How Lincoln Triumphed in an Era Even More Toxic Than Ours

How Lincoln Triumphed in an Era Even More Toxic Than Ours

Allen Barra  Published 09.08.19 5:32AM ET

Biographer Sidney Blumenthal talks to The Daily Beast about a pre-Civil War America where Jefferson Davis demanded both Lincoln and Douglas be lynched.

Abraham Lincoln doesn’t make much of an appearance in Sidney Blumenthal’s All the Powers of Earth: The Political Life of Abraham Lincoln, Volume III, 1856-1860 until around page 180, entering his own story almost as if through a side door.

Then, with rapidly gathering momentum, he becomes the story, which is Lincoln’s masterful negotiation of the political, economic, and social currents that swept him into the White House in 1860 and inevitably took America into the Civil War.

All the Powers of Earth is the third of a proposed five volumes unique in American historical writing. focusing on the rise of Lincoln as a political animal in a national climate shaped by early 19th century giants Daniel Webster, John C. Calhoun, and Henry Clay with increasing tensions over slavery—tensions exacerbated by such men as Jefferson Davis, Stephen Douglas, and John Brown.

Blumenthal has written more than a dozen books on American politics and history, beginning with the prescient The Permanent Campaign about politicians who campaign for reelection throughout an electoral cycle, leaving little time for governing. (Sound familiar?)

He has written extensively about politics for the New Yorker, the Washington Post, and the New Republic, often using insight gained from the inside of the political world as an aide to President Bill Clinton.

He took time to answer at length 15 questions on the massive (757 pages) fascinating volume.

Early in All the Powers of Earth, you write about “The great Triumvirate of Henry Clay, Daniel Webster, and John C. Calhoun, the representative political men of their age.” Clay,you write, “invented the power of Speaker of the House.” I did not know this—can you elaborate a bit?

Also, I like your phrase that Clay was “Lincoln’s beau ideal of a statesman.” What do you think was Clay’s biggest influence on Lincoln?

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Yes, Lincoln had a hero, but then he cast him aside, and finally he vindicated him. Henry Clay, the original “self-made man” in American politics, came from a poor family in Virginia, moved to Kentucky, and proclaimed himself the “Western Star.”

Lincoln, another self-made man, emulating his “beau ideal,” dubbed himself the “Lone Star of Illinois,” but over time his hero worship became complicated even as he deployed Clay’s legacy for his own purposes.

After serving as Speaker of the House in the Kentucky legislature, Clay was elected to the U.S. House, where he was immediately chosen Speaker and became the leader of the War Hawks that engineered the War of 1812. He revolutionized the office, which previously had been a parliamentary one settling points of order.

Clay assumed extraordinary powers, appointing committee chairmen, creating new committees, and controlling debates and agendas. The speakership as we know it flows from his design.

Elected to the Senate, he ran constantly for president from 1824 onward, running on his platform of the “American System” of federal action to build the infrastructure of an expanding innovative country—roads, canals and harbors—called internal improvements.

President Andrew Jackson adamantly opposed the federal role, and to counter him Clay helped found the Whig Party. Lincoln, Clay’s acolyte in Illinois, got himself elected to the legislature and was quickly elevated to Whig floor leader.

In 1840, Lincoln, a Whig presidential elector, did not back Clay for the party nomination, instead supporting the military hero William Henry Harrison, who he thought was more electable. Harrison indeed was elected but died a month into his term.

In 1844, Clay at last won the nomination, but was defeated because of narrowly losing New York State, where small margins of nativists on the one hand and abolitionists on the other undercut him.

After Lincoln’s election to the Congress, on his way east to Washington, he finally met his hero in Lexington, Kentucky, at the home of his father-in-law, Robert S. Todd, Clay’s business partner and political ally.

Clay was by then a broken man. His son had just been killed in the Mexican War that Clay had opposed and which Lincoln would denounce. Lincoln found him strangely cool and distant. He did not support him for the Whig nomination in 1848, instead backing another available military hero, Zachary Taylor, who would also die early in his term.

“The caning of Senator Charles Sumner nearly to death by Congressman Preston Brooks of South Carolina was enthusiastically applauded throughout the South.”

