Quartering Act, British Laws Opposed by American Colonists

Housing of British troops led to discontent in the colonies

Painting of the Boston Massacre
The Boston Massacre.

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The Quartering Act was the name given to a series of British laws of the 1760s and 1770s which required that American colonies provide housing for British soldiers stationed in the colonies. The laws were deeply resented by colonists, created a number of disputes in colonial legislatures, and were noteworthy enough to be referred to in the Declaration of Independence.

The Third Amendment to the U.S Constitution is essentially a reference to the Quartering Act, and states explicitly that no soldiers will be lodged in "any house" in the new nation. While the language in the Constitution seems to refer to private houses, there had not been quartering of British soldiers in the private homes of colonists. In practice, the various versions of the Quartering Act generally required the housing of British troops in barracks or in public houses and inns.

Key Takeaways: The Quartering Act

  • The Quartering Act was actually a series of three laws passed by the British Parliament in 1765, 1766, and 1774.
  • Quartering of soldiers in civilian populations would generally be in inns and public houses, not private homes.
  • Colonists resented the Quartering Act as unjust taxation, as it required colonial legislatures to pay to house the troops.
  • References to the Quartering Act appear in the Declaration of Independence and in the U.S. Constitution.

History of the Quartering Acts

The first Quartering Act was passed by Parliament in March 1765 and was intended to last for two years. The law came about because the commander of British troops in the colonies, General Thomas Gage, sought clarity on how troops kept in America were to be housed. During wartime, troops were housed in a fairly improvisational way, but if they were to stay in America on a permanent basis some provisions had to be made.

Under the act, the colonies were required to provide housing and supplies for soldiers in the British Army stationed in America. The new law did not provide for housing soldiers in private residences. However, as the law required that colonists pay to buy suitable vacant buildings as housing for soldiers, it was disliked and widely resented as unjust taxation.

The law left many of the details of how it was implemented up to the colonial assemblies (the precursor of state legislatures), so it was fairly easily to circumvent. The assemblies could simply refuse to approve the necessary funds and the law was effectively stymied.

When the New York assembly did that in December 1766, the British Parliament retaliated by passing what was called the Restraining Act, which would suspend New York’s legislature until it followed the Quartering Act. A compromise was worked out before the situation became more serious, but the incident demonstrated the controversial nature of the Quartering Act and the importance in which Britain held it.

A second Quartering Act, which provided for soldiers to be housed in public houses, was passed in 1766.

The quartering of troops among, or even near, the civilian population could lead to tensions. British troops in Boston in February 1770, when faced with a mob throwing rocks and snowballs, fired into a crowd in what became known as the Boston Massacre.

The third Quartering Act was passed by Parliament on June 2, 1774, as part of the Intolerable Acts intended to punish Boston for the Tea Party the previous year. The third act required that housing be provided by the colonists at the location of the troop’s assignment. Furthermore, the new version of the act was more expansive, and gave British officials in the colonies power to seize unoccupied buildings to house soldiers.

Reaction to the Quartering Act

The 1774 Quartering Act was disliked by the colonists, as it was clearly an infringement upon local authority. Yet opposition to the Quartering Act was mainly a part of opposition to the Intolerable Acts. The Quartering Act on its own did not provoke any substantial acts of resistance.

Still, the Quartering Act did receive mention in the Declaration of Independence. Among the list of "repeated injuries and usurpations" attributed to the King was “For quartering large bodies of armed troops among us.” Also mentioned was the standing army which the Quartering Act represented: "He has kept among us, in times of peace, Standing Armies without the Consent of our legislatures."

The Third Amendment

The inclusion of a separate amendment within the Bill of Rights referring to the quartering of troops reflected conventional American thinking at the time. The leaders of the new country were suspicious of standing armies, and concerns about quartering troops were serious enough to warrant a Constitutional reference to it.

The Third Amendment reads:

No Soldier shall, in time of peace be quartered in any house, without the consent of the Owner, nor in time of war, but in a manner to be prescribed by law.

While quartering troops deserved mention in 1789, the Third Amendment is the least litigated part of the Constitution. As the quartering of troops simply hasn't been an issue, the Supreme Court has never decided a case based on the Third Amendment.

Sources:

  • Parkinson, Robert G. "Quartering Act." Encyclopedia of the New American Nation, edited by Paul Finkelman, vol. 3, Charles Scribner's Sons, 2006, p. 65. Gale Virtual Reference Library.
  • Selesky, Harold E. "Quartering Acts." Encyclopedia of the American Revolution: Library of Military History, edited by Harold E. Selesky, vol. 2, Charles Scribner's Sons, 2006, pp. 955-956. Gale Virtual Reference Library.
  • "The Intolerable Acts." American Revolution Reference Library, edited by Barbara Bigelow, et al., vol. 4: Primary Sources, UXL, 2000, pp. 37-43. Gale Virtual Reference Library.
  • "Third Amendment." Constitutional Amendments: From Freedom of Speech to Flag Burning, 2nd ed., vol. 1, UXL, 2008. Gale Virtual Reference Library.