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Full text of "Speech of Mr. Thaddeus Stevens, of Pennsylvania, in the House of Representatives, on the reference of the President's annual message. Made in Committee of the Whole, February 20, 1850"

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SPEECH 

MR. THADDEUS STEVENS, 

OF PENNSYLVANIA, 

in the House of Representatives^ on the Reference of the President- s 
Annual Messasre. 



Made in Committee of the Whole. February 20^ 1850. 



Mr. STEVENS, of Pennsylvania, said : 

Mr. Chairman : I do not knoAv that I should have troubled the 
Committee at this time, could I see any reasonable prospect that tb/^ 
Hou^x would devote its time' to practical legishi Hon. ■^^^M^"' ^"y^^"^ 
sid-?.rable time after our meeting, the organization of the H: use was^ 
ob'-t-ucted ; and, since organized, a large portion of its time has been 
oc iipied by speeches on the subject of Slavery, mostly by Southern gen- 
tleu^en, when no practical question, to which they could apply, was be- 
fore the Committee. There was no doubt a well-defined object m this, 
partly to intimidate Congress, and partly to occupy its time, so that 
no legislation could be matured obnoxious to Southern gentlemen. In- 
deed we are not left to conjecture on this point. The learned gentleman 
from North Carolhia, [Mr. Clingman,] who was selected to open the 
debate in behalf of human bondage, distinctly notified us that unless 
Congress, as a condition precedent, submitted to settle the Slavery ques- 
tion according to Southern demands, there should be no legislation, 
ever, to the passage of the ordinary appropriation bil s necessary to sus- 
tain the Government; and that such measures would not beobstructed 
by meeting them in manly debate, and voting on their merits, but bjr 
ineessantlv calling the yeas and nays, on repeatexl and frivolous motions 
toadjourn, until the end of the session. Sir, I doubt not that, before 
he ventured on so high a threat, he had full assurances from a .sufficient 
number of Southern gentlemen to carry it mto effect. For, if he had 
made it upon his own bare authority, it ^yould degenerate into contempti- 
ble gasconade, which I am sure that discreet gentleman would not in- 
dulge in. The scenes of last Monday in this House fully sustam him, 
and showed that they had the will and the power to execute it. 

Here, then, we lui.ve a well-defined and palpable ^^^^^P^'^f^ f;?^- 
em members combh.ed to '^top the supplies necessap o the eM^^^^^^ 
of the Govenunent, disorganize and dissolve it until t»^^' '^«!^^^, J'^^^^^^ " 
the Union together are severed, and, as a gentleman early ^^ the ession 
desired, " discord reigns." Well might the gent eman '^ntKupate hat 
the country and posterity would pronounce this treason, rank ti ^son 
against the nation ' Sir, I doubt if there is another legislatn e body m 
ZZm X^l^cU secUtion would not be followed by in^osecutuni and 
punishment. France has lately exiled mexnbers of ^iJ^^^^^ 
similar offence. But in this glorious country where »^\b t^ O"^^^^^ 
of the people are free, we can say anything withm these a alls o b ond 
them with impunity, unless it be to agitate m favor of human libeit)- 
that is co-.^ressionf 



Let us inquire, what is the grave offence, the mighty wrong, which 
can justify a threat big with such portentous consequences ] The refusal 
of Congress to propagate or to establish a doubtful or even an admitted 
good in the Territories would surely be no cause for rebellion and rev- 
olution — much less would the refusal to extend an evil, an admitted 
evil, an unmitigated wrong. Will an intelligent and free posterity be- 
lieve it, when impartial history records that the only cau^je for this" high 
threat was the apprehension that the Congress of this free Republic 
would not propagate, nor permit to be propagated, the institution of 
human Slavery into her vast Territories now free l Yet such is the 
simple fact. It is proper, then, to inquire whether the thing sought to 
be forced upon the Territories at the risk of treason and rebellion be a 
good or an evil. I think it is a great evil, which ought to be inter- 
dicted ; that Ave should oppose it as statesmen, as philanthropists, and 
as moralists, notwithstanding the extraordinary position taken by the 
gentleman from Alabama [Mr. Hilliard] to the contrary. 

