While one could find numerous causes of the American Revolution, perhaps none was a more proximate cause than the Stamp Act of 1765. The Stamp Act was the English Parliament’s taxation on every American’s use of paper, and this was perhaps the greatest manifestation of the idea of virtual representation.
As Soame Jenyns, an Englishman and member of the Board of Trade, explained, virtual representation was the fact “that the Americans, like all Englishmen who subscribed to ‘the principles of our Constitution,’ were comprehended by acts of Parliament through a system of virtual representation, however ‘imaginary’ and however incomprehensible to ‘common Sense’ this conception of representation may have been.” Gordon Wood, The Creation of the American Republic: 1776-1787, 173 quoting Soame Jenyns, The Objections to the Taxation of Our American Colonies, by the Legislature of Great Britain, Briefly Consider’d (London, 1765), 8, 7, 8-9.
In other words, the colonists were identically treated as “Nine-Tenths of the People of Britain,” in that they did not directly elect representatives to the House of Commons but were “represented in Parliament.” Gordon Wood, The Creation of the American Republic: 1776-1787, 174 quoting Soame Jenyns, The Objections to the Taxation of Our American Colonies, by the Legislature of Great Britain, Briefly Consider’d (London, 1765), 8, 7, 8-9.
At the time of the Stamp Act, all Americans and British were virtually represented because they had members of Parliament “as one of that august Assembly by which all the Commons of Great Britain are represented.” Soame Jenyns, The Objections to the Taxation of Our American Colonies, by the Legislature of Great Britain, Briefly Consider’d (London, 1765), 8, 7, 8-9.
Americans vehemently disagreed. They viewed the idea of virtual representation in this context as “futile and absurd,” and inconsistent “with British liberty,” and self-evidently so. Daniel Dulaney, Considerations on the Propriety of Imposing Taxes in the British Colonies (Annapolis, 1765); Church, Oration Delivered March Fifth, 1773; Maurice Moore, The Justice and Policy of Taxing the American Colonies (Wilmington, N.C., 1765).
Generally, Americans understood and agreed with the idea of virtual representation, as it was possible that a group of representatives could fairly and accurately represent the interests of a wide-ranging population. Gordon Wood, The Creation of the American Republic: 1776-1787, 176-77. But virtual representation as applied to America and Britain was unacceptable and intolerable. Had it been applied to America a country unto itself, then virtual representation would have been an effective and desirable principle. It fit well with the disinterestedness that Americans expected of their elected officials, as explained further in The Roman Principle. Id. at 179.
Another idea at least partially underlying the principle of virtual representation was the presumption that the common people alone were not capable of effectively governing. Virtual representation ensured that some representatives would hold power over the country, effectively protecting it against itself.
While the Stamp Act and virtual representation ultimately would spark the animosity that would later manifest itself in the Revolution, the principles of virtual representation still exist in modern America. In fact, virtual representation gets to the heart of how a representative democracy operates.
Now, much of the federal government’s actions are not universally beneficial amongst all Americans. On the whole, however, all Americans have a voice in their government through their representatives. Far removed is the futility the colonists faced in the Revolutionary years of having unresponsive and unrepresentative representatives.
For the record, perhaps it is worth noting that a version of this story is playing out in United States’ territories, which includes: American Samoa, Guam, Northern Mariana Islands, Puerto Rico, U.S. Virgin Islands, and the Minor Outlying Islands (Bajo Nuevo Bank, Baker Island, Howland Island, Jarvis Island, Johnston Atoll, Kingman Reef, Midway Islands, Navassa Island, Palmyra Atoll, Serranilla Bank, and Wake Island). While those territories are virtually represented in the federal government, it is unlikely that their dissatisfaction will lead to revolution.