J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Thursday, March 22, 2007

The Real Quarrels over the Quartering Act

Yesterday I wrote about the Quartering Act of 1765 and its 1774 revision, which were among the so-called “Intolerable Acts” that supposedly led up to the Revolution. Since they didn’t require people to house soldiers in their homes, as our modern conception has it, why were those laws so controversial?

There were two major arguments over the Quartering Act in the decade before the Revolutionary War. First, in January 1766, the New York legislature refused to pay for food and supplies for the several regiments stationed in the colony, as that law required. There were more British troops in New York than any other colony, most of them in New York City.

In response, in June 1767, the London government under Chancellor of the Exchequer Charles Townshend secured a new law threatening to suspend the New York assembly until it complied with the Quartering Act. New York was among the least unified and confrontational of the colonies, but the legislature held out through two election cycles until 1769. At the end of the year it finally voted to pay £2,000 for food and supplies for the troops.

Meanwhile, another Quartering Act quarrel arose in Boston, where the British government moved four regiments starting on 1 Oct 1768. The mission of those soldiers was to make it easier for the Customs service to collect Townshend’s new duties by discouraging townspeople from rioting. Under the Quartering Act, the province was obliged to supply barracks for those troops.

Fine, said the Whigs; the soldiers can go into the barracks at Castle William. A company of Royal Artillery had spent the winter there a couple of years before, and the Castle was within the town’s legal borders. There was only one problem in regard to the military mission: Castle William was on an island in Boston harbor. (At least it was an island at high tides. Now the site is called “Castle Island,” but it’s attached to the mainland. Go figure.) So the military commanders couldn’t accept those quarters.

Instead, Gov. Francis Bernard wanted to house the troops in a big building next to Boston Common called the Manufactory-House. It had been erected in the 1750s to house spinners and weavers manufacturing linen and wool cloth. That business venture had failed, and the building became property of the province. A family of weavers named Brown lived there, perhaps along with some other families, and they, encouraged by local leaders, refused to leave.

Meanwhile, the troops in town had to be housed somewhere. At first they went into other government buildings, and the Whigs complained in their newspaper dispatches:

We now behold the Representatives’ Chamber [in the Town House], Court-House, and Faneuil-Hall, those seats of freedom and justice occupied with troops, and guards placed at the doors; the Common covered with tents, and alive with soldiers; marching and countermarching to relieve the guards, in short the town is now a perfect garrison.
Then some friends of the royal government rented space to the army, and the Whigs pointed out how two of them were (a) not from around here, and (b) profiting:
Report, that James Murray, Esq; from Scotland, since 1745, had let his dwelling house and sugar houses [actually his sister’s], for the quartering of troops, at £15 sterling per month, and that Mr. Forrest from Ireland had let them a house lately purchased for about £50 sterling, at the rate of £60 sterling per annum.
After hearing about two more regiments on their way from Ireland, Gov. Bernard again demanded use of the Manufactory. On 18 October, the Council—the upper house of the Massachusetts legislature—voted to approve this move. Two days later, Sheriff Stephen Greenleaf and his deputy Joseph Otis led some soldiers into taking part of the building by force. The Whigs tried to portray this action as tyrannical, reporting that Brown had “received several [sword] thrusts in his cloaths.” Newspapers praised the hold-outs, highlighting “children at the windows crying for bread.” Brown sued Greenleaf and Otis in court.

By the end of the month, however, the stand-off was resolved, at least as a practical matter. The regiments left the government buildings and moved into unused warehouses and distillery buildings around town. In fact, one businessman involved in these private transactions was William Molineux, the most radical of the Whig merchants. He had apparently received instructions from Charles Ward Apthorp of New York, whose Boston property he managed, to rent space to the army. And the regiments remained in those quarters until after the Boston Massacre.

Thus, the disputes over the Quartering Act were not between the military and individual families, but between the London government and local governments. The Browns and other families in the Manufactory were briefly displaced by the army, but they were living in a public building, not their own property.

In modern political terms, the Quartering Act of 1765 imposed an “unfunded mandate” on colonial and local governments, requiring them to provide resources for an imperial government initiative that they didn’t want and couldn’t control. The law imposed on the community as a whole. And the Quartering Act of 1774, though it didn’t change where troops could be quartered, did give even more decision power to authorities appointed in London. Colonial leaders had a real quarrel with that.


Anonymous said...

This is very interesting. Your historical analysis is significant in many regards. For me, it is interesting because the Federal Bill of Rights was modeled on the Declarations of Rights by the States. From what I understand the first Massachusetts Constitution was drafted in 1780. I do not know too much about the Massachusetts Constitution in general, or whether it contains a provision similar to the Third Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. However, in state constitutional analysis, the history of a provision can be an important part of the analysis. The history of the provision explains the mischief that the state wanted to remedy. Thank you.

