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The Life and Public Services of Henry Wilson
Chapter IX.


THE favorable attitude toward slavery which the National American party assumed in the council assembled at Cincinnati in November, 1854, led Mr. Wilson to fear that the Southern element might soon obtain entire control of it; and his experience at Washington during the ensuing spring served to convince him that his fear was far from being groundless.

Indeed, strong efforts were made by leading men immediately on his arrival as senator in that city to secure his aid and influence in the organization of a great American party which should ignore the slavery issue, and sanction the assumptions of the South. His honest heart rebelled against such recreancy to principle; and he unhesitatingly avowed his determination to maintain the stand he had already made for freedom during his entire political career.

Speaking of this Southern influence in a speech before the State Council at Springfield, Mass., he said, -

"On my arrival at Washington, I saw at a glance that the politicians of the South, men who had deserted their Northern associates upon the Nebraska issue, were resolved to impose upon the American party, by the aid of dough-faces from New York and Pennsylvania, as the test of nationality, fidelity to the slave-power. Flattering words from veteran statesmen were poured into my ears; flattering appeals were made to me to aid in the work of nationalizing the party whose victories in the South were to be as brilliant as they had been in the North. But I resolved that upon my soul the sin and shame of silence or submission should never rest. I returned home, and determined to battle, if I could, the meditated treason to freedom and to the North."

Again, in a noble reply to a letter from a friend, he most frankly speaks of his course at Washington, and prophetically announces the character of the coming session of Congress -

NATICK, July 23, 1855.

DEAR SIR, On my return from a trip to the West, I found your very kind note; and I need not tell you that I read it with grateful emotions. Your approbation - the approbation of men like yourself, whose lives are devoted to the rights of human nature - cannot but be clear to rue. I only regret that I have been able to perform so little for the advancement of the cause our hearts love and our judgments approve; that I have not ability to do all that my heart prompts. I hope, however, my dear sir, to be able to do my duty in every position I may be in, if not with the ability the occasion demands, at least with an honest heart that shrinks not from any danger.

Sometimes I read over the letter you were so kind as to send to me when I first took my seat in the Senate. You dealt frankly with me in that letter, and I thank you for it and I hope to be the better and wiser for it. I shall endeavor while in the Senate to act up to my convictions of duty,—to do what I feel to be right. If I can so labor as to advance the cause of universal and impartial liberty in the country, I shall be content, whether my action meets the approbation of the politicians or not. I never have sacrificed, and I never will sacrifice, that cause to secure the interests of any party or body of men on earth. The applause of political friends is grateful to the feelings of any man in public life, especially if he is bitterly assailed by political enemies; but the approbation of our own consciences is far dearer to us.

Last year, after the attempt was made to repeal the prohibition of slavery in Kansas and Nebraska, the people of the North began to move; and, from March to November, the friends of freedom won a series of victories. The moment the elections were over in the North, I saw that an effort was to be made to assist the antislavery movement by the American movement. When I arrived at Washington, I was courted and flattered by the politicians even told that I might look to any position if I would aid in forming a national party. I saw that men who had been elected to Congress by the friends of freedom were ready to go into such a movement. I was alarmed. I saw that one of three things must happen, - that the antislavery men must ignore their principles to make a national party; Or they, must fight for the supremacy of their principles, and impose them upon the organization, which would drive off the Southern men; or they must break up the party. I came home with the resolution to carry the convention if I could; to have it take a moderate but positive antislavery position: if not, I determined that it should be broken at the June council, so that the friends of freedom might have time to rally the people. Since my return in March, 1 have travelled more than nine thousand miles, written hundreds of letters, and done all I could to bring about what has taken place. But the work is hardly begun. Our antislavery friends have a mighty conflict on hand for the next sixteen months. It will demand unwavering resolution, dauntless courage, and ceaseless labor, joined with kindness, moderation, and patience. The next Congress will be the most violent one in our history: it will try our firmness. I hope our friends will meet the issues bravely; and, if violence and bloodshed come, let us not falter, but do our duty, even if we fall on the floors of Congress. At Philadelphia, for eight days, I met the armed delegates of the black power without shrinking; and I hope to do so at the next session of Congress if it is necessary to do so. We must let the South understand that threats of dissolving the Union, of civil war, and personal violence, will not deter us from doing our whole duty. Yours truly,


In in address before a large audience in the Metropolitan Theatre, New York, delivered on the 8th of May, 1855, and repeated in many towns and cities in New England, he traced the growth of the antislavery sentiment in America for the last twenty years, and warned his hearers that any party ignoring this rising power would be overthrown by an indignant people.

