliament in Britain. These little parliaments had helped them rule themselves for more than one hundred years. The colonists began to feel that their legislatures should also have the powers that the British Parliament had.

The situation had changed in England too. In 1707, the nation became officially known as Great Britain. Its king no longer controlled Parliament as he had in the early 1600s. Then, the king decided all major questions, especially those concerning the colonies.

But power had moved from the king to the Parliament. It was the legislature that decided major questions by the time of the French and Indian War, especially the power to tax. The parliaments in the colonies began to believe that they should have this power of taxation, too.

The first English settlers in America considered themselves citizens of England. They had crossed a dangerous ocean to create a little England in a new place, to trade with the mother country and to spread their religion. By 1763, however, the colonists thought of themselves as Americans.

Many of their families had been in North America for fifty to one hundred years. They had cleared the land, built homes, fought Indians and made lives for themselves far away from Britain. They had different everyday concerns than the people in Britain. Their way of life was different, too. They did not want anyone else to tell them how to govern themselves.

The British, however, still believed that the purpose of a colony was to serve the mother country. The government treated colonists differently from citizens at home. It demanded special taxes from them. It also ordered them to feed British troops and let them live in their houses. Britain claimed that the soldiers were in the colonies to protect the people. The people asked, "From whom?"

As long as the French were nearby in Canada, the colonists needed the protection of the British army and navy. After the French were gone -- following their defeat in the French and Indian War -- the colonists felt they no longer needed British military protection.

The British government demanded that the colonists pay higher and higher taxes. One reason was that the British government wanted to show the colonists that it was in control. Another reason was that Britain was having money problems. Foreign wars had left it with big debts. The British thought the colonists should help pay some of these debts, especially those resulting from the French and Indian War.

The American colonists might have agreed, but they wanted to have a say in the decision. They wanted the right to vote about their own taxes, like the people living in Britain. But no colonists were permitted to serve in the British Parliament. So they protested that they were being taxed without being represented.

In 1764, the British Parliament approved the Sugar Act. This legislation placed taxes on sugar, coffee, wines and other products imported to America in large amounts. It increased by two times the taxes on European products sent to the colonies through Britain. The British government also approved new measures aimed at enforcing all trade laws. And it decided to restrict the printing of paper money in the colonies.

The American colonists opposed all these new laws. Yet they could not agree about how to resist. Colonial assemblies approved protests against the laws, but the protest actions were all different and had no real effect. Business groups tried to organize boycotts of goods. But these were not very successful. until the British government approved another tax in 1765: a tax on stamps.

The Stamp Act probably angered more American colonists than any earlier tax. It said the colonists had to buy a British stamp for every piece of printed paper they used. That meant they would be taxed for every piece of a newspaper, every document, even every playing card.

The colonists refused to pay. Colonial assemblies approved resolutions suggesting that the British Parliament had no right to tax the colonies at all. Some colonists were so angry that they attacked British stamp agents.

History experts say the main reason the colonists were angry was because Britain had rejected the idea of "no taxation without representation." Almost no colonist wanted to be independent of Britain at that time. Yet all of them valued their local self-rule and their rights as British citizens. They considered the Stamp Act to be the worst in a series of violations of these rights.

The American colonists refused to obey the Stamp Act. They also refused to buy British goods. Almost one thousand storeowners signed non-importation agreements. This cost British businessmen so much money that they demanded that the government end the Stamp Act. Parliament finally cancelled the law in 1766. The colonists immediately ended their ban against British goods.

The same day that Parliament cancelled the Stamp Act, however, it approved the Declaratory Act. This was a statement saying the colonies existed to serve Britain, and that Britain could approve any law it wanted. Most American colonists considered this statement to be illegal.

History experts say this shows how separated the colonies had become from Britain. Colonial assemblies were able to approve their own laws, but only with the permission of the British Parliament. The colonists, however, considered the work of their assemblies as their own form of self-rule.

Britain ended the Stamp Act but did not stop demanding taxes. In 1767, Parliament approved a series of new taxes called the Townshend Acts. These were named after the government official who proposed them. The Townshend Acts placed taxes on glass, tea, lead, paints and paper imported into the colonies.

The American colonists rejected the Townshend Acts and started a new boycott of British goods. They also made efforts to increase manufacturing in the colonies. By the end of 1769, they had reduced by half the amount of goods imported from Britain. The colonies also began to communicate with each other about their problems.

