virtual representation

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virtual representation
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{{Short description|Concept that UK parliamentarians spoke on behalf of all imperial subjects}}{{for|the usage in representation theory in mathematics|representation ring}}(File:Virtual representation, 1775.jpg|thumb|360px|Virtual Representative (standing, clad in brown) gives the British State (with blunderbuss) permission to rob a colonist. Catholic Quebec enjoys peace, Protestant Boston burns, and blinded Britannia approaches a pit. 1775 cartoon)Virtual representation refers to the idea that the members of Parliament, including the Lords and the Crown-in-Parliament, reserved the right to speak for the interests of all British subjects, rather than for the interests of only the district that elected them or for the regions in which they held peerages and spiritual sway.BOOK,weblink The Useful Cobbler: Edmund Burke and the Politics of Progress, James, Conniff, Google Books, 1994, 2015-01-07, 0-7914-1843-X, 158, Virtual representation was the British response to the First Continental Congress in the American colonies. The Second Continental Congress asked for representation in Parliament in the Suffolk Resolves, also known as the first Olive Branch Petition. Parliament claimed that their members had the well being of the colonists in mind. The Colonies rejected this premise.

American War of Independence

In the early stages of the American Revolution, colonists in the Thirteen Colonies rejected legislation imposed upon them by the Parliament of Great Britain because the colonies were not represented in Parliament. According to the British constitution, colonists argued, taxes could be levied on British subjects only with their consent. Because the colonists were represented only in their provincial assemblies, they said, only those legislatures could levy taxes in the colonies. This concept was famously expressed as "No taxation without representation".


In The Constitutional Origins of the American Revolution, Jack P. Greene writes that during "the winter of 1764-5, in the months preceding the final passage of the Stamp Act," George Grenville and his lieutenant, Thomas Whately, attempted to explicitly articulate "a theoretical justification for the exertion of parliamentary authority" in the area of colonial taxation.BOOK, The Constitutional Origins of the American Revolution, Greene, J.P., 2010, Cambridge University Press, 9781139492935,weblink 71, 2015-01-07, Grenville and Whately's theory, known as "virtual representation", alleged that "the colonists, like those individuals and groups who resided in Britain but had no voice in elections, were nonetheless virtually represented in Parliament." George Grenville defended all the taxes by arguing that the colonists were virtually represented in Parliament, a position that had critics on both sides of the British Empire.BOOK,weblink Liberty and Property: Political Ideology in Eighteenth-century Britain - H. T. Dickinson - Google Books,, 1977, 2015-01-07, 9780416729306, 218, However, Parliament rejected the criticism that virtual representation was constitutionally invalid as a whole, and passed the Declaratory Act in 1766, asserting the right of Parliament to legislate for the colonies "all cases whatsoever."


