“No soldier shall, in time of peace, be quartered in any house, without consent of the Owner, nor in time of war, but in a manner prescribed by law.”
Supreme Court Justice Joseph Story, author of perhaps the best commentary on the Constitution, wasted little time with the Third Amendment: “This provision speaks for itself.” So it does, but a few words of background can explain why the United States Congress and the people they represented thought it worth adding.
During the French and Indian War the British found themselves harried by what we would now call guerrilla strikes. They had some regular army bases—some of the best of them along the border with Quebec. But given the character of the war they were fighting they needed to move forces quickly into undefended areas to counter French and Indian raiders. And so they would occupy an unsecured and threatened area—protecting the lives and property of the local citizens in exchange for the commandeered use of the locals’ property for that purpose.
After the war, this practice (as our saying now goes) got old in a hurry. By 1765, Benjamin Franklin complained that “there are no want of barracks in Quebec, or any part of American; but if an increase of them is necessary, at whose expense should that be?” Surely not that of private citizens. To Franklin’s complaint about property rights, Samuel Adams added a political one: “where military power is introduced, military maxims are propagated and adopted, which are inconsistent with and must soon eradicate every idea of civil government.” By occupying the property of private landowners, the British Army acted as if a law unto itself.
Colonists’ outrage heightened in Adams’s own Boston, where the early stirrings of armed resistance to British occupation provoked the Parliament to pass the Intolerable Acts (as the colonists called them), making any public gathering an act of treason and formally providing for quartering troops in private homes. Upon founding the Union in 1774, Americans saw their representatives in the Continental Congress pass a law in favor of “the better providing suitable quarters for officers and soldiers in his majesty’s service, in North America.” Once resolved upon independence, the colonists listed the British practice among the grievances proving the tyrannical character of George III’s rule.
The lack of such a provision numbered among the several complaints lodged against the 1787 Constitution by the Anti-Federalists during the ratification fight. After the Constitution passed—barely, in several states—James Madison and the first United States Congress took up the matter of amendments. One of the strongest advocates of what would become the Third Amendment was Thomas Sumter of South Carolina; the Carolina Gamecock had won his nickname by inducing Lord Cornwallis to get out of the deep south, moving on toward his unlucky fate at the hands of Washington and the French Navy at Yorktown, Virginia. Beyond property rights and politics, Sumter went to the intimate heart of the matter: property occupied by soldiers “would lie at the mercy of men irritated by a refusal”—men expecting obedience to the orders they issue—“and well disposed to destroy the peace of the family.” With that gentlemanly description of ungentlemanly conduct ringing in their ears, the Congressmen gladly passed the amendment.
Notice the important caveat. Times of extreme emergency may require the risk and burden of quartering troops in private homes. Accordingly, Congress provided that the practice might be renewed by legislative act. The lives, liberties, and property of American citizens, even the sanctity of the family, might under certain conditions be more at risk from an enemy force than from the forces charged to defend them. Then and only then would a Congress or a state legislature dare to enact such a measure.
Although one shouldn’t read much into the order of the first ten amendments (famously, the First Amendment is first only by accident), the placement of the Third Amendment does make good sense. It follows the Second Amendment stipulation of the right to bear arms; an American household usually can defend itself if family members are rightly armed and trained. It precedes the Fourth Amendments stipulation of security against unreasonable searches and seizures. The right to be free of military occupation in one’s own home from one’s own citizen-army sits well between the rights of self-defense and of the orderly rule of law.
Will Morrisey holds the William and Patricia LaMothe Chair in the United States Constitution at Hillsdale College, Hillsdale, Michigan, where he has taught since 2000.