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Saddled with Another Absolutist Regime

Alexander Hamilton was no friend of the Articles of Confederation and the decentralized republic it represented, but he did know the limits of newly-created federal power within the new constitution. His view was that States retained any authority not specifically delegated, and that State troops, as in 1861-1865, would constitutionally resist any invasion to preserve their independence and sovereignty.

James Madison wrote of this as well, stating that more than one State might band together, as in the later Confederate States of America, to resist any and all encroachments on State sovereignty by the federal agent created by the States.

Alexis de Toqueville, the French traveler in the America of 1831-32, saw firsthand the powers of “this strange new democratic monster” that would within thirty years gain control of the federal government and consolidate all, by force, into one common mass.

Saddled with Another Absolutist Regime

“In Toqueville’s opinion, the many levels of responsibility acted as buffers against the tyranny of the majority that ordinarily characterized democracy. Then United States possessed a centralized government but not a centralized administration.

To what extent American self-government was an outgrowth of the federal constitution, or merely a by-product of their habits and experiences, remains to be seen. This much, however, is clear: no subject so agitated the founding fathers as the possible loss of local responsibility under a federal government. The new constitution had to be designed in a way that maximized State autonomy.

As Hamilton put it in Federalist 62, “The equal vote allowed to each State [i.e. in the Senate] is at once a constitutional recognition of the portion of sovereignty remaining in the individual States, and an instrument for preserving that residual sovereignty.”

Although Hamilton favored a centralized economic authority, he argued that the federal government could not legitimately use the taxing power as an excuse to interfere in the internal government of the States. In Federalist 28, he argued that State militias would be called out to resist invasions of sovereignty.

[James] Madison concurred, and in Federalist 46 suggested that the States would band together to prevent such encroachments. Even the arch-federalist John Marshall declared (in McCulloch v. Maryland) that “no political dreamer was ever wild enough to think of breaking down the lines which separate the States, and of compounding the American people into one common mass.”

Interference in the life of local communities had been one of the complaints against the royal government. The anti-Federalists were afraid that, by adopting the Federal Constitution, they were saddling themselves with another absolutist regime. Mass democracy, as Toqueville realized, was dangerous.”

(The Politics of Human Nature, Thomas Fleming, Transaction Publishers, 1988, excerpts pg. 200)

Southern Fears of Northern Interests

Patrick Henry of Virginia was one of the most vocal opponents of the constitution which eventually would supersede the Articles of Confederation. He predicted that members of Congress would become a new aristocracy and vote themselves large salaries; that national control over State militia was dangerous to freedom; that Northern commercial interests would menace the South. James Madison could only reply that the “Constitution was not perfect, but as good as might have been made.”

Southern Fears of Northern Interests

“The Virginia delegates returning from Philadelphia had hardly reached their firesides when a long campaign began against the Constitution. In letters, pamphlets and speeches there poured forth almost every conceivable argument against it. It contained no bill of rights, and its adoption would lead to the destruction of personal liberties; it would bring back monarchy; it would create a ruling aristocracy; and it protected the abominable slave trade.

But above all, the Constitution was a dagger aimed at the South, and its point must be blunted or avoided. It must be amended to protect against all these evils. Were it not possible to secure changes, Virginia must think of creating a Southern federation in which the rights of person, republicanism, and Southern interests would be effectively defended.

One of the more moderate enemies of the Constitution was Richard Henry Lee . . . [writing that] “the Constitution threatened Southern interests; and he emphatically declared that Congressional authority to regulate commerce was a menace to the South. Said he:

“In this congressional legislature a bare majority can enact commercial laws, so that the representatives of seven Northern States, as they will have a majority, can, by law, create the most oppressive monopolies upon the five Southern States, whose circumstances and productions are essentially different from theirs, although not a single man of their voters are the representatives of, or amenable to, the people of the Southern States . . . it is supposed that the policy of the Southern States will prevent such abuses! But how feeble, sir, is policy when opposed to interest among trading people.”

Far more forthcoming in denunciation was Benjamin Harrison, who wrote to Washington: “If the constitution is carried into effect, the States south of the [Potomac], will be little more than appendages to those northward of it. . . . In the nature of things they must sooner or later, establish a tyranny, not inferior to the triumvirate or centum viri of Rome.”