In 1768, the Massachusetts General Court sent a letter to the legislatures of the other colonies. It said the Townshend Acts violated the colonists' natural and constitutional rights. When news of the letter reached London, British officials ordered the colonial governor of Massachusetts to dismiss the legislature. Then they moved four thousand British troops into Boston, the biggest city in Massachusetts -- and the biggest city in the American colonies.

The people of Boston hated the British soldiers. The soldiers were controlling their streets and living in their houses. This tension led to violence. That will be our story next week.

Today's MAKING OF A NATION program was written by Nancy Steinbach. This is Sarah Long. And this is Rich Kleinfeldt. Join us again next week for another Special English program about the history of the United States.


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Related Information

Navigation Act 1651

The Navigation Act existed for almost two centuries to be fully repealed in 1849. The laws were designed to protect British economic interests in colonial trade and to protect its industry against the rapidly growing Dutch navigation trade.

Molasses Act 1733

Enacted to protect sugar plantations in the West Indies. This act was not designed to raise revenue but it was part of England’s mercantile policy of the time and a continuation of the Navigation Acts.

Sugar Act 1764

Known as Sugar and Molasses Act, it required all colonial merchants to pay a certain amount of tax per imported gallon of sugar and molasses.

Stamp Act 1765

The primary goal was to raise money needed for military defenses of the colonies. The revenue was created by making the American population purchase stamps that became a legal requirement for all official documents, licenses, contract, newspapers and a long list of other paper items.

Quartering Act 1765

The act required colonial assemblies to provide housing, food and drink to British troops stationed in their towns.

Townshend Act 1767

Designed as a smarter way to raise revenue as opposite to the heavy-handed Stamp Act passed a year earlier. The new law introduced a series of duties on common imports rather than taxing income.

Tea Act 1773

The Tea Act was intended to benefit the East India Company by giving them the exclusive right to sell tea in the colonies, creating a monopoly which the colonists perceived as another means of “taxation without representation”.

Intolerable Acts 1774

Also known as Coercive Acts, Intolerable Acts were a package of five laws implemented by the British government with the purpose of restoring authority in its colonies.


“No Taxation Without Representation”: A History of Taxation in America

While many Americans nowadays would likely consider taxation in its various forms simply part of everyday life, most taxes applicable today have only been in existence for barely half the country’s history.

The large scale use of tax paperwork such as the W-2, 1099 and 1096 forms used in payroll today ironically stemmed from the British imposing taxation on America during colonial rule. The “no taxation without representation” quote that appeared in 1768 summed up the grievance felt amongst American colonists through having to pay taxes to a distant country where they had no chance to have a say on how they were governed.

Indeed, the imposition of taxes by the British was a major cause of the American Revolution.

Stamp, sugar and tea taxes

The Sugar Act and Stamp Act were the catalyst to the colonists’ resistance to tax and eventual lead up to the American Revolution.

Strong protestations caused the British to repeal the Stamp Act, but the Townshend Revenue Act tried indirect taxation: British Chancellor of the Exchequer Charles Townsend levied a tax on everyday items such as paint, glass, paper and lead that were collected from the captain of the cargo ship when the goods were unloaded.

The Tea Act reduced duty on tea sold by the British India Tea Company in order to combat smugglers selling cheaper Dutch tea this gave rise to their protests of dumping crates of tea into Boston Harbor in the infamous Boston Tea Party.

Fierce opposition

Such was the strong opposition to direct taxation, the US government had to operate a ‘stealth’ tax method to raise revenues through duties on goods such as liquor, sugar, tobacco and even certain types of documentation.

Government tried again with direct taxation in the 1790s with a property tax designed to help pay for a war with France it didn’t go well so they went back to indirect taxation methods such as levying duties and excise taxes on certain items.

It would take another war to finally usher in revenue-based taxation.

Another war ushers in modern US tax system

Huge levels of debt were racked up during the American Civil War, so to help pay it the Revenue Act of 1861 became what is basically the American tax system: the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) came into being and those generating incomes of over $800 were taxed.

Income taxes were brought in and adjusted as government sought to refine the system, and in 1913 the 16th Amendment and a tax on incomes over $3000 was introduced – although it affected less than one per cent of Americans.

More war, more taxes

World War I prompted higher tax rates and lower exemptions, along with taxes on estates and business profits, boosted government coffers to the tune of $3.6 billion in 1918 and, although taxes were lowered post war, revenues nearly doubled to $6.6 billion in 1920.

