The lonely Third Amendment and its defense against quartering of troops in private homes
Hello and welcome to part four of our series on the Bill of Rights. Here we shine a rare spotlight on the Third Amendment, the lonely wallflower of the Bill. Here is its unanimously undisputed text:
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.
When we read it, we are immediately taken back to the tumultuous lead-up to the Revolutionary War. After the Boston Tea Party, one of the Coercive Acts issued by Parliament stated that British soldiers were to be quartered wherever housing existed—including people’s private homes. This only really had an effect on the Boston area, because the Coercive Acts were accompanied by a surge of soldiers to enforce them. Suddenly there were many times more British soldiers in the Boston area, and there really were not enough barracks or official military housing for them. And so the Quartering Act of 1774 read thusly:
WHEREAS doubts have been entertained, whether troops can be quartered otherwise than in barracks [within] any town, township, city, district, or place, within his Majesty’s dominions in North America: And whereas it may frequently happen, from the situation of such barracks, that, if troops should be quartered therein, they would not be stationed where their presence may be necessary and required: be it therefore enacted [that] it shall and may be lawful for the persons who now are, or may be hereafter, authorized by law, in any of the provinces within his Majesty’s dominions in North America, [at the request] of the officer who, for the time being, has the command of his Majesty’s forces in North America, to cause any officers or soldiers in his Majesty’s service to be quartered and billeted in such manner as is now directed by law, where no barracks are provided by the colonies.
And be it further enacted by the authority aforesaid, 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 24 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.
So ominous. That Quartering Act was a long way of saying “Britain now considers the people of America to be an enemy population which will not only be placed under martial law, but will be forced to give up its own property to the soldiers commanding them.” Did they really station soldiers in “out-houses”? Luckily, or unluckily, depending on your viewpoint, “out-houses” here does not mean privy pits (outdoor bathrooms) but buildings in the yard of a house (stables, smokehouses, etc.).
During the Revolutionary War, General Washington won the hearts of many of his compatriots by refusing to let his men take anything from local people when they passed through an area—no food, firewood, clothes, or any other much-needed supplies. And he never forced people to house his soldiers anywhere on their property. Thus when the American people came to enumerate the rights they felt were most important to their life and liberty, they wanted Washington’s voluntary example to become mandatory law. And so the Third Amendment was written.
It’s interesting that it does not really completely preclude quartering. It just makes quartering a legal matter. “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”—that is, the government/Army is free to ask any property owner if soldiers can stay in their houses during peacetime, but during wartime there might be a law passed allowing quartering. This would be a temporary law, one feels, but it could happen. Quartering is not ruled out, it is taken out of the realm of official whim and placed within the realm of democratic law.
There has never been a major Supreme Court case predicated on the Third Amendment. That’s because the amendment immediately takes us back to the Revolutionary era, and that’s because, aside from the War of 1812, we haven’t had a war fought in our country since the Revolution. (The Pearl Harbor attack did not involve foreign soldiers landing on our soil.) During the War of 1812, our army was too small and too much on the run to trouble anyone with quartering. And so the problem that was so fresh and real in 1789 when the Third Amendment was written has become a museum piece (so far).
There have been a handful of court cases that referenced this amendment. As recently as February 2015, the District Court in Nevada rejected an argument that police officers cannot enter people’s homes without their permission because that would be a kind of quartering by saying that the police are not soldiers. (The case was sparked by police entering a home to help a victim of domestic abuse when the owner of the home [and the accused abuser] was not there.)
One colorful attempt to invoke the Third Amendment was in United States v. Valenzuela in 1951, when the defendant stated that rent control law was “the incubator and hatchery of swarms of bureaucrats to be quartered as storm troopers upon the people in violation of Amendment III of the United States Constitution.” This plea was not heard by the Court.
Let’s all hope that the Third Amendment continues to be a moot point as we move forward in our history.