There are many famous Declarations of Rights. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948, the French Declaration of the Rights of Man of 1789, the Virginia Declaration of Rights of 1776, and the English Declaration of Rights in 1689. Other canonical texts, most notably the first set of constitutional amendments, are described as bills of rights. What is the difference?
In the modern era the answer seems to be that declarations of rights are aspirational (at least in significant part) while bills of rights are concrete. In 1991, President Bush stated during the bicentennial of the Bill of Rights that the Framers were practical men who “gave us not a declaration but a Bill of Rights, not a piece of propaganda but a set of legally enforceable constraints on government.” And Mary Ann Glendon’s book on the drafting of the Universal Declaration explains that the authors of that document tended to refer to their work as an “international bill of rights” until they started adding aspirational language, at which point they began calling the draft a “declaration.”
Now this was not the basis of the original distinction between a Declaration and a Bill of Rights. In 1689, the English Declaration was given that title because that text was the product of a illegal Parliament (sitting without a King). The Bill of Rights of that same year was a duly enacted statute (after William was crowned).
By the Founding-era, though, this distinction was irrelevant. People used the two terms interchangeably, and some states called its list a “declaration of rights” while some said “bill of rights” even though they looked the same. This rhetoric continued into the late 19th century, but by 1900 “bill of rights” became the favored term.
Why was that? I’m not sure, but the answer may be that the Declaration of Independence became THE Declaration for Americans such that calling anything else a Declaration of Rights would have seemed strange. The Declaration of Independence, of course, was aspirational, which may have led people to view other declarations in that way.
Anyway, food for thought.