Equally vigorous language was used by George Mason [who] wanted amendments protecting both personal and States’ rights. He feared the Constitution would bring either oligarchy or monarchy and Northern dominion.

[Patrick] Henry . . . aroused the fears of men indebted to British merchants: those grasping enemy creditors who would make use of the Federal courts-to-be . . . [and that] the Northerners would control that government, and they would discriminate grievously against the Southern people whenever they could secure gain for themselves.”

(The First South, John Richard Allen, LSU Press, 1961, excerpts pp. 111-114)

Mar 27, 2019 - Articles of Confederation, Conservatism and Liberalism, Democracy, The United States Constitution    Comments Off on The Problem of 1787

The Problem of 1787

The intention of the 1787 Constitution was a strictly limited, representative government with two branches of Congress to represent both the democratic and conservative principles, and an electoral college to elect the President.

Though the Constitution became a dead letter in 1861 with a president assuming dictatorial powers, in 1913 the conservative principle that the Founders had put in place to control the democratic principle, was destroyed by the Seventeenth Amendment.

The Problem of 1787

“When in May, 1787, the delegates of the Federal Convention assembled themselves in Philadelphia, their instructions were to prepare amendments to the Articles of Confederation under which the thirteen States were very loosely held together. That was understood to be their sole and express business – to amend the Articles.

Anyone who will read the debates may see for himself that the delegates . . . were possessed of two fears . . . One was the fear of monarchy; the other was the fear of democracy.

Specifically, in one case it was fear of the executive, who should be called President, lest he turn into a monarch; and, in the other case, it was fear of the people, lest they give themselves up to temptations of democracy. In both cases, it was fear – of what? Of tyranny. The problem was how to limit them.

The one least considered at first and never returned to was that the President should be elected by popular vote, for it was agreed that this would increase the danger of an elective monarchy [and] if one branch of [Congress] was going to be elected by popular vote . . . there was the danger that he would collaborate with the demagogues in the popular branch . . . to encroach upon the Constitution and overthrow it.

At last it was decided that the people should elect electors and the electors elect the President, a very awkward arrangement, and yet the best they could think of to avoid the evil of submitting the choice to direct popular vote. Then was the question of how the two branches of Congress should be elected. It was easily agreed, and yet not unanimously, that . . . the House of Representatives should be elected by popular vote.

[The] other branch of Congress, to be called the Senate, must not be elected by popular vote. What was needed was an austere, resolute Senate, unresponsive to popular clamor, with long tenure of office, perhaps for life. For this was to be the conservative principle. It was to restrain “the fury of democracy.”

Or, as Randolph said: “The object of this second branch is to control the democratic branch of the national legislature. If it not be a firm body, the other branch, being more numerous and coming directly from the people, will overwhelm it. The democratic licentiousness of the State legislatures proves the necessity of a firm Senate.”

In this matter there was scarcely any contrary opinion. The idea that the Senate should represent the conservative principle as a check upon the democratic principle was practically unanimous. What came of these deliberations was our Constitution. And how should such a Government, the first of its kind in the world, be defined? [Only] three words were necessary – constitutional, representative, limited.”

(A Washington Errand, Garet Garrett, Saturday Evening Post, January 29, 1938, excerpts pp. 31-32)

Lincoln’s Counterrevolution to the Revolution

In truth, New England led the secession movement from Britain with its revolt against British Navigation Acts. In contrast, the Southern colonies were exporters and did well as British Americans, though they had formed a provincial identity of independence, or, “States’ Rights.” This of course preceded the Articles of Confederation and 1787 Constitution.

Regarding the counterrevolution of the 1860’s and its result, the author quoted below writes: “the revolution of the 1860’s ended up devastating New England almost as much as it did the South. What emerged in the late 19th century, as John Quincy’s grandson Henry described it, was a country ruled by speculators, stockjobbers and imperialists. Boston rule would have been infinitely preferable to rule by the set of gangsters who engineered the election of Grant, Arthur, McKinley, and Harding and their spiritual descendants who control both parties today.”

Lincoln’s Counterrevolution to the Revolution

“Lincoln did not initiate the political revolution that destroyed the American republic. The bandwagon was hurtling along in its course long before he leaped aboard and seized the reins. The effect of his presidency and of the war he either brought on deliberately or blundered into was to annul the American Revolution, which might be more accurately described as a counterrevolution. But if we are going to stick to conventional language, we can say that Mr. Lincoln’s project in national democracy as the counterrevolution to the revolution of 1776.

