Unequal representation caused problems for Britain in 1776, & will for us soon

Summary: Conservatives belittle concerns about America’s increasingly unrepresentative government. Citizens in these big states have 29% the voting weight of small states in the Federal government (even slaves were weighted at 60%). Citizens in cities have less representation than those in rural areas (just as in Britain’s 18th century rotten boroughs). Unequal political representation has caused serious problems in other societies, eroding away their legitimacy and increasing social tensions. As shown in a new study, it was a major cause of the American Revolution (despite the colonies’ low taxes). It will cause problems for us unless fixed.

1776 Was More About Representation than Taxation

By Jen Deaderick in the NBER Digest, December 2016.

“Monarchists resisting an incipient democracy movement in Britain prevented a compromise that could have placated the American colonists.”

“No taxation without representation” — the rallying cry of the American Revolution — gives the impression that taxation was the principal irritant between Britain and its American colonies. But, in fact, taxes in the colonies were much lower than taxes in Britain. The central grievance of the colonists was their lack of a voice in the government that ruled them.

“The political underpinnings of the American Revolution have been discussed and debated for more than two hundred years, and there are multiple explanations of the causes and multiple analyses of the revolutionary dynamic. One question about the revolution that has remained difficult to answer is why, if a little representation in Parliament could have prevented a war for independence, did King George III not grant it?

“This question is the motivation for Sebastian Galiani and Gustavo Torrens’ study “Why Not Taxation and Representation? A Note on the American Revolution”. They note, in drawing attention to the role of representation as a spark for revolution, that the average British citizen who resided in Britain paid 26 shillings per year in taxes, compared with only one shilling per year in New England, even though the living standard of the colonists was arguably higher than that of the British.

“Most accounts of the events that led to the American Revolution depict a conflict between the colonies and a unified British government. In fact, the researchers argue, the reality was more subtle. They draw on a variety of historical accounts to describe the tension between two rival British interest groups, the landed gentry and the democratically inclined opposition, and to explain the failure to reach a compromise that would have granted representation to the colonies. In particular, they focus on how extending representation would have affected the relative influence of these two groups.


“The researchers consider events a century before the American Revolution to have set the stage for the domestic tensions in Britain at the time of the colonial protests. In 1649, during the English Civil War, a rebellion of Parliamentarians overthrew — and beheaded — King Charles I. Oliver Cromwell, who ruled for most of the subsequent decade, supported expanding representation in government beyond landowners, and his government was sympathetic to grievances like those raised by the American colonies many decades later. Following Cromwell’s death in 1658, however, Royalists returned to power and sought to restore the historical ruling class.

“When the colonies asked for representation in the middle of the 18th century, the monarchy was still recovering from its dethroning, and the landed gentry, now returned to primary power, still felt vulnerable. The researchers point out that the Royalists were contending with factions that sought to bring democracy to Britain. While these opposition groups did not hold significant power, if representatives from the American colonies were invited to join Parliament, they likely would have sympathized with the opposition and expanded their influence. The researchers see this tension as critical to understanding why Britain was so reluctant to enfranchise the colonists.

“There were proposals to settle the colonial crisis peacefully, most notably by Thomas Pownall and Adam Smith. Smith, for example, proposed “a system in which the political representation of Great Britain and America would be proportional to the contribution that each polity was making to the public treasury of the empire.” Such proposals were rejected by the ruling coalition in Britain. “The landed gentry, who controlled the incumbent government, feared that making concessions to the American colonies would intensify the pressure for democratic reforms, thus jeopardizing their economic and political position,” the researchers find.

“Ultimately, the opposition of the landed gentry to the demands for representation by the American colonies pushed the colonies to rebellion and independence, but helped to delay the development of the incipient democratic movement in Britain.”


Abstract of the paper

Why Not Taxation and Representation? A Note on the American Revolution

By Sebastian Galiani and Gustavo Torrens.
National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER), October 2016.

“Why did the most prosperous colonies in the British Empire mount a rebellion? Even more puzzling, why didn’t the British agree to have American representation in Parliament and quickly settle the dispute peacefully? At first glance, it would appear that a deal could have been reached to share the costs of the global public goods provided by the Empire in exchange for political power and representation for the colonies. (At least, this was the view of men of the time such as Lord Chapman, Thomas Pownall and Adam Smith.)

“We argue, however, that the incumbent government in Great Britain, controlled by the landed gentry, feared that allowing Americans to be represented in Parliament would undermine the position of the dominant coalition, strengthen the incipient democratic movement, and intensify social pressures for the reform of a political system based on land ownership. Since American elites could not credibly commit to refuse to form a coalition with the British opposition, the only realistic options were to maintain the original colonial status or fight a full-scale war of independence.”

About the authors

Sebastian Galiani is a professor of economics at the U of Maryland; see his website. Gustavo Torrens is an assistant professor is an assistant professor of economics at Indiana U; see his website.

