What Is Taxation Without Representation?

Taxation Without Representation Explained in Less Than 5 Minutes

People outside near the Lincoln Memorial and the Reflecting Pool in Washington, D.C.
•••

miralex / Getty Images

“Taxation without representation” is a slogan used to describe being forced by a government to pay a tax without having a say—such as through an elected representative—in the actions of that government.

Learn what taxation without representation is, its history in the U.S., and how it affects Americans today.

Definition and Example of Taxation Without Representation

“Taxation without representation” is a phrase describing the situation of being subject to taxes imposed by a government without being represented in the decisions made by that government.

For example, the residents of Washington, D.C., pay federal taxes, but the District of Columbia has no voting power in Congress. Because the District of Columbia is not a state, it sends a non-voting delegate to the U.S. House of Representatives. While this delegate can draft legislation, they can’t vote. In addition, the District of Columbia can’t send anyone to the U.S. Senate, so it is effectively shut out of that congressional body.

While the residents of the District of Columbia are subject to new federal taxes or increases of existing federal taxes that are passed by Congress, they do not have someone representing them who can actually vote on this legislation. They are, therefore, taxed without representation.

How Taxation Without Representation Works

In the U.S., the concept of taxation without representation has its origins in a 1754 letter from Benjamin Franklin to Governor William Shirley of Massachusetts.

In this letter, titled “On the Imposition of Direct Taxes Upon the Colonies Without Their Consent,”  Franklin wrote:

“...[E]xcluding the people of the colonies from all share in the choice of the grand council will give extreme dissatisfaction, as well as the taxing them by act of Parliament, where they have no representative. …It is supposed an undoubted right of Englishmen not to be taxed but by their own consent, given through their representatives.”

The phrase was widely used a decade later in the colonial response to Parliament’s imposition of the Stamp Act of 1765. This Stamp Act—among other things—imposed a tax on paper, legal documents, and various commodities. Although later repealed, it was replaced by the Declaratory Act, which essentially stated that the British Parliament had absolute legislative power over the colonies.

The Stamp Act and other British tax acts affecting the colonies were a major catalyst for the American Revolution.

Criticism of Taxation Without Representation

Throughout the history of the U.S.—and even today—various disenfranchised groups and individuals have criticized the fact that they have been subjected to taxation without representation.

Free Black Men

Throughout most of the 19th century, free Black men complained they were subject to taxation without representation, and petitioned their governments for tax exemptions, in some cases receiving them.

It was not until the 15th Amendment was ratified in 1870 that it was made unconstitutional to prevent a citizen’s right to vote on the basis of race.

Women

Similarly, it was not until the 19th Amendment was ratified in 1920 that it was made unconstitutional in the U.S. to prevent a citizen’s right to vote on the basis of sex.

Before this amendment was ratified, many women appealed that they were subject to taxation without representation. For example, in 1872, American social reformer and women's rights activist Susan B. Anthony went on a speaking tour to deliver an address called “Is It a Crime for a Citizen of the United States to Vote?” In this address, she said:

“The women, dissatisfied as they are with this form of government, that enforces taxation without representation…are this half of the people left wholly at the mercy of the other half, in direct violation of the spirit and letter of the decorations of the framers of this government, every one of which was based on the immutable principle of equal rights to all.”

Residents of Washington, D.C.

As mentioned, residents are subject to federal taxes without effective representation because the District sends only a non-voting delegate to the U.S. House of Representatives and sends no one to the Senate. This has caused much criticism, both within and outside Washington, D.C.

In Washington, D.C., for example, license plates with the phrase “End Taxation Without Representation” at the bottom are issued by default to newly registered vehicles.

Many believe this issue of taxation without representation is a strong argument in favor of D.C. statehood. Others believe, instead, that residents of Washington, D.C., should not be subject to the same federal income taxes as residents of represented states.

Residents of U.S. Territories

The U.S. has five permanently inhabited territories: American Samoa, the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, Guam, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

Similar to Washington, D.C., the five U.S. territories only have non-voting delegates in the U.S. House and no members in the U.S. Senate.

While those residing in the territories are subject to different income tax rules than other residents of the U.S. and, in some cases, pay no federal income taxes, they are subject to other federal taxes, such as the Social Security tax and Medicare tax.

As with Washington, D.C., many have called for statehood for these U.S. territories, especially Puerto Rico.

Other Groups

Other groups, such as felons, teenagers, undocumented immigrants, and those who must pay taxes to states in which they do not live, have raised similar complaints that they are subjected to taxation without representation.

Key Takeaways

  • “Taxation without representation” is a phrase used to describe being subjected to taxes without having a legislative say in the government imposing the tax.
  • In the U.S., the phrase has its roots in the colonial period when colonists were angered by the British Parliament imposing taxes on them while the colonists themselves had no representatives in Parliament.
  • Throughout the history of the U.S., other groups, such as free Black men, women, and residents of certain jurisdictions, have complained that they were and remain subject to taxation without representation.