''He owed it to truth," he said, "to speak what he knew, that the antislavery cause was in extreme peril that a demand was made upon us of the North to ignore the slavery-question, to keep quiet, and to go into power in 1856. If there were men in the free States who hoped to triumph in 1856 by ignoring the slavery-issues now forced upon the nation by the slave propagandists, he would say to them that the antislavery men cannot be reduced or driven into the organization of a party that ignores the question of slavery in Christian and republican America. Let such men read and ponder the history or the republic. Let them contrast antislavery in 1835 and antislavery in 1855. Those periods are the grand epochs in the antislavery movement; and the contrast between them cannot fail to give us some faint conception of the mighty changes that twenty years of antislavery agitation have wrought in America. Antislavery in 1835 was in the nadir of its weakness: antislavery in 1855 is in the zenith of its power. Then a few unknown, nameless men were its apostles and leaders: now the most profound and accomplished intellects of America are its chiefs and champions. Then a few proscribed and humble followers rallied around its banner: now it has laid its grasp upon the conscience of the people, and hundreds of thousands rally under the folds of its flag. Then not a single statesman in all America accepted its doctrines or defended its measures: now it has a decisive majority in the National House of Representatives, and is rapidly changing the complexion of the American Senate. Then every State in the Union was arrayed against it: now it controls fifteen sovereign States by more than three hundred thousand popular majority. Then the public press covered it with ridicule and contempt: now the most powerful journals in America are its instruments. There the benevolent, religious, and literary institutions of the land repulsed its advances, rebuked its doctrines, and perscented its advocates: now it shapes, moulds, and fashions them at its pleasure, compelling the most powerful benevolent organizations of the Western World, upon whose mission-stations the sun never sets, to execute its decrees, and the oldest literary institution in America to cast from its bosom a professor who had surrendered a man to the slave-hunters. Then the political organizations trampled disdainfully upon it: now it looks down with the pride of conscious power upon the wrecked political fragments that float at its feet. Then it was impotent and powerless: now it holds every political organization in the hollow of its right hand. Then the public voice sneered at and defied it: now it is the master of America, and has only to be true to itself' to grasp the helm and guide the ship of state hereafter in her course.

"This brief contrast," continued he, "would show the men who hoped to win power by ignoring the transcendent issue of our age in America how impotent would be the efforts of any class of' men to withdraw the mighty questions involved in the existence and expansion of slavery on this continent from the consideration of the people.

"Now, gentlemen, I say to you frankly, I am the last man to object to going into power (laughter), and especially to going into power over the present dynasty that is fastened upon the country. But I am the last man that will consent to go into power by ignoring or sacrificing the slavery question. If my voice could be heard by the whole country to-night, by the antislavery men of the country to-night of all parties, I would say to them, Resolve it, write it over your door-posts, engrave it on the lids of your Bibles, proclaim it at the rising of the sun and the going-down of the same, and in the broad light of noon, that any party in America, be that party Whig, Democratic, or American, that lifts its finger to arrest the antislavery movement, to repress the antislavery sentiment, or proscribe the antislavery men, it surely shall begin to die (loud applause); it would deserve to die; it will die; and, by the blessing of God, I shall do what little I can to make it die."

In an address on "Position and Duty of the American Party," delivered at Brattleborough, Vt., on the 16th of the same month, he still points out in stirring words the only course by which it can escape destruction.

"He had" he said, ''no sympathy with that narrow, bigoted, intolerant spirit that would make war upon a race of men because they happen to be born in other lands, a dastardly spirit that would repel from our shores the men who sought homes here under our free institutions. Such a spirit was anti-American, devilish: he loathed it from the bottom of his heart. He knew there were men who called themselves Americans who would abolish the naturalization laws altogether, who would forever deny the right of suffrage to men for the fault of being born out of America. He had no sympathy with that class of men whose opinions were at war with the spirit of American institutions and the laws of humanity. Such anti-American sentiments had brought dishonor upon the American movement; and, unless they received the rebuke of the American party, they would defeat the real reforms contemplated, and cover, the movement with dishonor.

