Portrait of James Madison

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

Found in: The Federalist (Gideon ed.)

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.