In speaking of the American Constitution I have said so much of the American form of government that but little more is left to me to say under that heading. Nevertheless, I should hardly go through the work which I have laid out for myself if I did not endeavor to explain more continuously, and perhaps more graphically, than I found myself able to do in the last chapter, the system on which public affairs are managed in the United States.
And here I must beg my readers again to bear in mind how moderate is the amount of governing which has fallen to the lot of the government of the United States; how moderate, as compared with the amount which has to be done by the Queen’s officers of state for Great Britain, or by the Emperor, with such assistance as he may please to accept from his officers of state, for France. That this is so must be attributed to more than one cause; but the chief cause is undoubtedly to be found in the very nature of a federal government. The States are individually sovereign, and govern themselves as to all internal matters. All the judges in England are appointed by the Crown; but in the United States only a small proportion of the judges are nominated by the President. The greater number are servants of the different States. The execution of the ordinary laws for the protection of men and property does not fall on the government of the United States, but on the executives of the individual States — unless in some special matters, which will be defined in the next chapter. Trade, education, roads, religion, the passing of new measures for the internal or domestic comfort of the people — all these things are more or less matters of care to our government. In the States they are matters of care to the governments of each individual State, but are not so to the central government at Washington.
But there are other causes which operate in the same direction, and which have hitherto enabled the Presidents of the United States, with their ministers, to maintain their positions without much knowledge of statecraft, or the necessity for that education in state matters which is so essential to our public men. In the first place, the United States have hitherto kept their hands out of foreign politics. If they have not done so altogether, they have so greatly abstained from meddling in them that none of that thorough knowledge of the affairs of other nations has been necessary to them which is so essential with us, and which seems to be regarded as the one thing needed in the cabinets of other European nations. This has been a great blessing to the United States, but it has not been an unmixed blessing. It has been a blessing because the absence of such care has saved the country from trouble and from expense. But such a state of things was too good to last; and the blessing has not been unmixed, seeing that now, when that absence of concern in foreign matters has been no longer possible, the knowledge necessary for taking a dignified part in foreign discussions has been found wanting. Mr. Seward is now the Minister for Foreign Affairs in the States, and it is hardly too much to say that he has made himself a laughing-stock among the diplomatists of Europe, by the mixture of his ignorance and his arrogance. His reports to his own ministers during the single year of his office, as published by himself apparently with great satisfaction, are a monument not so much of his incapacity as of his want of training for such work. We all know his long state-papers on the “Trent” affair. What are we to think of a statesman who acknowledges the action of his country’s servant to have been wrong, and in the same breath declares that he would have held by that wrong, had the material welfare of his country been thereby improved? The United States have now created a great army and a great debt. They will soon also have created a great navy. Affairs of other nations will press upon them, and they will press against the affairs of other nations. In this way statecraft will become necessary to them; and by degrees their ministers will become habile, graceful, adroit, and perhaps crafty, as are the ministers of other nations.
And, moreover, the United States have had no outlying colonies or dependencies, such as an India and Canada are to us, as Cuba is and Mexico was to Spain, and as were the provinces of the Roman empire. Territories she has had, but by the peculiar beneficence of her political arrangements, these Territories have assumed the guise of sovereign States, and been admitted into federal partnership on equal terms, with a rapidity which has hardly left to the central government the reality of any dominion of its own. We are inclined to suppose that these new States have been allowed to assume their equal privileges and State rights because they have been contiguous to the old States, as though it were merely an extension of frontier. But this has not been so. California and Oregon have been very much farther from Washington than the Canadas are from London. Indeed they are still farther, and I hardly know whether they can be brought much nearer than Canada is to us, even with the assistance of railways. But nevertheless California and Oregon were admitted as States, the former as quickly and the latter much more quickly than its population would seem to justify Congress in doing, according to the received ratio of population. A preference in this way has been always given by the United States to a young population over one that was older. Oregon with its 60,000 inhabitants has one Representative. New York with 4,000,000 inhabitants has thirty-three. But in order to be equal with Oregon, New York should have sixty-six. In this way the outlying populations have been encouraged to take upon themselves their own governance, and the governing power of the President and his cabinet has been kept within moderate limits.