He regretted to say that there were some members of the American party in favour of excluding by constitutional amendments all adopted citizens from office. He deeply deplored the action of the legislature of Massachusetts in proposing an amendment to the Constitution embodying this doctrine. He hoped the gentlemen who had given their votes for this proposition - a proposition that would not permit Prof. Agassiz, one of the first living scientific men of the age, to fill, under State appointment, an office even of a scientific character—would see their error, and retreat at once from a position which justice, reason, and religion condemned. What little influence he possessed would be given with a hearty good-will to defeat the proposition. He had no sympathy whatever with the spirit that would send out of the country the sons and daughters of misfortune, who, by the storms of life, were thrown upon us for support. Whenever the authorities of the Old World sent their poor here to be relieved themselves of their support, lie would promptly redress the imposition; such an abuse ought to be immediately corrected: but when a poor man upon our soil, and by the misfortunes of life is thrown upon the public charity for support, he would as soon send a poor fleeing bondman back to the land

'Where the cant of democracy dwells on the lips
Of the forgers of fetters, and wielders of whips,'

as to banish such a man from the land he has sought. There is a kind of native Americanism far more alien to America than are the adopted sons of the Old World it would degrade into servile races. True genuine Americanism rebukes bigotry, intolerance, and proscription; reforms abuses; adopts a wise, humane, and Christian policy towards all men, - a policy consistent with the idea that all men are created equal.

"If the American party is to achieve any thing for good, it must adopt a wise and humane policy consistent with our democratic ideas, - a policy which will reform existing abuses, and guard against future ones; which shall combine in one harmonious organization moderate and patriotic men who love freedom and hate oppression.

"Upon the grand and overshadowing question of American slavery the American party must take its position. If it wishes a speedy death and a dishonored grave, let it adopt the policy of neutrality upon that question, or the policy of ignoring that question. If that party wishes to live, and to impress its policy upon the nation, it must repudiate the sectional policy of slavery, and stand boldly upon the broad and national basis of freedom. It must accept the position that 'freedom is national, and slavery is sectional.' It must stand upon the national idea embodied in the Declaration of Independence, that 'all men are created equal, and have an inalienable right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.' It must accept these words as embracing the great central national idea of America, fidelity to which is national in New England and in South Carolina. It must recognize the doctrine that the Constitution of the United States was made 'to secure the blessing of liberty;' that Congress has no right to make a slave or allow slavery to exist outside of the slave States; and that the Federal Government must be relieved from all connection with and responsibility for slavery.

In their own good time the Americans of Massachusetts have spoken for themselves. They have placed that old Commonwealth face to face to the slave oligarchy and its allies. Upon their banner they have written in letters of living light the words, 'No exclusion from the public schools on account of race or color;' 'No slave commissioners on the judicial bench;' 'No slave States to be carved out of Kansas and Nebraska;' 'The repeal of the unconstitutional Fugitive-slave Act of 1850;' 'An Act to protect Personal Liberty.' The men who have inscribed these glowing words upon their banner will go into the conflicts of the future like the Zouaves at Inkermann, 'with the light of battle on their faces;' and, if defeat comes, they will fall with their 'backs to the field, and their feet to the foe.' "

When Mr. Wilson saw the national American party hopelessly committed to slavery, he abandoned it. In the American National Council, assembled in June, 1855, he manfully held his ground, and nobly repelled the assaults upon freedom and the State he represented. "When Massachusetts," said he in reply to an attack, ''pleads to any, arraignment before the nation, she will demand that her accusers are competent to draw the bill."

An attempt was made, for sentiments he had expressed, to deprive him of a seat in council; but the delegation from his State stood firmly by him, and he was admitted. In the exciting debates of that council, which sat for many days, he came to the front as the unterrifled champion of the Friends of freedom, and defiantly repelled the charges made against them. To a delegate from Virginia, who, approach him with a pistol, denounced him as the leader of the antislavery party, he replied, that his threats had no terrors for freemen; that he was then and there ready to meet argument with argument, scorn with scorn, and, if need be, blow with blow; for God had given him an arm ready and able to protect his head. It was time that champions of slavery in the South should realize the fact, that the past was theirs, the future ours."

