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

Myths and Realities of the Quartering Act

Parliament’s Quartering Act has a lousy historical reputation. It was one of the “Intolerable Acts,” according to Patriot politicians in 1774. [Whoops. Actually not.] A lot of us probably imagine that law forcing subjects to host soldiers in their homes. After all, the Third Amendment to the U.S. Constitution seems to have been written to forestall just such a law:

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.
At least, that’s what I thought until I looked at the “quartering” conflicts that came up in the years before the Revolution, and at the texts of the Quartering Acts themselves.

Parliament first passed a Quartering Act in 1765. The complete text is on a helpful website at Georgia Tech. It’s a fine example of how legal language may actually have gotten easier to read in the last two and a half centuries. The relevant parts:
An act to amend and render more effectual, in his Majesty’s dominions in America, an act passed in this present session of parliament, intitled, An act for punishing mutiny and desertion, and for the better payment of the army and their quarters

...such constables, tithingmen, magistrates, and other civil officers as aforesaid, are hereby required to quarter and billet the officers and soldiers, in his Majesty’s service, in the barracks provided by the colonies;

and if there shall not be sufficient room in the said barracks for the officers and soldiers, then and in such case only, to quarter and billet the residue of such officers and soldiers, for whom there shall not be room in such barracks, in inns, livery stables, ale-houses, victualling-houses, and the houses of sellers of wine by retail to be drank in their own houses or places thereunto belonging, and all houses of persons selling of rum, brandy, strong water, cyder or metheglin, by retail, to be drank in houses;

and in case there shall not be sufficient room for the officers and soldiers in such barracks, inns, victualling and other publick alehouses, that in such and no other case, and upon no other account, it shall and may be lawful for the governor and council of each respective province in his Majesty’s dominions in America, to authorize and appoint, and they are hereby directed and impowered to authorize and appoint, such proper person or persons as they shall think fit, to take, hire and make fit, and, in default of the said governor and council appointing and authorizing such person or persons, or in default of such person or persons so appointed neglecting or refusing to do their duty, in that case it shall and may be lawful for any two or more of his Majesty’s justices of the peace in or near the said villages, town, townships, cities, districts, and other places, and they are hereby required to take, hire, and make fit for the reception of his Majesty’s forces, such and so many uninhabited houses, outhouses, barns or other buildings, as shall be necessary, to quarter therein the residue of such officers and soldiers for whom there should not be rooms in such barracks and publick houses as aforesaid, and to put and quarter the residue of such officer and soldiers therein.
So the first and most important part of this law required local authorities to “quarter and billet” royal troops “in the barracks provided by the colonies.” Because of the long string of wars with France and the militia system, most large port towns colonies had such barracks. (Why say “quarter and billet” when those two words were synonyms? Legal formulas of the period contain a lot of redundancy: “will and testament,” “have and hold,” “cease and desist,” “breaking and entering,” “aiding and abetting,” &c. Parliament liked to be totally clear and transparent.)

If no such barracks were available, then the law gave local authorities the responsibility to find soldiers accommodations in inns, livery stables, and taverns. The first two types of buildings were already taking in guests and their horses. All the liquor-selling establishments described by the law were licensed by the local authorities, so they were already beholding to the state and receiving the public. They were “public houses,” in the period parlance.

Only after all those possibilities were exhausted, and only after jumping through a set of legal hoops that would take several breaths to describe, did the authorities have the power to requisition “uninhabited houses, outhouses, barns or other buildings.” The law said nothing about inhabited houses.

But what about the Quartering Act of 1774, the one that seemed “Intolerable”? Here is its complete text, which is mercifully shorter. It starts by reaffirming the previous law, and transferring that power to demand barracks to “the officer who, for the time being, has the command of his Majesty’s forces in North America”—i.e., Gen. Thomas Gage, commander-in-chief. Then it adds this provision:
That if it shall happen at any time that any officers or soldiers in his Majesty’s service shall remain within any of the said colonies without quarters, for the space of twenty-four hours after such quarters shall have been demanded, it shall and may be lawful for the governor of the province to order and direct such and so many uninhabited houses, out-houses, barns, or other buildings, as he shall think necessary to be taken, (making a reasonable allowance for the same), and make fit for the reception of such officers and soldiers, and to put and quarter such officers and soldiers therein, for such time as he shall think proper.
Again, this boosts the power of the royal governors—including Gen. Thomas Gage. But again, it’s limited to “uninhabited houses, out-houses, barns, or other buildings.” I haven’t found a single case of the peacetime British army in North America demanding the use of a private home to quarter troops. Instead, as we saw in yesterday’s posting about Boston in late 1774, the army rented buildings, mostly from friends of the royal government.

TOMORROW: So why did colonists object so strongly to the Quartering Act?


Elektratig said...

Great posts! Thanks.

Anonymous said...

Love the photo, I looked pretty good 20+ years ago. If one looks closely at the original postcard one will notice that we are all supressing the giggles.

J. L. Bell said...

And here I thought the grenadiers were suppressing our freedoms! Nyuk nyuk nyuk.

