The Quartering Acts

On the morning of October 20, 1768, Sheriff Greenleaf of the town of Boston forcibly entered the Manufactory House. He was there to evict the people living inside so that the building could be turned into barracks for soldiers. In an ironic twist, he was detained by the residents instead. He called out for help, and British soldiers came to his aid, freeing him and surrounding the Manufactory House. Now, the people inside were trapped.

The siege of the Manufactory House lasted through the night. The next morning, the soldiers prevented townsfolk from giving bread to the inhabitants of the building. By the afternoon, they were called away and the Manufactory House residents were left alone.

“A view of the Town of Boston in New England and British ships of war landing their troops, 1768,” Engraved by Paul Revere, ca. 1768. Map reproduction courtesy of the Norman B. Leventhal Map & Education Center at the Boston Public Library.

Quartering Act of 1765

The siege of the Manufactory House was one of many incidents between American colonists and British soldiers and officials over the quartering of British soldiers. During the French and Indian War, British soldiers had become a fixture in the colonies. They were there first to fight in the war, and then to help defend the border between colonists and American Indians. Yet, a constant question plagued British officials: where would British soldiers sleep, and who would pay for their accommodations?

The Quartering Act of 1765 was Parliament’s attempt to answer the question of where and how British soldiers would be quartered in the American colonies. In the act, called the American Mutiny Act, Parliament stated that the government could not force private citizens to house British soldiers against their will. However, the American colonies were required to pay for barracks and supplies for British troops through taxes raised by colonial legislatures. Colonies complied with the Quartering Act to varying degrees. New York was one of the most resistant colonies. When it refused to pay for supplies as mandated by the Quartering Act, Parliament punished the colony by issuing the New York Restraining Act, which dissolved the legislative assembly until the colony relented. New York’s assembly did agree to comply before the Restraining Act went into effect, but being forced to raise taxes to supply British troops, and the heavy handedness of the New York Restraining Act, left a bitter taste in colonists’ mouths.

Under the Quartering Act of 1765, Great Britain compelled the colony of Massachusetts to quarter British soldiers sent to Boston in 1768. Boston was already a hotbed of revolutionary activity and had erupted in a series of riots against the Stamp Act in 1765. Bostonians were not very forthcoming in finding a place for the British soldiers to stay. The Manufactory House was a public building owned by the colony of Massachusetts, but it was rented by private residents. The governor decided that a solution to housing the soldiers would be to evict the residents and turn the public building into a barracks. This was perfectly legal, but Bostonians did not think it was fair. Incidents like the siege of the Manufactory House are part of why the Quartering Act has taken on a life of its own in today’s public memory. While many are taught that the Quartering Act allowed the British government to house British soldiers in private homes, that was not the case. However, that does not mean that the issue of housing British soldiers did not lead to very real tensions in colonial cities.

Quartering Act of 1774

By 1774, the relationship between Britain and its American colonies had deteriorated immensely. After the Boston Tea Party, Parliament passed the Coercive Acts (also called the Intolerable Acts) which punished the town of Boston by closing its harbor and gave the Royal Governor of Massachusetts broad executive powers.

One of the Coercive Acts was the Quartering Act of 1774. Like the early Quartering Act of 1765, this act protected people’s private homes and did not allow British soldiers to be quartered in private homes against their owners’ will. In the earlier act, British soldiers could only be quartered in public buildings if the area’s barracks were full. In the Quartering Act of 1774, that provision was removed. Now, it was easier for the government to choose unoccupied buildings, warehouses or other public buildings to house soldiers. While Great Britain’s Quartering Acts had attempted to protect the rights of colonial Americans, the Quartering Act of 1774 paired with the other Coercive Acts went too far in the eyes of American colonists. The relationship soon soured beyond repair and the Revolution began in April 1775 with the Battles of Lexington and Concord.

Elizabeth Drinker silhouette, Courtesy of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania.

Quartering During the War

During the American Revolution, British and Continental armies had to contend with the issue of quartering. Both armies insisted that private citizens take soldiers into their homes, despite the law and principles, saying otherwise.

In 1775, just months after the war began at Lexington and Concord, about 40 members of the Massachusetts provincial troops approached the Brookline home of William Thompson. The troops insisted that he offer them quarters. Thompson refused, claiming that his home was his castle and suggesting the troops instead take shelter at a nearby public house. The soldiers rejected this offer and instead used a musket to break the lock on the front door and entered the home by force.

By 1777, the war was in full force. During the winter of 1777-1778, the British army occupied Philadelphia. Without enough space to house the thousands of British troops in the city, soldiers were left to find accommodation among the city’s residents. Despite the Quartering Act of 1774, General Howe said that soldiers did not need permission from a building’s owner in order to occupy it, just the permission of their superiors. Soldiers tried to persuade local residents to take them in, and sometimes refused to take no for an answer. Major Crammond convinced Elizabeth Drinker, a Quaker, that quartering him would be a better alternative to some of the loud, drunken soldiers that might insist she take them in. She let him stay in her home, fearing that if she did not, she would be forced to take in another, less-civilized soldier.

The Bill of Rights, 1789, Courtesy of the National Archives.

Declaration of Independence

The issue of quarters during the American Revolution is memorialized in the Declaration of Independence. In the document, Thomas Jefferson listed the American’s grievances against the King of England. Among them, the Americans were upset with the British “For Quartering large bodies of armed troops among us.” The complaint was about troops being quartered in towns at the expense of colonists.

Constitution and Beyond

For all that the colonists were upset about British quartering policies, the issue did not come up in the United States Constitution. However, it did warrant attention when members of Congress began to craft a Bill of Rights. The Third Amendment to the Constitution states: “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 vestiges of not only the Third Amendment, but also the colonial reaction to the Quartering Act remain with us today. During the colonial era, soldiers were often quartered in large cities or towns. The need to house soldiers caused problems because cities did not have enough space for the large influx that armies brought. Today, the American military is housed primarily on bases set away from large city centers. The Third Amendment is fundamentally about privacy: the right of citizens for their homes to remain private and inaccessible for the purposes of housing an army. This idea is so entrenched in American society that the Third Amendment is the only one of the first 10 amendments that has not been the subject of a major Supreme Court decision.


STUDENT INQUIRY QUESTIONS

1. How important is privacy to you?

2. Is there something that you think is so important to your privacy that it should be off limits for others? Your phone? Your room?

3. Do you think there are ever circumstances when people’s rights are less important than the common good, like when soldiers forced residents to take them in during the American Revolution?


ADDITIONAL READING

Aaron Sullivan, The Disaffected: Britain’s Occupation of Philadelphia during the American Revolution (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2019).

Elaine Forman Crane, ed. The Diary of Elizabeth Drinker: The Life Cycle of an Eighteenth-Century Woman (Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1991).

John Gilbert McCurdy, Quarters: The Accommodation of the British Army and the Coming of the American Revolution (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2019).