The Second World War saw taxes rise again as America geared up to enter the war. By 1945 some 43 million Americans were taxpayers and revenues passed $45 billion.

Other taxes

Various other taxes have appeared and been refined and adjusted over the years: estate tax – initially enacted in 1797 – has been repealed and re-introduced over the years and gift tax surfaced in 1924.

Sales tax first appeared in West Virginia in 1921, and by 1940 was effective in some 30 states overall as they embraced the idea of generating some sorely needed revenues in the wake of the Great Depression: nowadays only a few US states don’t have it.

A raft of other taxes exist, including taxation on cigarettes, energy, aviation, property and even telecommunications.

Tax freedom day

Such is the tax burden faced by Americans today, the Tax Foundation calculated back in 2009 the average American would, from the start of the year, have to work to April 11th to earn the amount of money they’d be paying in tax during the course of the year.


Taxation Without Representation in Modern Times

Taxation without representation was by no means extinguished with the separation of the American colonies from Britain. Not even in the U.S.

Residents of Puerto Rico and the District of Columbia have no voting representatives in the U.S. Congress.    

Residents of Puerto Rico, for example, are U.S. citizens but do not have the right to vote in presidential elections and have no voting representatives in the U.S. Congress (unless they move to one of the 50 states.)    

In addition, the phrase taxation without representation appeared on license plates issued by the District of Columbia beginning in the year 2000. The addition of the slogan was meant to increase awareness of the fact that residents of the District pay federal taxes despite having no voting representation in Congress.  

In 2017, the District's City Council added one word to the phrase. It now reads "End Taxation Without Representation."  


What is the history of taxation without representation in the United States?

From 1756 to 1763, Great Britain was engaged in the Seven Years War in Europe, and the French and Indian War in the United States (though they were still the colonies at that point). The war efforts caused Britain’s national debt to skyrocket, and the nation needed a way to bring in additional revenue . As a result, Britain started imposing taxes on the colonists for the first time.

One of the taxes Britain imposed on the colonists was the 1765 Stamp Act. This act required that printed documents include an embossed revenue stamp, for which the colonists would have to pay. The colonists immediately spoke out against the tax. The American colonies didn’t have representation in the British Parliament, and the colonists argued that taxation without representation was illegal and equated to tyranny (or oppressive government control).

Later that same year, nine of the British colonies met in New York for what was called the Stamp Act Congress. The Congress approved the Declaration of Rights and Grievances, which summarized the position of the delegates. The Congress also sent petitions to the leaders in Britain. Partially because of the push-back from the colonists, the British Parliament repealed the Stamp Act the following year.

Though Parliament repealed the Stamp Act, other taxes followed in its place. The Declaratory Act that Parliament passed in 1766 stated that Britain had the same authority to tax in America as it did in Europe. The Townshend Acts in 1767 placed taxes on items such as glass, paper, and tea. The colonists continued to push back against this taxation, including through the famous Boston Tea Party in 1773. These protests led to the passage of the Intolerable Acts in 1774, where Britain imposed martial law and other acts of suppression on the colonists.

These taxes and laws were part of a series of events that led to the Continental Congress in 1774, where 12 of the 13 colonies gathered to discuss a boycott of British goods. Tensions continued to rise between Britain and the colonies, which led to the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776, and the start of the Revolutionary War.


No Taxation without Representation - History

It’s been twenty years since Washington’s vehicles underwent a political rebranding.

A D.C. license plate from 2000-2001, showing the changed motto. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

In May 2000, the D.C. Council announced its plan to change the design of the standard-issue District of Columbia license plates. Some familiar aspects—the lettering, the patriotic color scheme—stayed the same. The big difference was the motto: no longer the neutral and ambiguous “Celebrate and Discover,” but the firm and attention-grabbing “Taxation Without Representation.” It was a stark reference to the District’s lack of representation in Congress and the long struggle for any kind of voting rights at all. Ironically, the Council feared that Congress—which has the power to overturn local legislation in the District—would shut down the proposed redesign. By August, though, an executive order signed by Mayor Anthony A. Williams ensured that residents could obtain their new plates by the end of the year. [1]

