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Quotations about Liberty and Power

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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.

Other quotes about Liberty:

17 December, 2012

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

Read the full quote in context here.

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.

The full passage from which this quotation was taken can be be viewed below (front page quote in bold):

It is agreed on all sides, that the powers properly belonging to one of the departments, ought not to be directly and completely administered by either of the other departments. It is equally evident, that neither of them ought to possess, directly or indirectly, an overruling influence over the others in the administration of their respective powers. It will not be denied, that power is of an encroaching nature, and that it ought to be effectually restrained from passing the limits assigned to it. After discriminating, therefore, in theory, the several classes of power, as they may in their nature be legislative, executive, or judiciary; the next, and most difficult task, is to provide some practical security for each, against the invasion of the others. What this security ought to be, is the great problem to be solved.

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.

In a democracy, where a multitude of people exercise in person the legislative functions, and are continually exposed, by their incapacity for regular deliberation and concerted measures, to the ambitious intrigues of their executive magistrates, tyranny may well be apprehended, on some favourable emergency, to start up in the same quarter….

The conclusion which I am warranted in drawing from these observations is, that a mere demarkation on parchment of the constitutional limits of the several departments, is not a sufficient guard against those encroachments which lead to a tyrannical concentration of all the powers of government in the same hands.

[More works by James Madison (1751 – 1836) and on The American Revolution and Constitution]