The American Revolution - done in bad faith?

So I’ve always wondered why the British never told the “no taxation without representation” screaming American colonists that they were right and they should send some elected representatives over to London to sit in Parliament. It’s not an unreasonable request, and it seems the law at the time was pretty clear that there should be no taxation without representation. A basic English right (for male property owners anyway). Certainly better to give people the representatives they rightly deserve than to have an expensive war thousands of miles away and risk losing a large part of the empire.

I’ve heard a generic excuse that was sometimes invoked back then - the idea that the American colonists enjoyed “virtual representation”… which is just like telling a slave he has “virtual freedom” (he “works” in exchange for room and board etc… virtual wages virtual freedom). I’d say the “virtual representation” excuse is pretty much bad faith, too. And it seems many people opposed this excuse… even those who supported the taxes on the colonists.

Anyway, I read some stuff recently that seems to indicate that there were discussions made by the British about having American representation. But the colonists’ responses were always along the lines of (a) “neh, too little too late” and (b) “neh, London is just too far away and it would take too long to communicate with representatives there for them to be meaningful or effective” (back then it took months to send a message across the Atlantic… but that didn’t prevent effective American diplomats across Europe, e.g. Ben Franklin).

So, if things went like this:

A: “No taxation without representation!”
E: “Okay, fair enough, let’s talk about you colonists having representatives in England.”
A: “No.”

then it seems to me that would make the American Revolution an exercise in bad faith.

It would have gone a long way for the colonies to each elect some representatives (however they were apportioned back then) and have them travel to London, walk in to Parliament, and say “We’re the new American MPs, jolly well, god save the king.” Then see what would happen… welcomed and allowed to vote? Sent back to the colonies on the first ship heading west? But it seems nothing like that was ever even discussed. So, did people back in 1770s America actually want to have parliamentary representation, or was “no taxation without representation” nothing but an insincere battle cry?*

  • I can’t help but think the fact that many Americans were still opposing taxes (such as the Whisky Rebellion) with “no taxation without representation” even after they had their own country with their own (local) elected representatives that enacted the taxes in question is probably informative… somehow.

Not insincere as much as incomplete. For a more complete list of grievances, see the Declaration of Independence.

As far as seats in Parliament being a solution, inherent in a demand for representation is that it be meaningful. The Founders clearly saw that any seats in Parliament would be meaningless, as far as affecting policy. IMHO, what could have worked would have been semi-autonomy through some sort of “Dominion status”, such as that eventually granted to Canada and Australia. But no such offer was made.

The lack of representation was the sincere reason for the revolution.

The British did eventually make a tentative offer of representation. But they didn’t make it until 1778 - two years after the Americans had declared their independence (and after the American victory at Saratoga). Five years earlier it would have been a reasonable offer. But by the time it was made, it really was too little too late. By that point, the Americans had a representative government - their own.

Despite what present anti-tax enthusiasts claim, taxation was never the big issue at the time. The British were relatively willing to negotiate on taxes. They often conceded that point to the Americans and repealed unpopular taxes. It was the lack of political representation which upset Americans and which Britons were unwilling to make any concessions over until it was too late.

I have no cite but I think that the British aristocracy would have seen concessions to the Americans as the thin end of the wedge. “What next - If we allow the Colonials across the Atlantic into Parliament, those Indian fellows will want it too. Then what? Africans???..,. Chinese…?”

Brummies? Scousers?

It’s true that Parliament was considering the dangers of what precedents they set. But they were worried about its application a lot closer to home than Asia or Africa.

In the 18th century, Parliamentary representation was still set based on censuses that had been conducted centuries earlier and were significantly outdated. The result was that some small villages had Members of Parliament representing them while some large cities did not. And tradition aside, the political leadership of the time liked this system. The elites could get office by controlling a handful of voters in some small village and the interests of the urban masses could be ignored.

If Parliament had conceded the principle of popular representation and allowed voters in Philadelphia and New York to send representatives to Parliament, they knew the next step would be demands from voters in Birmingham and Manchester to be allowed the same.