The bold change was originally suggested by Sarah Shapiro, a Foggy Bottom resident and local activist, who wanted residents to “confront the rest of the nation with the injustice of our lack of voting rights.” [2] Visitors and tourists, perhaps ignorant of Washington’s unique political circumstance, would be forced to wonder at the motto’s background. “This will make people scratch their heads,” Eleanor Holmes Norton, the District’s non-voting House Representative, told the Washington Post. “They’ll have to ask what it means.” [3]

Most Americans are familiar with the phrase, of course. It brings to mind images of the Revolutionary War—colonists protesting a series of taxes imposed on them by the British Parliament, despite their lack of involvement in its affairs. According to tradition, the battle cry of “taxation without representation is tyranny” originated in Boston, where it featured in such famous displays as the Boston Tea Party. The Declaration of Independence, one of the country’s founding documents, condemns King George III “for imposing Taxes on us without our Consent.” [4] In the popular imagination, the phrase defined the conflict that lead to the creation of our own, more just government.

So how did the phrase come to be associated with Washington, D.C., the center of that government? As it happens, the phrase—and the message it conveys—was part of Washington culture long before it was stamped on our license plates.

Arguments over D.C.’s voting rights are as old as its founding. Facing disagreements over the location of the national capital, the Constitutional Convention of 1787 established a new city which, intentionally, would not be under the jurisdiction of any one state government. James Madison, one of the leading framers, argued that Congress should “exercise exclusive legislation, in all cases whatsoever, over such district,” to avoid any regional disputes amongst the Congressmen. [5] It would have no representatives in Congress, nor any kind of independent local government. The District’s early residents—at least, the white men who actually qualified to vote at the time—would not have the same rights as the residents of states.

The decision was controversial from the very beginning. With the Revolution still fresh in their minds, Washingtonians felt that, once again, they had become subjects of an oppressive government. Their disenfranchisement “does not appear to meet the spirit of the Constitution,” wrote Augustus Woodward, a lawyer practicing in the District. “Nor is it calculated to satisfy…the expectations of those who are locally affected.” [6] Writing in 1801, Woodward was the most outspoken local advocate for the District’s equal representation his series of newspaper columns called for representatives in both houses of Congress, the right to vote in Presidential elections, and a separate local administration. Some of his efforts paid off: by 1812, Washington had two popularly-elected councils that chose a governing mayor, to conduct local business. But Congress still denied full representation, even while they levied federal taxes.

In 1820, the Supreme Court took up the matter. The decision for Loughborough vs. Blake, written by Chief Justice John Marshall, sought to answer a (supposedly) simple question: “Has Congress a right to impose a direct tax on the District of Columbia?” [7] Washingtonians who believed that “taxation without representation is tyranny” were disappointed. Marshall ruled that it is the duty of all citizens to pay taxes to their government. “Representation is not made the foundation of taxation.” [8]

Though the ruling seemingly settled the question, it didn’t stop residents from campaigning for their voting rights. As the United States expanded and added new territories, the question of D.C. statehood arose again. By the mid nineteenth century, the District was a growing city with a population far greater than many other states—new and old. Washingtonians found an ally in President William Henry Harrison, who supported the creation of a territorial government for the capital. “The people of the District of Columbia are not the subjects of the people of the States, but free American citizens,” he said in his 1841 inaugural address. “If there is anything in the great principle of unalienable rights so emphatically insisted upon in our Declaration of Independence, they could neither make nor the United States accept a surrender of their liberties." [9] Unfortunately, Harrison died of pneumonia shortly after taking office—probably contracted while delivering this lengthy speech in the pouring rain.

The debates continued, but no resolutions seemed solid. Congress implemented various local governments, then revoked or revised them—most famously in 1874, when President Ulysses S. Grant abolished the District’s legislature and territorial governor, replacing them with a three-member commission appointed by the President. Proposals for Congressional representation—and even statehood—appeared every so often. In 1888, New Hampshire’s Senator Henry Blair actually drafted a Constitutional amendment that would give the District full representation without officially becoming a state. It argued that “the people of the District of Columbia are subject to taxation without representation, contrary to fundamental principles of all free government.” [10] Blair believed his proposed amendment would succeed, since “its provisions are based on common fairness and justice,” but it did not pass the Senate. [11] However, it sparked renewed local interest in the cause. When the Evening Star, in an 1895 issue, asked its readers to submit their opinions on District representation, the vast majority were passionately in favor. “Taxation without representation caused the Revolutionary War in 1776,” A.N. Debson wrote them. “What will it cause…in the District of Columbia?” [12]