But not the less is the position of the President very dominant in the eyes of us Englishmen by reason of the authority with which he is endowed. It is not that the scope of his power is great, but that he is so nearly irresponsible in the exercise of that power. We know that he can be impeached by the Representatives and expelled from his office by the verdict of the Senate; but this in fact does not amount to much. Responsibility of this nature is doubtless very necessary, and prevents ebullitions of tyranny such as those in which a sultan or an emperor may indulge; but it is not that responsibility which especially recommends itself to the minds of free men. So much of responsibility they take as a matter of course, as they do the air which they breathe. It would be nothing to us to know that Lord Palmerston could be impeached for robbing the treasury, or Lord Russell punished for selling us to Austria. It is well that such laws should exist, but we do not in the least suspect those noble lords of such treachery. We are anxious to know, not in what way they may be impeached and beheaded for great crimes, but by what method they may be kept constantly straight in small matters. That they are true and honest is a matter of course. But they must be obedient also, discreet, capable, and, above all things, of one mind with the public. Let them be that; or if not they, then with as little delay as may be, some others in their place. That with us is the meaning of ministerial responsibility. To that responsibility all the cabinet is subject. But in the government of the United States there is no such responsibility. The President is placed at the head of the executive for four years, and while he there remains no man can question him. It is not that the scope of his power is great. Our own Prime Minister is doubtless more powerful — has a wider authority. But it is that within the scope of his power the President is free from all check. There are no reins, constitutional or unconstitutional, by which he can be restrained. He can absolutely repudiate a majority of both Houses, and refuse the passage of any act of Congress even though supported by those majorities. He can retain the services of ministers distasteful to the whole country. He can place his own myrmidons at the head of the army and navy, or can himself take the command immediately on his own shoulders. All this he can do, and there is no one that can question him.
It is hardly necessary that I should point out the fundamental difference between our king or queen, and the President of the United States. Our sovereign, we all know, is not responsible. Such is the nature of our constitution. But there is not on that account any analogy between the irresponsibility of the Queen and that of the President. The Queen can do no wrong; but therefore, in all matters of policy and governance, she must be ruled by advice. For that advice her ministers are responsible; and no act of policy or governance can be done in England as to which responsibility does not immediately settle on the shoulders appointed to bear it. But this is not so in the States. The President is nominally responsible. But from that every-day working responsibility, which is to us so invaluable, the President is in fact free.
I will give an instance of this. Now, at this very moment of my writing, news has reached us that President Lincoln has relieved General McClellan from the command of the whole army, that he has given separate commands to two other generals — to General Halleck, namely, and, alas! to General Fremont, and that he has altogether altered the whole organization of the military command as it previously existed. This he did not only during war, but with reference to a special battle, for the special fighting of which he, as ex-officio commander-inchief of the forces, had given orders. I do not hereby intend to criticise this act of the President’s, or to point out that that has been done which had better have been left undone. The President, in a strategetical point of view, may have been, very probably has been, quite right. I, at any rate, cannot say that he has been wrong. But then neither can anybody else say so with any power of making himself heard. Of this action of the President’s, so terribly great in its importance to the nation, no one has the power of expressing any opinion to which the President is bound to listen. For four years he has this sway, and at the end of four years he becomes so powerless that it is not then worth the while of any demagogue in a fourth-rate town to occupy his voice with that President’s name. The anger of the country as to the things done both by Pierce and Buchanan is very bitter. But who wastes a thought upon either of these men? A past President in the United States is of less consideration than a past mayor in an English borough. Whatever evil he may have done during his office, when out of office he is not worth the powder which would be expended in an attack.
But the President has his ministers as our Queen has hers. In one sense he has such ministers. He has high State servants who under him take the control of the various departments, and exercise among them a certain degree of patronage and executive power. But they are the President’s ministers, and not the ministers of the people. Till lately there has been no chief minister among them, nor am I prepared to say that there is any such chief at present. According to the existing theory of the government these gentlemen have simply been the confidential servants of the commonwealth under the President, and have been attached each to his own department without concerted political alliance among themselves, without any acknowledged chief below the President, and without any combined responsibility even to the President. If one minister was in fault — let us say the Postmaster-General — he alone was in fault, and it did not fall to the lot of any other minister either to defend him, or to declare that his conduct was indefensible. Each owed his duty and his defense to the President alone and each might be removed alone, without explanation given by the President to the others. I imagine that the late practice of the President’s cabinet has in some degree departed from this theory; but if so, the departure has sprung from individual ambition rather than from any pre-concerted plan. Some one place in the cabinet has seemed to give to some one man an opportunity of making himself pre-eminent, and of this opportunity advantage has been taken. I am not now intending to allude to any individual, but am endeavoring to indicate the way in which a ministerial cabinet, after the fashion of our British cabinet, is struggling to get itself righted. No doubt the position of Foreign Secretary has for some time past been considered as the most influential under the President. This has been so much the case that many have not hesitated to call the Secretary of State the chief minister. At the present moment, May, l862, the gentleman who is at the head of the War Department has, I think, in his own hands greater power than any of his colleagues.
