Virtual Representation: Definition & History

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  • 0:00 Background: The Stamp Act
  • 1:14 Colonial Resistance
  • 2:31 Virtual Representation
  • 4:25 Outcome and Effect
  • 5:19 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Jason McCollom
Though the American colonies did not elect members to the British Parliament, royal authorities claimed their interests were protected through 'virtual representation.' The colonists disagreed, and tensions ensued. Read about the theory of virtual representation, and test your knowledge with a quiz.

Background: The Stamp Act

The old saying goes, 'Nothing is certain except death and taxes.' Sure enough, the issue of taxes has a long, contentious history. Even before the United States existed as an independent country, a bitter debate over taxes and 'virtual representation' shaped the coming of the American Revolution.

But before we get into the specifics of virtual representation, let's first get a little background on the issue that inspired the term, the Stamp Act. Passed by the British Parliament (the House of Commons) in 1765, the Stamp Act stipulated that all official business had to be conducted on stamped paper. The affixed stamp indicated the stamp tax had been paid.

This measure affected, in one way or another, almost every colonial resident in British America, because all official papers required the stamp: leases, deeds, court documents, pamphlets, diplomas, marriage licenses, wills, newspapers, insurance policies, ships' papers, even dice and playing cards. To add insult to injury, anyone caught violating the Stamp Act would not be tried by a jury of their peers, but instead would have punishment meted out by Crown-controlled vice admiralty courts.

Colonial Resistance

The Stamp Act led to unprecedented colonial resistance, and many Americans argued they were 'miserably burdened and oppressed with taxes.' The stamp tax seemed to colonists an attempt to increase royal control over British America at the expense of local and provincial colonial control. The American colonists had long willingly paid taxes levied by their own local or provincial assemblies. The stamp tax, however, was instituted by a distant Parliament, without the consent of the colonists. It seemed to be a measure that threatened liberty in the colonies.

Burning of the Stamp Act, Boston
Burning of the Stamp Act, Boston

To demonstrate their official displeasure, colonial representatives met to discuss resistance to the stamp tax. In New York City at the Stamp Act Congress, the delegates began organizing for boycotts against British imports, among other issues. But the most significant decision at the Stamp Act Congress was the declaration that if the American colonists had not elected representatives to the British Parliament -- in fact, they didn't even have direct contact with the current members -- then Parliament had no right to levy taxes on the colonies. One delegate proclaimed, 'The people of these colonies are not, and from their local circumstances, cannot be represented in the House of Commons.' Colonists demanded actual -- or deputy -- representation.

Virtual Representation

British officials replied that, to the contrary, the American colonists were represented in the House of Commons. The theory of virtual representation, they explained, meant that Parliament had in mind the interest of all the King's subjects, no matter where they resided. Thus, the colonists had 'virtual' political representation. Virtual representation was critical because there were many regions in England itself that were not directly represented by Parliament, British authorities explained.

Furthermore, royal officials continued, in some areas in England that were represented in the House of Commons, regular people did not choose who represented them. Instead, the local nobility or the king himself picked their representatives. In fact, King George III personally appointed more than 50 members of the House of Commons, which was more than ten percent of the entire chamber. So, British officials concluded, virtual representation was a reasonable and generous solution to the impasse over the Stamp Act.

King George III
King George III

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