53

The thirteen colonies rebelled after "No Taxation without Representation", and Great Britain probably could have appeased them for quite some time the same way they did Canada (who stayed with Great Britain against America).

Why didn't Great Britain give the Colonies seats in Parliament? In contrast to British rule over India, where a small country occupied a larger and foreign cultured country, Americans at the time were mostly the same British citizens who spoke English and were only a few generations "off the boat"

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    Note that in the 1770s, it was harder to commute from America to Britain because there were no airplanes. ;-) If the Americans were a little bit more patient, I am pretty sure that a totally satisfactory full-citizen system would be achieved once the airplanes become common. – Luboš Motl May 17 '16 at 9:19
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    @MarkC.Wallace Actually, there was - the House of Commons could easily create or eliminate boroughs by act at will, just as it eventually did in 1832. So the legal possibility was squarely there; having the political will to do so is another thing entirely, of course. – Felix Goldberg May 17 '16 at 12:27
  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – T.E.D. May 18 '16 at 21:24
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    Before the Reform Acts of the 19th Century, parliamentary representation was about property, not people. If you had no (landed) property, you had no "stake" in the country. – TheHonRose Jan 20 '18 at 15:18
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    @MarkC.Wallace: Parliament had been sovereign since at least 1688 - it had full rights to legislate anything that was not an incontrovertible violation of the Common Law, including the creation and destruction of new seats.. – Pieter Geerkens Jan 20 '18 at 16:40
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I think there were two basic issues here:

First off, it had never been done before in England. This was effectively the first colony outside of the British Isles peopled almost entirely with Englishmen that had "grown up" to an extent it could possibly consider running its own affairs. There was no real precedent for this situation.

When this situation came up later, in places like Canada and Australia, the British government knew what could happen, and had incentive to work something out.

Second, it was an issue of power and face. Parliament felt like they had the right to legislate for the entire Empire, and any kind of accommodation would necessarily entail politicians there willingly giving up some of that power.

Once they got rebuked by the colonists in the use of their taxing power, it was felt by the ruling party (the more authoritarian Tories), that they had to establish this power for themselves out of principle. As they kept trying this, the American colonists felt more and more like they had to resist the unrepresented taxation, again as a matter of principle. This instituted a spiraling cycle where both sides continually got more radical. Without compromise there was only one possible result, and every cycle brought the two sides further apart.*

What the colonies were initially agitating for was something like the modern Commonwealth system, where the monarch would still be head of state, but the legislation duties would be carried out by a local elected body, not Parliament in London.

* - The details of this political death-spiral are described at length in Barbara Tuchman's The March of Folly.

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    "This instituted a spiraling cycle where both sides continually got more radical." To what extent is this true? Last I recall Britain decided to make concessions to the colonists, eventually revoking the taxes (most of which were initially enforced to pay for the war against the French which protected the colonist's liberties) with the exception of tea. And the colonists still had issue with paying off their debts, because by then it had become about more than just tax and representation. So they wanted to provoke a reaction. – inappropriateCode Aug 11 '16 at 10:37
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    There isn't really space to answer this in a comment, except to say its not a very good representation of what happened, and suggest reading the book I linked in the footnote. Some of the other contemporary writing of the time might also be helpful. The most enjoyable read of the lot is undoubtedly Ben Franklin's wonderfully satirical Rules by Which a Great Empire May Be Reduced to a Small One. Note that of its 20 points, only 4 have anything to do with taxes. – T.E.D. Aug 11 '16 at 13:28
  • As much as the general taxation issue, I believe the colonists resented the way in which the particular taxes levied artificially constrained the economic ability of domestic commerce and industry to compete against native British interests. – Pieter Geerkens Jan 20 '18 at 16:26
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Great Britain considered the colonies represented through virtual representation and as James Macpherson wrote in 1775

Had the Americans, instead of flying to arms, submitted the same supposed grievance [as the taxed though unrepresented Palatine counties in England had], in a peaceable and dutiful manner, to the Legislature, I can perceive no reason why their request should be refused. Had they, like the County and City of Chester, represented, that "for lack of Knights and Burgesses to represent them in the High Court of Parliament, they had been oftentimes TOUCHED and GRIEVED with Acts and Statutes made within the said Court, derogatory to their most ancient jurisdictions, liberties and privileges, and prejudicial to their quietness, rest and peace;" this Country [of Britain] would, I am persuaded, have no objection to their being represented in her Parliament...

It should also be noted that the American revolution was an American civil war between secessionists and loyalists.

It must always be remembered, that they are represented by the same virtual representation as the greater part of Englishmen; and that, if by change of place, they have less share in the legislature than is proportionate to their opulence, they, by their removal, gained that opulence, and had originally, and have now, their choice of a vote at home, or riches at a distance.

