How the First Ten Amendments Became the Bill of Rights

The term “the Bill of Rights” used as a proper noun to refer specifically and exclusively to the first ten amendments to the U.S. Constitution was largely a result of civic education drives in the 1920s and 1930s. Many in the founding generation called for a bill rights to be attached to the Constitution, but they never called the first ten amendments “the Bill of Rights.” In the nineteenth century, these amendments had little power, and the bill of rights (usually not capitalized) was often thought to be an abstract set of principles, existing prior to and not coequal with the first ten amendments. Through a gradual linguistic evolution, driven by a need to define and apply political principles, Americans created “the Bill of Rights” and imbued it with iconic status. This occurred first in legal language in the 1890s, and spread into textbooks, before entering the vocabulary of contributors to newspapers. In the 1930s, while courts and political leaders looked to the Bill of Rights to justify the federal expansion of power, Americans discovered that this iconic document could be used to resist the same. As they debated the nature, purpose, and application of the Bill of Rights, Americans clarified the meaning of the term and empowered it.