Virtual representation


Virtual representation

Virtual representation was a concept in Hanoverian Britain, based on the belief that men without the vote, such as persons in some cities in England such as Manchester, in the colonies, or simply those in Britain who did not have the franchise, were "virtually represented" by Members of Parliament who had been elected by "similar" voters. There were some shopkeepers who voted for MPs, the theory went; therefore all shopkeepers were virtually represented. Men who owned property in North America voted for MPs—some, indeed, sat in Parliament. This, the advocates of virtual representation held, meant that American interests were virtually represented. Famous defenders of "virtual representation" included William Paley.

In the early stages of the American Revolution, colonists in North America resisted taxes imposed upon them by the British Parliament because the colonies were not represented in Parliament. According to the British constitution, colonists argued, taxes could only be levied on British subjects 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."

George Grenville defended the taxes by arguing that the colonists were virtually represented in Parliament, a position that had critics on both sides of the Atlantic. William Pitt, a defender of colonial rights, ridiculed the concept of 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.] Parliament rejected criticism of the concept, and passed the Declaratory Act in 1766, asserting the right of Parliament to legislate for the colonies "all cases whatsoever." This was another lead into the American Revolution

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