Ask any 100 adult Americans in the streets what the Second Amendment to the Constitution is all about, and you'll get 90-plus immediate, unambiguous, monosyllabic answers: guns.
Now, ask the same 100 people what the Third Amendment to the Constitution is all about, and be prepared for long seconds of silence and blank stares. The number of people offering the correct answer would be in the low single digits. Yet the answer is simple: unwelcome soldiers.
It seems useful to mention this arcane bit of history right now, when we're all seeing and reading stories about unwelcome soldiers—well, not soldiers, really, but federal agents dressing up like soldiers in camouflage gear, minus rank insignia or other identifiers. A desperate "president," watching his poll numbers fall—and no doubt thinking about the hellish future of prosecution and imprisonment that awaits him if he is no longer in office after next January 20—wants to change the subject. So he has ordered this makeshift camo army into the streets of Portland, Oregon, where their presence has turned peaceful protests against racism into scary confrontations and terrifying journeys in unmarked vans for some protesters. Now he's threatening the same to cities such as Chicago, Oakland, and New York.
This is a profoundly bad idea from a truly bad president. It's not exactly what the founding generation had in mind when they included the Third Amendment in the Bill of Rights. But this situation bears some significant similarities to the nightmare that James Madison and others of that generation feared.
To Madison, a large standing army was a serious threat to the fledgling nation. In the hot Philadelphia summer of 1787, when the framers of the Constitution debated everything, that issue was on the list. Alexander Hamilton led a faction that wanted a permanent, powerful army, as a means to achieve global dominance. In addition to Hamilton, George Washington, the victorious general chosen to be president of the Philadelphia convention, also wanted a standing army, though he maintained a principled silence as he presided over the convention. In contrast, Madison spoke out strongly against it.
“A standing military force, with an overgrown Executive, will not long be safe companions to liberty,” Madison argued. “The means of defense against foreign danger, have been always the instruments of tyranny at home.” Later, he called the nation’s establishment of a standing army a “calamity.”
The history of colonies only a few years earlier offered ample reason for that fear. In the 1750s, during the French and Indian War between the French colonies in North America and the English colonies, England sent soldiers here. The war in the colonies ended in 1763, but the British soldiers stayed. In 1765, Parliament passed the Quartering Act, requiring the American colonies to house British soldiers in such places as barns and inns. This did not go over well.
When Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence he included the unwelcome quartering of troops in the list of grievances against King George III of England. “He has kept among us, in times of peace, Standing Armies without the Consent of our legislatures,” the declaration griped. More than that, the declaration accused the king of sending “swarms of Officers to harrass our people, and eat out their substance,” of “quartering large bodies of armed troops among us,” and of “protecting them, by a mock Trial from punishment for any Murders which they should commit on the Inhabitants of these States.”
So, as the founders crafted the Bill of Rights, they included a Third Amendment focused entirely on that subject. It is exactly one sentence long, a sentence comprehensively ignored today: “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 Second Amendment is equally brief: “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”
Today, hardly a day goes by without a high-decibel, high-intensity debate about the Second Amendment. But only a vanishingly small percentage of Americans would discern any connection between the two one-sentence amendments. In fact, however, when the framers wrote that much-parsed, much-misunderstood sentence about militias and arms, the history of oppression by the military that led to the Third Amendment makes clear that they were thinking mostly about state militias as a defense against any future oppression by a federally controlled standing army.
Alexander Hamilton won that argument. Madison wanted no standing army. Hamilton wanted a big one. And that's what we have. But at the moment, it is not the standing army that is the problem. In fact, many in the military are looking on in horror as a makeshift "army" of federal agents in camouflage uniforms, looking like soldiers, wanders the streets of Portland. One indelible image of that situation is the video of one of those camo people using his baton to pound on a distinctly non-threatening Navy veteran, who came to the protest simply to ask these agents if they felt they were honoring their oath to the Constitution. His reward for that question was broken bones.
The analogy between this situation and the original Madisonian nightmare is admittedly imperfect. But his fear of oppression by armed agents of the federal government, which would need to be opposed by local militias, is worth remembering. Mayors and governors and senators and representatives are making it clear that they don't want the "help" of this make-believe army. And what are local officials fighting? What Madison called "an overgrown Executive" is now putting together his own version of a standing army. They won't exactly be quartered in the homes of civilians, but they are just as unwelcome in the streets of America's cities as the army Madison dreaded.
First in my class in Officer Candidate School. Late to the conclusion that our attitude toward the military is idolatrous.