“No taxation without representation” is perhaps the most famous rallying cry in American history. The provenance of that slogan stretches back at least to December 1754, when Benjamin Franklin wrote the following in a letter to British army officer and politician William Shirley:
“It is suppos’d an undoubted Right of Englishmen not to be taxed but by their own Consent given thro’ their Representatives. That the Colonies have no Representatives in Parliament. … That compelling the Colonies to pay Money without their Consent would be rather like raising Contributions in an Enemy’s Country, than taxing of Englishmen for their own publick Benefit.”
The roll call of the “founding fathers” who spoke out passionately against taxation without representation includes men like John Hancock, Patrick Henry and Samuel Adams. Complaints from them and their fellow colonists steadily grew, especially after the British Parliament passed the Stamp Act of 1765 and the Townshend Acts of 1767, both of which were designed to help the British government reduce its massive debt. Parliament eventually relented, repealing both broadly based taxes. Of course, there was one infamous exception. The British maintained the tax on tea, of which the colonists consumed copious amounts.
In December 1773, 19 years after Franklin’s missive, the Sons of Liberty dumped 342 chests of tea into Boston Harbor. The first Boston Tea Party was born. (There would be a second, smaller one several months later.) Britain retaliated by passing the punitive Intolerable Acts. As a result, in September 1774, representatives of all the colonies (except Georgia) convened the Continental Congress. This was, in effect, the beginning of the American Revolution.
For those who are keeping score at home, the American colonists did not unite to overthrow a government that enslaved them. They did not unite to overthrow a government that routinely beat or unjustly imprisoned them. They united to overthrow a government that taxed them too much without allowing them to have a representative whom they elected. They fomented a war because they did not participate fully in democracy.
Given that history, it is reprehensible that the state of Alabama earlier this month argued before the U.S. Supreme Court that it should not have to comply with a finding from a lower court which held that the state’s voting map violates the Voting Rights Act of 1965. In short, the court found that the map disenfranchises tax-paying African Americans, who comprise 27% of the state’s population. (Notably, two judges from the lower court were appointed by former President Donald Trump.)
The reasonable remedy to this problem would be to ensure that two of Alabama’s seven congressional districts are majority African American — or substantially close to it. However, the Republican-led state Legislature maintained the one majority Black voting district that already existed, thereby severely diluting the Black vote across the rest of the state.
Perhaps the most ridiculous argument that Alabama is making is that taking the racial makeup of congressional districts into account violates the Equal Protection Clause of the Constitution. Essentially, attorneys for that state are arguing that the only way to ensure “race neutral” districts is to continue to disenfranchise Black voters in a state that has a very long history of doing just that. They’re offering the tired sophistry that “you can’t cure racism by taking race into account.” Not only is that argument historically and logically flawed; it is morally indefensible.
I would love to offer the following rebuttal to the attorneys for Alabama: “If race does not matter, you should be in favor of Alabama reconfiguring its congressional districts to ensure that all of them have Black majorities.” (I would ask the attorneys who are arguing before the Supreme Court in favor of dismantling affirmative action a very similar question about Harvard only admitting Black students.)
Fortunately, newly seated Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson swatted down Alabama’s false premise by offering a textbook-worthy history lesson regarding the 14th Amendment, which enshrines the Equal Protection Clause. Sadly, however, it is likely that the Republican-led court will rule on favor of Alabama.
I’m reminded of a song from the Beatles:
“You say you want a revolution
Well, you know
We all want to change the world
You tell me that it’s evolution
Well, you know
We all want to change the world.”
Larry Smith is a community leader. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.