Thomas Jefferson’s Grammar (And Other Awesome Things About America)

So Thomas Jefferson was a wordsmith of the greatest kind.

You know the hotly debated phrase “All men are created equal”?

Interestingly enough, the interpretation most people assign to the sentence renders it grammatically incorrect, and not what I think Jefferson meant to say at all.

Consider the word “equal.”

Taken as it is, the word “equal” in that case is an adjective. Adjectives, by definition, cannot modify verbs. That is what adverbs are for. Makes sense, right?

What if, instead, we said that “All men are created equally“?

The word “equally,” on the other hand, is in fact an adverb, which, by definition, modifies a verb.

In this case, the only verb it can modify is the verb “to create.” It has to modify that verb because there is no other in the sentence. Implying, thereby, that the creation of one man is equal to the creation of another. (I’m using man as a generic pronoun, which is for the record a perfectly acceptable use.)

So if the creation of one is equal to the creation of another, thereby it is a logical assumption that the two are created by the same process. Equal signs. Right?

I don’t know about you, but I have never, ever, ever met anyone who was “created” by the same process I was. Apart from the obvious, the process that has gone to create me as I am is completely different from the process that has gone to create my father, or my mother, or either of my sisters (despite their growing up in the same house I did), or any of my friends.

Let’s go back to the original, the adjectival version.

“All men are created equal.”

Adjectives cannot modify verbs. They can, however, modify nouns.

The noun in this sentence (the only one) is “men.”

Thereby implying that the men themselves (or women, if you really insist) are created not by the same process, but to the same end: created to be a functioning, capable person with a heart, a soul, a mind, a psyche, a drive, passions, preferences, experiences and talents. Every single one of us is created to be one of those individuals. We are created to be capable of being as successful as the next person.

To sum up, we are CREATED TO BE equal, not CREATED EQUALLY.

This is cool because it implies two things:

1. We are all equally (forgive me) capable of success no matter who we are.

2. Success does not depend on color, race, gender, hair length or anything else.

Those two things further imply yet another thing:

1. Because we are all capable of being as good as anyone around us, none of us require any help.

I said this once in an op-ed about Tom Luna’s proposed education reform a few years back, and I’ll say it again because it’s important. The system will not stand in your way.

You are just as capable as the next person, as anyone else around you.

I will cite for inspiration the first female American self-made millionaire. Her name was Madam C. J. Walker, and she was black. She was born just after the Civil War and died just after WWI – before the civil rights movement, before anyone came along to champion the cause of the oppressed black community in America. And she was a millionaire.

She was a competent businesswoman. She knew what she was doing. She was not given the same opportunities as many of her contemporaries. And yet she did things they didn’t do.

She was not created in an equal manner as that of her contemporaries. She was created to be ever-so-capable of being equal with them. And she decided she would be, and she was.

Would that we were all like that.


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