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The Declaration of American Independence is a much-admired document, praised for its simplicity, the sentiments expressed therein, and the eloquent language. It is at the heart of the Constitution of the United States, which was drawn up to establish a legal basis for the new country’s governance.
It has to be remembered, though, that the Constitution and the first ten amendments to it were drawn up when British military and administrative behavior was fresh in the minds of the founding fathers. Each of these early amendments deals with a different problem that faced the fledgling nation. The 3rd Amendment is a good example of this.
The London government saw the British military presence in the American colonies as providing protection. Accordingly, they saw nothing wrong in forcing the colonial populations to accommodate soldiers in their homes. This process of billeting soldiers on the civilian population was extremely unpopular.
While the British government was happy for the colonialists to accommodate soldiers, mostly at their own expense, they differed in their view. Most colonialists saw it as an imposition and a challenge to their right to privacy and freedom to carry on with their lives unhindered. This billeting of soldiers was one of the sparks that set the American Revolution exploding in the first place.
When the Constitution was being drawn up, it was felt that provision should be made to prevent the new government from using similar tactics. The result was the 3rd Amendment, which states: “No soldier shall, in time of peace be quartered in any house, without the consent of the Owner, nor in times of war, but a manner prescribed by law.” This means that soldiers could only be billeted with the house owner’s express permission. If billeting is needed in wartime, then appropriate laws must be passed to permit it.
As time has passed, so the terms of the 3rd Amendment have become less and less relevant. The expansion of the United States westwards saw forts being built to accommodate soldiers. The Spanish-American war was largely played out beyond the United States’ borders, and this was also the case in World War I and World War II. The 3rd Amendment has, therefore, been described as archaic and irrelevant.
2020, however, has seen the terms of the 3rd Amendment come back into public discussion. The civil unrest that followed the death of George Floyd and other black African-Americans brought a speedy response from President Trump. On June 1st, he invoked the Insurrection Act 1807. Troops of the National Guard were deployed across America to those cities where protests had been loudest. It has been estimated that some 75,000 National Guardsmen had been sent to “protect life and preserve property, peace and public safety.”
A few commentators have discussed the possibility of billeting of National Guardsmen, given the numbers involved. IN PARTICULAR, Washington DC was seen at risk of billeting as around 4,500 of them are currently on duty in the city. No billeting has taken place at the time of writing and is unlikely to do so, but the risk has brought the 3rd Amendment back into the public eye.