It will probably come to pass before long that one special minister will be the avowed leader of the cabinet, and that he will be recognized as the chief servant of the States under the President. Our own cabinet, which now-a-days seems with us to be an institution as fixed as Parliament and as necessary as the throne, has grown by degrees into its present shape, and is not in truth nearly so old as many of us suppose it to be. It shaped itself, I imagine, into its present form, and even into its present joint responsibility, during the reign of George III. It must be remembered that even with us there is no such thing as a constitutional Prime Minister, and that our Prime Minister is not placed above the other ministers in any manner that is palpable to the senses. He is paid no more than the others; he has no superior title; he does not take the highest rank among them; he never talks of his subordinates, but always of his colleagues; he has a title of his own, that of First Lord of the Treasury, but it implies no headship in the cabinet. That he is the head of all political power in the nation, the Atlas who has to bear the globe, the god in whose hands rest the thunderbolts and the showers, all men do know. No man’s position is more assured to him. But the bounds of that position are written in no book, are defined by no law, have settled themselves not in accordance with the recorded wisdom of any great men, but as expediency and the fitness of political things in Great Britain have seemed from time to time to require. This drifting of great matters into their proper places is not as closely in accordance with the idiosyncrasies of the American people as it is with our own. They would prefer to define by words, as the French do, what shall be the exact position of every public servant connected with their government; or rather of every public servant with whom the people shall be held as having any concern. But nevertheless, I think it will come to pass that a cabinet will gradually form itself at Washington as it has done at London, and that of that cabinet there will be some recognized and ostensible chief.
But a Prime Minister in the United States can never take the place there which is taken here by our Premier. Over our Premier there is no one politically superior. The highest political responsibility of the nation rests on him. In the States this must always rest on the President, and any minister, whatever may be his name or assumed position, can only be responsible through the President. And it is here especially that the working of the United States system of government seems to me deficient — appears as though it wanted something to make it perfect and round at all points. Our ministers retire from their offices as do the Presidents; and indeed the ministerial term of office with us, though of course not fixed, is in truth much shorter than the presidential term of four years. But our ministers do not in fact ever go out. At one time they take one position, with pay, patronage, and power; and at another time another position, without these good things; but in either position they are acting as public men, and are in truth responsible for what they say and do. But the President, on whom it is presumed that the whole of the responsibility of the United States government rests, goes out at a certain day, and of him no more is heard. There is no future before him to urge him on to constancy; no hope of other things beyond, of greater honors and a wider fame, to keep him wakeful in his country’s cause. He has already enrolled his name on the list of his country’s rulers, and received what reward his country can give him. Conscience, duty, patriotism may make him true to his place. True to his place, in a certain degree, they will make him. But ambition and hope of things still to come are the moving motives of the minds of most men. Few men can allow their energies to expand to their fullest extent in the cold atmosphere of duty alone. The President of the States must feel that he has reached the top of the ladder, and that he soon will have done with life. As he goes out he is a dead man. And what can be expected from one who is counting the last lingering hours of his existence? “It will not be in my time,” Mr. Buchanan is reported to have said, when a friend spoke to him with warning voice of the coming rebellion. “It will not be in my time.” In the old days, before democracy had prevailed in upsetting that system of presidential election which the Constitution had intended to fix as permanent, the Presidents were generally re-elected for a second term. Of the first seven Presidents five were sent back to the White House for a second period of four years. But this has never been done since the days of General Jackson; nor will it be done, unless a stronger conservative reaction takes place than the country even as yet seems to promise. As things have lately ordered themselves, it may almost be said that no man in the Union would be so improbable a candidate for the Presidency as the outgoing President. And it has been only natural that it should be so. Looking at the men themselves who have lately been chosen, the fault has not consisted in their non-re-election, but in their original selection. There has been no desire for great men; no search after a man of such a nature that, when tried, the people should be anxious to keep him. “It will not be in my time,” says the expiring President. And so, without dismay, he sees the empire of his country slide away from him.
