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Saturday, June 24, 2023

The Surprising Origins of the ‘No Taxation Without Representation!’ Slogan

The phrase that was popular during America’s own revolution owes a hat tip to a famous Englishman, who took a stand against King Charles I’s ‘ship tax.’

Image Credit: iStock

Ask most Americans where the slogan “No taxation without representation!” came from and the likely response will be “American colonists protesting against Britain in the 1760s.” But the spirit, if not the precise letter of the phrase, originated more than a century before. Moreover, we can thank the Brits themselves for it. It started with something called the “ship tax.”

Since the early Middle Ages, English custom allowed the monarch to impose a special levy in times of war upon citizens who lived in coastal settlements. They could meet the requirement by providing ships, shipbuilding materials, or money for the Crown to build ships (hence the name, “ship tax”). Kings and Queens levied the “tax” as a royal prerogative, meaning they skipped the annoyance of securing the consent of Parliament as required in the Magna Carta of 1215.

So long as the tax fell upon a small portion of the population and only in a “national emergency,” the monarchy got away with it for centuries.

King James I provoked a fuss in 1619 when he extended the ship tax to London but it was his successor, Charles I, who sparked a far bigger uproar over it just nine years later. Charles shut down Parliament and then, in 1628 and in peacetime no less, he imposed the ship tax on all counties in England. It was a tax on everybody, and nobody could do anything about it. In subsequent years, the King reaffirmed and increased it in the face of fierce and growing opposition.

Enter one John Hampden, a Buckinghamshire landowner first elected to Parliament in 1621. When he refused to pay the full balance of the ship tax the King said he owed, Hampden’s case proceeded to the twelve judges of the Court of Exchequer. The King, Hampden and his lawyers maintained, had no right to levy the tax in the absence of Parliamentary approval.

Though Hampden lost the case by a vote of 7 to 5, Charles was embarrassed that his victory was so narrow. When the English Civil War began in 1642, John Hampden was among the first the King unsuccessfully attempted to arrest. The issue on which he risked challenging the King, taxation without representation, proved to be a major cause of that war.

Hampden died in battle in 1643, six years before Charles himself was beheaded. Almost four centuries later, Hampden is remembered as a martyr for liberty and his name is honored eponymously by numerous towns and institutions. Hampden-Sydney College in Virginia is one of many examples.

James Otis of Massachusetts is usually credited as the first American to employ “no taxation without representation” in the run-up to the Declaration of Independence. He wrote in 1764 that “the very act of taxing, exercised over those who are not represented, appears to me to be depriving them of one of their most essential rights as freemen; and if continued, seems to be in effect an entire disfranchisement of every civil right.”

Liberty-loving patriots like John Hampden and James Otis went to war because their governments dared tax without the consent of elected parliamentarians. As bad as taxation without representation was in their day, I’ll bet at today’s rates with representation they might well raise a fuss again.

For Additional Information, See:

The Compact that Preceded the Magna Carta by Lawrence W. Reed

Edmund Burke’s Little-Known Speech that Eroded the British Monarchy’s Command of Money and Power by Lawrence W. Reed

The Peasants’ Revolt of 1381 by Lawrence W. Reed

America’s Republic: How the Great Experiment Came About by Lawrence W. Reed


  • Lawrence W. Reed is FEE's President Emeritus, having previously served for nearly 11 years as FEE’s president (2008-2019). He is also FEE's Humphreys Family Senior Fellow and Ron Manners Global Ambassador for Liberty. His Facebook page is here and his personal website is lawrencewreed.com.