Madison on “Parchment Barriers” and the defence of liberty I (1788)

James Madison

Although in the Federalist Papers (1787-88) James Madison (1751-1836) urged ratification of the U.S. constitution he was also aware of the things it left undone. Here he worries about the weakness of “parchment barriers” such as the constitution in protecting the liberties of the people when the government increasingly “draw(s) all power into its impetuous vortex”:

Will it be sufficient to mark, with precision, the boundaries of these departments, in the constitution of the government, and to trust to these parchment barriers against the encroaching spirit of power? This is the security which appears to have been principally relied on by the compilers of most of the American constitutions. But experience assures us, that the efficacy of the provision has been greatly overrated; and that some more adequate defence is indispensably necessary for the more feeble, against the more powerful members of the government. The legislative department is every where extending the sphere of its activity, and drawing all power into its impetuous vortex.

Madison’s worries about the ineffectiveness of what he called “parchment barriers” to the violation of individual liberties were substantial. He thought that many of his contemporaries were too focused on the threats posed by the executive branch, which he thought understandable given the fact that they had just fought a revolutionary war against an overbearing monarch who headed an empire. He thought a bigger problem lay with the legislative branch because it “alone has access to the pockets of the people” and could be dominated by self-interested factions who could manipulate the chamber. Nevertheless, he also was aware that the executive branch might pose a similar threat to the liberties of the people, especially when “the necessities of the war” demanded action by the executive, but seemed to downplay these fears in his final analysis. Madison seemed to glumly conclude that the effectiveness of parchment barriers were overrated in limiting “the encroaching spirit of power” and that something else was needed to protect individuals from seeing their liberties and property being sucked into the “impetuous vortex” of government. Unfortunately he did not specify here what a “sufficient guard” against this might be.