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Virtual representation stated that the members of Parliament, including the Lords and the Crown-in-Parliament, reserved the right to speak for the interests of all British subjects, rather than for the interests of only the district that elected them or for the regions in which they held peerages and spiritual sway.Virtual Representation was the British excuse to the First Continental Congress when they asked for representation in Parliament in the Suffolk Resolves, also known as the first olive branch petition. They claimed that the members of parliament had the well being of the colonists in mind. The colonists rejected this phony excuse and eventually started the revolutionary war.
In the early stages of the American Revolution, colonists in the Thirteen Colonies rejected legislation imposed upon them by the Parliament of Great Britain because the colonies were not represented in Parliament. According to the British constitution, colonists argued, taxes could be levied on British subjects only with their consent. Because the colonists were represented only in their provincial assemblies, they said, only those legislatures could levy taxes in the colonies. This concept was famously expressed as "No taxation without representation."
George Grenville defended all the taxes by arguing that the colonists were virtually represented in Parliament, a position that had critics on both sides of the British Empire. The idea soon "found little support on either side of the Atlantic" as a means of solving the constitutional controversy between colonists and Britons, and more direct methods of actual representation were officially considered in Westminster. William Pitt, a defender of colonial rights, ridiculed virtual representation, calling it "the most contemptible idea that ever entered into the head of a man; it does not deserve serious refutation." However, Parliament rejected the criticism that virtual representation was constitutionally invalid as a whole, and passed the Declaratory Act in 1766, asserting the right of Parliament to legislate for the colonies "all cases whatsoever."
Colonial radicals such as the lawyer James Otis, as related in his Rights of the British Colonies (1764), alongside a number of British Whigs and American Tories such as Daniel Dulaney, contested this interpretation of the British constitution by reasoning that the legal liberties of British subjects meant that Parliament should only act in an imperial manner if the Empire was itself actually represented with colonial members in Westminster. Examples used by eighteenth century lawyers, as well as after the War of Independence, were unincorporated territories and landowners who were granted representation following petitions or union with Parliament; the summoning of delegates to Parliament in cases of extraterritorial taxation such as the proxies that Dulaney cites of Edward III; Wales, Chester, Tournai, and Calais during Henry VIII's reign; Durham in Charles II's reign; and finally Scotland, in the reign of Anne.
At the time of the American Revolution, only England and Wales and Scotland were directly represented in the Parliament of Great Britain among the many parts of the British Empire. The Isle of Man was indirectly, and perhaps virtually, represented through the Lord of Mann in the House of Lords at this time. In Britain, representation was highly limited due to unequally distributed voting constituencies and property requirements; only 3% of the population, or between 17% to 23% of males, could vote and they were often controlled by local gentry. This was in contrast to a colonial electorate that perhaps consisted of 10% to 20% of the total population, or 75% of adult males. Virtual representation in this context was thus condemned by liberal Britons and revolutionary Americans as an attempt to cloak a corrupt, unrepresentative and "aristocratic system of government with the trappings of liberty" and perhaps even undermine American traditions of greater electoral representation. Moreover the poor state of representation in Britain "was no excuse for taxing the colonists without their consent." Nonetheless, the legal right of British subjects enabled candidates to stand for Parliament regardless of domicile, thereby theoretically guaranteeing the prerogative of 'virtually represented' imperial subjects to stand as actual representatives in the metropolis of London.
The doctrine of virtual representation became the orthodox organising principle behind the British Parliament's centralised control of its colonies and Empire, as used under the legal appellation of the 'Imperial Crown-in-Parliament', a term which was shortened to the 'Imperial Parliament'. Internal colonial matters were, as a general rule, to be left to the colonial Assemblies, but where necessary, the Imperial Parliament could, and indeed sometimes would, legislate and tax them.
In the 1760s and 1770s much debate centred upon whether 'virtual representation' came into conflict, as some British and colonial Whigs argued, with the British constitution itself in cases of an under-representation of subjects in the House of Commons. The right of voting for and sending elected representatives to Parliament in order to approve or deny taxation and to represent the "interests" of the monarch's realms was argued to spring from the equity of governance by the consent of the governed and from constitutional sources such as Magna Carta, Writs of Summons and the Bill of Rights. As James Otis wrote in 1764,
When the parliament shall think fit to allow the colonists a representation in the house of commons, the equity of their taxing the colonies, will be as clear as their power is at present of doing it without, if they please...But if it was thought hard that charter privileges should be taken away by act of parliament, is it not much harder to be in part, or in whole, disfranchised of rights, that have been always thought inherent to a British subject, namely, to be free from all taxes, but what he consents to in person, or by his representative? This right, if it could be traced no higher than Magna Charta, is part of the common law, part of a British subjects birthright, and as inherent and perpetual, as the duty of allegiance; both which have been brought to these colonies, and have been hitherto held sacred and inviolable, and I hope and trust ever will. It is humbly conceived, that the British colonists (except only the conquered, if any) are, by Magna Charta, as well entitled to have a voice in their taxes, as the subjects within the realm. Are we not as really deprived of that right, by the parliament assessing us before we are represented in the house of commons, as if the King should do it by his prerogative? Can it be said with any colour of truth or justice, that we are represented in parliament?
—James Otis, Rights of British Colonies Asserted
The doctrine of 'virtual representation' was viewed as a threat to the constitutional equity of British taxation and law-making because it undermined the democratic, elected aspect of Parliamentary principles. Therefore, although Parliamentary representation had initially included the participation of English clerics, lords, knights, citizens and burgesses in Edward I's 'Model Parliament', it became possible, by the time of the emergence of the British Empire, to argue that Edward I's councils had set a precedent of equity that provided for, or necessitated, the democratic inclusion of colonists and overseas territorial subjects, and later, women and the poor, on the grounds that "what touches all, should be approved of all". The erosion of 'virtual representation' was thus contingent upon extending the rights of voting and of standing for actual representation in Parliament to all subjects, and upon reducing the powers of the unelected House of Lords and the Monarch, a process which experienced a chequered history of debate and implementation.
Traditionally, however, it was by the right of residency in Britain that Caribbean planters, American colonials, Indians and other subjects from across the Empire voted or took up membership of the Commons, such as Bryan Edwards of Jamaica, Henry Cruger of New York, and Dadabhai Naoroji of Mumbai. The membership of the House of Lords was, in contrast, open to those living outside of Britain, as the Canadian Peerage evinces. Great Britain itself was severely malapportioned with large cities like Manchester only represented by the larger counties they were part of, but so-called rotten and pocket boroughs like Old Sarum sent delegates to Parliament until the Reform Act 1832. The Act of Union 1800 expanded direct representation to Ireland (as the Parliament of Ireland and that of Great Britain were merged into the Parliament of the United Kingdom), but despite the efforts of the Imperial Federation League the Parliamentary franchise (and so representation) was not extended further. As of 2013, the remaining British overseas territories and Crown Dependencies are not represented in the UK Parliament, but they are largely self-governing with their own legislatures (such as the States of Jersey or the House of Keys). Although Parliament retains supreme lawmaking authority for the overseas territories and Crown Dependencies, this is seldom used. Parliament does not tax them or have any control over their tax policies.
A similar argument has been used in the United States, mostly by Republican lawmakers, about the District of Columbia, which has no voting representatives in Congress. In 2007, Louie Gohmert (a Texas Republican) said, "I would submit to you that Washington, D.C. is also the only city in the entire country that every Senator and every Member of Congress has a vested interest in seeing that it works properly, that water works, sewer works, and no other city in America has that." When residents began calling Gohmert's office complaining about issues like trash and parking, he told them to speak to local government officials instead.