Willie I thujs unnoiince my unchanojeable hostilitv to Slaverv in every 
form, and in every place, 1 also avow my determination to stand by all 
the compromises of the Constitution, and'earry them i)Uo faithful effect. 
Some of those compromises I greatly dislike ;" aiid, were they now open 
for consideration, they should never receive my assent. But I find 
them in a Constitution formed in difficult times, and I would not dis- 
turb them. 

By those compromises Congress has no power over Slavery in the 
States. I greatly regret tliat it is so ; for, if it were within our legiti- 
mate control, I would go, regardless of all threats, for some just, safe, 
and certain means for its final extinction. But I know of no one who 
claims the right, or desires to touch it within the States. But when we 
come to form Governments for Territories acquired long since the for- 
mation of the Constitution, and to admit new States, whose only claim 
for admission depends on the will of Congress, Ave are bound so to dis- 
charge that duty as shall best contribute to the prosperity, the power, 
the permanency, and the glory of this rxation. Does Slavery contribute 
to either of these ? Is it not rather subversive of them all ? " Let us first 
view it in the low light of political economy. That nation, I suppose, 
is always the most prosperous, all other tilings being equal, that has 
the most industrious and the largest number of the producing classes. 
Those who merely consume tlie fruits of the earth, add nothing to the 
Strength or wealth of a nation. Slave countries never can have a large 
numberof industrious freemen. Slaveholders form an untitled aristoc- 
racy, with numerous dependants. Ind'viduals appropriate large tracts 
of territory to themselves, and thus prevent it from being thickly set- 
tled by freemen. Their laborers, having no ambition to gratify, no love 
of gain to stimulate them, no parental feelings to impel them to action^ 
are idle and wasteful. When the lash is the only stimulant, the spirit 
of man revolts from labor. 

That Republic must be feeble, both in peace and war, that has not an 
intelligent and industrious yeomanry, equally removed from luxury and 
from poverty. The middling classes, who 'own the soil, and work it 
with their own hands, are the main support of every freo Government. 
Despotism may be powerful, and long sustained by a mixed population 
of serfs and nobles. But free representative Rei)u1jlics, that rely upon 
the voluntaj y action of the people, never can. Under such Govern- 



ments, those who defend and support the country, must have a stake 
in the soil ; must have interests to protect and rights to defend. 

Slave countries never can have such a yeomanry ; never can have a 
body of small proprietors who own the soil and till it with their own 
hands, and sit down in conscious independence under their own vine and 
fig tree. There, there is no sound connecting link between the aristo- 
crat and the slave. True, there is a class of human beings between 
them ; but they are the most worthless and miserable of mankind. The 
poor white laborer is the scorn of the slave himself ; for slavery always 
degrades labor. The white people who work with their hands are 
ranked with the other laborers — the slaves. They are excluded from 
the society of the rich. Their associates, if anywhere, are ^vith the 
colored population. They feel that they are degraded and despised ; 
and their minds and conduct generally conform t<» theii condition. 

The soil occupied by slavery is much less productive than a similar 
soil occupied by freemen. Men who are to receive none of the vrages of 
their labor do not care to multiply its fruits. Sloth, negligence, im- 
providence, are the consequence. The land, being neglected, becomes 
pour and barren ; as it becomes exhausted, it is thrown out as waste, 
for sla\'e labor never renovates its strength. This applies particularly 
to agricultural States. Take Virginia, the favorite example for the 
South, which has been so triumphantly referred to by the gentleman 
from North Carolina, [Mr. Clingman.J Whence he drew his facts 
that she was more prosperous, more populous, and more rich, than the 
free States, I know not. I am sure it wa^ not from personal observa- 
tion. He would not certainly draw on his imagination in matters of 
fact. I suppose he nmst have been misled by the most miserable of 
sophists, and most false of chroniclers, Ellwood Fisher. 