In the Lincoln-Douglas debates, Lincoln quoted Clay against slavery to good effect especially with old Whigs. He knew of course that Clay had been a slave owner, but Clay had been for gradual emancipation and once outspoken against slavery.

Lincoln, who had created a new party, used his old idol to meet a new crisis. [The full story of Clay and Lincoln’s relationship can be found in Blumenthal’s first two volumes, A Self-Made Man and Wrestling With His Angel.]

I’ve been reading books on Lincoln my whole life, but I don’t think I understood the power of Jefferson Davis in the Franklin Pierce administration until I read your book. You say, “For all intents and purposes, Secretary of War Jefferson Davis was the acting president of the United States.” Could you clarify that?

Franklin Pierce, well-born to a governor of New Hampshire, well educated at Bowdoin College, and well married to a wealthy heiress, was hopelessly indecisive, eager to please, and alcoholic.

Elected as a dark horse candidate of the Democratic Party, a northern man of Southern sympathy, President Pierce was emotionally and politically dependent on his closest adviser, a Mexican War comrade, and former colleague in the Senate, with whom he shared the tragic symmetry of losing a child.

His Secretary of War, Jefferson Davis, possessed the will to power Pierce lacked. Davis’ vision was of a vast Southern empire encompassing the Caribbean. During the Civil War, Pierce sent the Confederate president encouraging letters.

Fans of Stephen A. Douglas—and they are legion—are probably not going to appreciate the way you present him. You call him “the single most disruptive character in American politics, the perpetual rival to one and all—the once and future rival of Abraham Lincoln.” Are you being a bit hard on “The Little Giant”?

Stephen A. Douglas, Lincoln’s perennial rival since they first debated in the late 1830s, flew swiftly high above him from the Illinois Supreme Court to the U.S. House to the Senate, where he stepped in when Henry Clay physically and politically faltered to take charge in the enactment of the Compromise of 1850.

Douglas declared himself the “Spirit of the Age,” the embodiment of westward Manifest Destiny, a whirlwind of change. He was only 39 when he ran for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1852.

Lincoln was envious of the rapid rise of the “Little Giant” and frustrated to get his chance to take him on. Douglas was fearsome in debate, a skillful demagogue, a master of illogic, lies, and racist appeals.

Senator William Seward remarked to him that nobody who used the word “nigger” in open debate as Douglas did would ever be elected president. Douglas was ultimately trapped by the consequences of his own grandiose ambition, which led him to propose the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 that repealed the Missouri Compromise of 1820 prohibiting slavery in the north.

Now, according to Douglas’ doctrine of “popular sovereignty,” whether the territories would be free or slave would depend on the decision of the settlers. Kansas soon turned into a battlefield, “Bleeding Kansas.” Things fell apart.

You’re pretty hard on John C. Calhoun as well: “Calhoun’s definition of the highest form of civilization was a chain of hierarchy from master to slave.” And “To his dying day, [Andrew] Jackson regretted not hanging him.” You write of his “adroit mastery of the federal government’s inner levers, which as Secretary of State he had manipulated to precipitate the Mexican War. What’s the best you can say about Calhoun?

There was nothing homespun, naive, or commonplace about John C. Calhoun. He was an upcountry South Carolina planter, Yale educated, married into Charleston wealth, and a consummate politician operating in Washington for decades. The stations of his stunning career included every office but the one he coveted most. His frustration in not reaching the presidency curdled him at an early age.

Calhoun made the language of states’ rights the language of slavery. He extolled slavery as a “positive good” and demeaned free society as an inferior civilization.

When he proposed that states had the power to nullify federal action and threatened secession in 1831 he understood that the South was a declining force within the nation. Afterward he desperately devised plans for minority rule over the majority. In his dying days, in 1850, he warned of the coming apocalypse.

You describe in great detail Lincoln’s evolution from a Whig to a Republican, and his achievement in bringing the Whigs in Illinois over to the Republicans. Can you tell me in a sentence or two why the Whigs died out and the Republicans rose out of their ashes?

The Whig Party held together only so long as slavery was submerged in national debate. After the Mexican War, the question of what to do with the conquered lands tore the party apart. Northern Whigs supported the Wilmot Proviso, which would ban slavery in all the territory gained from the war.

