Constitution of the United States

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What is the difference between the Bill of Rights and the Constitution?

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The Bill of Rights consists of the first ten amendments to the United States Constitution.

The Constitution as it stood was a controversial document. During the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia in 1787, many delegates—who were known as Anti-Federalists—were worried that it gave far too much power to the Federal government. The Americans had just successfully fought a war against what they regarded as the tyranny of the British. The last thing they wanted to see was the reestablishment of a strong, centralized government, which—like British colonial government—could ride roughshod over Americans' liberties.

So, in order to assuage the Anti-Federalists' concerns, a series of amendments were made to the Constitution, guaranteeing certain rights against the Federal government, such as the right to free speech (the First Amendment), the right to bear arms (the Second Amendment), and the right not to be compelled to be a witness against oneself in any criminal proceedings (the Fifth Amendment).

Last Updated by eNotes Editorial on October 8, 2019
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There is a difference between the Bill of Rights and the Constitution. The Constitution was a new plan of government that was developed because the old plan, the Articles of Confederation, wasn’t working well. The Constitution explains the structure of the new government. For example, there were three branches of government with each branch having a different job to do. The Constitution, among other things, also states when elections are held, how long a term of office is, and how an official can be removed from office. The Constitution also explains the process of how the Constitution can be changed. This is known as the amendment process.

The Bill of Rights is the first ten amendments to the Constitution. The Bill of Rights guarantees our freedoms. For example, freedom of speech and the right to bear arms are two of the first ten amendments. These amendments were added to the Constitution because some people felt the Constitution didn’t provide enough protection of our rights. Some states said they wouldn’t vote to ratify the Constitution without a promise being made to add the Bill of Rights to the Constitution.

Thus, the Constitution explains our entire plan of government while the Bill of Rights is the first ten changes to it.

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In terms of definitions, the difference is that the Constitution was ratified first and the Bill of Rights are the first 10 amendments that were added to the Constitution.

In terms of their content, the major difference is that the Constitution as a whole sets up our system of government.  By contrast, the Bill of Rights is entirely a negative document in that all it does is to lay out what the government may notdo.

The bulk of the Constitution is concerned with saying what the federal government can do and how it will be set up.  To be sure, there are prohibitions on things like the creation of ex post facto laws.  But for the most part, the Constitution does things like saying how many houses will make up Congress, what powers Congress will have, what powers the President will have, and other such things.  It is the blueprint for our system.

By contrast, the Bill of Rights simply sets out a variety of things the federal government may not do.  It may not, for example, infringe on freedom of speech.  Its officials may not carry out searches and seizures without warrants.  It cannot deprive people of their life, liberty, or property without the due process of law.  All of these are negative restrictions on government while the Constitution proper is more oriented towards setting up the government.

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