Quarters: The Accommodation of the British Army and the Coming of the American Revolution by John Gilbert McCurdy (Cornell University Press, 2019)
Question: “Why did the colonists fight the British?”
Answer: “Because the British Army stayed in their houses.”
This question and answer comes from a United States government practice test for the U. S. citizenship test. Which is unfortunate, because the answer is wrong. We see this error in many places, including manuscripts that are submitted to Journal of the American Revolution. In fact, the Quartering Acts passed by the British government after the French and Indian War all expressly forbid quartering troops in private homes. One need only read the text of the Quartering Acts, which are available online, to see this. The misconception probably comes from misunderstanding one of the grievances listed in the Declaration of Independence: “For Quartering large bodies of armed troops among us.”
A new book by historian John Gilbert McCurdy not only explains the true controversy over quartering in North America, but does so in a well-paced, highly readable fashion. The author delves into the history of quarters and quartering, taking a detailed but rapid journey through the challenges faced by the British government in managing the conflicting demands of the American colonies in the 1760s and 1770s. Managing the new colonies and borders established in 1763 required regular troops stationed in the colonies during peacetime, a new and expensive proposition. The first Quartering Act put the onus of supporting these troops—with both accommodations and provisions—on the colonial governments, an expense to which they objected. An expense to the colonial governments was, in effect, a tax, because the money ultimately came from the colonists themselves. Even though some of the colonies consented to build and maintain barracks, and to pay for provisions when those barracks were occupied, the law was unpopular, at least among those vehemently opposed to other British revenue policies during the era.
Rising tensions in Boston over British government policies brought quartering to the forefront in another way when troops were sent to Boston in an effort to maintain order and enforce laws. Instead of protecting the frontiers and borders, the troops were now “among us” in the eyes of Bostonians. In Great Britain, it was common practice to send troops to towns to quell riots, but only at the request of the civil government; in Massachusetts, divided sentiments and strong inclinations toward self-governance made it unlikely that civil authorities would call on soldiers, leaving the purpose of the regiments in Boston in question—at least from the perspective of the citizenry.
The author discusses the abstract concept of people’s perception of private and public spaces, and how the evolution of that concept shaped public opinion about quartering both in homes and in barracks located in towns. To his great credit, he presents this analytical view without dwelling on it for too long, and using language that is very easy to read and understand. While this aspect of the book may feel to cerebral for those who like a “just the facts” approach to history, it is not a distraction and does not interrupt the narrative flow, but instead contributes to the overall understanding of why the presence of soldiers in American cities was so contentious even though they we not quartered in private homes.
The book is a masterful telling of personal, local stories about the challenges and impacts of quartering, while maintaining a fast-paced book. We learn the different attitudes and handling of the quartering problem in each colony, along the coast and on the frontier, by the colonial governments and by the British government, from the military and the civilian perspective. Gen. Thomas Gage, often portrayed as either ineffectual or villainous, is shown in a generally favorable light as he took every measure possible to serve his government while accommodating the demands of the colonial population throughout the 1760s and early 1770s. The author’s extensive research is evident in ample end notes that cite primary sources almost exclusively. The book not only tells the story, it provides a basis for further research.
The third amendment of the United States Constitution forbids the government from quartering soldiers in private homes. The British Quartering Act of 1765, and the follow-on act of 1774, also did this. Just like taxation, colonists objected to the acts because they were Parliamentary demands for colonial governments to pay for things, without colonial representation in Parliament. It is important for American citizens not only to know their rights, but to understand why they exist. Quarters provides exactly that understanding, in a thorough and accessible manner; as such, it is indispensable reading for those interested in any aspect of the American Revolution.