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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Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Quartering Act Questions and Evidence

I’ve been pointing out that the British royal authorities didn’t force American colonists to house soldiers in their homes in peacetime under the British 1765 and 1774 Quartering Acts. Some people have asked why, in that case, the 1780 Massachusetts Constitution and the 1791 Third Amendment to the U.S. Constitution forbade the state and federal governments from doing so.

This is a classic “Post hoc ergo propter hoc” stumble (though any argument expressed in Latin would be, ipso facto, “classic”). Just because one event preceded a second doesn’t mean it caused the second. If every statement of rights in our constitutions came out of abuses during the Revolution, then we should look for royal attempts in the 1760s and 1770s to prohibit “the free exercise of religion,” to impose “cruel and unusual punishments,” or to forbid people “to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” The U.S. Bill of Rights includes all those rights as well, after all. We might also want to look for infringements on copyright and patent laws since the Constitution provided for those.

In fact, our guarantees against householders having to billet soldiers in peacetime grew out of a long tradition in British law. In 1776, Delaware put that protection into its founding state documents, and the British army hadn’t yet operated there. Quartering in private homes was a big issue during the English Civil War of the 1600s. There are precedents for this guarantee in English history going back to the London city charter of 1131.

The actual arguments over quartering in 1760s America involved whether communities had to provide resources—food, firewood, buildings—to regiments sent by the London government with no approval from the local legislatures. I’m still looking for any example of a New England family forced under the Quartering Act to house soldiers before the war. If there had been such an example, the Whigs of the time would have complained about the problem at great length and volume, and they didn’t.

What’s more, when we consider that one of the British command’s biggest headaches was enlisted men being enticed to desert, we can understand why they quartered those privates in large barracks. They had to keep those men under watch. Sending small batches of enlisted men into homes where the families were hostile to the royal authorities would have made desertion much easier.

Some Boston families did have military men in their homes before the war, but in every example I’ve seen those men were:

  • officers, and thus of a higher social class.
  • renting rooms from willing property owners.
Indeed, because army officers were paid in hard cash on a regular basis, they were good tenants, especially in tough economic times—such as when the Boston port was closed.

One famous example is the Newman family of Boston’s North End. According to tradition, twenty-three-year-old Robert Newman had to evade British officers living in his family home when he went out to hang two signal lanterns in the Old North Church (shown above, courtesy of the Freedom Trail Foundation) for Paul Revere in 1775. Had those officers been quartered by force of law on the Newman family?

According to a small book about Robert Newman written by Robert Newman Sheets and published by the Newman Family Society in 1975, the force was economic, not legal: “Hard times had forced the family to rent out rooms.” David Hackett Fischer summed up the family’s situation in Paul Revere’s Ride:
When Robert Newman was two years old, the family’s fortunes were shattered by his father’s death. His mother was forced to convert their handsome home into a boarding house, and Robert was apprenticed to a maker of leather breeches. Like many other families in Boston, the Newman family was hard-pressed in 1775. They earned a few shillings by renting rooms to British officers, whom they disliked and resented. Robert Newman was unable to find work in his trade and could get employment only as a church sexton, a job that he despised.
The Newmans may not have liked the British officers, and their presence certainly made the young sexton’s clandestine departure and return on 18 Apr 1775 harder. But his mother hadn’t been legally compelled by the Quartering Act to host those men any more than he’d been legally compelled to take the job of sexton.

1 comment:

J. L. Bell said...

On the topic of this posting, folks might enjoy The Onion’s article “Third Amendment Rights Group Celebrates Another Successful Year”.