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Chesnutt in the Classroom

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A FATAL RESTRICTION

I LIKED YOUNG BRODENWASSER from the first time we met. He was an ingenuous, whole-souled, full-faced German youth, running over with enthusiasm for the great country which had become his home by adoption. He asked me to recommend to him a course of reading which would make him familiar with the main facts of American history, and the theory of our government. I thought it best to let him get at the theory through the facts, and so I started him off on a course of historical reading. And realizing that he could more perfectly appreciate our system by comparing it with other systems of government, I advised him to begin with Rollin's Ancient History and gradually approach the present age.

In about six months he had reached American history. It was pleasant to note his growing interest in the subject. Every morning he would come into the office with some new thing to admire. The Revolution was a glorious struggle of liberty against tyranny. He fairly reveled in the career of Washington, in whom he immediately recognized the greatest of statesmen and patriots. In the progress of his reading, he finally reached the Constitutional Convention, and the result of its labors, the Constitution itself. On the first reading of this immortal document he could not sufficiently express his admiration of its wisdom. But the next time he came into the office, his appearance indicated some severe mental disturbance.

"I have made a discovery," he said, "that has driven all the joy and sweetness out of my life. See here!" He placed before me a pocket edition of the Constitution, with his finger on this passage:

"No person except a natural born citizen, or a citizen of the United States at the time of the adoption of the Constitution, shall be eligible to the office of President."

"Why should that disturb you, Fritz?"

"Do you need to ask?" he answered, sadly; "I can never be President; I was not born in the United States."

I tried to reason him out of the absurdity of such a feeling on his part.

"My dear young friend," I said, "just think of the extreme improbability of any one ever becoming President. There are at least fifty millions of people in this country; probably half of them are males, and therefore technically eligible, in point of sex, for the presidency. The extreme youth of some of them is a fault which time will correct. Say that of these twenty-five million fifteen million are eligible in respect to nativity and mental capacity, and have a fair rough-and-tumble chance for the presidency. Then estimate the number of Presidents in an average generation of thirty-five years. Six Presidents would be a fair average--one chance in two and a half millions! Why, when I think of the extreme smallness of the chance, I am actually astonished that we ever have a President at all!"

This seemed to comfort him, and for a time he was more cheerful. But it did not last. Gradually the bloom faded from his cheek, and the brightness from his eye. One morning when he did not come to work, I went up to his room to look for him.

I knocked at the door; there was no response. I knocked again, and harder, but in vain. Finally I got a locksmith, and we broke the door open. Suspended from the gas fixture in the middle of the room was all that was left of Fritz. He had torn an American flag into strips, and made a rope to hang himself with. On the table lay a copy of the Constitution, open at the passage which had pained him so, and by it lay a little note addressed to me. The note ran as follows:

"I can not bear it. Life without hope is worse than death. Your cruel Constitution is responsible for my untimely end. If I had been born in America, I may never have been President; but I might have hoped. But now there is nothing left for me but despair and death."

Chas. W. Chesnutt