About the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER)

Founded in 1920, the NBER is the nation’s leading nonprofit economic research organization, a private, non-profit, non-partisan organization dedicated to conducting economic research.

The Bureau’s associates concentrate on four types of empirical research: developing new statistical measurements, estimating quantitative models of economic behavior, assessing the economic effects of public policies, and projecting the effects of alternative policy proposals. The NBER is supported by research grants from government agencies and private foundations, by investment income, and by contributions from individuals and corporations.

For More Information

If you liked this post, like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter. See all posts about Trump & the New Populism, about Reforming America: Steps to New Politics, and especially these…

  1. Is the US government illegitimate? If so, does that justify violent revolution?
  2. Undercutting people’s trust in the Republic: another step to destroying the Republic.
  3. What if Samuel Adams tried to start the Revolution by blogging?
  4. Samuel Adams started the Revolution because he didn’t have Twitter.

7 replies »

  1. A very interesting article–thanks for posting! But this historical example is not entirely analagous to our present-day situation, is it? For the analogy to have bite, we would need for today’s blue states to be to today’s red states as the American colonies were to England. But if anything, the opposite comparison seems more apt–today’s blue states and 1776 England both being developed, urban and populous, and today’s red states and the 1776 colonies being less developed, rural, and sparsely populated.

    Do you think this affects the value of the analogy at all?


    • Larry,

      “The specific groups being underrepresented are irrelevant.”

      It is hard for me to imagine how it possibly could be. The most serious potential effects of underrepresentation require action from the affected groups; different groups have different goals, interests, relations to the existing power structure. Based on this, their likely actions in response to a given level of under- or over-representation or any change in that level, are very likely to be completely different.


    • Matt,

      “any change in that level, are very likely to be completely different.”

      You’re way overthinking this. The relevant point here is that substantial underrepresentation of large groups leads to problems. We lack the ability to predict the timing and nature of their response, but then we can almost never make predictions about society to that level of detail — and won’t be able to until Hari Seldon invents psychohistory.

      Until then we have to stumble along by identifying obvious problems and responding to them before they become so obvious that we can make the specific predictions you like. By that time it’s too late for prevention, and probably too late for mitigation. Just attempting to clean up afterwards.

      I have no idea what you are attempting to say.


  2. “We lack the ability to predict the timing and nature of their response, but then we can almost never make predictions about society to that level of detail — and won’t be able to until Hari Seldon invents psychohistory.”

    But isn’t the article you cite doing exactly that? Identifying different groups within society, analyzing their incentives, and predicting what they would do in different scenarios? Isn’t this exactly what a large proportion of political science research does? Is all of this research nonsense?

    In the American Revolution, underrepresentation created incentives for the colonies to secede. If we want to use this episode as an analogy to think about our current situation, it is highly relevant what are the incentives of the groups which are currently underrepresented vis-a-vis secession and/or other disruptive actions.

    In light of the article you have cited, the argument you seem to be making, that we should not even bother to inquire into the strategic motives of the relevant players, strikes me as bizarre.


  3. To follow the inference from Matt’s argument to a conclusion: if, as in the case of the American colonies, under-representation is the causative factor for rebellion and secession, then the revolt would occur in the most populous states which would move to secede from the remainder.

    I suggest the problems within our Republic are more complex than can be represented by focusing only on representation (congressional or electoral). The abandonment of substantive controls over the power of wealth to influence (indeed to buy) election outcomes is a factor that may have more import. The general feeling that the citizenry has lost influence over its government is a more impactful factor. This feeling was one of the factors which enabled Donald Trump to win the presidency in spite of being vastly outspent by Hillary Clinton.

    I think the discussion of the 17th and 18th century landed gentry in England vis a vis the interests of the colonies, discussed in the article, has the same elements as the widespread concern about the rise of a new oligarchy/plutocracy today.

    The article may not be a perfect representation of this analogy, but I think it does a pretty good job. And, of course, I apologize in advance for shortcomings in my argument. :-)


    • John,

      “I suggest the problems within our Republic are more complex than can be represented by focusing only on representation (congressional or electoral).”

      That’s not the theory. Rather, there are a wide range of concerns. What pushed the Founders into revolt was their inability to get the government to pay attention by election of representatives — or any other mechanism. For example, several of the Colonies send Franklin to London as their agent from 1757 to 1775 — a mission which ended in total failure.

      “a general feeling that the citizenry has lost influence over its government is a more impactful factor.”

      I agree that many people feel that way today. But it results from people sitting on their butts whining, like customers unhappy that the service in the local pub is not match the level deserved by their awesomeness.

      We see that in the comments on the FM website. I’ve written scores of posts about ways we can work to reform American politics. Not only do they get few pageviews, the comments are mostly whines that the situation is hopeless OR that they prefer to sit on their butts until the Great Day when the people arise to smite their oppressors. Peons at work.

      The abandonment of substantive controls over the power of wealth to influence (indeed to buy) election outcomes is a factor that may have more import. The general feeling that the citizenry has lost influence over its government is a more impactful factor.


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