Cartoonist Clifford Berryman often used his character "Mr. D.C." to expose the injustice of Washington's "taxation without representation." Here, in a cartoon from 1931, Mr. D.C. wonders why he has never heard "the shot that was heard around the world." (Source: The National Archives)

The protests for voting rights certainly became more visible and creative in the twentieth century, with rallying cries still invoking the spirit of 1776. “Taxation without representation is tyranny today as in ’76,” asserted one letter to the Post editor. [13] Clifford Berryman, the political cartoonist whose drawing of Theodore Roosevelt inspired the “teddy bear,” used the slogan in a number of works throughout his sixty-year career in Washington. His recurring character “Mr. D.C.” appeared in Star cartoons from 1907-1949, enduring repeated cases of Congressional abuse and exposing the injustice of Washington’s situation. When Uncle Sam praises freedom and democracy, or reminds citizens of their civic duties, Mr. D.C. watches quietly from the corner of the panel.

Meanwhile, demonstrators took more literal inspiration from the Boston Tea Party. On Tax Day in 1953, some Washingtonians visited Capitol Hill and delivered individual tea bags to Congressional offices. Attached, members of Congress could read a friendly but firm note:

“Dear Congressman: Have a cup of tea with our compliments—and be respectfully reminded that 180 years ago the citizens of Boston rebelled against taxation without representation with their historic ‘Boston Tea Party.’ On March 15, we the voteless Americans of Washington, the capital of world democracy, pay into the U.S. Treasury more Federal income taxes than the people of each of 24 states. In addition, we will this year be taxed 120 million dollars to pay 92 percent of the cost of running the capital city. We believe, like those early Americans of Boston, that ‘taxation without representation is tyranny.’ We earnestly seek your support for home rule. Grant us that right to prove our capacity for local self government, which once was ours (and which was taken from us), as the first step toward representation in the Congress, and full citizenship.” [14]

Twelve years later, the League of Women Voters brought “history up to date” by organizing tea parties all over the city. [15] Attendees, who gathered to discuss local politics, were encouraged to bring an out-of-town guest to raise awareness of the issue. In the 1960s and 1970s, as the prospect of home rule became a reasonable hope, activist groups paraded around the city in old-fashioned buggies, dressed up in colonial costumes. And then, the obvious: in 1973, the two-hundredth anniversary of the Boston Tea Party, members of Self Determination for D.C. threw crates of tea into the Potomac River.

William Porter and Helen Leavitt, members of the District Democratic Committee, ride on an antique stagecoach during a 1965 Home Rule demonstration. One of their banners features a familiar phrase: "No More Taxation Without Representation." (Source: DC Library)


No Taxation Without Representation: China’s Taxation History and Its Political-Legal Development

China’s ancient tax system, primarily built on land tax, suited its huge agrarian economic basis, which remained little changed for several thousand years. A variety of other taxes and revenue-like sources including the monopoly of salt and iron and compulsory labour duties were imposed as supplements to formal taxation. Informal taxation existed along with the development of formal taxation because formal tax revenues often could not meet government needs particularly at local levels. An advanced “provincial and prefectural” political regime evolved, from the time of the Qin Dynasty, to enable emperors or rulers to control the large territory. Tax administration was managed by the powerful bureaucratic government which effectively controlled nearly all aspects of state power. Yet taxation appears to have had little or no effect on shaping China’s constitutional polity. Given the linkage between taxation and political-legal development in Western countries, this article examines the reason why, during the long period of China’s political-legal transition, taxation failed to play a similar role in helping create a more developed constitutional polity.


No Taxation Without Representation Circa 1215 AD, or, Magna Carta: A Beginner’s Guide

Magna Carta, the Charter of Liberties sealed by King John of England in 1215 AD, is routinely cited as one of the most important documents of our constitutional tradition.  It ranks with the English Bill of Rights (1689), The Declaration of Independence and the United States Constitution in symbolic power.  And while the details of what it says are not as familiar to most people as, say, the details of the United States Bill of Rights, many people do nevertheless remember some important points about it.  Everyone knows, for example, that Magna Carta had something to do with the advancement of the rule of law.  People also tend to know that Magna Carta became (over its long history) the foundation of some of the most basic legal rights and protections that we enjoy today.  Since I’ve been writing occasional blog posts on how Magna Carta has been understood by people throughout history, I thought it might be interesting to stop and write a post that notes some of the specific points that make the Great Charter one of the most enduring documents of all ages.