A President, with the possibility of re-election before him, would be as a minister who goes out knowing that he may possibly come in again before the session is over, and, perhaps, believing that the chances of his doing so are in his favor. Under the existing political phase of things in the United States, no President has any such prospect; but the ministers of the President have that chance. It is no uncommon thing at present for a minister under one President to reappear as a minister under another; but a statesman has no assurance that he will do so because he has shown ministerial capacity. We know intimately the names of all our possible ministers — too intimately as some of us think — and would be taken much by surprise if a gentleman without an official reputation were placed at the head of a high office. If something of this feeling prevailed as to the President’s cabinet, if there were some assurance that competent statesmen would be appointed as Secretaries of State, a certain amount of national responsibility would by degrees attach itself to them, and the President’s shoulders would, to that amount, be lightened. As it is, the President pretends to bear a burden which, if really borne, would indicate the possession of Herculean shoulders. But, in fact, the burden at present is borne by no one. The government of the United States is not in truth responsible either to the people or to Congress.
But these ministers, if it be desired that they shall have weight in the country, should sit in Congress either as Senators or as Representatives. That they cannot so sit without an amendment of the Constitution, I have explained in the previous chapter; and any such amendment cannot be very readily made. Without such seats they cannot really share the responsibility of the President, or be in any degree amenable to public opinion for the advice which they give in their public functions. It will be said that the Constitution has expressly intended that they should not be responsible, and such, no doubt, has been the case. But the Constitution, good as it is, cannot be taken as perfect. The government has become greater than seems to have been contemplated when that code was drawn up. It has spread itself as it were over a wider surface, and has extended to matters which it was not necessary then to touch. That theory of governing by the means of little men was very well while the government itself was small. A President and his clerks may have sufficed when there were from thirteen to eighteen States; while there were no Territories, or none at least that required government; while the population was still below five millions; while a standing army was an evil not known and not feared; while foreign politics was a troublesome embroglio in which it was quite unnecessary that the United States should take a part. Now there are thirty-four States. The territories populated by American citizens stretch from the States on the Atlantic to those on the Pacific. There is a population of thirty million souls. At the present moment the United States are employing more soldiers than any other nation, and have acknowledged the necessity of maintaining a large army even when the present troubles shall be over. In addition to this the United States have occasion for the use of statecraft with all the great kingdoms of Europe. That theory of ruling by little men will not do much longer. It will be well that they should bring forth their big men and put them in the place of rulers.
The President has at present seven ministers. They are the Secretary of State, who is supposed to have the direction of foreign affairs; the Secretary of the Treasury, who answers to our Chancellor of the Exchequer; the Secretaries of the Army and of the Navy; the Minister of the Interior; the Attorney-General; and the Postmaster-General. If these officers were allowed to hold seats in one House or the other — or rather if the President were enjoined to place in these offices men who were known as members of Congress, not only would the position of the President’s ministers be enhanced and their weight increased, but the position also of Congress would be enhanced and the weight of Congress would be increased. I may, perhaps, best exemplify this by suggesting what would be the effect on our Parliament by withdrawing from it the men who at the present moment — or at any moment — form the Queen’s cabinet. I will not say that by adding to Congress the men who usually form the President’s cabinet, a weight would be given equal to that which the withdrawal of the British cabinet would take from the British Parliament. I cannot pay that compliment to the President’s choice of servants. But the relationship between Congress and the President’s ministers would gradually come to resemble that which exists between Parliament and the Queen’s ministers. The Secretaries of State and of the Treasury would after awhile obtain that honor of leading the Houses which is exercised by our high political officers, and the dignity added to the positions would make the places worthy of the acceptance of great men. It is hardly so at present. The career of one of the President’s ministers is not a very high career as things now stand; nor is the man supposed to have achieved much who has achieved that position. I think it would be otherwise if the ministers were the leaders of the legislative houses. To Congress itself would be given the power of questioning and ultimately of controlling these ministers. The power of the President would no doubt be diminished as that of Congress would be increased. But an alteration in that direction is in itself desirable. It is the fault of the present system of government in the United States that the President has too much of power and weight, while the Congress of the nation lacks power and weight. As matters now stand, Congress has not that dignity of position which it should hold; and it is without it because it is not endowed with that control over the officers of the government which our Parliament is enabled to exercise.