To understand why some Americans – and not just in the South – opposed the Lincolnian counterrevolution, we have to first understand why so many Americans had been willing to go to war in the 1770’s.

In Massachusetts, of course, one can find sound economic reasons. The British government was eager to find ways to make the colonies pay for the wars that had been undertaken on their behalf, and taxation and regulation of industry and commerce seemed to be – and indeed was – a solution that was both reasonable and just. New Englanders, feeling the pinch of mercantilist policies, were understandably annoyed, and when the insult of constitutional innovation (the suspension of charters and the so-called Intolerable Acts) was added to the injury inflicted on their economic life, they were ripe for revolution.

The planters and merchants of Charleston and the South Carolina Lowcountry, by contrast, were making out rather well within the [British] empire. In the 1770’s, Charelston was one of the wealthiest and by far the most civilized city in North America. By the outbreak of the Revolution, Charleston merchants and Lowcountry planters formed an American aristocracy.

While most historians and political ideologues have claimed, over and over, that the American rebels were devotees of John Locke’s theory of natural rights and the social contract, there is very little evidence of this. Every important statement and virtually all the little manifestos of church parishes and small townships stake their claim on the Common Law rights of Englishmen.

A key word was equality, not of all human beings, but the equality of Americans in possessing the rights of the English. Patrick Henry put it succinctly: The colonists are entitled “to all the liberties, privileges, franchises that have at any time been held, enjoyed, and possessed by the people of Great Britain.” Provincials resented the fact that Parliament denied them the benefits of several significant statutes, such as the Habeas Corpus Act, the Act of Settlement, and the Bill of Rights.”

(Why They Fought, Thomas Fleming, Chronicles, April 2015, excerpts pp. 8-9) www.chroniclesmagazine.org

The South Forced to Obey the New Union

The war of 1861-1865 created a new union of the North and a forced South, with the mercantile former dictating terms, policies and allegiance to the latter as an economic colony. The Republican party oligarchy then ushered in the Gilded Age of political bosses, bought politicians and a vote-rigging press. The Founders’ Union of equal and sovereign States was but a distant memory.

The South Forced to Obey the New Union

“Remember money breeds money, which in turn brings more,” said Benjamin Franklin. “Those who labor in the earth are the chosen people of God,” wrote Thomas Jefferson.

If these two attitudes may be considered the respective mainstream philosophies of the North and the South, then it becomes obvious there can be no way to blend the two into a single national spirit ant more than Cain could live by Abel’s side. “We the people,” as famous a phrase as it may be, is a dupery.

Understanding it as such seems to me the key to the history of the United States both before and after 1865.

When the American colonists started debating their merging into a single political unit, the obviously central issue was that of States’ rights – i.e., what sovereignty would be left to the States once a federal power, endowed with a sovereignty of its own, had been established.

Since none of their representatives appears to have called for the States to forfeit their sovereignty entirely, it seems obvious that the new union, it tighter than the one obtaining under the Articles of Confederation, was nevertheless to be that of a federation in which the federal power was rigorously construed, strictly limited, and States’ rights sternly asserted. Such a view was never unanimous.

The Federalists, men of the North already, opposed it immediately, (hence the Tenth Amendment) and never relented until they overcame at the price of open war. In between they had constantly waged one by other means, kindling the fires of conflict with self-interested issues (internal improvements, tariffs, a central bank), the last of which was the rather contrived issue of slavery. (The South ended up fighting as one man while the only a fourth of Southern households actually owned slaves . . . As for the Yankees, once victorious they abandoned the freed slaves to a rather dubious fate.)

So the fateful war was fought, and union proclaimed to have been restored.

A scurrilous claim: It is symbolic that the South could be reinstated as a member of the Union only after a team of Northern generals had razed it. The new union, instead of resulting from the regulated intercourse of political bodies, was forced down the throats of half of them, and the unity prevailing between Americans became that which obtains between colonizers and colonized.

Lincoln showed himself to be a faithful disciple of Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s method for regenerating France: “to prevent the union from being an empty word, it must be disposed that whoever is rebellious to the people’s will must be forced to obey it, which only means forcing him to be free. From such deviousness was born a new type of nation, indeed.”