Lincoln, who as a congressman voted for it numerous times, called himself a “Proviso Man.” President Zachary Taylor, the triumphant general during the war and a Louisiana slaveholder, who ran on no platform whatsoever in 1848, surprised everybody by supporting the Wilmot Proviso and threatening to lead the army himself to suppress Southern resistance. Suddenly, he dropped dead in a cholera epidemic.

His successor, President Millard Fillmore, of New York, reversed his position and cut the deals that made up the Compromise of 1850, including a federal Fugitive Slave Act. Divided north and south, the Whigs suffered an epic defeat in 1852. The one-term former congressman from Illinois, now back in his two-man law office in Springfield, gloomily stared for long periods of time into space.

Of Senator Charles Sumner (Massachusetts), you write “From the moment he entered the Senate he was treated as a voice to be silenced. The most famous instance of violence in the history of the Senate was Preston Brooks attacking Sumner and nearly beating him to death with a cane, an act applauded by the Southern aristocrats.” Why was Sumner considered by Southerners as public enemy number one?

Since Charles Sumner was elected to the Senate in 1851, he had been denied and scorned, refused committee assignments, banished as an outcast, deemed unworthy, unclean, and untouchable. He was the constant object of slander yet accused of being the defamer.

It was not an irony that the tribune against slavery was the worthiest man from Massachusetts, the most learned in the Senate, his height at six feet two inches the measure of his rectitude, his gaze an image of engaged intellect. Sumner took painstaking care to be comprehensive in his criticisms, to display the astounding scope of his knowledge, and leave no part of his righteous indignation unexpressed.

He was determined to smash to dust his opponents’ claims through the accumulation of his dazzling erudition.

Sumner’s abrupt limits as a politician, his self-conscious violation of acceptable political speech on slavery and its adherents as moral hazards to be avoided, his social maladroitness outside his charmed circle, his guarded dignity, absence of humor, and inability to deflect or absorb anger through self-deprecation or indifference, combined with his brilliant speech and majestic manner, his true profundity and unflinching courage, incited the feverish pitch of responses to him.

Sumner’s expose of the sexual underside of slavery, its rape culture, was his most profound offense. No senator had ever openly discussed the salacious side of slavery from so many different angles.

The caning of Sumner nearly to death by Congressman Preston Brooks of South Carolina was enthusiastically applauded throughout the South. He was given the gift of many canes, including one at a Washington dinner of dignitaries among whom were Jefferson Davis and Stephen A. Douglas.

Almost 200 pages into the book, Lincoln starts to emerge as a major force. You write “Douglas’s fierce need to smash everything and everybody in his way cleared a path for Lincoln… the moment Douglas proposed the Kansas-Nebraska Act, Lincoln responded as if it were a cue.” Can you give a brief description of the Act and the significance of Lincoln’s reaction?

Forgotten after one term in the Congress, Lincoln roamed county courthouse to courthouse in the Eighth Judicial District of central Illinois in the company of an entourage of traveling lawyers like an itinerant troupe of Victorian Shakespearean actors.

Then, in 1854, he was, as he said, “aroused… as he had been never before.” Stephen A. Douglas, desperate to win the Democratic presidential nomination in 1856, wanted the credit for sponsoring the first transcontinental railroad, which would have to be constructed across the territory of the great plains, not yet organized into states.

Douglas cut the deal in the Kansas-Nebraska Act with the great Southern beasts of the Congress and the administration of Franklin Pierce, guided by Jefferson Davis. “We were thunderstruck and stunned,” Lincoln said, “and we reeled and fell in utter confusion. But we rose each fighting, grasping whatever he could first reach—a scythe—a pitchfork—a chopping axe, or a butcher's cleaver. We struck in the direction of the sound; and we are rapidly closing in upon him.”

Lincoln joined the resistance. He delivered a speech laying out the constitutional, historical, and political case against the expansion of slavery. He was off to the races.

You call the Dred Scott decision “a cataclysm that shattered the authority of the Supreme Court in its effort to silence ‘agitation.’” Will you encapsulate the importance of Chief Justice Roger Taney’s decision?

With the advent of 1857, on the eve of the new administration, the capital was swept with talk of a momentous decision to be handed down from the Supreme Court. The new president, James Buchanan, wanted that case to settle the question of slavery in the territories once and for all at the beginning of his term. Dred Scott v. John Sanford was the case on the docket.