Here was the fire of the dauntless Mirabeau in the French National Assembly when he said, "Go tell your king we are here by the will of the people; and nothing but the point of the bayonet shall expel us."

His speech on the 12th of June is characterized by masculine vigor. In regard to the proslavery platform he defiantly declared, "The adoption of this platform commits the American party unconditionally to the policy of slavery, to the iron dominion of the black power. I tell you, sir, I tell this convention, that we cannot stand upon this platform in a single free State in the North. The people of the North will repudiate it, spurn it, spit upon it. For myself, sir, I here and now tell you to your faces, that I will trample with disdain on your platform. I will not support it. I will support no man that stands upon it. Adopt that platform, and you carry against you every thing that is pure and holy, every thing that has the elements of permanency in it, the noblest pulsations of the human heart, the holiest convictions of the human soul, the profoundest ideas of the human intellect, and the attributes of Almighty God. Your party will be withered and consumed by the blasting breath of the people's wrath. There is an old Spanish proverb which says that 'the feet of time avenging deities are shod with wool.' Softly and silently these avenging deities are advancing upon you. You will find that 'the mills of God grind slowly;' but they grind to powder.

When I united with the American organization in March, 1854, in its hour of weakness, I told the men with whom I acted that my antislavery opinions were the matured convictions of years, and that I would not modify or qualify my opinions, or suppress my sentiments, for any consideration on earth. From that hour to this, in public and in private, I have freely uttered my antislavery sentiments, and labored to promote the antislavery cause and I tell you now that I will continue to do so. You shall not proscribe antislavery principles, measures, or men, without receiving from me the most determined and unrelenting hostility. It is a painful thing to differ from our associates and friends; but, when duty - a stern sense of duty - demands it, I shall do so. Reject this majority platform, adopt the proposition to restore freedom to Kansas and Nebraska, and to protect the actual settlers from violence and outrage, simplify your rules, make an open organization, banish all bigotry and intolerance from your ranks, place your movement in harmony with the humane, progressive spirit of the age, and you may win and retain power, and elevate and improve the political character of the country; adopt this majority platform, commit the American movement to the slave perpetualists and the slave propagandists, and you will go down before the burning indignation and withering scorn of American freemen." These words had the flaming spirit of James Otis and of Patrick Henry. They were the death-knell of the American party. On adoption of the platform, Mr. Wilson and his associates uttered their protest against the proceedings of the council, and formally withdrew from the American organization.

One of Mr. Wilson's early political opponents thus addresses him on the manly stand he took in the convention -

N. BROOKFIELD, June 22, 1858.

DEAR Sir, - I have just read your speech at Philadelphia. You had a splendid opportunity to annihilate the Northern dough-faces and hurl defiance at the Southern slave propagandists, and you availed yourself of it fully and handsomely. I thank you for what you have done so bravely and well. You met the crisis nobly, and have placed yourself at the head of the political antislavery movement: that is a settled matter. I am glad you had health and strength and courage to do the work which so many Northern men have shrunk from in times past.

You have nothing to do now but to go ahead. The North looks to you. A great responsibility rests on your shoulders; but I have the utmost confidence that you will meet it, and call you that every true man all parties in the free States will rally around the standard of freedom.

I have no advice to give: you need none. My only object is to thank you for what you have done, and assure you of my confidence in the future.

Ever and truly yours,


Hon. HENRY WILSON, U. S. senator, Natick, Mass.

Referring to Mr. Wilson's bold and independent course, "The New-York Tribune" truly said, "The antecedents of Mr. Wilson naturally made him the particular object of hostility to the slave-drivers in the convention; and one of the earliest displays after the body was organized was a grossly personal attack upon him by a delegate from Virginia. But the assailants had now met with an antagonist who was not to be cowed or silenced; and the response they received was of a character to induce them not to repeat their experiment. We have the unanimous testimony of many Northern members to the signal gallantry and effect of Mr. Wilson's bearing, and to the bold, virile, and telling eloquence of his speeches. While all have done so well in bringing about results so gratifying, it may be invidious to particularize; but a few names among the Northern members, who were devoted from the start to the work of creating a unity and a strength of Northern backbone, should justly be exposed to the public appreciation and honor that they deserve. First stands Henry Wilson of Massachusetts, pre-eminent as the leader in the whole movement. He was handsomely sustained by all his associates; and the numerous insidious efforts of the enemy to separate them from him only attached them the more closely to his side. He has the highest honor in this contest, exhibited the greatest political ability, and broke down many strong prejudices against him, both among Massachusetts men who were witnesses to his conduct, and among the delegates of the other States North and South. No man went into that council with more elements of distrust and opposition combined against him, no one goes out of it with such an enviable fame, or such an aggregation to his honor, he is worthy of Massachusetts, and worthy to lead the new movement of the people of that State which the result here so fitly inaugurates."

