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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Monday, March 24, 2008

Back to the Myths of the Quartering Act

On 24 Mar 1765, Parliament passed the first Quartering Act, setting out rules for housing its troops in the North American colonies. This law became a political issue in New York and then in Boston during the late 1760s after the army insisted that the local authorities supply provisions and space for its regiments. In 1774, while sending more troops into Boston to enforce strict new post-Tea Party laws, Parliament passed another Quartering Act that amended the first.

As a callow but educated youth, I understood that Parliament’s Quartering Acts, especially that of 1774, forced people to house soldiers in their homes, even during peacetime. Obviously, that would feel oppressive, and would curtail political discussions and organizing, and altogether would be a Bad Thing.

I discarded that position after reading about the actual disputes in colonial Boston and New York, and after reading the texts of the Quartering Acts themselves. Back in March 2007, I wrote a couple of posts on the myth of the Quartering Act and the real disputes. But of course the same books I’d read earlier are still out there, and they leave the same misunderstanding of the laws.

There are also some clear statements available about what the Quartering Acts really said, such as Don R. Gerlach’s article in the New England Quarterly back in 1966:

This [1774] measure has received such varied treatment by historians that perhaps the law and its antecedents are worth closer attention, especially for American historians of the “patriotic school.” Some scholars have correctly reported the content and purpose of the law, and some have avoided errors by the brevity of their remarks. Others have clearly misstated its provisions, and some writers have so phrased their comments as to support the allegation that the act was tyrannical, or they have suggested this by a kind of innuendo.

The chief offense, however, appears to be a failure to report accurately and adequately the content and intent of the law; indeed some writers have boldly stated that it provided an innovation and a despotism that any reader of the measure will find difficult to detect. Still others have suggested how the measure might have operated without duly examining how it actually was executed. . . .

the law does not suggest any intention of forcing troops into private homes. Rather, it outlined the conditions and procedure for billeting royal troops in unoccupied buildings when barracks were not conveniently located and where the soldiers’ presence was required.
David Ammerman’s In the Common Cause: American Response to the Coercive Acts of 1774 presents the same arguments, and serves as Wikipedia’s main source on the matter.

And no one has to take those authors’ word for what the laws say. Georgia Tech offers the texts of both the 1765 and 1774 Quartering Acts on its website. Both use the phrase “uninhabited houses, out-houses, barns, or other buildings.” The 1774 law didn’t expand the types of buildings where soldiers could be housed; rather, it spelled out how a military officer and a royally-appointed magistrate could seize uninhabited buildings without seeking approval from local selectmen or legislators. The Patriot movement found that objectionable, of course, but not because individual families suddenly had soldiers sleeping in their homes.

(Today’s thumbnail image shows a march on the House of Commons in 1780, and comes courtesy of the British Parliament.)

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