Dred Scott, a slave, had sued his owner, claiming that because he had resided in a free state he was therefore free. Behind the scenes, Buchanan lobbied the justices to speed up the decision. Two days after his inauguration, Chief Justice Roger Taney of the Supreme Court ruled, “‘All men are created equal’” did not mean “the whole human family…

The unhappy black race were separated from the white by indelible marks… and were never thought of or spoken of except as property.” Blacks, Taney pronounced, had “no rights which the white man was bound to respect” and that the Constitution recognized property in slaves as an absolute right.

And, therefore, his decision opened the territories to the entrance of slaves and in effect rendered illegal the central idea of the new Republican Party.

Stephen A. Douglas, angling for the 1860 Democratic nomination, defended the decision. He attacked the Republicans also to position himself against his opponent in the coming campaign for the Senate, none other than Lincoln.

“So long as they quote the Declaration of Independence to prove that a negro was created equal to a white man, we have no excuse for closing our eyes and professing ignorance of what they intend to do, so soon as they get the power,” said Douglas.

The founders, he stated, sought to “preserve the purity” of the white race and “prevent any species of amalgamation… between superior and inferior races.” “Is it true,” he asked, “that the negro is our equal and our brother?

The history of the times clearly show that our fathers did not regard the negro race as any kin to them, and determined so to lay the foundations of society and government that they should never be of any kin to their posterity.”

 ““Lincoln,” Herndon said, “deliver that speech as read and it will make you president.””

Lincoln answered Douglas on June 26, 1857. He disputed Taney and Douglas. “In those days, our Declaration of Independence was held sacred by all, and thought to include all; but now, to aid in making the bondage of the negro universal and eternal, it is assailed, and sneered at, and construed, and hawked at, and torn, till, if its framers could rise from their graves, they could not at all recognize it.”

There were a lot of skeptics when Lincoln began unveiling his “House Divided” speech, but his law partner and later biographer William Herndon told him, “Deliver that speech as read and it will make you the president.” How important was the House Divided speech?

In May 1858, preparing for his nomination as the Republican candidate for the Senate at the state convention, Lincoln began work on his acceptance speech, scratching out fragments and phrases on scraps of paper and the back of envelopes, stuffing some of them into his stovetop hat for safekeeping.

Spreading his notes on his desk, he carefully composed his text. Just before the convention, Lincoln held a rehearsal, inviting about a dozen of his advisers and friends to the law library at the statehouse. Upon finishing his reading, they were unanimous—Lincoln must not give the speech.

One gently told him it was “ahead of its time.” Another, less kindly, called it a “damned fool utterance.” Lincoln turned to Herndon. “Lincoln,” Herndon said, “deliver that speech as read and it will make you president.”

Lincoln’s “House Divided” speech would be cited in South Carolina’s declaration of secession as a justification: “He is not to be entrusted with the administration nor the common Government, because he has declared that that ‘Government cannot endure permanently half slave, half free,’ and that the public mind must rest in the belief that slavery is ‘in the course of ultimate extinction.’”

Your pages on the Lincoln-Douglas debates are as gripping as reading Mailer on the first Ali-Frazier fight. What was the primary reason Lincoln lost the Senate race to Douglas but vaulted ahead of him in the national spotlight?

Lincoln won the popular vote but lost the election because it was determined by gerrymandered legislative districts. After a fleeting moment of despair, he was reenergized. “The fight must go on,” he wrote. “The cause of civil liberty must not be surrendered at the end of one, or even, one hundred defeats.

Douglas had the ingenuity to be supported in the late contest both as the best means to break down, and to uphold the Slave interest. No ingenuity can keep those antagonistic elements in harmony long. Another explosion will soon come. Yours truly A. LINCOLN.” He edited his debates with Douglas for publication.

At a meeting of his inner circle in January 1859 he raised the idea of running for president. Lincoln and Douglas slugged it out again, campaigning for their parties in Ohio elections. Lincoln seemed physically refreshed while Douglas was dissipated.

The stress of their debates had drained Douglas, who was drinking himself to an early death. Yet, in the meantime, he fully expected to be the Democratic nominee in 1860 without much trouble and failed to anticipate the party’s implosion at the convention.

