The Third Amendment: Text, Origins, and Meaning

Etching of Nancy Hart holding British soldiers at gunpoint in her home during the American Revolution
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 The Third Amendment to the U.S. Constitution prohibits the federal government from quartering soldiers in private homes during peacetime without the homeowner’s consent. Has that ever happened? Has the Third Amendment ever been violated?

Called the “runt piglet” of the Constitution by the American Bar Association, the Third Amendment has never been the main subject of a Supreme Court decision. It has, however, been the basis of some interesting cases in the federal courts.

Text and Meaning of the Third Amendment

The full Third Amendment reads as follows: “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.”

The amendment simply means that during times of peace the government may never force private individuals to house, or “quarter” soldiers in their homes. During times of war, the quartering of soldiers in private homes may be allowed only if approved by ​Congress.

What Drove the Third Amendment

Prior to the American Revolution, British soldiers protected the American colonies from attacks by the French and Indigenous. Starting in 1765, the British Parliament enacted a series of Quartering Acts, requiring the colonies to pay the costs of stationing British soldiers in the colonies. The Quartering Acts also required the colonists to house and feed British soldiers in alehouses, inns, and livery stables whenever necessary.

Largely as punishment for the Boston Tea Party, the British Parliament enacted the Quartering Act of 1774, which required the colonists to house British soldiers in private homes as well as commercial establishments. The mandatory, uncompensated quartering of troops was one of the so-called “Intolerable Acts” that moved the colonists toward the issuance of the Declaration of Independence and the American Revolution.

Adoption of the Third Amendment

James Madison introduced the Third Amendment in the 1st United States Congress in 1789 as part of the Bill of Rights, a list of amendments proposed largely in response to the Anti-Federalists’ objections to the new Constitution.

During the debate on the Bill of Rights, several revisions to Madison’s wording of the Third Amendment were considered. The revisions focused mainly on different ways of defining war and peace, and periods of “unrest” during which the quartering of U.S. troops might become necessary. Delegates also debated whether the president or Congress would have the power to authorize the quartering of troops. Despite their differences, the delegates clearly intended that the Third Amendment strike a balance between the needs of the military during wartime and the peoples’ personal property rights.

Despite the debate, Congress unanimously approved the Third Amendment, as originally introduced by James Madison and as it now appears in the Constitution. The Bill of Rights, then composed of 12 amendments, was submitted to the states for ratification on September 25, 1789. Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson announced the adoption of the 10 ratified amendments of the Bill of Rights, including the Third Amendment, on March 1, 1792.

The Third Amendment in Court

Over the years following the ratification of the Bill of Rights, the growth of the United States as a global military power largely eliminated the possibility of actual warfare on American soil. As a result, the Third Amendment remains one of the least cited or invoked sections of the U.S. Constitution.

While it has never been the primary basis of any case decided by the Supreme Court, the Third Amendment has been used in a few cases to help establish the right to privacy implied by the Constitution.

Youngstown Sheet & Tube Co. v. Sawyer: 1952

In 1952, during the Korean War, President Harry Truman issued an executive order directing Secretary of Commerce Charles Sawyer to seize and take over the operations of most of the nation's steel mills. Truman acted out of fear that a threatened strike by the United Steelworkers of America would result in a shortage of steel needed for the war effort.

In a suit filed by the steel companies, the Supreme Court was asked to decide if Truman had exceeded his constitutional authority in seizing and occupying the steel mills. In the case of Youngstown Sheet & Tube Co. v. Sawyer, the Supreme Court ruled 6-3 that the president did not have the authority to issue such an order.

Writing for the majority, Justice Robert H. Jackson cited the Third Amendment as evidence that the framers intended that the powers of the executive branch must be restrained even during wartime.

“[t]hat military powers of the Commander in Chief were not to supersede representative government of internal affairs seems obvious from the Constitution and from elementary American history,” wrote Justice Jackson. “Time out of mind, and even now in many parts of the world, a military commander can seize private housing to shelter his troops. Not so, however, in the United States, for the Third Amendment says... even in wartime, his seizure of needed military housing must be authorized by Congress.”

Griswold v. Connecticut: 1965

In the 1965 case of Griswold v. Connecticut, the Supreme Court ruled that a Connecticut state law banning the use of contraceptives violated the right to marital privacy. In the court’s majority opinion, Justice William O. Douglas cited the Third Amendment as confirming the constitutional implication that a person’s home should be free from “agents of the state.” 

Engblom v. Carey: 1982            

In 1979, correctional officers at New York’s Mid-Orange Correctional Facility went on strike. The striking correctional officers were temporarily replaced by National Guard troops. In addition, the correctional officers were evicted from their prison ground residences, which were reassigned to members of the National Guard.

In the 1982 case of Engblom v. Carey, the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit ruled that:

  • Under the Third Amendment, National Guard troops count as “soldiers”;
  • The term “soldiers” in the Third Amendment includes tenants, like the prison guards; and
  • The Third Amendment applies to the states under the Fourteenth Amendment.

Mitchell v. City of Henderson, Nevada: 2015

On July 10, 2011, Henderson, Nevada police officers called at the home of Anthony Mitchell and informed Mr. Mitchell that they needed to occupy his house in order to gain a “tactical advantage” in dealing with a domestic violence case at a neighbor's home. When Mitchell continued to object, he and his father were arrested, charged with obstructing an officer, and held in jail overnight as the officers proceeded to occupy his house. Mitchell filed a lawsuit claiming in part that that police had violated the Third Amendment.

However, in its decision in the case of Mitchell v. City of Henderson, Nevada, the United States District Court for the District of Nevada ruled that the Third Amendment does not apply to forced occupancy of private facilities by municipal police officers since they are not “soldiers.”

So while it remains highly unlikely that Americans will ever be forced to turn their homes into free bed-and-breakfasts for platoons of U.S. Marines, it seems the Third Amendment remains a bit too important to be called the “runt piglet” of the Constitution.

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Longley, Robert. "The Third Amendment: Text, Origins, and Meaning." ThoughtCo, Feb. 16, 2021, Longley, Robert. (2021, February 16). The Third Amendment: Text, Origins, and Meaning. Retrieved from Longley, Robert. "The Third Amendment: Text, Origins, and Meaning." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 28, 2023).