Samuel Johnson, Taxation No Tyranny

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    "Virtual Representation" is basically like a Montana Senator claiming that DC has "virtual" representation in the Senate because they could appeal to any senator they like, even though they don't have the capability of voting against any of them. IOW: its horseshit. – T.E.D. May 17 '16 at 14:43
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    Democracy and parliament were still young (under 100 years old). The Empire was even younger, (< 50 years). Parliament was not designed to rule over an Empire - design testing for ruling over a country hadn't yet finished. They hadn't yet invented the concept of "opposition"; they did not understand the notion that there could be a diversity of opinion among M.P. All M.P. were "Pro Britain" ; they woudn't have understood the concept "Anti-Colonial" or "American" - there were just British citizens in the world. – Mark C. Wallace May 17 '16 at 17:01
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    @MarkC.Wallace Parliament dates itself to 1215: parliament.uk/about/living-heritage/evolutionofparliament/… making it over 500 years old at the time of the revolution. I'd also disagree with what you say about 'anti-colonial'; there were definitely people in favour of greater or lesser levels of exploitation. – pjc50 May 17 '16 at 18:57
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    Parliament existed in 1215, but parliament as a national sovereign only dates from the Glorious Revolution. The Glorious Revolution changed everything about Parliament & the crown. – Mark C. Wallace May 17 '16 at 19:48
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    Easily the worst answer on this page. The entire Declaration of Independence is a refutation of it, and I'm pretty sure I trust Jefferson, Franklin, Adams, et. al. more than the self-justifying MacPherson, never mind that the quote isn't even about the rebellion by the Americans, which hadn't happened yet. – RBarryYoung May 18 '16 at 20:52
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Because residents of Great Britain also had "taxation without representation". Britain in the 1700s was not a democracy. Members of Parliament were not members of the general public, and were not elected by the general public. Even when elections happened, they were not in the least fair, and the voting areas had nothing to do with the numbers of voters or the total number of people there (see rotten boroughs). Higher-class Americans such as Ben Franklin might have been on a level where they could have had a vote if they lived in Britain, but they wouldn't have had a hope of being a member of Parliament.

So Britain (or more precisely King George III) wouldn't have dreamed of giving the colonists rights which native Britons did not have.

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    There is no reason Franklin could not have been an MP: take for example Rose Fuller who was a doctor/scientist/politician who was active in the Jamaica Assembly before returning to England. He was elected in three different constituencies in turn, two of which had too many voters to be controlled by anybody – Henry May 19 '16 at 20:26
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    I second @Henry's point, I've never heard of any legal obstruction to MPs or the PM being foreign born. For example, there was one PM; Bonar Law who was born in Canada. – inappropriateCode Aug 11 '16 at 10:44
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Attempting to answer the actual question, Giving the colonists seats in Parliament would not have suited the aims of the parliamentarians and therefore it did not happen.

In contrast to the acquisition of (most of) Canada from the French (ignoring the presence of the First Nations and their standing governance of course), the Colonies that eventually became the first thirteen states (of the USA) were all initially created as commercial ventures chartered by the crown. As such they were expected to contribute to their own upkeep and defense. This expectation eventually became contested before Parliament due to its move to tax the Colonies to recoup the costs of the "French and Indian War" (it goes by multiple names, but can be seen as an offshoot of the Seven Years War), which was in fact portion of a world-wide conflict and one to which the Colonies had already contributed much blood and treasure.

In fact, I have heard it quipped (in discussions with other people) that taxing the Colonies was a bit of a choice pastime, like fox hounding, for some parliamentarians. This exaggerates matters to an extreme, but such a statement wasn't entirely without motivation. After all, the Colonies were expected to pay tax like any other commercial venture, even if those taxes bordered on the absurd.

And, hopefully, that gets down the the core of the matter. By the time the Declaration of Independence was penned the Colonies had tried multiple times (in contrast to the assertion of Macpherson quoted above) to be taken seriously by Parliament and treated as something more than a cash machine for the treasury and the initial colonial sponsors. Many colonists were also enraged by the efforts of the crown to restrict white settlement west of the Appalachians, in adherence to the treaty that ended the prior North American / European conflict in 1763. When it was all added up, the Colonies had had enough of Parliament (IIRC, opinion on the crown was mixed) and decided that they were going to engage in the adult act of separation instead of the presumed childish one of further supplication.

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    "world-wide conflict and one to which the Colonies had already contributed much blood and treasure." Evidently not enough. Every major war the British Empire got into accrued huge public debt. And considering that the empire's military was necessary to protect the colonies and their liberties from French absolutism, it wasn't unreasonable to expect the colonists to pay high tax like everyone else. To prove the taxation unfair one would have to make comparisons with other colonies and Britain. I suspect the sob story narrative of unfair taxation is more revolutionary myth than fact. – inappropriateCode Aug 11 '16 at 10:55
5

One reason was that in the late 18th century, Britain was trying to define who was "British." And this, led in turn to the question of what a "colony" was and "how much" representation one should have. There were two kinds of colonies.

The first kind was fundamentally empty land (America, Canada, later Australia), settled mostly by people of English descent. These colonies could be considered "transplanted" parts of England. Some, but by no means all, people on the British Isles would consider these people British.