I admit that, by nature, Virginia has capabilities — equal, if not supe- 
rior, to any State in the Union. She has a delightful climate ; a soil 
naturally fertile. She is intersected, as was well said by the gentle- 
man from Virginia, [Mr. Bayly,] by the noblest rivers. Her hills 
and mountains are filled with rich minerals and covered with valuable 
timber. She has the finest water-power, I believe, in the nation, in 
the very heart of her State ; and her harbors are the best in the world. 
At the" time of the adoption of the Constitution, she was the most pow- 
erful State — her population was double that of New York. It was the 
boast of her statesmen that she was j)rima inter pares. What is she 
now 1 The population of New York is more than double — I think the 
next census will show nearly treble hers. Her land, cultivated by un- 
willing hands, is unproductive. Travel through the adjoining States 
of Ohio and Pennsylvania, and you will see that the land produces more 
than double as much as the same kind of land in Virginia. In the free 
States, new towns are everywhere springing up and thrivnig ; the land 
is becoming more productive ; smiling habitations are within hail of each 
other ; the whole country is dotted with school -houses and churches 
almost within sight of each other ; and, except under peculiar circum- 
stances, their manufactures and n\echanic arts furnish lucrative em- 
ployment to all their people ; and their population steadily and rapidly 
increasing. Turn again to Virginia. There is scarcely a new town, 
except at one or two points, within her whole borders. Her ancient 
villages wear the appearance of mournful decay. Her minerals and 
timbers are unwrought. Her nol»le water power is but partially occu- 



pied. Her fine harbors are without ships, except from other ports ; 
and her sea-port towns are without commerce, and falling to decay. 
Ask yourself the cause, sir, and I will abide the answer. It is essential 
to the existence of Republics that education should be generally diffused 
among the people. Slavery prevents this. Rich men employ private 
tutors, or send their children abroad. But the children of the people 
generally cannot be educated without the instrumentality of district 
schools. In slave States, where the plantations are large, the white 
population is too sparse ever to maintain them. Beside, there is another 
fatal obstacle to them in the aversion of the rich to associate with the 
poor. The poor white laborer's children could never be permitted to 
mingle in the same schools, and sit upon the same benches, with the 
rich men's sons. That would be offensive. 

Slavery enfeebles a nation in war, as well as in peace. It is impos- 
sible that a nation of masters and slaves can be as powerful and formi- 
dable, eitlier in offensive or defensive war, as a nation of freemen. A 
large portion of her population must remain at home, to prevent the 
rebellion of those who are constantly in a state of latent warfare with 
their oppressors. I know, sir, we have had a most alarming description 
of the prowess of the South. We have heard their cannon roar; seen 
their bayonets bristle ; heard the war-cry of the charging chivalry, and 
seen their bowie-knives gleam within this Hall, in the vivid picture of 
the terrible gentleman from North Carolina, [Mr. Clingman.] 

We have often been modestly remhided of the " blood and treasure, 
and the gallantry of the South." This I do not dispute. I am proud 
to admit that she has furnished many gallant sons, whose names will 
adorn the brightest pages of our history, both for the war of the Rev- 
olution, the war of 1812, and the war which we lately assumed as the 
ally of Texas and of Slavery. I give her full credit for her patriotism 
in furnishing most of the men who have borne the official burdens of 
the Government, both in the civil and the military list. I know, too, 
that she has furnished the kind of men for our armies, Avho are apt to 
be distinguished when great deeds are to be done ; for it is only the 
officers and commanders of armies who live in story. The stout hearts 
and strong arms of the common soldiers, that fight the battles and win 
the victories, are unknown to fame. Their birth-place is not sought 
for; their graves are undistinguished. And the South has always 
furnished officers for our armies ; Presidents for the Republic ; most of 
our foreign ambassadors ; heads of departments ; chiefs of bureaus ; and 
sometimes, in her proud humility, has consented that the younger sons 
of her dilapidated houses should monopolize the places of clerks and 
messengers to the Government. But whence are drawn the common 
soldiery, the men who peril their lives and win victories for your 
glory 1 Almost entirely from the free States, except in cases of sudden 
emergency, when volunteers are called nearest the scene of danger. 
The present Secretary of War, a Southern gentleman of great ability, 
and strenuous for Southern rights, says, in his report : 

^^ According to the practice lokich has long prevailed^ the great 
majority of enlistments is 7nade m the J\Wthern Atlantic cities and 
the adjacent interior towns, lohence the recruits are sent to the general 
depot for instruction, and finally distributed to the Southern and 
Western posts, according to the wajits of the service. ^^ 

Yes, sir, our Northern freemen have always filled the ranks of the 



re.nilar army. The Soutli has lent us tlie gentlemen to ^^'ear txi^ 
epaulettes and the sword-; to take command of our troops, and lead 
them to Southern and SoutliAvestern climates, to fight the frontier 
battles, and whiten your fields with their bones. 