J. L. Bell said...

Good points. I looked up the Massachusetts Constitution of 1780, and its anti-quartering provision was written into the first part of the work, the Declaration of Rights, rather than included as an afterthought (as the U.S. Bill of Rights was).

The text:
"Art. XXVII. In time of peace, no soldier ought to be quartered in any house without the consent of the owner; and in time of war, such quarters ought not be made but by the civil magistrate, in a manner ordained by the legislature."

There is a legal difference between "owner" and "inhabitant," of course. The term "house" was used in the 18th century for a great many buildings, not just those where people lived (though people often lived in the same buildings where they worked, fogging the boundaries). So this constitutional provision did probably go against some of the Quartering Acts' statements about unoccupied buildings. But I think it reflected a broader American (and British) conception of a man's home as his castle rather than specific prewar grievances.

Anonymous said...


Thank you for the feedback. A close read of the text you have cited as well as the text of the Quartering Acts bring to light some interesting ideas.

Your point about the conception of the "house" (a man's home is his castle) is certainly well taken. But the Massachusetts provision says "any house." The term "any" functions to broaden the scope as opposed to acting as a term of limitation. This presumes that the framers knew what they were saying, that they meant what they said, and that they chose their words advisedly.

Also, I cannot recall whether you said it was the Quartering Act of 1774 alone that angered the people, or whether it was both the 1765 and the 1764 act. Consider the text of the provision from the Massachusetts Declaration of Rights that you quoted, and then please consider the following:

The 1765 Quartering Act conferred power to take "uninhabited houses, out-houses, barns, or other buildings." However, as I read the text, it appeared on its face that the governor and council did not exercise this power themselves. Rather, the statute allowed them to appoint someone to exercise this power on their behalf. And in the absence of this appointed person, the statute vested the power in justices of the peace. This implies the requirement of a buffer between the governor himself and the exercise of the authority.

However, the 1774 Act conferred the power directly on the governor. This is relevant because it demonstrates a removal of the buffer between the executive himself and the people.

Now consider that in light of the Massachusetts provision: ". . . in time of war, such quarters ought not be made but by the civil magistrate, in a manner ordained by the legislature." Whatever procedures legislature creates, the Massachusetts provision mandates the presence of the buffer.

Thanks, again, for the thoughtful response and this continued dialogue.

J. L. Bell said...

The 1765 Quartering Act produced problems in New York and Massachusetts. The 1774 Act seems to have been a Parliamentary response to those conflicts—in particular, to Gen. Thomas Gage's memory of the challenge of securing barracks for troops in Boston in 1768.

The 1774 Quartering Act definitely simplified the quartering process by giving that authority to the governor directly. The brevity of the second law alone shows how much simpler it was.

But as for lines of authority, they didn't change much. Justices of the peace were appointed by governors. Depending on the colony, governors either had veto power over Council members, or they were all appointed in London to support the governor. And officials appointed by the governor for quartering were, ipso facto, appointed by the governor.

In practice, Massachusetts governors Francis Bernard and Thomas Hutchinson were at times slowed by their Councils and by justices appointed under previous governors. The new law would have given Gov. Gage an easier time of it. But both laws still empowered officials who derived their authority ultimately from royal appointment, not from local election.

The 1774 Act, though labeled "Intolerable," never really went into effect. As I noted earlier, Gage was able to find quarters for his troops in Boston without resorting to coercion. But by then the principle of opposition to unlegislated quartering, like the principle of no taxation without representation, had taken hold in Americans' minds. In other words, people could and did get upset by the law even without suffering from it.

The Massachusetts constitution requires the elected legislature to come up with rules for quartering in wartime. The U.S. Constitution says those rules must be "by law," which by clear implication then meant through Congress, though not every executive branch would see it that way. Those statements of rights definitely negated Parliament's Quartering Acts.

But at the same time, it's valuable to see how the Quartering Act quarrels of the 1760s were between the local communities as a whole and royal appointees, not between local communities/governments and individual property owners. Not having the colonial experience of a distant government we had no part in choosing, we modern Americans tend to see conflicts through the latter lens.

J. L. Bell said...

I wrote in the above comment that the Quartering Act was “labeled ‘Intolerable’.” Since then, I tried to find an example of a 1770s American using that term, and failed. I now suspect the phrase “Intolerable Acts” dates from the late 1800s.

Need Help said...

Do you know some slogans they used in protest for the Quartering Act?

J. L. Bell said...

The eighteenth century wasn’t really a time of “slogans.” People made their arguments with long, complex sentences. You can find an objection to “quartering large bodies of troops among us” in one of those long, complex sentences in the Declaration of Independence.