(1865: The True American Revolution, Claude Polin, Chronicles, April 2015, excerpts pg. 14; www.chroniclesmagazine.org)

An Understanding of Eighteenth Century Government

The author below writes that the Founders, to include men such as John Adams and James Madison, saw the purpose of a separation of powers in the new government as necessary to give both “property” and “the people” – the aristocracy and the workers – a voice in government with a check upon one another. He adds that those who think of government as a science and formal political structures have difficulty understanding the men of long ago who looked upon government as an instrument for resolving tensions among social classes, or “interests,” which was the term commonly used in the eighteenth century. The social interests remain today, as well as the social tensions.

Eighteenth Century Understanding of Government

“Those who bent their efforts, and a considerable amount of history along with them, to prove the constitutionality of the New Deal denied the fact of “State sovereignty” under the Article of Confederation. They asserted the old doctrine that the union came before the States and was therefore all-powerful: State sovereignty never existed. From this doctrine they deduced that New Deal measures could not be invalidated by the Supreme Court, which turned to “States’ rights” notions and a strict interpretation of the Constitution of 1787.

In doing so it was obvious the majority of the Court were motivated by political and economic predilections rather than concern for the true nature of the Constitution. The opponents of the Court, likewise, in their fervor to attain necessary ends, cited many analogies, the falsity of which they did not recognize. To them the argument of States’ rights used to defeat national regulation of business enterprise was specious and unfounded in history.

What they did not see was that the eighteenth-century counterparts of nineteenth-century vested interests likewise rejected the doctrine of State sovereignty. For them the only escape from a democracy which found expression in unchecked State governments was the creation of a national government which would limit if not destroy the sovereignty of the States. Despite the theorizing of later days, the fact remains that State sovereignty was a grim reality for those who objected to majority rule.

[Those] . . . who say or imply that democracy was not an issue in the Revolutionary era . . . do not face the fact that some of the Revolutionary leaders who became the folk heroes of later generations were actually opposed to what they believed to be, and what they called, “democracy.” Therefore they are unwilling to accept the idea that the Articles of Confederation were an expression of the democratic philosophy of the eighteenth century and that the Constitution of 1787 was the culmination of an anti-democratic crusade.

(The Articles of Confederation: An Interpretation of the Social-Constitutional History of the American Revolution, 1774-1781, Merrill Jensen, University of Wisconsin Press, 1963, excerpts pp. viii-ix)

The Revolution and the Rights of Man

Author John Keats argues that “the American Revolution was neither wholly American nor revolutionary,” and “represented the transatlantic evolution of European ideas whose origins were as old as Europe itself” – and territorial expansion. Add to this a poisonous mix of sharp-trading Puritans, pacifist Quakers and self-reliant Southern planters – “too many lumps of self-interest that simply would not melt” — and Jefferson’s borrowing and modifying phrases from Locke and Rousseau.

Bernhard Thuersam, www.Circa1865.org

 

The Revolution and the Rights of Man

“The American Revolution was particularly dangerous to America and the world because the ostensible reason for fighting was to proclaim and protect the rights of man. Since these were seen to be natural and universal, the American Revolution was implicitly designed for export.

The Revolutionary veterans began to export it without waiting for their government’s approval. Within nine years after the war ended, there were no less than two hundred thousand Americans – one tenth of the national population – settled in the eastern Mississippi valley lands claimed by Spain.

To the Spanish, the newcomers were violent, armed revolutionary republicans. Worse, they were heretics who belonged to a race long inimical and dangerous to the Spanish one.

But the pursuit of [westward expansion] policies could not be undertaken by anything so weak and vague as the [Articles of Confederation]. Worse, the confederation was unable to exert any effective control over the scores of thousands of Americans who were taking land for themselves in the west.

Some of these self-reliant and self-confident, people, very much afire with Revolutionary ardor, were entertaining ideas of capturing New Orleans, invading Mexico, liberating people there from Spanish rule, and so extending the blessings of republican liberties to a people tyrannously denied their natural human rights.

The soberest of the leaders of the confederation were well-aware that the military power of the United States was non-existent, and that its political power were nearly so. [It was time] to weld thirteen separate republican States into a single military power that could control and protect its property.

