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.