What Was Its Purpose?
The response to this question contains a two part answer: (1) the Bill of Rights was written to get the Constitution ratified; (2) The Bill of Rights' purpose is the same as that of the Constitution, to limit government.
#1: Ratification of the Constitution
One of the major purposes behind the Bill of RIghts was to save the Constitution and the nation.
The Constitutional convention convened in 1787 in Philadelphia, its original intent being the rewriting of the Articles of Confederation. The 55 delegates soon realized that for the new nation to succeed, they would have to discard the Articles of Confederation and create a new government. After months of deliberation, the Constitution was finished, but would it be approved?
An ideological argument accompanied the completion of the document. Many delegates feared a too powerful central government and wished to provide a Bill of Rights to prevent governmental abuses. Others felt a Bill of Rights unnecessary, considering government had no authority to grant natural rights–life, liberty, and property, for example–and that by granting rights, governments, in the future, could eliminate rights and prohibit rights not expressly guaranteed in the Bill of Rights.
It became increasingly clear, however, that the United States Constitution, without a Bill of Rights, would not be ratified. The delegates, who had throughout the convention miraculously solved numerous insurmountable issues, approved ten amendments to the Constitution, the last two granting all rights not given to the national government to individuals or to the states.
#2: Limitation of Government
Some Congressional delegates feared a new constitution vesting power in a central government would lead to the same tyranny and oppression they had just overthrown. Twelve amendments, a Bill of Rights, were proposed to limit the power of government. Of the twelve, ten found their way as amendments to the United States Constitution.
Many of these Bill of Rights were created in direct response to British actions during the colonial period: the first amendment continued the tradition of religious dissent established by several of the continent’s original settlers; colonists found it difficult to procure arms to defend themselves against the British militia, leading to the second amendment; the third amendment prohibits the forced quartering of troops in someone’s home, a common occurence in colonial America; the 4th, 5th, 6th, 7th, and 8th amendments were in response to unfair British practices toward those accused of crimes, including the scheduling of trials in distant locales after much time had passed.
The 9th and 10th amendments limited the federal government’s power by granting powers not granted to the federal government to individual states (the tenth amendment) or individual citizens (the 9th amendment).
Today: A Call to Action
The founding fathers wrote the Constitution to govern human nature. They understood the natural inclination of rulers to want more power. As the federal government grows larger by the day, it’s imperative that citizens of the United States demand their elected officials return to the Constitution for guidance.
This post is part of the series: Bill of Rights Study Guide
The Bill of Rights guarantees Americans' most precious freedoms. Make sure you understand them before they disappear.