The second kind of colony was territories like India, and late Africa, that were conquests, rather than settlements where "Englishmen" established their rule over non English peoples. Few people anywhere would consider the "natives" of these lands British.

Culturally, it was easier to give representation to the first group of people, who were (mostly) of English descent anyway. But the logistics of the time made this difficult; there was no air travel (only sea), and no telephones or radios to connect e.g. England and America. At best, the colonies could elect represenatives who would be seated in London. With Canada and Australia, England learned from the American example, and also benefited from the better transportation and communication of the 19th century. Perhaps in those cases, it was a matter of when, rather than whether they would gain representation.

With the second group of colonies, the question was one of "who is an Englishman and who should be represented?" England was a very class conscious society at the time, and controlling for education and economic status, there were large social gaps between being a Londoner or a resident of a northern city like Liverpool or York. Within the United Kingdom, the difference between an "Englishman" and a Scots, Welshman, or "orange" Irish was significant. After that, there were major (perceived or real) differences between people in the British Isles and those "offshore" as discussed in a previous paragraph. Finally people like "Indians" never got anything like full representation; if they had, they would have "swamped" the British empire on sheer numbers.

  • I'm not sure this answers the question. OP asked why Parliament didn't give the (American) colonists voting rights; you've argued that it was easier to do so than to give other colonists voting rights, but you haven't answered why (American) colonists didn't get voting rights? – Mark C. Wallace May 18 '16 at 21:41
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    @MarkC.Wallace: I accidentally "released" my answer before finishing it. – Tom Au May 18 '16 at 21:45
  • @MarkC.Wallace I think he means that it would establish a principle that "colonies = mainland" which would be disastrous regarding India – Charles Shiller May 18 '16 at 22:04
  • I'm not persuaded re: American colonies, but the argument is speculative. The colonies were also content with the representation that Franklin provided in London; had Parliament accepted that, all would have been happy. I believe the colonies would have been happy if taxation had been devolved to local representative government (which isn't what OP asked, which is why I don't answer the question). But (a) neither solution wouldn't have satisfied Parliament's demand for unquestioned supremacy and (b) either would have been an economic catastrophe. – Mark C. Wallace May 18 '16 at 22:47
2

This is not a complete answer and partly a comment on some of the other answers, but:

It is true as some have said that the British Parliament then was not and not expected to be directly representative in a modern democratic and numerical sense of the will of the people; but nor was the United States Congress initially; until the early nineteenth century several states had property requirements to be able to vote.

What had been the Parliament of England and Wales had already been enlarged once to include representatives from Scotland by the Act of Union of 1707 and would be again by the Acts of Union of 1800 to include representatives from Ireland, so it was not inconceivable that colonial representatives might have been added too if that had seemed a workable compromise.

However, given the time it took to cross the Atlantic by sailing ship it might not have been very practical.

The delay in communication between American Members of Parliament and those they were supposed to represent would have made it harder to stay in touch. Because Members of Parliament were then unpaid, the length of absence from their farms and businesses that would have been required of those serving in a Parliament across the Atlantic might have been too much of a burden for many.

Travel time by sailing ship was possibly also one of the reasons for the failure of British policy in relation to the Colonies both before and during the War. It took weeks to get a report from America to London and receive instructions back; this was just close enough for governors and generals on the spot to be obliged to await instructions from London, but far enough away that by the time instructions arrived they were based on out of date information.

1

In 1775, the only people allowed to vote in England were men who owned a minimum amount of real estate. The wealth of the person was irrelevant and if a wealthy merchant wanted to vote, they had to become land owners. Only about 3% of the men in the entire country qualified and the other 97% and all of the women were ignored. And those who were able to vote had absolutely no say in the selection of members of the House of Lords.

The colonists did not want the right to vote and it was rarely mentioned in any of the voluminous material issued by the supporters of independence between 1770 and 1780. They understood where they stood in the King and Government's view of taxes, finances and political power, and it was on the bottom and was going to remain there.

-2

"We the Colonists" wanted our own law. The English didn't think us very valuable unlike say India, Egypt or South Africa...let alone equal to the Caribbean and the Spanish possessions. The "United States" did have a vote on its Constitution though. That came after the War of course.

Apparently looking at the evidence the British didn't give "the Colonists" the right to vote because we wanted it.

Apparently "the Colonists" were willing to fight for that too. The Boer War was no cakewalk for Great Britain either...

  • British presence in Egypt and South Africa post-date the American Revolution by decades, and the British didn't give their Indian possessions even a fraction of the rights the American colonies did. – Steven Burnap May 23 '16 at 20:10
  • Average Joe in the colonies enjoyed more freedom than anywhere else in the empire, inclusive of Britain itself, and India and other conquests in Africa had much less than Britain. In economic terms the thirteen colonies were worth much less than the tiny sugar islands in the Caribbean, but they were also considerably freer than those islands which were basically a collection of plantations staffed by slaves. – inappropriateCode Aug 11 '16 at 11:08

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