You revive the memory of an intriguing figure from before the Civil War, Hinton Helper, whose book The Impending Crisis of the South: How to Meet It was amazingly prescient and almost Marxian in his analysis of how the slave-holding hierarchy oppressed the vast majority of whites. His book was almost as influential as Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Is it time for a rival of interest in Helper and his book?

All discussion of the political history of the Southern white working class should begin with Hinton Helper.

The son of an illiterate dirt farmer from North Carolina who died when he was a child, he wrote a devastating economic, sociological, and political critique of the South.

The Impending Crisis of the South: How To Meet It was a unique and inarguable statistical handbook of information on how the ruling class of the Slave Power destroyed economic development, invention, education, and enterprise, while promoting poverty, disease, and ignorance.

Even more the book was the most insightful and scathing expose ever written by a Southerner of “the entire mind of the South,” the mirror of an oligarchy that in its compulsion for “acquiescence with slavery” suppressed freedom of speech and thought and depended upon the “abject servilism” not just of the slaves but also of “the non-slave holding whites.”

Helper concluded with a revolutionary call to poor whites to overthrow slavery in their own interest. “To all intents and purposes they are disfranchised, and outlawed, and the only privilege extended to them, is a shallow and circumscribed participation in the political movements that usher slaveholders into office.”

Helper borrowed a famous phrase of Sumner’s to captiously describe slaveowners, “the lords of the lash,” to designate them as the oppressors of the poor whites.

“The lords of the lash are not only absolute masters of the blacks, who are bought and sold, and driven about like so many cattle, but they are also the oracles and arbiters of all non-slaveholding whites, whose freedom is merely nominal, and whose unparalleled illiteracy and degradation is purposely and fiendishly perpetuated. How little the ‘poor white trash,’ the great majority of the Southern people, know of the real condition of the country is, indeed, sadly astonishing.”

Helper’s book was the greatest bestseller since Uncle Tom’s Cabin. The Republican Party national campaign organization condensed it into a pamphlet and widely circulated it.

I love the quote from the New York Tribune correspondent after witnessing Lincoln’s Cooper Union speech: “He’s the greatest man since St. Paul!” Is it fair to say that that speech catapulted Lincoln to popularity in the Northeast?

Lincoln was invited to appear in a speakers’ series organized by a group of prominent New York Republicans auditioning alternatives to the candidacy of William Seward, the frontrunner, with whom they had all sorts of conflicts and misgivings over the decades in the internecine warfare of New York politics.

Lincoln was the new man. He used the occasion to make the case against the interpretation of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of both Roger Taney in his Dred Scott decision and Stephen A. Douglas in the debates that blacks were not to be consider equal and that the Constitution deprived them of all rights.

Lincoln masterfully proved that the majority of the signers of the Constitution were antislavery to refute Taney’s and Douglas’s pretentious originalism. He systematically knocked down every main argument thrown against the Republicans, from disloyalty to extremism, ending with his ringing declaration, “Right makes might!”

“Politics was permeated with an atmosphere of violence. Kansas was called “Bleeding Kansas” for a reason.”

Lincoln’s speech was published the next day in the New York newspapers. The New York Post, then an antislavery progressive paper, edited by the poet and liberal crusader William Cullen Bryant, who served as chairman of the event, headlined: “The Framers of the Constitution in Favor of Slavery Prohibition. THE REPUBLICAN PARTY VINDICATED. THE DEMANDS OF THE SOUTH EXPLAINED. Great Speech of Hon. Abraham Lincoln, of Illinois, at Cooper Institute.” The Republican convention was just three months off.

Emotions were so high leading up to the 1860 election that I wonder why the War of Succession hadn’t already broken out. I’m thinking of Jefferson Davis back in Mississippi telling a crowd “Gallows should be constructed for both Douglas and Lincoln with the difference being their height.” I’d say this is worse than “Lock her up!” or “Send them back!”

Politics was permeated with an atmosphere of violence. Kansas was called “Bleeding Kansas” for a reason. Southern members of the Congress threatened antislavery northern members with hanging. Stephen A. Douglas hurled similar warnings at his antislavery antagonists on the floor of the Senate.

After Sumner’s caning in 1856, according to Senator Henry Wilson, his colleague from Massachusetts, “Members of Congress went armed in the streets and sat with loaded revolvers in their desks.” In 1859, Senator David Broderick, an antislavery Democrat from California, was provoked into a duel and murdered.