I am or)posed to the diffusion of slavery, because confimng it withm 
its present limits will bring the States themselves to its gradual 
abolition. Let this disease spread, and although it will render the 
whole body leprous and loathsome, yet it will long survive. Confine 
it, and like the cancer that is tending to the heart, it must be eradi- 
cated or it will eat out the vitals. The sooner the patient is convinced 
of this, the sooner he will procure the healing operation. , 

The learned and able gentleman from \irginia [Mr. Meade,J m a 
pamphlet which he laid upon our table, takes the same view o it. 
He says : " Virgmia has a slave population of near half a rmlkon, 
vihose value is chiefly dependent on Southern demand.'' ^ 
' Let us pause a mr-ment over ihis humihatmg confession. In^^^m 
English, what docs it moan I That Virginia is now only fit to be the 
bvLer not the employer, of slaves. 'Hiat she is reduced to the 
condition that her proud, chivalry are compelled to turn slave - tradei s 
for a livelihood ! Instead of attempting to renovate tlie soil, and M 
their own honest labor compelling the e.n-th to yiek her '^bimdance; 
instead of seeking for the best breed of cattle and horses o f ed on 
her hills and valleys, and fertilize the land, the sons of tha peat S ate 
must devote their time to selecting and grooming the most lusty siie^ 
and the most fruitful wenches, to supply the slave barracoons of 1 e 
South ! And the learned gentleman pathetically laments tnat the 
profits of this genteel traffic will be greatly lessened by the circum- 
scription of Slavery ! This ishis picture, not mine. 

The same gentleman says, m the same speech: _ Ij we int ndto 
submit to the policy of confining the slaves within their P^'^'^^^^^ 
we should commence forthwith the work of gradual emancipation , it 
is an easier task for us than for our children. 

The eloquent gentleman from Alabama [Mr. Hilliard is of the 
same oninion. He said : " We must make up our minds either to resist 
^ZZlonTf the progress of slavery, or to submit to an organic 

''yS, ^ ; ^is'l^iSSr^lt is, to my mind, one of the m.^ agreeable 

consequences of the legitimate i-^'^^^'i^^^^ .^^^^^^^'^V ,^'fw ^en 
malady within its present limits, surround it by a cordon of ft. emen 
that it cannot spread, and in less than twenty-five f '^''1' /Vw for 
holding State in this Union will have on its statute books a law tor 
be Vlxdual and final extinction of Slavery. . Then will have been 
consummated the fondest wishes of every patriots l^^avt^. 1 hen u 
our fair country be glorious, indeed; and ^«/^P«^^^V^y ' , ^"^^'^ 
example of the true principles of government-of umversal freedom. 
I am opposed to the extLion of Slavery mto Territories 110^^^^^^^^^^ 
still graver reasons-because I am opposed to despotism throughout tl^ 
world. I admit that this Government cannot preach a ci^^^^^^ 
liberty into other States and Nations ; much as she ^^^hois t>ia.its and 
tyranny, there she can only mourn over its existence, ^ut when tl t 
question of government is withm her own control, ^n\«^%Pf .^ ^ 
despotism to exist, and aids its diffusion she is ;^c7^^7f.J^^^«;^ '' ^' 
the face of the civilized world, and before the God of Liberty. In 



my judgment, not only the slave States, but the General Government, 
recognising and aiding as it does Slavery, is a despotism. I do not use 
the word in a declamatory, but strictly legal signification. That 
Government is despotic where the rulers govern subjects by their 
own mere will — by decrees and laws emanating from their uncontrolled 
will, in the enactment and extension of which the ruled have no voice, 
and under which they have no right, except at the will of the rulers. 
Despotism does not depend upon the number of the rulers, or the 
number of the subjects. It may have one ruler or many. Rome was 
a despotism under Nero ; so she was under the triumvirate. Athens 
was a despotism under her thirty tyrants, under her four hundred 
tyrants, under her three thousand tyrants. It has been generally 
observed that despotism increases in severity with the number of 
despots; the responsibility is more divided, and the claims more 
numerous. The triumvirs, each demanded his victims. The smaller 
the number of subjects in proportion to the tyrants, the more cruel 
the oppression, because the less danger from rebellion. In_ this Gov- 
ernment, the free white citizens are the rulers — the sovereigns, as we 
delight to be called. All others are subjects. There are, perhaps, 
some sixteen or seventeen millions of sovereigns, and some four millions 
of subjects. 