The delegates succeeded in producing a powerful legal instrument to this end, but two years after the Constitution was adopted, a popular concern to protect the gains of the Revolution demanded that the other shoe be dropped: A Bill of Rights was tacked on. Once this was done, the Revolution was now legally ready for export, because the ostensible reason for going to Valley Forge was built into the law of the land. In defending [the Bill of Rights], the Americans would always be on the side of humanity.

The Revolutionary Americans, caught in the mystique of their own ardent rhetoric, believed this at the time, and many Americans have believed it ever since: what is good for Americans is good for anyone in the world; the world must be made safe for republican democracy whether the world liked it or not.

So the Constitution, as amended, was a document that first created a military power, and then in the names of God, natural law and human rights gave the people of the United States a sacred and legal command to use. It is not, therefore, a historical accident that in its 193-year history, the United States of American has engaged in more wars with more different people in more parts of the world than any other nation in the long history of man on earth.”

(Eminent Domain: the Louisiana Purchase and the Making of America, John Keats, Charterhouse, 1973, excerpts pp. 215; 217-218)

 

Hostile Colonies and States United

The American Revolution involved two groups fighting the British: the conservatives, who reluctantly left British control as it guaranteed their power and wealth; and the radicals who wanted to overturn the aristocratic colonial structure as well as British rule from afar. The latter desired sovereign States with a weak central government, the former desired the reverse.

The author below notes “the writing and ratification of the Articles of Confederation is merely the first chapter in the constitutional history of the United States. In the years to come, section was to be arrayed against section, class against class, and party against party in an effort to determine the province of the central government and that of the States.”

Bernhard Thuersam, www.Circa1865.org

 

Hostile Colonies and States United

“The fundamental difference between the Articles of Confederation and the Constitution of 1787 lies in the apportionment of power between the States and the central government. In the first the balance of power was to the States, and in the second to the central government. The first constitution was one of a federal organization; the second was in essence that of a national government, although political realities demanded the retention of federal features.

The difference between the two was the result of the shifting balances of political power within the thirteen States, which enabled first one party and then the other to write its desires, its beliefs, and its interests into the colorless language of a constitution.

Hence it was the nature of union, and not its desirability, that was the major issue between the parties in 1776. The conservatives wished for the recreation, as nearly as might be, of the system that had existed before the Revolution.

The radicals tended to desire a union chiefly for the purpose of carrying on the war, but a union that would not infringe upon the sovereign authority of the individual States. They believed profoundly that only under such a system was democracy possible.

The greatest obstacle to a union of almost any kind was the States’ independence of one another. The colonies had been founded individually and had developed different traditions and attitudes in spite of a common heritage of language, law, and government.

Their relations with each other were often unfriendly, especially after the middle of the eighteenth century, as a result of rival land claims. Actual warfare had been prevented only by the external power of Britain, which subdued them but did not eliminate their animosity toward one another.

Above all, the radicals believed that the independence of the States was the guarantee of the kind of government they desired. Speaking broadly, it was democracy they wanted, and they knew full well that the kind of democracy they wanted was incompatible with centralization. Their experience with the British Empire had taught them that much, and they were not soon to forget the lesson.”

(The Articles of Confederation, an Interpretation of the Social-Constitutional History of the American Revolution, 1774-1781, Merrill Jensen, University of Wisconsin Press, 1940, excerpts pp. 109-110; 116-117)

The Problem of Sovereignty

Regarding the location of sovereignty in the American system of government, Jefferson Davis, in his postwar “Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government,” stated: “If any lingering doubt could have existed as to the reservation of their entire sovereignty by the people of the respective States when they organized the federal Union, it would have been removed by the adoption of the tenth amendment to the Constitution, which was not only one of the amendments proposed by various States when ratifying that instrument, but the particular one in which they substantially agreed, and upon which they most urgently insisted.”

Bernhard Thuersam, www.Circa1865.org

 

The Problem of Sovereignty

“The fundamental issue in the writing of the Articles of Confederation was the location of the ultimate political authority, the problem of sovereignty. Should it reside in Congress or the States?

Many conservatives in 1776-1777, as in 1787, believed that Congress should have a “superintending” power over both the States and their individual citizens. They had definite reasons for such a desire.

