Welcome to part 2 of our series on Bernard Bailyn’s masterful description of the sea change that American colonists’s ideas about representative government went through in the decades before the Revolutionary War.
(We’re in the middle of a series here; if you’re looking for a stand-alone, quick answer to the question, see Revolutionary War Myth #2: Americans didn’t want to pay taxes.)
We left off last time with Americans living happily with a medieval concept of local representation to colonial legislative bodies: we send our representative with a few, specific, brass-tacks practical requests and the concessions that we authorize him to offer in return for those requests being granted. We want a mill, and we’re willing to help build a local bridge in return.
England, on the other hand, had evolved its political system to include the concept of virtual representation: districts composed of multiple towns and counties, or a populous city borough, elect a representative to the House of Commons who will vote on issues of national importance in a way that he believes best represents his constituents’ views on said issues. This is very abstract. This English rep is not going to Parliament with a piece of paper listing the 1-3 concrete things his town wants to have that he is supposed to ask for. He is not going to Parliament representing a single town. He represents many towns, or, if he represents a city borough, the various inhabitants of that borough. He represents hundreds or (as the 18th century wore on) thousands of people, and he represents their thoughts and feelings about issues, not their physical wants and needs. He can’t leave Parliament once he’s requested the 1-3 things his town want. He sits in on all debates, touching towns he is not part of, and issues that may not immediately impact his constituents. In short, he is a modern representative to a national governing body.
Two other modern conditions applied: first, very few people could vote, so any rep necessarily represented the interests of those who could, and this meant that most people were not truly represented. If someone represented a town, he represented the dozen male landowners who could vote and who chose him. Next, even if someone could vote, there was no obligation on their representative to express that constituent’s individual thoughts, desires, or demands. Think of it this way: does your current Senator or Representative in Congress ensure that all your individual demands are satisfied? Of course not. it’s not possible to do that if you are representing more than one person. A rep has to try to represent the majority, and even that is difficult. If your rep does vote the way you want, English authors of the 1760s would have described that as “accidental and not necessary” representation.
Thus, when England began to claim in the 1760s that it had a right to tax the American colonies because they had virtual representation to Parliament, that made sense to English people.
…the principal English argument put forward in defense of Parliament’s right to pass laws taxing the colonies was that the colonies, like the “nine tenths of the people of Britain” who do not choose representatives to Parliament, were in fact represented there. The power of actually voting for representatives, it was claimed, was an accidental and not a necessary attribute of representation, “for the right of election is annexed to certain species of property, to peculiar franchises, and to inhabitancy in certain places.” In what really counted there was no difference between those who happened to live in England and those in America: “none are actually, all are virtually represented in Parliament…” [p. 166]
This worked in England, Bailyn says, because “the practice of ‘virtual’ representation provided reasonably well for the actual representation of the major interests of the society, and it raised no widespread objection.” [p. 167] People in the city of Bath, for instance, felt that Parliament did a good job steering the nation, even if Bath itself never came up inside its walls. Bath didn’t have to insert its particular, individual, local needs into national legislation because people in Bath believed that those local needs would be met by general legislation—all towns would benefit from good laws, all would suffer under bad laws. If all towns suffered, the laws would change.
Americans, however, did not have this faith in centralized government. Americans in the 1760s believed they needed to elect men to represent them in Parliament because they still operated in a direct-representation system where
- reps represented their single town,
- many people in that town could vote (in many American colonies, all adult males could vote; there was no property-owning restriction),
- those people had concrete demands they expected their rep to voice, and
- they expected their rep to keep all his business local to their town. He was not at the legislature to conduct colony-wide business.
When Americans were told that men from Birmingham or Leeds or Coventry, London or Bath or Norwich, “virtually” represented them because those men were working for the common good of Britain, which would be the common good of the British colonies, they did not buy it. At all. What did these English men know about life in America, let alone in Massachusetts, let alone in the town of Ipswich? A Norfolk landowner knew nothing about the town of Ipswich’s need for a new bridge. A Norfolk man’s vote on a European trade bill would do nothing to get Ipswich that bridge. Even a Norfolk man’s vote to build more bridges in Britain and her colonies would not guarantee that a bridge was built in Ipswich.
Americans believed in local government because it was immediately accountable for its actions. If your town rep did not do your town’s bidding, he was not re-elected. Any distance from the voters, the constituents, was dangerous. Bailyn records a statement by the American Daniel Dulany in 1765 with which “almost every writer in America agreed, was the extent to which representation worked to protect the interest of the people against the encroachments of government.” This is telling: in America, “government” was a double-edged sword: necessary, but needing to be tightly controlled lest it free itself from its commitments to specific, local needs and rage out of control.
Next, the problem was that maybe English reps really could provide virtual representation to other English people. But as Bailyn sums up Dulany’s argument,
…”no such intimate and inseparable relation” existed between the electors of Great Britain and the inhabitants of the colonies. The two groups were by no means involved in the same consequences of taxation: “not a single actual elector in England might be immediately affected by a taxation in American imposed by a statute which would have a general operation and effect upon the properties of the inhabitants of the colonies.”
Once a lack of natural identity of interests between representatives and the populace was conceded, the idea of virtual representation lost any force it might have had; for by such a notion, James Otis wrote, you could “as well prove that the British House of Commons in fact represent all the people of the close as those in America.” [Arthur Lee wrote that’ “our privileges are all virtual, our sufferings are real… We might have flattered ourselves that a virtual obedience would have exactly corresponded with a virtual representation…” [The question was] who, precisely, is the American freeman’s virtual representative in England? 
So often we’re told that Americans rebelled in 1775 because they didn’t want to pay taxes. This is so crude and so untrue and so much less interesting than the truth, which is that Americans rebelled in 1775 partly because they believed in actual representative government, despite the impossibility that already existed, at that time, of anyone, even a local town rep, truly representing his local constituents. Even small towns in America had populations in the thousands by 1760. Americans were trying to come to grips with that change on their own, in their own back yards, when suddenly England claimed virtual representation and began taxing them.
This claim would drive American colonists to grapple with, and come up with solutions for, the impossibility of 1:1 local government. But they would have to struggle first—and millions of trees would die to provide the paper needed to argue that struggle out from the 1760s through the 1780s.