- Quarters: The Accommodation of the British Army and the Coming of the American Revolution by John Gilbert McCurdy
When they listed their grievances against King George III of Great Britain in the Declaration of Independence, American revolutionaries included “Quartering large bodies of troops among us.” That was in addition to, but separate from, keeping standing armies among them in times of peace. The emphasis on quartering—the billeting of soldiers in war and peace—mattered. The newly independent Americans confirmed their abhorrence of it in the U.S. Constitution’s Bill of Rights, whose Third Amendment states, “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.” The Fourth Amendment’s guarantee of the people’s right “to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures” reinforced the Third.
Quartering was thus of crucial importance to the revolutionaries. Yet, as John Gilbert McCurdy argues in Quarters, the study of its legislation, regulation, and application has been “incomplete” (3), which has at times led to mischaracterizations, if not “historical amnesia” (237), in both popular and scholarly works. He is right. Except for the Quartering Act of 1774, which textbooks lump in with the Coercive (Intolerable) Acts, quartering seldom garners the attention it once did in studies of the American Revolution. Furthermore, most mentions of its significance summarily perpetuate the common misinterpretation that the Quartering Act of 1765 (an addendum to that year’s Mutiny Act) pushed troops into private homes and that, along with the Stamp Act, this violation of colonists’ rights helped initiate the revolution. The scope and novelty attributed to the Quartering Act of 1765 was a post hoc interpretation corrected, along with a similar one of the 1774 act, by historians decades ago.1 The correction likely accounts for the fading of quartering from the standard narrative. Billeting fit well within common accounts of the revolution’s causes when it formed part of the drumbeat of offenses such as “no taxation without representation,” but closer analyses disrupted that tempo. [End Page 158]
McCurdy offers a new argument for and analysis of the significance of quartering in tune with current scholarship on space and place in early America, while also harking back to older analyses of colonial peripheries and imperial centers.2 The meaning and use of quartering, and its acceptance or rejection, differed according to location. McCurdy’s spatial interpretations are conceptual, not just geographic, and confirm that the meaning of space or place “is always being constructed through the various contests that occur over power.”3 As applied to the colonies, place may be said to work at the tactical level, whereas space might be applied in the strategic sense, for contesting particular places connected to broader conflicts concerning spaces, rights, and authority. Contests over houses as property that could be publicly shared and homes as property that should be personally secured shaped debates over the place of barracks, which, in turn, contributed to conflicts over imperial, colonial, and ultimately new national spaces.
“Place” is a neat concept that reveals connections between material and ideological causation and allows us to to understand how economic and political issues provoked declarations of personal rights that helped define a new nation. Political, legal, and institutional elements occasionally overwhelm those about space and place in McCurdy’s book, but adding the latter is truly illuminating and spurs new reflections on the centrality of quartering to the imperial relationship and colonial schism. Were barracks not just military places but also political ones begetting occupation and imperial authority? Yes, and as McCurdy shows, Britons and colonials understood their significance in both historical and contemporary terms. To push the issue further: if emplacing a fort was a mode of colonization (as it was in Native American spaces), were building barracks in colonial spaces (towns) and billeting troops...