The idea of virtual representation "found little support on either side of the Atlantic" as a means of solving the constitutional controversy between colonists and Britons.BOOK,weblink Recreating the American Republic - Charles A. Kromkowski - Google Books,, 2002, 2015-01-07, 9781139435789, 126, William Pitt, a defender of colonial rights, ridiculed virtual representation, calling it "the most contemptible idea that ever entered into the head of a man; it does not deserve serious refutation."Merrill Jensen, The Founding of a Nation: A History of the American Revolution, 1763–1776 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1968), 240–41. Pitt said to the House of Commons in 1766, }} Pitt then stated to Parliament that, "I myself would have cited the two cases of Chester and show that, even under former arbitrary reigns, Parliaments were ashamed of taxing a people without their consent, and allowed them representatives...[A] higher example [might be found] in Wales—Wales that never was taxed by Parliament till it was incorporated. Pitt pointed out that, unlike the "India company, merchants, stockholders, [and] manufacturers" who "have it in their option to be actually represented...have connections with those that elect, and...have influence over them," the colonists had no such option, connections or influence.Benjamin Franklin told the House of Commons that, "I know that whenever the subject [of Parliamentary taxation] has occurred in conversation where I have been present, it has appeared to be the opinion of every one that we could not be taxed by a Parliament wherein we were not represented...An external tax is a duty laid on commodities imported; that duty is added to the first cost and other charges on the commodity, and, when it is offered for sale, makes a part of the price. If the people do not like it at that price, they refuse it; they are not obliged to pay it. But an internal tax is forced from the people without their consent if not laid by their own representatives. The Stamp Act says we shall have no commerce, make no exchange of property with each other, neither purchase nor grant, nor recover debts; we shall neither marry nor make our wills, unless we pay such and such sums; and thus it is intended to extort our money from us or ruin us by the consequence of refusing to pay it."WEB,weblink I. His Examination Before the House of Commons by Benjamin Franklin. America: I. (1761-1837). Vol. VIII. Bryan, William Jennings, ed. 1906. The World's Famous Orations,, 2015-01-07, James Otis Jr. reasoned that the legal liberties of British subjects meant that Parliament should, or could, only tax the colonists if they were actually represented in Westminster.At the time of the American Revolution, only England and Wales and Scotland were directly represented in the Parliament of Great Britain among the many parts of the British Empire. The colonial electorate perhaps consisted of 10% to 20% of the total population, or 75% of adult males.WEB,weblink BRIA 8 1 b Who Voted in Early America? - Constitutional Rights Foundation,, 2013-09-07, In Britain, by contrast, representation was highly limited due to unequally distributed voting constituencies and property requirements; only 3% of the population, or between 17% to 23% of males, could vote and they were often controlled by local gentry.BOOK,weblink The Varieties of Political Experience in Eighteenth-Century America - Richard R. Beeman - Google Books,, 2006, 2015-01-07, 9780812201215, 22, WEB,weblink Rhetorical Process in Eighteenth-Century England British public address ideology liberalism open/closed political structures,, 2013-09-07, yes,weblink" title="">weblink 2013-05-15, WEB,weblink Exhibitions | Citizenship | Struggle for democracy, The National Archives, 1832, 2015-01-07, Miller p 212As virtual representation was founded on "a defect in the Constitution of England," namely, the "Want of a Full Representation of all the People of England," it was, therefore, a pernicious notion that had been fabricated for the sole purpose of arguing the colonists "out of their civil Rights." The colonists, and some Britons, consequently condemned the idea of virtual representation as "a sham".BOOK, The Enduring Vision: A History of the American People, Concise, Boyer, P., Clark, C., Halttunen, K., Hawley, S., Kett, J., 2012, Cengage Learning, 9781111838256,weblink 106, 2015-01-07, Moreover, the poor state of representation in Britain "was no excuse for taxing the colonists without their consent."

Daniel Dulany Jr.

Daniel Dulaney Jr. of Maryland, likewise observed that attempting to tax subjects on the inequitable basis of 'virtual' representation was unsound because, The situation of the non-electors in England—their capacity to become electors — their inseparable connection with those who are electors, and their representatives—their security against oppression resulting from this connection, and the necessity of imagining a double or virtual representation, to avoid iniquity and absurdity, have been explained—the inhabitants of the colonies are, as such, incapable of being electors, the privilege of election being exerciseable only in person, and therefore if every inhabitant of America had the requisite freehold, not one could vote, but upon the supposition of his ceasing to be an inhabitant of America, and becoming a resident of Great-Britain, a supposition which would be impertinent, because it shifts the question—should the colonies not be taxed by parliamentary impositions, their respective legislatures have a regular, adequate, and constitutional authority to tax them, and, therefore, there would not necessarily be an iniquitous and absurd exemption, from their not being represented by the House of Commons. There is not that intimate and inseparable relation between the electors of Great-Britain, and the inhabitants of the colonies, which must inevitably involve both in the same taxation; on the contrary, not a single actual elector in England might be immediately affected by a taxation in America, imposed by a statute which would have a general operation and effect, upon the properties of the inhabitants of the colonies. The latter might be oppressed in a thousand shapes, without any sympathy, or exciting any alarm in the former. Moreover, even acts, oppressive and injurious to the colonies in an extreme degree, might become popular in England, from the promise or expectation, that the very measures which depressed the colonies, would give ease to the inhabitants of Great-Britain.WEB,weblink Considerations on the Propriety of Imposing Taxes in the British Colonies, for the Purpose of Raising a Revenue, by Act of Parliament,, 2015-01-07, Dulany Jr. also wrote that, "the Impropriety of a Taxation by the British Parliament...[is proven by] the Fact, that not one inhabitant in any Colony is, or can be actually or virtually represented by the British House of Commons."BOOK, Considerations on the propriety of imposing taxes in the British colonies, for the purpose of raising a revenue, by act of parliament [by D. Dulany]., Dulany, D., 1765,weblink 14, 2015-01-07, Dulany Jr. denied that Parliament had a right "to impose an internal Tax upon the Colonies, without their consent for the single Purpose of Revenue."BOOK, D., Dulani, Considerations on the propriety of imposing taxes in the British colonies, for the purpose of raising a revenue, by act of parliament, 34,weblink

