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An essay by Thomas Wentworth Higginson

Some Old-Fashioned Principles

Title:     Some Old-Fashioned Principles
Author: Thomas Wentworth Higginson [More Titles by Higginson]

There has been an effort, lately, to show that when our fathers said, "Taxation without representation is tyranny," they referred not to personal liberties, but to the freedom of a state from foreign power. It is fortunate that this criticism has been made, for it has led to a more careful examination of passages; and this has made it clear, beyond dispute, that the Revolutionary patriots carried their statements more into detail than is generally supposed, and affirmed their principles for individuals, not merely for the state as a whole.

In that celebrated pamphlet by James Otis, for instance, published as early as 1764, "The Rights of the Colonies Vindicated," he thus clearly lays down the rights of the individual as to taxation:--

"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. For what one civil right is worth a rush, after a man's property is subject to be taken from him at pleasure, without his consent? If a man is not his own assessor, in person or by deputy, his liberty is gone, or he is entirely at the mercy of others." [1]

This fine statement has already done duty for liberty, in another contest; for it was quoted by Mr. Sumner in his speech of March 7, 1866, with this commentary:--

"Stronger words for universal suffrage could not be employed. His argument is that if men are taxed without being represented, they are deprived of essential rights; and the continuance of this deprivation despoils them of every civil right, thus making the latter depend upon the right of suffrage, which by a neologism of our day is known as a political right instead of a civil right. Then, to give point to this argument, the patriot insists that in determining taxation, 'every man must be his own assessor, in person or by deputy,' without which his liberty is entirely at the mercy of others. Here, again, in a different form, is the original thunderbolt, 'Taxation without representation is tyranny;' and the claim is made not merely for communities, but for 'every man.'"

In a similar way wrote Benjamin Franklin, some six years after, in that remarkable sheet found among his papers, and called "Declaration of those Rights of the Commonalty of Great Britain, without which they cannot be free." The leading propositions were these three:--

"That every man of the commonalty (excepting infants, insane persons, and criminals) is of common right and by the laws of God a freeman, and entitled to the free enjoyment of liberty. That liberty, or freedom, consists in having an actual share in the appointment of those who frame the laws, and who are to be the guardians of every man's life, property, and peace; for the all of one man is as dear to him as the all of another; and the poor man has an equal right, but more need, to have representatives in the legislature than the rich one. That they who have no voice nor vote in the electing of representatives do not enjoy liberty, but are absolutely enslaved to those who have votes, and to their representatives; for to be enslaved is to have governors whom other men have set over us, and be subject to laws made by the representatives of others, without having had representatives of our own to give consent in our behalf."[2]

In quoting these words of Dr. Franklin, one of his biographers feels moved to add, "These principles, so familiar to us now and so obviously just, were startling and incredible novelties in 1770, abhorrent to nearly all Englishmen, and to great numbers of Americans." Their fair application is still abhorrent to a great many; or else, not willing quite to deny the theory, they limit the application by some such device as "virtual representation." Here, again, James Otis is ready for them; and Charles Sumner is ready to quote Otis, as thus:--

"No such phrase as virtual representation was ever known in law or constitution. It is altogether a subtlety and illusion, wholly unfounded and absurd. We must not be cheated by any such phantom, or any other fiction of law or politics, or any monkish trick of deceit or blasphemy."

These are the sharp words used by the patriot Otis, speaking of those who were trying to convince American citizens that they were virtually represented in Parliament Sumner applied the same principle to the freedmen: it is now applied to women. "Taxation without representation is tyranny." "Virtual representation is altogether a subtlety and illusion, wholly unfounded and absurd." No ingenuity, no evasion, can give any escape from these plain principles. Either you must revoke the maxims of the American Revolution, or you must enfranchise woman. Stuart Mill well says in his autobiography, "The interest of woman is included in that of man exactly as much (and no more) as that of subjects in that of kings."


[Footnote 1: Otis, _Rights of the Colonies_ , p. 58.]

[Footnote 2: Sparks's _Franklin_, ii. 372.]

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Thomas Wentworth Higginson's essay: Some Old-Fashioned Principles