I'm so glad now that I chose that image to illustrate our usual conception of the Quartering Act. The top alternative looks like it was created by schoolkids in Tenafly, New Jersey—it has a lot of energy, but may not offer as good a historical picture.

Anonymous said...

I'm not sure if billet means the same thing as quartered. If you look at paragraph II on the Georgia Tech page, it says:
"II. And it is hereby declared and enacted, That there shall be no more billets at any time ordered, than there are effective soldiers present to be quartered therein..."
That implies that billet has a different meaning from quartered.

J. L. Bell said...

The verb forms of the words are synonymous. The noun forms, as you sense, have a slight difference: "billet" can be singular, but "quarter" isn't the equivalent singular of "quarters" in the sense of accommodations. You can have a billet for one soldier, but not a quarter for one soldier.

The term "billet" derived from the French for "ticket," and referred to how soldiers received pieces of paper telling them where to lodge. Or at least so says Dr. Johnson.

Anonymous said...

This is one of the those lovely little mysteries of history.

If Parliament's authorization for housing was for unoccupied space, why would the framers of the Bill of Rights feel so aggrieved to ensure that the new government could never do it again? Was this intrusion -- even in barns -- sufficient to offend the folks in the colonies?

Further, I have read of an exchange between Major Pitcairn and a family named Shaw (ancestors of Robert Gould Shaw) who were housing Pitcairn and another British officer. The story has Pitcairn intervening in a heated quarrel between a young adult Shaw and the British officer. The story was related to demonstrate something about the character of Pitcairn. Was this story also a fabrication?

There are several possibilities: (1) the law was poorly understood or poorly implemented; (2) the sensibilities of the locals were easily offended; or (3) the stories of quartering were urban myths in the 1770s. And it could be a mix of all three.

J. L. Bell said...

I, too, have read the story of the North End merchant Francis Shaw hosting Maj. John Pitcairn.

The pertinent questions are:

(a) When did Pitcairn and Wragg move in with the Shaws--before or after the war began? Under both the Quartering Act and the U.S. Constitution, troops can legally be quartered in civilians’ houses in a time of war.

(b) Did Francis Shaw agree to host Pitcairn and Wragg? Many Bostonians rented rooms to officers. Having high-ranking officers in one’s home brought in money, a touch of class, and some protection later in the siege. Some versions of this story say that Francis Shaw was a strong Patriot. However, his name appears on none of the lists of political activists in Revolutionary Boston, on either side.

Anonymous said...

I must say that your knowledge of the people and events in Boston is truly remarkable.

On your points, my recollection is that the story of Pitcairn was related to show how he had some personal history of trying to reduce the tension between the troops and the local citizenry. That would likely put the event before April 18, 1775.

After that date, his interest in reducing tension would have been decidedly lessened.

J. L. Bell said...

Bostonians indeed remembered Pitcairn rather fondly; they even remembered his swearing in a good light. Meanwhile, people in Lexington blamed him for supposedly ordering his troops to fire on the militia there.

I think Bostonians had few reasons to add more charm to their memories of Pitcairn, while Lexingtonians had lots of reasons to blame British commanders for the bloodshed. So I’m inclined to believe Pitcairn was a charismatic fellow, whatever his views on politics or reconciliation.

Quincy tells the story of Samuel Shaw, Lt. Wragg, and Maj. Pitcairn after describing the outbreak of the war, but he doesn’t specify that one happened after the other.

Whatever the case, Samuel didn’t leave town to join the Continental Army until he came of age in October 1775, so he was living in his father’s house alongside British officers for several months.

Mark Wilensky said...

I’ve lapsed of late to read your daily posts, so I have been catching up this past weekend. Always thoroughly enjoyable. But it was your post on the Quartering Act that has finally compelled me to write. I’m a fifth-grade teacher in Colorado, and I recently published a book that adapted Thomas Paine’s Common Sense for all ages (The Elementary Common Sense of Thomas Paine; An Interactive Adaptation for all Ages). Additionally, I adapted the Port Act, Olive Branch Petition, and the King’s Proclamation for Suppressing Rebellion and Sedition. I am laughing because I wanted to originally adapt the Quartering Act as well, because, according to all the history texts out there in the public schools, soldiers were stuffed into extra bedrooms and attics all around Boston. I struggled through the document and was amazed at the legal jargon even back then. And of course, the act never really talks about putting soldiers in homes. More about desertion than anything else. (My book is illustrated with many cartoons to clarify the text, and I would be happy to send you a copy of the Quartering Act Cartoon.)

Teaching from primary sources has elevated my student’s understanding of American History at least ten-fold. But they love Paine’s rant and long list of complaints more than anything else. The other documents are subtly referenced by Paine and add depth to teaching unit.

But then, reading on to your next posts to find out that the term “Intolerable Acts” was never used?! Yikes!

So I invite you to the book’s website:

Many thanks for your time.

Mark Wilensky

PS: You have entertained and educated me for a long time. I would be happy to send you a free copy of the book to settle some of that debt.

Anonymous said...

this really helped me with a social studies project
loved the post

J. L. Bell said...

Glad to hear Boston 1775 was useful!