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 in colonial places (houses) modes of recolonization—reassertions of imperial over local authority? Some American provincials feared that this was the significance of the creation of the North American Establishment, a nascent standing army, and the quartering of its troops not just during but after the Seven Years’ War.
McCurdy follows the debates over billeting to analyze colonial-imperial proceedings, civilian-military relations, and personal rights. He argues that as the debates changed their ideas about public versus private places and the rights of people within them, Americans also rethought the ties between metropole and periphery. McCurdy convincingly demonstrates that the debates and the ideas they engendered were major contributors to the coming of revolution and the creation of the United States, but arguing that they [End Page 159] themselves created a nation, as he does, may be a bit of an overstatement. Nonetheless, McCurdy does moderate his argument toward the end of the book when he says that a “central cause was British military power” (202) and admits that there were many reasons why the colonies became the states.
A foundation of McCurdy’s argument about place, rights, and imperial relations is that colonists began to differentiate between the house, which could be required to quarter soldiers, and the home, which should be able to exclude them. In this view, houses had both public (work) and private (residential) functions, whereas homes had only the latter and were conceptualized as protected domestic places. The debates over quartering heralded the stance that homes were privileged places, beyond imperial oversight, in which the owner and owner’s family had a right to privacy. In establishing this inventive interpretation, McCurdy draws on social and cultural works on domestic architecture and gender, such as Judith Flanders’s The Making of Home, Richard L. Bushman’s The Refinement of America, Mary Beth Norton’s Separated by Their Sex, and Diana diZerega Wall’s The Archaeology of Gender, in addition to a plethora of military, political, institutional, and legislative sources.4 It would have been worthwhile, however, to have incorporated more on the connection between quartering debates and gendered places. How much more powerful was the resistance to quartering when it was presented in terms of a home being not just a man’s castle but also a woman’s sanctuary? How did social ranks—and the houses that reflected those ranks—affect the arguments? McCurdy’s introduction of these issues whets the appetite for more on how Americans were trying to make the personal home independent of imperial control at the same time as they were furnishing it with imperial goods.
The conundrum of balancing imperial demands against colonial and personal desires continued in other venues outside the home. Soldiers could be, and were, quartered in public houses and nonresidential buildings. There were, however, not enough of those for Britain’s North American Establishment, and thus imperial authorities turned to more permanent military quarters: barracks. McCurdy notes where barracks were established and where they were not—from Canada to the West Indies and the colonies, cities, and borderlands in between—as he discusses a “military geography [that] considers the influences that soldiers, weapons, and martial codes have on notions of place” (7). As he shows, some colonists initially supported barracks as a way to avoid billeting in private and public houses, but others rejected them because they established military places in the middle [End Page 160] of civilian ones and possibly legitimated a standing army. Restive Americans decided that not only did soldiers not belong in private homes but they also should be excluded from the center of cities where their expense, presence, behavior, and military laws conflicted with civilian populaces and governance.
Debates concerning quartering followed different lines when the issue was that of securing the borderlands rather than urban spaces. McCurdy argues that the borderlands were heavily militarized because of Native Americans fighting encroachments, colonists expanding and securing settlements, and British regulars trying to control both. But he also acknowledges that the borderlands did not experience a monolithic militarization either by time or place, and he shows how the differences are essential to understanding the inconsistencies in the imperial application of the quartering provisions and colonial responses. The arguments over how and where regulars were to be lodged among frontier inhabitants and supplied by colonial governments also revealed the borderland’s unsettled nature: in trying to place soldiers, the inhabitants and authorities argued over whether the borderland was actually or should be a Native American, imperial, or colonial space. To whom or to what did it belong? The answer determined soldier placement and provisioning.
As McCurdy concludes, the issue of quartering soldiers continued through the American Revolution, figured in the U.S. Constitution, and eventually shaped where the federal government situated the nation’s army. Though definitely not essential to the book, he might also have added a reflection on the establishment of military reservations to the quartering debates’ and the Third Amendment’s long-term legacies, stretching perhaps to the passage of the Posse Comitatus Act in 1878 and the arguments raised against the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps’ place within a university’s space. Those intriguing later ramifications aside, the revolutionary consequences of the debates and resolutions were profound. Quarters is a valuable study of an increasing clash of cultures within and between imperial and colonial, martial and civil, and policies and institutions that served as a foundation for revolutionary political and military formations. [End Page 161]
1. Don R. Gerlach, “A Note on the Quartering Act of 1774,” New England Quarterly 39, no. 1 (March 1966): 80–88; Don Higginbotham, The War of American Independence: Military Attitudes, Policies, and Practice, 1763–1789 (Boston, 1971); David Ammerman, In the Common Cause: American Response to the Coercive Acts of 1774 (Charlottesville, Va., 1974). Higginbotham interpreted the Quartering Act as a form of indirect taxation.
2. See Jack P. Greene, Peripheries and Center: Constitutional Development in the Extended Polities of the British Empire and the United States, 1607–1788 (New York, 1986); Juliana Barr and Edward Countryman, eds., Contested Spaces of Early America (Philadelphia, 2014), esp. Barr and Countryman, “Introduction: Maps and Spaces, Paths to Connect, and Lines to Divide,” ibid., 1–28.
3. David J. Bodenhamer, “Narrating Space and Place,” in Deep Maps and Spatial Narratives, ed. Bodenhamer, John Corrigan, and Trevor M. Harris (Bloomington, Ind., 2015), 7–27, esp. 7–9 (quotation, 9).
4. Richard L. Bushman, The Refinement of America: Persons, Houses, Cities (New York, 1992); Diana diZerega Wall, The Archaeology of Gender: Separating the Spheres in Urban America (New York, 1994); Mary Beth Norton, Separated by Their Sex: Women in Public and Private in the Colonial Atlantic World (Ithaca, N.Y., 2011); Judith Flanders, The Making of Home: The 500-Year Story of How Our Houses Became Our Homes (New York, 2014).