The Bill of Rights As Literature

Contributor: Nathan Murphy. Lesson ID: 13867

The Bill of Rights was created immediately after the U.S. Constitution was approved. Explore its purpose to understand the underlying themes of this historical document.

categories

Writing

subject
English / Language Arts
learning style
Auditory, Visual
personality style
Beaver
Grade Level
High School (9-12)
Lesson Type
Dig Deeper

Lesson Plan - Get It!

Audio:
  • What comes to mind when you hear the word rights?

know your rights

On a separate sheet of paper, answer the following questions:

  • What are rights?
  • From where do they come?
  • Do you have any?
  • If so, which are important to you?

After you reflect on the meaning of this loaded word to you, consider what rights meant to the Founding Fathers.

  • Why do you think understanding that is important?

Let's find out!

Purpose

bill of rights

  • What was the purpose of the Bill of Rights?

The United States Constitution was approved by a majority of the states in 1788; however, many people like Thomas Jefferson wanted immediate amendments to it.

An amendment is a change made to a document.

  • Why would Jefferson want to change the U.S. Constitution right after the country approved it?

jefferson

The Constitution greatly expanded the power of the United States federal government, and some feared that it would enable the president or Congress to seize the rights of the people if either ever desired to do so.

As you watch History Moments: Why Did We Need a Bill of Rights?, from Colonial Williamsburg, pay attention to what Jefferson says is the problem with the Constitution:

At this point in history, the state wherein someone lived matter more than it does today.

Most Americans thought of themselves as Virginian or Georgian before they thought of themselves as American. Jefferson wanted to protect the autonomy the states had in order to preserve peoples' unalienable rights.

  • So what was the purpose of this document according to Jefferson?

It was to protect the Constitution against the central government.

The Bill of Rights is a set of 10 amendments or additions to the Constitution designed to help ensure the rights of individuals.

Keep that in mind as you look at a few of these amendments to see if they achieved their purpose.

If their purpose was to limit the control of the central government, do you think these three amendments were effective?

Themes

  • What common theme(s) do you notice running through these three amendments?

liberty or tyranny road sign

A central idea within the Bill of Rights is that the government may, at some point, grow beyond its power.

The First Amendment explicitly bans Congress from creating laws in defiance of several rights, such as freedom of speech.

The Fourth Amendment prevents the government from barging into any home without first having probable cause to do so.

The Tenth Amendment states that the only powers the federal government has are those which are explicitly stated in the Constitution.

All three of these amendments protect future generations from tyranny.

The Founding Fathers had just broken away from a king and Parliament in England who had grown incredibly powerful. For this reason, the theme that pervaded the entire Bill of Rights was the idea that governments cannot be trusted. While they are necessary, they also need to be minimized as much as possible.

Without understanding its background, the Bill of Rights can seem like a fairly standard document with commonplace ideas because this country has lived by these principles for over 200 years.

However, when the Founding Fathers were putting these ideas down into writing, it was an incredibly new idea for governments to restrict themselves.

Literary Devices

allude definition

Even though the people at the time understood how government could be dangerous, any amendments to the Constitution had to be voted on and approved by the government.

  • Were any literary devices used in this document to try and convince people to approve it?

The main device used in the Bill of Rights is allusion.

Allusion is a literary device that references a well-known event or text without specifically naming it.

  • Why might this be persuasive?

Read another of the amendments in the Bill of Rights:

An entire amendment to the Constitution was devoted to stating troops cannot sleep in other people's homes.

  • Why did this even matter?

This amendment alluded to an unpopular British law that existed decades earlier while the states were still colonies. Watch a clip on The Quartering Act 1765, from rswarts, to learn more:

  • If you lived in 1765, how might seeing this amendment affect your vote on the Bill of Rights?

If you were skeptical about passing the Bill of Rights, seeing this amendment may have persuaded you. The allusion to the disastrous Quartering Act would have reminded you of British tyranny and made you all the more committed to preventing that in the United States.

Keep going to the Got It? section to identify more allusion in this document!

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