Returning home from this council, Mr. Wilson spent the summer and autumn in strenuous efforts to effect a fusion of the parties into one grand organization, which might bear the standard of progress and freedom, and control the councils of the nation. He travelled thousands of miles, visited thirteen different States, conversed with many leading men, and addressed immense audiences in towns and cities East and West.

On 7th of August he made a strong speech in the State Council of the American party, at Springfield, "On the Necessity of the Fusion of Parties," in which he urged the members to unite with other organizations in forming a great Republican party, with strength to meet the important issues of the day.

"The gathering hosts of Northern freemen of every party," said he, "are banding together to resist the aggressive policy of the black power. Freedom, patriotism, and humanity demand the union of the freemen of the republic for the sake of liberty now periled. Religion sanctions and blesses it. How and where stands Massachusetts? Shall she range herself in the line, front to the black power, with her sister States? or shall she maintain the fatal position of isolation? here and now, we, the chosen representatives of the American party of this Commonwealth, are to meet that issue, to solve that problem.

The American party of Massachusetts, dashing other organizations into powerless fragments, had grasped the reins of power, placed an unbrokon delegation in Congress, pledged to the policy of freedom, ranged this ancient Commonwealth front to front with the slave-power, and written with the iron pen of history upon her statutes declarations of principles, and pledges of acts, hostile to the aggressive policy of the slaveholding power. When the black power of the imperious South, aided by the servile power of the faltering North, imposed upon the national American organization its principles, measures, and policy, the representatives of the American party of this Commonwealth spurned the unhallowed decrees, and turned their backs forever upon that prostituted organization; and their action received the approving sanction of this State Council by a vote approaching unanimity. The American party, as a national organization, is broken, and shivered to atoms. By its own act the American party of Massachusetts has severed itself from all connection with that product of Southern domination and Northern submission.

"The American party of Massachusetts has, during its brief existence, uttered true words and performed noble deeds for freedom. The past, at least, is secure. Whatever may have been its errors of omission or commission, the slave and the slave's friends will never reproach it, holding as it does the reins of power, it has now a glorious opportunity to give to the country the magnanimous example of a great and dominant party in the full possession of consummated power, freely yielding up that power for the holy cause of freedom to the equal possession of other parties who are willing to co-operate with it upon a common platform. Here and now, we, its representatives, are to show by our acts whether we can rise above the demands of partisan policy to the full comprehension of the condition of public affairs, to the full realization of the obligations which fidelity to freedom now imposes upon us.

"If the representatives of the American party reject this proposition for fusion, I shall go home once more with a sad heart. But I shall not go home to sulk in my tent; to rail and fret at the folly of men I shall go home, sir, with a resolved spirit and iron will, determined to hope on and to struggle on until I see the lovers of universal and impartial freedom banded together in one organization, moved by one impulse. For seven years I have labored to break up old organizations and to make new combinations, all tending to the organization of that great party of the future which is to relieve the government from the iron dominion of the black power.

"Sir, gentlemen may defeat this proposed fusion hero to-day; but they cannot control the action of the people. A fusion movement will be made, under the lead of gentlemen of the Whig, Democratic, and Free-soil parties, of talents and character. The movement will be in harmony with the people's movements in the North. Sir, such a movement will put a majority of the men who voted with you last autumn in a false position before the country, or drive them from your ranks. I cannot speak for others: but I tell you frankly that I cannot be placed in a false position; I cannot, even for one moment, consent to stand arrayed against the hosts of freedom now preparing for the contest of 1856. I tell you frankly, that, whenever I see a formation in position to strike effective blows for freedom, I shall be with it in the conflict; whenever I see an organization in position antagonistic to freedom, my arm shall aid in smiting it down."

