Taxation without Representation?


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taxesHow did the American colonists feel when they first came to the 13 original American colonies? What changed as they built up their towns and cities? One of the key issues leading up to the American Revolution had to do with the taxes American colonists paid to the government across the sea in England. The English felt that the colonists should pay taxes because the English government was providing services that the colonists would otherwise have had to do without. The Americans felt the taxes were unfair because they were being imposed by a government in which the colonists had no "voice." This lesson asks you to explore some of those taxes, discuss the reasons the English government had for creating them, and debate whether the colonists should have had to pay them. You will be asked to explore the concept of “taxation without representation.”


You will work independently and in pairs to learn about the tax laws enacted by England's Parliament in the years prior to the American Revolution. You will identify both sides of the issue, examine the government's role in levying taxes in order to pay for government-provided services, and develop arguments for and against each side.


Activity One

Read the lyrics to the School House Rock song:

Print out the lyrics to the song and work with a partner to explain what the song means.

Consider these questions:

  • What is the song about?
  • What did the colonists think about the King when they first got to America?
  • How did that change once they'd built up their towns and homes?
  • What does the person who wrote the song think about whether England had the right to tax the colonies? How can you tell?

If you are working together with the whole class, discuss your thoughts and opinions with the rest of the class. If you are working independently, write a short summary of the song and its meaning.

Activity Two

Use the online resources below to research the different events and taxation issues that came up during the 1760s and 1770s in the American colonies.

Time Line, America During the Age of Revolution (1764-1775)

Spy Letters of the American Revolution

colonistsPick one or two of the acts to discuss as a class. What was the British rationale for imposing the tax on the colonists? Why did the Americans object? Discuss the concept of government-provided services with a classmate or in a group. Why do governments collect taxes? Are there goods and services governments provide that couldn't be gotten any other way? As you complete this activity, think about what the taxes being collected are used to provide. It is appropriate for the government to do this? Keep this discussion in mind as you complete the remaining activities

Use the "I Have, Who Has" Activity Sheet to illustrate one event or tax act. Draw a picture explaining your event and write a one or two sentence explanation for each viewpoint, British and American. Your teacher will provide you with a sheet that names a specific activity to study. If you are working independently, check with your teacher to see if there is a checklist for making sure all acts are covered. Make your drawing clear so that someone else looking at your work would be able to guess your event. Give your work to your teacher so the whole class can participate in a review activity later.

Discuss with your classmates how strong the colonists felt about the taxes they were being made to pay to England? Remember that it was one of the reasons the American revolution was fought. In fact, the Declaration of Independence was written, in part, as a response to these taxes. The Declaration is a letter to King George outlining a long list of grievances the colonists had with the King and taxes were among these. Go to the interactive Declaration of Independence and find at least one reference to taxation.

Activity Three

Work independently or with a classmate to test your memory on the different tax acts and laws you've been learning about. Complete the activity: Taxation Without Representation - Remember It! When you have finished the activity, print out your sheet and fill in the review statements to hand in to your teacher.


Take turns in your classroom explaining the English and American viewpoints on the issue of "taxation without representation." Do you think the colonists should have paid the taxes? Why or why not? What could the English government have done differently to resolve the issues? What could/should the colonists have considered when they were asked to pay taxes for services the British government was providing? Take a class vote to see where everyone's thinking on the issue is.


Work on your own or with a group of classmates to write your own "SchoolHouse Rock" song about taxation. Make sure some of your groups take the English side and others the American. When you have finished your songs, take turns performing them. Each group should give the others feedback on the points made during the songs. If you are not comfortable writing or performing a song, try a poem instead.