An image from Cassell’s Illustrated History of England (London, 1903). King John is presented with Magna Carta on the day it is to be sealed.

Did you know, for instance, that Magna Carta helped to give birth to representative government? Chapter 14 provides instructions for obtaining the common counsel of the kingdom, which the barons who revolted against King John insisted John take into consideration before demanding certain kinds of taxation.

Speaking of taxation, did you know that the phrase “No Taxation without Representation,” which became so important for the cause of American independence in the 1760s, had its roots in a principle that was expressed both in the Articles of the Barons presented to King John at Runnymede and in chapter 12 of King John’s charter?

Runaway taxation, argued many American colonists, was the signature of tyrannical government.  The Barons who revolted against King John couldn’t have agreed more.  And where there is a danger of a king turning tyrant, the Barons proposed that there is a need for a strong system of checks and balances. ਌hapter 61 of Magna Carta created a council of review that was empowered to monitor the King’s government and to take (legal!) military action against the king when his actions defied the limits imposed by the charter.  The king is not above the law.

Most people know that the foundations of the right to a trial by jury can be found in Magna Carta, along with basic protections from unlawful imprisonment and a guarantee of due process of law (“per legem terrae” in King John’s Magna Carta).  All of these provisions can be found in the legendary chapter 39 which has become virtual scripture for the civil libertarian tradition.

An image from Cassell’s Illustrated History of England (London, 1903). King John is depicted here rejecting the terms presented to him by by his barons. John would ultimately surrender to their demands and place his seal on Magna Carta.

Chapter 40 articulates a guarantee in language better than I can paraphrase: “Nulli vendemus, nulli negabimus aut differemus, rectum aut justiciam.” To no one will we sell, to no one will we refuse or delay, right or justice.

Many of Magna Carta’s provisions express in terms of concrete relationships ideas that can otherwise be stated as abstract guarantees of rights.  For example, chapter 17 expresses a guarantee of access to law in the following form:  “Common pleas shall not follow our court, but shall be held in some fixed place.”  In other words, if you need to sue someone, you should not be obliged to invest in the travel expenses that might be required to follow the king as he circulates throughout his kingdom, governing and fighting wars.

Magna Carta is a medieval document, and therefore some care is required to get through the difficult language it contains.  Even when it is translated from the original Latin, Magna Carta takes for granted the reader’s knowledge of medieval English social ties and feudal property rights.  And then there is the barrage of exotic legal terms its provisions relate to kydells, wainage, socage, scutage, burgage, novel disseisin, mortmain, mortdancestor, amercements and darrein presentment among other archaic expressions.

The fact that there are eight centuries of historical distance between that day in June of 1215 and Magna Carta’s modern readers leads many historians to object to drawing direct lines of influence between the Great Charter and contemporary political rights.  Nevertheless, some of the most important figures in our constitutional history have, at pivotal moments of political change, seen in Magna Carta an ancient precedent for the marriage of individual rights and constitutional government that characterized the rise of the modern world, a line of interpretation that has had incalculable impact on the world we live in.

Anyone interested in a glimpse of the full text of King John’s 1215 Magna Carta can find it here.  For people who read Latin, look here.  For those intrepid readers who would like to see a medieval translation of Magna Carta into Anglo-Norman, look here.  Magna Carta was reissued in an abbreviated form by John’s successor, Henry III in 1216, in 1217 and in 1225 and again in 1297 by Edward I.  A manuscript of Magna Carta from 1297 is on display at the United States National Archives.

The classic commentary, by William Sharp Mckechnie on Magna Carta in all its versions and the documents surrounding its creation can be found here.

Magna Carta will celebrate its 800th birthday in 2015.  Look for more news and blog posts on the heritage of English Liberties and Anglo-American Constitutionalism here on In Custodia Legis in the coming months.


“No Taxation without Representation”: Black Voting in Connecticut

The right to vote is an expression of political participation, human dignity, and control of one’s destiny. For the majority of people of African descent in Connecticut in the 1700s emancipation from slavery, the rights of citizenship, and voting rights were linked. Connecticut legislators passed a Gradual Emancipation Act in 1784 that eliminated hereditary enslavement (freeing only those born into slavery after March 1, 1784 at age 25, that age was lowered to 21 in 1797), and finally abolished slavery in 1848. Numbers of African Americans in Connecticut obtained their freedom, purchased property, organized churches and other institutions, and attained education. Despite these achievements, the state of Connecticut limited the full rights of citizenship even for the free African Americans who fought for the independence of the United States from England.