His dying words were said to be, “They have killed me because I was opposed to the extension of slavery and a corrupt Administration.”

One of the eye-opening passages in All the Power of Earth is near the end: “The Republican Party is in fact the only American political party that was cofounded by some men personally close to that distant admirer of Lincoln, Karl Marx.” Why was Marx such an admirer of Lincoln? Was Lincoln a secret Commie?

The failed European revolutions of 1848 inspired not only The Communist Manifesto, written by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, but also the little noticed statement approved at a meeting in Springfield, Illinois, written by Lincoln, “Resolutions of Sympathy with the Cause of Hungarian Freedom,” urging, “That in their present glorious struggle for liberty, the Hungarians, command our highest admiration, and have our warmest sympathy.”

After the revolutions were crushed a wave of German immigrants fleeing repression flooded into the U.S., inciting the rise of a nativist movement called the Know Nothings. Lincoln loathed nativism. At the same time, he was a great friend of the Germans.

In creating the Illinois Republican Party, Lincoln directed the writing of an anti-nativist platform. During his campaign for the Senate, he secretly owned a German language newspaper that promoted his candidacy. At the 1860 Republican national convention, the German caucus threw its support behind his presidential nomination.

Among the German exiles active in the new Republican Party were a number of Marx’s personal comrades, including Friedrich Hecker, who had led the revolt in Baden in which Engels was a soldier and participated in the founding convention of the Illinois Republican Party; August Willich, a leader of the left faction of the Communist League, who became editor of the German Republican newspaper in Cincinnati and a Union general; and Joseph Wedemeyer, a member of the Communist League, founder of the first Marxist organization in the U.S., the American Workers League in New York, and who joined the German caucus at the Republican convention of 1860 that swung behind Lincoln.

These men with direct relationships to Marx were only a few of the Red ‘48ers who were instrumental in the building of the Republican Party. Marx himself was the London correspondent for the antislavery New York Tribune.

“When Lincoln was engaged in defining his Republicanism, he sought to steal Thomas Jefferson from the party Jefferson had founded.”

Unquestionably, Lincoln read Marx's articles. Marx was a fervent supporter of the Union cause during the war. The Marxist organization in England, the International Working Man’s Association, helped organized demonstrations against British recognition of the Confederacy.

In 1863, Lincoln wrote a letter to “The Workingmen of Manchester” to express gratitude for their demonstration against recognition of the Confederacy despite their economic suffering and in the face of Southern support among the English aristocracy:

“It has been often and studiously represented that the attempt to overthrow this government, which was built upon the foundation of human rights, and to substitute for it one which should rest exclusively on the basis of human slavery, was likely to obtain the favor of Europe.”

After Lincoln’s re-election in 1864, Marx wrote him on behalf of the International Working Man’s Association, “The workingmen of Europe feel sure that, as the American War of Independence initiated a new era of ascendancy for the middle class, so the American Antislavery War will do for the working classes.”

 Marx received a reply from Charles Francis Adams, the U.S. ambassador to England, communicating Lincoln’s answer: “So far as the sentiments expressed by it are personal, they are accepted by him with a sincere and anxious desire that he may be able to prove himself not unworthy of the confidence which has been recently extended to him by his fellow citizens and by so many of the friends of humanity and progress throughout the world.”

In Lincoln’s house there were many rooms. Lincoln the railroad lawyer was of course also the champion of free labor. And President Lincoln always believed in an energetic positive federal government role. He built the transcontinental railroad, created the land grant colleges, and passed the Homestead Act.

When Lincoln was engaged in defining his Republicanism, he sought to steal Thomas Jefferson from the party Jefferson had founded. In a number of speeches, Lincoln separated Jefferson the slaveholder from Jefferson the author of the Declaration of Independence.

Lincoln wrote, in 1859, about the degradation of the Democratic Party: “The democracy of today holds the liberty of one man to be absolutely nothing, when in conflict with another man's right of property. Republicans, on the contrary, are for both the man and the dollar; but in cases of conflict, the man before the dollar.”

About the two parties, he observed, “it will be equally interesting to note how completely the two have changed hands as to the principle upon which they were originally supposed to be divided.” 

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