The rulers and the ruled are of all colors, from the clear white of 
Caucasian tribes to the swarthy Ethiopian. The former, by courtesy, 
are called white. The latter, black. In this Government, the sub- 
ject has no rights, social, pohtical, or personal. He has no voice in 
the laws which govern him. He can hold no property. His very wife 
and children are not his. His labor is another's. He, and all that 
appertains to him, are the absolute property of his rulers. He is 
governed, bought, sold, punished, executed, by laws to which he never 
gave his assent, and by rulers whom he never chose. He is not a, 
serf merely, with half the rights of men, like the subjects of despotic 
Russia, but a naked slave, stripped of every right whicli God and 
nature gave him, and which the high spirit of our Revolution declared 
inalienable — which he himself could not surrender, and which man 
could not take from him. Is he not, then, the subject of despotic sway ? 
The slaves of Athens and of Rome were free, in comparison. They 
had some rights — could acquire some property — could choose their own 
masters, and purchase their own freedom ; and when free, could rise in 
social and political life. The slaves of America, then, lie under the 
most absolute and grinding despotism that the world ever saw. But 
who are the despots 1 The rulers of the country— the sovereign people I 
Not merely the slaveholder who cracks the lash ; he is but the instrument 
of despotism. That despotism is the Government of the slave States, 
and the United States, consisting of all its rulers— all the free citizens. 
Do not look upon this as a paradox, because you and I and the 
sixteen millions of rulers are free. The rulers of every despotism 
are free. Nicholas of Russia is free. The grand Sultan of Turkey 
is free. The Butcher of Austria is free. Augustus, Antony, and 
Lepidus, were free while they drenched Rome in blood. The Thirty 
Tyrants, the Four Hundred,' the Three Thousand, were free while 
they bound their countrymen in chains. You and I and the sixteen 
millions are free, while we fasten iron chains and rivet manacles on four 
millions of our fellow-men, tear their wives and children from them, 



separate them, sell them, and doom them to perpetual, eternal bondage. 
Are ^Ye not, then, despots — despots such as history will brand, and 
God abhors 1 

But we are told that that is none of our business. That Southern 
Slavery is a matter between the slaveholders and their own consciences. 
I trust it may be so decided by impartial history, and the unerring 
Judge, that we may not be branded with that great stigma, and that 
grievous burden may not weigh upon our souls. But could we hope 
for that justification, if now, when we have the power to prevent it, we 
should permit this evil to spread over thousands of square leagues now 
free, and settle upon unborn millions ? Sir, for myself, I should look 
upon any Northern man, enlightened by a Northern education, who 
would directly or indirectly, by omission or commission, by basely 
voting or cowardly skulking, permit it to spread one rood over God's 
free earth, as a traitor to liberty and recreant to his God. 

Slavery tends to render the people among whom it is planted, arro- 
gant, insolent, intolerant, and tyrannical towards the freemen of other 
parts of the Union. The honorable member from Virginia, from whom 
I have already quoted, [Mr. Meade,] says, speaking of Slavery — 

" Our past history testifies to the fact that it elevates the character 
of the white man. Though we have been in a numerical minority in 
the Union for ffty years, yet, during the greater part of that period, we 
have managed to control the destinies of the Union. Whether on the 
battle-field or in the council, the sons of the South have taken the lead ; 
and the records of the nation afford ample testimony of their superior 
energy and genius! " 

Sir, I do not complain of this statement. The former part of it is 
both candid and true. But I cannot listen to the recital without 
feeling the burning blush on my countenance, that the North, with 
her overshadowing millions of freemen, has, for half a century, been 
tame and servile enough to submit to this arrogant rule. 