Throughout the 18th century and for much of the 19th century African Americans expressed their goal for achieving political empowerment in part by electing “Negro Governors,” or “Black Governors.” [See “Monument to the Black Governors,” Summer 2004, ctexplored.org/monument-to-the-black-governors/.] These terms conveyed honor and leadership within the African American community, though the position carried no political authority within the white power structure. A second avenue to political participation was through voting in state and local elections. Some African American men were able to vote before 1812. A September 7, 1803 editorial in the Connecticut Courant suggested that “two citizens of colour” in Wallingford who were Democrats (the contemporary Democratic Party) and “free” had voted. The editorial, more than 200 years old, read:

It seems that in the town of Wallingford there are two citizens of colour, both democrats, and both admitted to be free of this state by the democratic Justices and Select-Men of that town.

Question I. In case the aforesaid citizens should at the next election of representatives to the General Assembly, obtain a clear majority of votes to represent said town, whether they would be returned as duly elected?

Question II. If chosen and returned as aforesaid. Would they be admitted to seats in the House of Representatives of this State?

A plain answer by some persons who is acquainted with the laws and the rights of the people of this State would greatly oblige.

The designation “freeman” was a social designation denoting a property owner with voting rights and other rights to participate in political activities. The editorial suggests that African Americans not only voted but held elective office as well. Between 1812 and the passage of the new state constitution in 1818, Connecticut political authorities enacted laws to restrict the suffrage to white adult men. African Americans protested invoking the language of the Revolutionary War patriots: “no taxation without representation.”

In 1814, the General Assembly denied the franchise to African Americans. Bias Stanley and William Lanson of New Haven asked that they be exempt from paying taxes since they could not vote. Lanson was not exempted from tax obligations. New Haven records (in the collection of the New Haven Museum) contain Lanson’s receipts showing proof of payment of his taxes.

More petitions of protest followed Lanson and Stanley’s 1814 petition. In 1817, Josiah Cornell, William Laws, William Harris, Deppard [sometimes Dedford]Billings, Ira [sometimes Tossett]Forset, Olney M. Douglass, Anthony Church, Thomas Hamilton, Joseph Facy, and John Meads—free persons of color from New London and Norwich—presented petitions against paying the poll tax when they could not vote. (A poll tax was a monetary fee African Americans were required to pay in order to vote.) The Connecticut General Assembly rejected the petition. The 1818 Connecticut constitution enacted Article VI, Section 2. It affirmed the right of all white males to vote if they were 21 or older and possessed property worth at least seven dollars, among other requirements.

The issue of voting-rights restriction emerged again in 1823 when Isaac Glasko in Griswold, a man of African American and Native American descent, presented a petition asking for exemption from taxation due to a lack of voting rights. The general assembly rejected the petition.

In the 1830s, Amos Gerry Beman moved from Middletown to New Haven, where he connected with the interracial abolitionist community and continued to work for African American voting rights. His sister-in-law Clarissa Beman carried on her family’s involvement in the antislavery struggle as a founding member of the Colored Female Anti-Slavery Society of Middletown. African American voting-rights activists linked their advocacy for political inclusion to a wider objective to abolish slavery and fulfill democratic principles enshrined in the nation’s Declaration of Independence. The 1839 petition by residents of Middletown argued,

[T]he last reason is of much weight—the violation of it was the great moving cause of the revolution—and if to enforce that principle a whole nation took up arms, your petitioners ask whether it should by your Hon. body be regarded as a … chimerical principle or one of practical application? Some of us … fought and bled in a glorious struggle to establish that very principle which (as regards application to us) has been denied. Have we not reason to complain?

The Connecticut State Library Archives contains 26 sets of papers from African Americans in Hartford, New Haven, New London County, Middletown, and Torrington regarding the right of African Americans to vote. These additional petitions were presented to the General Assembly between 1838 and 1850. In 1845 members of Hartford’s African American community, followed in 1850 by members of New Haven’s African American community, petitioned the General Assembly to amend the State Constitution by removing the provision that granted the franchise only to white adult men. African American men and women signed the petitions. The general assembly rejected all the petitions. In 1842, residents of Hartford presented a petition that said:

To the Honorable, the House of Representatives of the State of Connecticut: The undersigned Free People of Color of the town of Hartford in the County of Hartford respectfully pray your honorable body to pass a resolution proposing such amendment of the second section of the sixth article of the Constitution of this State as shall secure the elective franchise to all men the requisite qualifications, irrespective of color.

