April 20, 2016

Tip to the DC City Council

The DC City Council is thinking about changing the city's license plates from "Taxation Without Representation" to "End Taxation Without Representation," which supposedly is a stronger way of saying it. But for over a decade we have argued that the phrase - with or without the verb - is not what people think. Here's from a piece we wrote back then:

City Desk has attempted futilely from time to time to point out that the slogan on our city license plates is not a demand for freedom but rather one in support of a slight modification of the colonial system existing prior to the revolution. It fell far short, for example, of Patrick Henry's demand of "give me liberty or give me death" as it basically called for token representation in Parliament rather than granting the colonies control over their own affairs. It was a puny slogan devised by members of the colonial Massachusetts equivalent of our Board of Trade with little to do with the eventual demands of the colonies as laid out in the Declaration of Independence.

Now we have learned that this division in the colonies went back even earlier. In 1754, Benjamin Franklin attempted to use a conference on relations with the Indians to foster the idea of a colonial union that would have significant control over its own business. His demand was get the colonies on a par with the rest of England, remarking that "It is supposed an undoubted right of Englishmen not to be taxed but by their own consent given through their own representatives."

Note that he was not talking about token representation in Congress a la  Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton but real local power. The reaction of the colonial governor of Massachusetts was to make a counter offer diluting the number and power of the colonies' representatives on the proposed Grand Council. Governor Shirley then proposed a little sweetener - representation in Parliament. Franklin said the idea was a good one provided the colonies had enough representatives and that all acts of Parliament restricting trade in the colonies be repealed. Writes HW Brand in the 'First American,' "Needless to say, this proviso severely diminished the appeal to Parliament of Shirley's suggestion. What was the point of having colonies if not to be able to discriminate against them in trade, manufacture, or otherwise? Franklin knew this."

Nothing came of the Albany plan, but it is clear that Ben Franklin, had he been alive today, would have sought something better for his license plate than the a request for token representation in the national legislature without any real power. We are fortunate, however, that he was instead alive at the time of the Declaration of Independence. If Eleanor Norton had been in charge, we would still be a British colony.

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