The want of this close connection with Congress and the President’s ministers has been so much felt that it has been found necessary to create a medium of communication. This has been done by a system which has now become a recognized part of the machinery of the government, but which is, I believe, founded on no regularly organized authority; at any rate, no provision is made for it in the Constitution, nor, as far as I am aware, has it been established by any special enactment or written rule. Nevertheless, I believe I am justified in saying that it has become a recognized link in the system of government adopted by the United States. In each House standing committees are named, to which are delegated the special consideration of certain affairs of State. There are, for instance, Committees of Foreign Affairs, of Finance, the Judiciary Committee, and others of a similar nature. To these committees are referred all questions which come before the House bearing on the special subject to which each is devoted. Questions of taxation are referred to the Finance Committee before they are discussed in the House; and the House, when it goes into such discussion, has before it the report of the committee. In this way very much of the work of the legislature is done by branches of each House, and by selected men whose time and intellects are devoted to special subjects. It is easy to see that much time and useless debate may be thus saved; and I am disposed to believe that this system of committees has worked efficiently and beneficially. The mode of selection of the members has been so contrived as to give to each political party that amount of preponderance in each committee which such party holds in the House. If the Democrats have in the Senate a majority, it would be within their power to vote none but Democrats into the Committee on Finance; but this would be manifestly unjust to the Republican party, and the injustice would itself frustrate the object of the party in power; therefore the Democrats simply vote to themselves a majority in each committee, keeping to themselves as great a preponderance in the committee as they have in the whole House, and arranging also that the chairman of the committee shall belong to their own party. By these committees the chief legislative measures of the country are originated and inaugurated, as they are with us by the ministers of the Crown; and the chairman of each committee is supposed to have a certain amicable relation with that minister who presides over the office with which his committee is connected. Mr. Sumner is at present chairman of the Committee on Foreign Affairs, and he is presumed to be in connection with Mr. Seward, who, as Secretary of State, has the management of the foreign relations of the government.
But it seems to me that this supposed connection between the committees and the ministers is only a makeshift, showing by its existence the absolute necessity of close communication between the executive and the legislative, but showing also by its imperfections the great want of some better method of communication. In the first place, the chairman of the committee is in no way bound to hold any communication with the minister. He is simply a Senator, and as such has no ministerial duties and can have none. He holds no appointment under the President, and has no palpable connection with the executive. And then, it is quite as likely that he may be opposed in politics to the minister as that he may agree with him. If the two be opposed to each other on general politics, it may be presumed that they cannot act together in union on one special subject; nor, whether they act in union or do not so act, can either have any authority over the other. The minister is not responsible to Congress, nor is the chairman of the committee in any way bound to support the minister. It is presumed that the chairman must know the minister’s secrets; but the chairman may be bound by party considerations to use those secrets against the minister.
The system of committees appears to me to be good as regards the work of legislation. It seems well adapted to effect economy of time and the application of special men to special services. But I am driven to think that that connection between the chairmen of the committees and the ministers which I have attempted to describe is an arrangement very imperfect in itself, but plainly indicating the necessity of some such close relation between the executive and the legislature of the United States as does exist in the political system of Great Britain. With us the Queen’s minister has a greater weight in Parliament than the President’s minister could hold in Congress, because the Queen is bound to employ a minister in whom the Parliament has confidence. As soon as such confidence ceases, the minister ceases to be minister. As the Crown has no politics of its own, it is simply necessary that the minister of the day should hold the politics of the people as testified by their representatives. The machinery of the President’s government cannot be made to work after this fashion. The President himself is a political officer, and the country is bound to bear with his politics for four years, whatever those politics may be. The ministry which he selects, on coming to his seat, will probably represent a majority in Congress, seeing that the same suffrages which have elected the President will also have elected the Congress. But there exists no necessity on the part of the President to employ ministers who shall carry with them the support of Congress. If, however, the minister sat in Congress — if it were required of each minister that he should have a seat either in one House or in the other — the President would, I think, find himself constrained to change a ministry in which Congress should decline to confide. It might not be so at first, but there would be a tendency in that direction.
