Even Americans who are not familiar with the Constitution know about the First and Second Amendments. Controversies in the news over freedom of religion, freedom of speech, and the right to own and bear arms have drilled the First and Second Amendments into the consciousness of American citizens. But does anyone remember the Third Amendment? A quick, unscientific survey conducted by the author suggested that few Americans know which of their rights is protected by the Third Amendment. In fact, even Constitutional scholars refer to the Third Amendment as the “runt of the litter” when discussing the Bill of rights.
To review, the Third Amendment reads as follows: “No soldier shall, in a 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 reason the Third Amendment is so little known is that the issue of quartering soldiers has not come up since the days when the British forced American colonists to quarter Redcoats in their homes; an objectionable practice to say the least. The framers of the Bill of Rights found being forced to quarter soldiers so objectionable that they wanted to ensure that American citizens would not be forced by their won government to do so. Of course, without wars taking place on American soil the issue simply has not come up.
Because the issue of quartering troops in private homes has not come up and because the Third Amendment has never—at least not yet—been cited as the primary legal basis for a Supreme Court decision, there are those who believe the “runt of the litter” has become irrelevant and should be done away with. But I would urge caution in this regard. The Third Amendment is like a tool in a toolbox that rarely gets used. As soon as you get rid of it, a need will arise for it. The Third Amendment protects a basic American right and just because that right has not been infringed on does not mean it won’t be. Further, the Third Amendment stands as a reminder that there are limits on what the government can require of private citizens. In fact, the Third Amendment has been invoked by the Supreme Court a few times to help uphold the citizen’s right to privacy. It has also been cited by the Supreme Court as evidence that the Framers intended to restrict executive power even during a time of war.
In an age when more and more government control over every aspect of the American citizen’s life has become the norm, relinquishing a freedom guaranteed in the Constitution because there has not yet been a need for the protection it provides is unwise. A better course concerning the Third Amendment is to leave it in place and be thankful it has not been needed. You never know when it might be.