James Otis Jr.

In 1764, the Massachusetts politician James Otis Jr. said that, }}

The Stamp Act Congress

In 1765 Otis Jr. attended the Continental Congress, otherwise known as the Stamp Act Congress, along with other colonial delegates. The resolutions of the Congress stated that the Stamp Act had "a manifest tendency to subvert the rights and liberties of the colonists" and that "the only Representatives of the People of these Colonies, are Persons chosen therein by themselves, and that no Taxes ever have been, or can be Constitutionally imposed on them, but by their respective Legislature."WEB,weblink Avalon Project - Resolutions of the Continental Congress October 19, 1765,, 2015-01-07, Furthermore, it was declared that, "it is unreasonable and inconsistent with the Principles and Spirit of the British Constitution, for the People of Great-Britain, to grant to his Majesty the Property of the Colonists."

Rationalist explanations

Sebastian Galiani and Gustavo Torrens propose virtual representation imposed a commitment problem on British colonial elites, which led to the American Revolutionary War.JOURNAL, Sebastian, Galiani, Gustavo, Torrens, Why Not Taxation and Representation? A Note on the American Revolution, October 2016, NBER Working Paper No. 22724, 10.3386/w22724, They suggest the call for "No taxation without representation" and subsequent inclusion of American representatives within British Parliament would have encouraged coalition building between Americans and the British democratic opposition, disrupting the power of the incumbent landed gentry. Through game theoretic models, Galiani and Torrens show that, once in Parliament, Americans could not feasibly commit to political alliances independent of British democrats. As mounting pressure for democratic reform would pose a threat to the British political order, Galiani and Torrens argue British elites would incur greater losses to their domestic clout from American representation than forfeiting a colony. The implications of forfeiting virtual representation forced the British to decide between maintaining the status quo of American colonialism, which was infeasible, and engaging in war.

19th century Britain

Cannon argues that for 18th and 19th century Britain:
the doctrine of virtual representation was no more than a polite fiction. Indeed the assertion that there were no fundamental differences of interest between rich and poor is hard to reconcile with the determination of the upper-class to reserve political power for men of substance.BOOK, John Ashton Cannon, Parliamentary Reform 1640-1832,weblink 1973, CUP Archive, 32, 9780521097369, 2015-01-07,



Further reading

  • BOOK, Cannon, John Ashton, Parliamentary Reform 1640-1832,weblink 1973, CUP Archive, 32, 978-0-521-09736-9, 2015-01-07,
  • JOURNAL, Langford, Paul, 2639238, Property and ‘Virtual Representation’ in Eighteenth-Century England, Historical Journal, 1988, 31, 1, 83–115,
  • McCahill, Michael W. The House of Lords in the Age of George III (1760–1811) (2009) ch 16 reprinted in Parliamentary History (Oct 2009) Supplement 1, Vol. 28, pp 363–385

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