Rarely in conversation or political debate do people reference the Third Amendment to the Constitution: the 1789 one-clause protection of Americans from tyranny of military control. The new federal Congress of the United States believed the “No Quartering of Troops Clause” to be critical. In a nutshell, this stops the government from forcing homeowners to house troops against their will. It can’t be done at all during times of peace, and only as “prescribed by law” in times of war on U.S. soil. In full, the Third Amendment reads:
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.
What Makes the Third Amendment Important?
In the October 1774 Declaration and Resolves, the Continental Congress made it crystal clear to England’s King George III they would no longer accept the intrusion of armed troops. The colonists were well armed and expected to serve in militias – a right and duty later explained in the Second Amendment – and they considered the forced housing of British troops as not only unnecessary, but dangerous and expensive as well. Shortly before the Declaration of Independence, the British Army had 4,000 armed and uniformed soldiers housed in Boston – a city with a population of only 15,000 – creating an undue financial burden on the commonwealth.
Colonists fought back against the forced quartering, and British Parliament punished them by passing the Coercive Acts, which included more strict requirements for the colonists to house British troops.
In 1776, the colonists officially delivered their list of grievances in the Declaration of Independence. They informed the English king that “quartering large bodies of armed troops among us, in times of peace, standing armies, without the consent of our legislatures” was no longer tolerable. When the Bill of Rights was added to the Constitution, the Founders were careful to include a protection against quartering.
Great in Theory, Not in Practice
Though there have been several wars since the Revolution to hit what would become U.S. soil, only the War of 1812 and the Civil War saw ground battles in states where the residents were U.S. citizens protected by the Constitution at the time. During both of these wars, federal troops were quartered in civilian homes without congressional approval and regulation, and no compensation was ever approved by Congress after the fact.
During the Civil War, both Union and Confederate troops often took over personal properties and used civilian supplies without first getting permission. Some might argue that the Confederates forfeited their rights under the Constitution when they seceded from the Union, but there’s one problem with that: President Lincoln never acknowledged that they had the right to do that. As far as the Union was concerned, the Confederate states didn’t have the right to leave and were therefore still states.
There were an estimated $500,000 worth of claims for rent and damages to real estate from loyal states following the Civil War and $2,500,000 from the states in rebellion. And that’s just from the test cases examined by a congressional committee to determine whether such claims should be paid. They worried that “very many millions” of further claims would come if they agreed to pay these, so they didn’t. No one on either side received any compensation from the federal government for rent and damage to real estate.
Without war on American soil, the necessity of the Third Amendment might not be immediately evident – but it’s still important, even if it was almost completely disregarded when it was needed the most. For modern Americans, it may serve best as a reminder and warning to both the government and the citizenry: Come what may on our shores, the decisions we face should be decided by the people –not our government.