They feared mob action and democratic rule.

The radicals, on the other hand, were fighting centralization in their attack upon the British Empire and upon the colonial governing classes, whose interests were so closely interwoven with the imperial relationship. Furthermore, the interests of the radicals were essentially local.

To them union was merely a means to their end, the independence of the several States. Hence centralization was to be opposed. Finally, the democratic theory of the time was antagonistic to any government with pretensions toward widespread dominion. Theorists believed that democratic government was impossible except within very limited areas.

Thus the conflict between those who were essentially “nationalists” and those who were forerunners of the “States rights” school.

The real significance of this controversy was obscured during the nineteenth century by historians and politicians who sought to justify the demands of rising industrialism on the central government and the Northern attitude toward the South’s secession in 1860-61.

The Southern contention that the Union was a compact between sovereign States was opposed by the contention that the Union was older than the States. North historians insisted that the first Continental Congress was a sovereign body, and that it represented the people of the United States as a whole, not the people of the several States as represented in their State governments.

To prove their contentions the Northerners cited such documents as the Declaration of Independence and the preamble to the Constitution of 1787 . . . [and italicizing] to place undue emphasis on the portions of the documents which seemed to prove their arguments.

This is essentially the technique of argument used by small boys and would be unworthy of consideration had it not been so effective in shaping certain ideas which have profoundly influenced the interpretation of American history.”

(The Articles of Confederation, an Interpretation of the Social-Constitutional History of the American Revolution, 1774-1781, Merrill Jensen, University of Wisconsin Press, 1940, excerpts pp. 161-163)

 

Dec 24, 2017 - Articles of Confederation, Bringing on the War, Historical Accuracy, Prescient Warnings    Comments Off on Sovereign Political Communities, Not “One People”

Sovereign Political Communities, Not “One People”

It is erroneously believed today that the United States Constitution followed the Declaration of Independence, though the Articles of Confederation were the first “Constitution.” It is recalled that the Articles were deemed by all parties to it as perpetual and a majority of States were required to approve any changes therein. Nonetheless, eleven States unconstitutionally seceded from the Articles in 1789 and inaugurated a new union – leaving North Carolina and Rhode Island as unaffiliated and independent States.

Bernhard Thuersam, www.Circa1865.com

 

Sovereign Political Communities, Not One People

“We have seen that the united colonies, when they declared their independence, formed a league or alliance with one another as the “United States.” This title antedated the adoption of the Articles of Confederation.

It was assumed immediately after the Declaration of Independence, and was continued under the Articles of Confederation; the first of which declared that “the style of this confederacy shall be “The United States of America”, and this style was retained – without question – in the formation of the present Constitution.

It has been fully shown that the States thus became and continued to be “united,” and whatever form their union assumed, acted and continued to act as distinct and sovereign political communities. The monstrous fiction that they acted as one people “in their sovereign capacity” has not an atom of fact to serve as a basis. To go back to the very beginning, the British colonies never constituted one people.

The [loose expressions employed in debate in the British Parliament about the time of the American Revolution – such as “that people . . . etc., and] who made use of this colloquial phraseology concerning the inhabitants of a distant continent . . . could little have foreseen the extraordinary use to be made of their expression nearly a century afterward, in sustaining a theory contradictory to history as well as to common sense.

It is as if the familiar expressions often employed in our own time, such as “the people of Africa,” or “the people of South America,” should be cited, by some ingenious theorist of a future generation . . . or that the Peruvians and Patagonians belonged to the same political community.

When the colonies united in sending representatives to a Congress in Philadelphia, there was no purpose – no suggestion of a purpose – to merge their separate individuality in one consolidated mass. No such idea existed, or with their known opinions, could have existed. They did not assume to become a united colony or province, but styled themselves “united colonies” – colonies united for purposes of mutual counsel and defense . . .

As “United States” they adopted the Articles of Confederation, in which the separate sovereignty, freedom and independence of each was distinctly asserted. It was without any change of title – still as “United States” – without any sacrifice of individuality – without any compromise of sovereignty – that the same parties entered into a new and amended compact with one another under the present Constitution.”

(State Sovereignty Being the Constitution, Part II of the Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government, Jefferson Davis, Volume I, D. Appleton & Company, 1881, excerpts, pp. 114; 117-119)

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