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Military Power and Historical Memory

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Last month, President Donald Trump and the House of Representatives sparred over military power. Following the assassination of Iranian General Qassem Soleimani, the president tweeted his willingness to escalate matters should Iran retaliate. In response, Democrats in the legislature condemned Trump as a dictator and voted to curtail his war powers.          

This was not the first time this has happened in American history.

Since the founding, fears that one person will affect tyranny by seizing control of the military has haunted our history. When George Washington became commander of the Continental Army, the British condemned him as the “dictator of America.” President Lincoln was upbraided by the Supreme Court for suspending the writ of habeas corpus, while the misadventures of Johnson and Nixon in Southeast Asia led to the War Powers Act.

Since the founding, fears that one person will effect tyranny by seizing control of the military has haunted our history.

Military power is one of the more complicated attributes of a republic. While soldiers are needed “to keep freedom free,” history provides plenty of examples of people who embraced Caesarism. In the United States, this dilemma is particularly acute. Because the country was birthed by patriots who decried standing armies and feared the tyrannical power of the state, the nation remains scarred by the fear that unfreedom at the point of a gun is just around the corner.        

In my book Quarters: The Accommodation of the British Army and the Coming of the American Revolution, I examine an earlier version of the struggle over military power. In the eighteenth century, the most intimate version of unchecked militarism was quartering. When armies came to town, they seized buildings to provide a place for soldiers to sleep. Often, this led to quartering in private homes against the will of the inhabitants.

When the Americans declared independence in 1776, they listed among their charges against King George III: “For quartering large bodies of armed troops among us.” Since 1763, Britain had stationed thousands of troops in North America. When colonial complaints about taxation turned violent, another 1500 soldiers went to Boston, ultimately resulting in the Boston Massacre of 1770. To the Patriots, this proved that the king had become a tyrant.

In the eighteenth century, the most intimate version of unchecked militarism was quartering.

Yet the story was more complicated. In my research, I focused on the Quartering Act of 1765, a Parliamentary law often implicated by historians for forcing soldiers into houses. To be sure, when British lawmakers first introduced the bill to Parliament, they allowed that soldiers could “be quartered upon private houses.” When he caught wind of this, King George III warned against it. The king was correct, and Parliament changed the law. Indeed, the Quartering Act made it illegal to quarter troops in private houses, and the British army faithfully complied with this prohibition for the next decade.

At the end of the American Revolution, the distaste for quartering remained palpable. When ratification of the US Constitution stalled, James Madison added, among other things, the Third Amendment. Henceforth, the new nation vowed that “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 manner to be prescribed by law.”

At the end of the American Revolution, the distaste for quartering remained palpable.

Curiously, the Third Amendment has never been the subject of a Supreme Court ruling as quartering in private homes has rarely been employed by the US Army. Indeed, the New Yorker has made light of the Third Amendment by citing the country’s lack of interest in it.

Perhaps this is the lesson that quartering provides for America today. Recently, the memory of Revolutionary-era quartering has surfaced in periodicals as politically diverse as The Hill and The Atlantic. Like the revolutionaries, we remain vigilant in our critique of military power and suspicious of the people who wield it. This provides a popular check on presidents and prevents them from becoming dictators. In this, we remain true to the spirit of the Revolution even if we misremember what actually happened.


John Gilbert McCurdy is Professor of History at Eastern Michigan University where he has taught courses in colonial and Revolutionary America, as well as gender and sexuality, since 2005. He is the author of two books: Citizen Bachelors: Manhood and the Creation of the United States (Cornell, 2009) and Quarters: The Accommodation of the British Army and the Coming of the American Revolution (Cornell, 2019), which was named Book of the Year by the Journal of the American Revolution

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