“Constitutional Amendments” Series – Amendment III – “Quartering of Troops”

Paul Revere’s engraved illustration depicting the Boston Massacre, 1770. (Library of Congress)

Amendment Three to the Constitution was ratified on December 15, 1791. It forbids the housing of any military service member in private homes without the consent of the owner. The official wording is written as such:

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 Third Amendment is commonly regarded as the least controversial element of the Constitution. It is currently the Amendment with the least litigation, and it has never been argued in a Supreme Court case. At the time of its creation, the framers lived in a generation that increasingly disliked large standing armies, to the extent that the quartering of soldiers in the public’s homes was considered morally wrong. The Quartering Acts imposed by the English against the colonies during the Seven Years’ War and the American Revolution forced the occupants to provide food and shelter for soldiers as they marched across the region. Tensions increased as more English soldiers were deployed to the colonies, while the colonists themselves grew more resentful of both the new English laws, taxes, policies, and patrolling armies. The city of Boston, a city with a then-population of fifteen thousand, found themselves having to provide food, shelter, clothes, and money for a new garrison of four thousand English soldiers in 1768. Two years of escalating political and social tensions and resentment later, the Boston Massacre saw a platoon of English soldiers firing upon a crowd of Bostonians, killing five and injuring many more. In December 1773, the Boston Tea Party had rebellious colonists destroying 340 crates of tea, with the total property damage tallying up to $1.7 million. In retaliation, the English imposed the Coercive Acts of 1774, better known to the colonists as the “Intolerable Acts.” The quartet of acts closed down Boston’s port, revoked Massachusetts’ charter to self-govern, allowed royal officials to be tried in their home country instead of the colonies, and authorized the colonial governors to house English soldiers in whatever building they saw fit, including private homes. These laws exacerbated the growing tensions between the colonies and the English crown, and the Declaration of Independence would feature the forced quartering of troops as one of the many grievances levied against King George III. Other state constitutions written during the Revolutionary period, such as those of Delaware and Virginia, agreed with the increasingly popular notion that forcing the public to house standing armies was an infringement on their liberties. With the addition of the Third Amendment to the Constitution in 1791, the generational experiences of forced quartering had been officially recognized and accepted as a matter of law for the new nation.

While the specific circumstances of the amendment are increasingly unlikely to unfold in modern times, the nature of domestic privacy in a person’s private home has been argued as a long-term, modern element of it. Some historians and legal scholars have since argued that the Amendment is applicable to matters surrounding eminent domain, government responses to terrorist attacks and natural disasters, and police militarization.

Written by Nicholas J. Dilley, Ronald Reagan Presidential Library & Museum

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