Among those who signed the document were James Mars, James W.C. Pennington, and George Jeffrey and Leverett Beman from Middletown. George Jeffrey was a barber by trade and a political activist who became a pivotal member of the congregation at Parker Memorial African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church in Meriden during the late 19th century. Jeffrey was a prime mover in the Meriden-area Lincoln League that African Americans organized to advocate for black voting rights during the late 19th century. Named in honor of President Abraham Lincoln, this organization drew African American members from around the country to carry on the unfinished work of achieving full citizenship, voting rights, and economic opportunity.

Although Connecticut’s legislators rejected the petitions, African Americans mounted pressures to transform the political system. The 1850 petition from New Haven’s black community listed signatures from both men and women. This is important, as it demonstrates that African American men and women joined together in a common effort to obtain the franchise for men. The petition requested that the legislature “take the necessary measures for amending the Constitution of this State by expunging the word white in the first line of the 2 nd Section of the 6 th Article of Said Constitution.”

In 1870 the states ratified the 15th Amendment, which stated that no one should be denied the right to vote based on race or previous condition of servitude (though women, black or white, would be excluded until 1920). After considerable and often acrimonious debate, the Connecticut General Assembly amended the state constitution to comply with the federal amendment, which empowered most African American men with the right to vote. Still, voter intimidation, poll taxes, the grandfather clause, and other devices disfranchised many eligible African American voters across the United States. Some of these tactics included literacy tests requiring the prospective voter to interpret passages of the U.S. Constitution, while the grandfather clause based a person’s eligibility to vote on whether the person’s grandfather had voted. In Connecticut these tactics were not as pervasive as in other parts of the country, but even so voting rights remained insecure for African Americans. When the states ratified the 19th Amendment that granted women voting rights in 1919, African American women’s access to the franchise was still curtailed due to race.

While African American women in Northern states such as Connecticut had greater legal access to the polls, in Southern states and other states such as Oklahoma, literacy tests, poll taxes, and the grandfather clause were among the many legal restrictions that disfranchised African American women and men. Drawing attention to disfranchisement and the under-representation of black women voters, the NAACP’s Crisis published two “Votes for Women” issues, one in September 1912 and the other in August 1915. Determined to secure political participation, African American Mary Townsend Seymour, co-founder of the local NAACP in Hartford, was a leading advocate for social justice and voting rights. [See “Mary Townsend Seymour: Audacious Alliances,” Summer 2003]

Despite late-19th-century court challenges over practices such as those listed above that limited or prevented black voter participation, it was not until the 1960s phase of the civil rights movement that activists were able to secure federal safeguards for the franchise. The African American community’s effort to achieve this important right of citizenship was based on coalition building that attracted national attention. Congress passed and President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The 24th Amendment ratified in 1964, outlawed the poll tax. The 1965 Voting Rights Act prohibited literacy tests and the grandfather clause. Signed into law in 1993 during the William J. Clinton administration, the National Voter Registration Act reinforced the right of all citizens to participate in the political process. Still, new challenges on the state and national levels continue to restrict the full exercise of political rights. But the inclusion of young people and members of the Latino and Latina communities and other underrepresented groups in the political process has been an important result of the African American struggle for the franchise. For African Americans in Connecticut, these events could be viewed as a fulfillment of their efforts to expand the electorate and the democratic process.

This essay is adapted from Katharine Harris’s essay in African American Connecticut Explored (Wesleyan University Press, 2014).

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Read more stories about the African American experience in Connecticut on our TOPICS page.

African American Connecticut Explored (Wesleyan University Press, 2014)

Over 50 essays by many of the state’s leading historians and edited by Connecticut Explored’s publisher Elizabeth Normen document the long arc of the African American experience in Connecticut from the earliest years of the state’s colonization around 1630 and continuing well into the 20th century. The voice of Connecticut’s African Americans rings clear through topics such as the Black Governors of Connecticut, nationally prominent black abolitionists like the reverends Amos Beman and James Pennington, the African American community’s response to the Amistad trial, the letters of Joseph O. Cross of the 29th Regiment of Colored Volunteers in the Civil War, and the Civil Rights work of baseball great Jackie Robinson (a twenty-year resident of Stamford), to name a few.


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