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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Friday, November 16, 2007

People Turned Out of Their Houses

On 16 Nov 1775, winter was approaching, and the British commanders besieged in Boston had to worry about moving their troops out of tents and into buildings, about firewood for warmth and cooking, and about food. Boston selectman Timothy Newell described the situation in his journal, recording every development as another injustice by the Crown:

Many people turned out of their houses for the troops to enter. The keys of our Meeting house cellars demanded of me by Major [William] Sheriff by order of General [William] Howe.

Houses, fences, trees &c. pulled down and carried off for fuel. My wharf and barn pulled down by order of General Robinson [actually Gen. Archibald Robertson of the Corps of Engineers].

Beef, Mutton, Pork at 1/6 pr. pound, Geese 14/ Fowls 6/8 L.M. [lawful money]
This the first time in his diary that Newell described the military forcing Bostonians out of their homes. It isn’t entirely clear whether those people owned those buildings, rented them, and were housed by the town in, say, the almshouse (which the military command had tried to empty). In any event, the army’s move was legal because of the war. Even the Third Amendment to the U.S. Constitution permits Congress to enact laws taking possession of homes for the use of troops in times of war.

I get the sense that the British army actually preferred to house its troops in large buildings, where they would be easier to supervise—hence the demand for the keys to the cellar of Newell’s meeting-house on Brattle Street.

Then comes the matter of firewood, a real crisis for the people left in Boston after coastal vessels had stopped bringing in cordwood. Among the other structures torn down and burned during the siege were Old North Meeting-House, John Hancock’s fence, and George Robert Twelves Hewes’s little shoemaking shop. The army also chopped down Liberty Tree for symbolic reasons, and pulled down the spire of the West Meeting-House so that spies couldn’t use it for signaling. It’s possible that Gen. Robertson had Newell’s wharf and barn removed (as opposed to being converted into a barracks) for similar security reasons. But the wood also certainly went into a fire.


Robert S. Paul said...

I'm reminded of a few months ago when I heard Sen. Schumer (of New York) say something like, "All the amendments have to be tempered; The first, second, third...."

And I had to wonder why ANYONE would want to temper the third.

I'm sure he wasn't really thinking about what each amendment was, but then you have to wonder why a senator wouldn't at least know the Bill of Rights.

J. L. Bell said...

I’m not familiar with that quote from Sen. Schumer, but certainly lawyers are well aware of the doctrine that no rights are absolute: there’s the "shouting ‘Fire!‘ in a crowded theater“ exception.

As the text shows, the Third Amendment is already tempered, in that it explicitly provides for quartering of troops in private homes during wartime if Congress creates such a law. That hasn’t really mattered since the U.S. of A. stopped fighting battles on its own soil over a century ago.

I’d argue that the First and Second Amendments are already tempered a little. The First has tortuous language that allowed Massachusetts, Connecticut, and New Hampshire to maintain their established religion. The Second has the “well-regulated militia” phrase.

Robert S. Paul said...

Oh I don't deny that some temperance is necessary, but I don't think you can claim the third is tempered if it itself has the caveat. I believe he was talking about free speech at the time.

And it wasn't so much that I disagreed (although in some ways I do), it just seemed odd to mention the third as being tempered, as if we'd sometimes find it necessary to quarter troops in peace time.

Unfortunately, the quote was a soundbite on the radio, and I never found any other sources.

Also, I won't get in to the well-regulated militia phrase. That's an argument for another day (and one I've made on my own blog countless times).

J. L. Bell said...

The Third Amendment definitely reflected a worry that prevailed in the 1700s but which we no longer have. On the other hand, we have what the Whigs of that time called a “standing army” that consumes a great deal of the nation’s resources.

As a result, I fear, a lot of the Constitution’s provisions about the military—the clause about Congress declaring war, Second and Third Amendments, &c.—are either practically moot or honored mainly in the breach.