We all learn in school about the American Revolution, from the rallying cry of “no taxation without representation” to the midnight ride of Paul Revere. The history books get it right on a lot of fronts, but the taxation issue is more nuanced than your high school textbook might have you believe.
What the History Books Get Wrong About Taxation
The taxation issue is painted as the only problem colonies had with Britain, yet there are three important considerations that often get left out.
First, taxes levied in the colonies were not bad. The average Brit paid 26 shillings in tax each year and had a worse quality of life than many of the colonists. The average colonist paid a single shilling in tax each year (source).
Second, the states were the wealthiest of all British colonies and colonists generally enjoyed a good standard of living for the times. Given that their taxes were low and lifestyle good for the times, why complain at all?
Third, the colonists’ real issue was their total lack of voice in the British Empire. They wanted a say in what happened more than they cared about paying a tax. While it may not have been unanimous, many of the angry colonists would have continued to pay their taxes happily, if only they felt Britain was hearing their concerns through a democratic process.
At the time, remember, Britain was an empire. The role of colonies — not just British ones, but French colonies, Portuguese colonies, and so on — was to add to the empire’s wealth. So long as the colonies remained loyal, they could count on British protection. To the empire, the very idea of granting their colonies representation was ridiculous.
Why Britain Denied Representation
Since the colonists really wanted representation — and were more ambivalent about taxation — some wonder whether revolution would have been avoided if Britain had granted colonial citizens representation. Leaving aside the logistics — what, would someone have tossed their vote onto a ship going back across the pond? — there were several valid reasons for Britain to deny this request.
As the British Royalist party tried to keep power in the hands of the few, overturning Cromwell’s work, they worried about the message it would send to allow colonies legal representation.
They further believed the colonies would be sympathetic to their opposition, who advocated for political reforms. Britain did not want to move in the direction of a democracy. They wanted to maintain the landed gentry’s centrality in British life and governance by only allowing those who owned land to be enfranchised. They feared that by granting the colonists’ request for representation, they would send a message to the British lower class that they could ask for a greater role in governance.
Some suggested compromises, such as granting colonies representation proportional to the money they made the British Empire. Royalists resisted compromise, afraid it would open the door to more requests for reform.
The colonists were wealthier than the disenfranchised Brits, but the Royalists feared that a fight could cross class boundaries. If they wanted to resist democracy, they needed to deny the colonists a voice. The colonists believed, rightly so, that the only choice was to fight for their independence or retain their status as disenfranchised colonies.
“Liberty or death” aptly sums up how the saw their choices. It’s thanks to those who fought that we enjoy our independence.