The South imprison Northern fi-eemen when found within her borders, 
if they happen to be guilty of a dark skin, and carry it " between the 
wind and their nohility." And when a sovereign State sends a learned 
and venerable agent to test the legality of such imprisonment before 
their own tribunals, he is driven with violence and indignity from their 
shores. Massachusetts has suffered, and, I trust, remembers the insult. 
How often have these walls been profaned, and the North insulted, 
by the insolent threat, that if Congress legislate against Southern will, 
it should be disregarded, resisted to extremity, and the Union 
destroyed. During the proRcnt session, we have been rnoife thar; 
once told, amidst raving excitement, that if we dared to legislate \n 
a certain way, the South would teacli the North a lesson ! That their 
minds were made up to extreme resistance ! Is this the place to 
use threats instead of arguments'? Are the Representatives of 
freemen to be thus treated'? True, you are not wholly without justifi- 
cation in the belief that it will be eifectual. You have too often 
intimidated Congress. You have more than once frightened the tame 
North from its propriety, and found "doughfaces" enough to be your 
tools. And when you lacked a given number, I take no pride in saying, 
you were sure to find them in old P, nnsylvania, who, in former years, 
has ranked a portion of her delegation among your most submissive 
slaves. But I hope, with some fears, that the race of doughfaces is 



extinct. I do inu .-c-e tiuw it could well be otherwise. They were 
an unmanly, an unvirile race, incapable, according to the laws of 
, nature, of reproduction. I hope tliey have left no descendants. The 
old ones are deep in political graves. For them, I am sure there is no 
rcBurrcition, for they were soulless. Now, when the whole civilized 
world unites in <lenouncing Slavery as a curse, a shame, and a crime, 
I trust that wlien the great battle between Liberty and Slavery comes 
'0 be fought on this floor, there will none be found hiding among the 
-.ufF, no fraudulent concealments, not one accursed Achan, in this 
whole c:tmp of the Representatives of freemen. 

Thu eloquent gentleman from Virginia, [Mr. Seddon,] the other day, 
ir. his beautiful peroration, personated the great States of Virginia, 
Kentucky, and Louisiana, and in their name apostrophized the good, 
and, 1 will add, the great man who now occupies the Executive chair ; 
and besought him, as he loved the place of his birth, the place of his 
nurture, and the place of his residence, not to forsake his Southern 
- brethren in this emergency, but to stand by them in defence of human 
bon'iage. How much more effective, enduring, and hallowed, would 
that eloquence have been, had the orator's lips been touched "with a coal 
' from the Altar of Freedom ! Then could he have gone with friendly 
. anxiety to that noble, benevolent, and heroic man, and admonished him, 
that although he had gathered all the earthly laurels that can be reaped 
by the sickle of Death, yet, if he would have his name descend to 
posterity with increasing lustre, he must, by one great, just, and 
patriotic example, wipe out tlie only spot that obscures the sun of his 
glory. *He might with propriety have taken with him the learned gen- 
tleman from Alabama, [Mr. Hilliard,] and together have pointed 
him to that solemn hour, which to him, and to all of us who are 
treading the down-hill of life, must soon arrive, when the visions of 
ambition and of earthly wealth shall have passed from before his eyes, 
and left him nothing but a gaping grave, and an eternal judgment. 

The accomplished gentleman from Alabama [Rev. Mr. Hilliard] 
might, with peculiar propriety, do what with profane lips I dare not,, 
go to his illustrious friend, and with fervid piety, and eloquence more 
thrilling than that which made Felix tremble, implore him by a love 
deeper than that of birth-place, of nurture, and of residence, by the love 
of his own immortal soul, to be warned in time by the awful, the 
inexorable doom, " Accursed is the man-stealer." He might, perhaps, 
have pointed him to the gloomy journey that leads through the dark 
|»-^ shadow, and shoAvn him how ineffably brighter are the glories of that 
. i'Cingdom where all are free. Perchance, too, he would liave noticed 
th-e thronging thousands travelling to that same dread tribunal, sum- 
motied to give evidence of deeds done in the body, some of whom were 
bondsmen and slaves on earth, but whose disembodied spirits were then 
disenthralled, erect, tall as the proudest of earth's oppressors, and asked 
him to* inquire of his own conscience, who was most likely to meet a 
hearty welcome there — he whose cause was advocated by the supplicating 
voices of thousand.s with whom he had dealt justly on eai-th, and made 
free indeed, or he whose admission should be withstood by myriads of 
crushed aiid lacerated souls, showing their chains, their stripes, and 
their wound-s, to their Father, and to his Father ; to their God, and to 
his Jiidcre. 



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