On the proposed amendment of the Constitution, requiring foreigners to reside here twenty-one years before being allowed to vote, he said, -

"Sir, the American movement is not based upon bigotry, intolerance, or proscription. If there is any thing of bigotry, intolerance, or proscription, in the American movement, if there is any disposition to oppress or degrade the Briton, the Scot, the Celt, the German, or any one of another clime or race, or to deny to them the fullest protection of just and equal laws, it is time such criminal fanaticism was sternly rebuked by the intelligent patriotism of the state and country. I deeply deplore, sir, the adoption of the twenty-one-years amendment. It will weaken the American movement at home and in other States, especially in the West, and tend to defeat any modification whatever of the naturalization laws. I warn gentlemen who desire the correction of the evils growing out of the abuses of the naturalization laws against the adoption of extreme opinions. I tell you, gentlemen of the council, that this intense nativism kills yes, sir, it kills, and is killing, us; and, unless it is speedily abandoned, will defeat all the needed reforms the movement was inaugurated to secure, and overwhelm us all in dishonor. Every attempt, by whomsoever made, to interpolate with the American movement any thing inconsistent with the theory of our democratic institutions, any thing inconsistent with the idea that 'all men are created equal,' any thing contrary to the command of God's holy Word, that 'the stranger that dwelleth with you shall be unto you as one born among you, and thou shalt love him as thyself,' is doing that which will baffle the wise policy which strives to reform existing evils and to guard against future abuses."

With such strong, liberal, and statesman-like views, ever holding the question of slavery paramount, he labored to enlighten public sentiment, and prepare it for the day of universal freedom. Towards the foreigner he entertained fraternal feelings; and his only aim in going into the American party was to turn its power to the extinction of a system which was coming rapidly to undermine the liberties of the Northern people.

"I loathe," said he in a speech at Indianapolis in July, 1855, "the idea of opposition to foreigners as foreigners;" and in a letter on the two-years amendment, written to Mr. Gillette in 1859, he says,—

"I have ever declared that I would support no measure, even to reform these abuses, which would in the slightest degrade any man, or class of men; that I would give to every human being equal rights, - the same equality I would claim for myself or my own son.

"No power on earth could force me to vote for any proposition which fair-minded and intelligent men felt to be unequal or personally degrading. Never have I supported any measure inconsistent with the equal rights of man; but, if I had ever unintentionally made such a mistake, I have nothing of that pride of consistency in regard to mere measures which would induce me to continue in the wrong because I had been wrong once. Better be right in the lights of to-day than be consistent with the errors of yesterday."

The following characteristic letter clearly states his position on this question: -

NATICK, MASS., July 29, 1872.

J. O. CULVER, Esq., State Journal, Madison, Wisconsin.

My dear Sir, - The mail has just brought me your note, and extracts clipped from newspapers, purporting to be speeches made by me. In answer to your queries, I have to say, that they, and all thoughts and words of like character which have appeared in the papers, are pure inventions, wicked forgeries, and absolute falsehoods. Never have I thought, spoken, or written those words, nor any thing resembling those words, nor any thing that the most malignant sophistry could torture into those words. I could not have done so; for they are abhorrent to every conviction of my judgment, every throb of my heart, every aspiration of my soul. Born in extreme poverty, having endured the hard lot the Sons of poverty are too often forced to endure, I came to manhood passionately devoted to the creed of human equality. All my life I have cherished as a bright hope, and avowed as a living faith, the doctrine, that all men, without distinction of color, race, or nationality, should have complete liberty and exact equality, - all the rights I asked for myself. My thoughts, my words, my pen, my votes, have been consecrated for more than thirty-six years to human rights. In the Constitutional Convention of Massachusetts, in eight years' service in her legislature, in more than seventeen years' service in the Senate of the United States, in thirteen hundred public addresses, in the press, in speeches and writings that would fill many columns and make thousands of pages, I have iterated and reiterated the doctrines of equal rights for all conditions of men. Is it not, my dear sir, passing strange, then, that partisanship should so blind men to a sense of truth, justice, and fair play, that they will forge and print abhorrent sentiments insulting to God and man, and charge them upon one whose life has been given to the cause of equal rights at home, and whose profound sympathies were ever given to the friends of liberty of all races and nationalities abroad?

Yours truly,


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