The governing powers do not rest exclusively with the President or with the President and his ministers; they are shared in a certain degree with the Senate, which sits from time to time in executive session, laying aside at such periods its legislative character. It is this executive authority which lends so great a dignity to the Senate, gives it the privilege of preponderating over the other House, and makes it the political safeguard of the nation. The questions of government as to which the Senate is empowered to interfere are soon told. All treaties made by the President must be sanctioned by the Senate; and all appointments made by the President must be confirmed by the Senate. The list is short; and one is disposed to think, when first hearing it, that the thing itself does not amount to much. But it does amount to very much; it enables the Senate to fetter the President, if the Senate should be so inclined, both as regards foreign politics and home politics. A Secretary for Foreign Affairs at Washington may write what dispatches he pleases without reference to the Senate; but the Senate interferes before those dispatches can have resulted in any fact which may be detrimental to the nation. It is not only that the Senate is responsible for such treaties as are made, but that the President is deterred from the making of treaties for which the Senate would decline to make itself responsible. Even though no treaty should ever be refused its sanction by the Senate, the protecting power of the Senate in that matter would not on that account have been less necessary or less efficacious. Though the bars with which we protect our house may never have been tried by a thief, we do not therefore believe that our house would have been safe if such bars had been known to be wanting. And then, as to that matter of State appointments, is it not the fact that all governing power consists in the selection of the agents by whom the action of government shall be carried on? It must come to this, I imagine, when the argument is pushed home. The power of the most powerful man depends only on the extent of his authority over his agents. According to the Constitution of the United States, the President can select no agent either at home or abroad, for purposes either of peace or war, or to the employment of whom the Senate does not agree with him. Such a rule as this should save the nation from the use of disreputable agents as public servants. It might perhaps have done much more toward such salvation than it has as yet effected, and it may well be hoped that it will in future do more.
Such are the executive powers of the Senate; and it is, I think, remarkable that the Senate has always used these powers with extreme moderation. It has never shown a factious inclination to hinder government by unnecessary interference, or a disposition to clip the President’s wings by putting itself altogether at variance with him. I am not quite sure whether some fault may not have lain on the other side; whether the Senate may not have been somewhat slack in exercising the protective privileges given to it by the Constitution. And here I cannot but remark how great is the deference paid to all governors and edicts of government throughout the United States. One would have been disposed to think that such a feeling would be stronger in an old country such as Great Britain than in a young country such as the States. But I think that it is not so. There is less disposition to question the action of government either at Washington or at New York, than there is in London. Men in America seem to be content when they have voted in their governors, and to feel that for them all political action is over until the time shall come for voting for others. And this feeling, which seems to prevail among the people, prevails also in both Houses of Congress. Bitter denunciations against the President’s policy or the President’s ministers are seldom heard. Speeches are not often made with the object of impeding the action of government. That so small and so grave a body as the Senate should abstain from factious opposition to the government when employed on executive functions, was perhaps to be expected. It is of course well that it should be so. I confess, however, that it has appeared to me that the Senate has not used the power placed in its hands as freely as the Constitution has intended, But I look at the matter as an Englishman, and as an Englishman I can endure no government action which is not immediately subject to parliamentary control.
Such are the governing powers of the United States. I think it will be seen that they are much more limited in their scope of action than with us; but within that scope of action much more independent and self-sufficient. And, in addition to this, those who exercise power in the United States are not only free from immediate responsibility, but are not made subject to the hope or fear of future judgment. Success will bring no award, and failure no punishment. I am not aware that any political delinquency has ever yet brought down retribution on the head of the offender in the United States, or that any great deed has been held as entitling the doer of it to his country’s gratitude. Titles of nobility they have none; pensions they never give; and political disgrace is unknown. The line of politics would seem to be cold and unalluring. It is cold; and would be unalluring, were it not that as a profession it is profitable. In much of this I expect that a change will gradually take place. The theory has been that public affairs should be in the hands of little men. The theory was intelligible while the public affairs were small; but they are small no longer, and that theory, I fancy, will have to alter itself. Great men are needed for the government, and in order to produce great men a career of greatness must be opened to them. I can see no reason why the career and the men should not be forthcoming.
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