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Contents > Author > Abraham Lincoln > Eulogy on Henry Clay, July 6, 1852 1809- 1865
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Abraham Lincoln
Eulogy on Henry Clay, July 6, 1852
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On the fourth day of July, 1776, the people of a few feeble and
oppressed colonies of Great Britain, inhabiting a portion of the
Atlantic coast of North America, publicly declared their national
independence, and made their appeal to the justice of their
cause, and to the God of battles, for the maintainance of that
declaration. That people were few in numbers, and without
resources, save only their own wise heads and stout hearts.
Within the first year of that declared independence, and while
its maintainance was yet problematical-- while the bloody
struggle between those resolute rebels, and their haughty
would-be-masters, was still waging, of undistinguished parents,
and in an obscure district of one of those colonies, Henry Clay
was born. The infant nation, and the infant child began the
race of life together. For three quarters of a century they have
travelled hand in hand. They have been companions ever. The
nation has passed its perils, and is free, prosperous, and powerful.
The child has reached his manhood, his middle age, his old age,
and is dead. In all that has concerned the nation the man ever
sympathised; and now the nation mourns for the man.

The day after his death, one of the public Journals, opposed to
him politically, held the following pathetic and beautiful language,
which I adopt, partly because such high and exclusive eulogy,
originating with a political friend, might offend good taste, but
chiefly, because I could not, in any language of my own, so well
express my thoughts--

"Alas! who can realize that Henry Clay is dead! Who can realize
that never again that majestic form shall rise in the council-chambers
of his country to beat back the storms of anarchy which may
threaten, or pour the oil of peace upon the troubled billows as
they rage and menace around? Who can realize, that the workings
of that mighty mind have ceased-- that the throbbings of that
gallant heart are stilled-- that the mighty sweep of that graceful
arm will be felt no more, and the magic of that eloquent tongue,
which spake as spake no other tongue besides, is hushed--
hushed forever! Who can realize that freedom's champion-- the
champion of a civilized world, and of all tongues and kindreds
and people, has indeed fallen! Alas, in those dark hours, which,
as they come in the history of all nations, must come in ours--
those hours of peril and dread which our land has experienced,
and which she may be called to experience again-- to whom
now may her people look up for that counsel and advice, which
only wisdom and experience and patriotism can give, and which
only the undoubting confidence of a nation will receive?
Perchance, in the whole circle of the great and gifted of our land,
there remains but one on whose shoulders the mighty mantle
of the departed statesman may fall-- one, while we now write,
is doubtless pouring his tears over the bier of his brother and
his friend-- brother, friend ever, yet in political sentiment, as
far apart as party could make them. Ah, it is at times like these,
that the petty distinctions of mere party disappear. We see
only the great, the grand, the noble features of the departed
statesman; and we do not even beg permission to bow at his
feet and mingle our tears with those who have ever been his
political adherents-- we do [not] beg this permission-- we claim
it as a right, though we feel it as a privilege. Henry Clay belonged
to his country-- to the world, mere party cannot claim men like
him. His career has been national-- his fame has filled the earth--
his memory will endure to 'the last syllable of recorded time.'

"Henry Clay is dead!-- He breathed his last on yesterday at
twenty minutes after eleven, in his chamber at Washington.
To those who followed his lead in public affairs, it more
appropriately belongs to pronounce his eulogy, and pay
specific honors to the memory of the illustrious dead-- but
all Americans may show the grief which his death inspires,
for, his character and fame are national property. As on a
question of liberty, he knew no North, no South, no East,
no West, but only the Union, which held them all in its sacred
circle, so now his countrymen will know no grief, that is not as
wide-spread as the bounds of the confederacy. The career of
Henry Clay was a public career. From his youth he has been
devoted to the public service, at a period too, in the world's
history justly regarded as a remarkable era in human affairs.
He witnessed in the beginning the throes of the French
Revolution. He saw the rise and fall of Napoleon. He was called
upon to legislate for America, and direct her policy when all
Europe was the battle-field of contending dynasties, and when
the struggle for supremacy imperilled the rights of all neutral
nations. His voice, spoke war and peace in the contest with
Great Britain.

"When Greece rose against the Turks and struck for liberty,
his name was mingled with the battle-cry of freedom. When
South America threw off the thraldom of Spain, his speeches
were read at the head of her armies by Bolivar. His name has
been, and will continue to be, hallowed in two hemispheres,
for it is--


'One of the few the immortal names
That were not born to die,'
"To the ardent patriot and profound statesman, he added a
quality possessed by few of the gifted on earth. His eloquence
has not been surpassed. In the effective power to move the
heart of man, Clay was without an equal, and the heaven born
endowment, in the spirit of its origin, has been most conspicuously
exhibited against intestine feud. On at least three important
occasions, he has quelled our civil commotions, by a power and
influence, which belonged to no other statesman of his age and
times. And in our last internal discord, when this Union trembled
to its center-- in old age, he left the shades of private life and
gave the death blow to fraternal strife, with the vigor of his
earlier years in a series of Senatorial efforts, which in themselves
would bring immortality, by challenging comparison with the
efforts of any statesman in any age. He exorcised the demon
which possessed the body politic, and gave peace to a distracted
land. Alas! the achievement cost him his life! He sank day by day
to the tomb-- his pale, but noble brow, bound with a triple wreath,
put there by a grateful country. May his ashes rest in peace, while
his spirit goes to take its station among the great and good men
who preceded him!"

While it is customary, and proper, upon occasions like the present,
to give a brief sketch of the life of the deceased, in the case of
Mr. Clay, it is less necessary than most others; for his biography
has been written and re-written, and read, and re-read, for the
last twenty-five years; so that, with the exception of a few of the
latest incidents of his life, all is as well known, as it can be. The
short sketch which I give is, therefore merely to maintain the
connection of this discourse.

Henry Clay was born on the 12th of April 1777, in Hanover County,
Virginia. Of his father, who died in the fourth or fifth year of Henry's
age, little seems to be known, except that he was a respectable
man, and a preacher of the baptist persuasion. Mr. Clay's education,
to the end of his life, was comparatively limited. I say "to the end
of his life," because I have understood that, from time to time, he
added something to his education during the greater part of his
whole life. Mr. Clay's lack of a more perfect early education,
however it may be regretted generally, teaches at least one
profitable lesson; it teaches that in this country, one can scarcely
be so poor, but that, if he will, he can acquire sufficient education
to get through the world respectably. In his twenty-third year
Mr. Clay was licenced to practice law, and emigrated to Lexington,
Kentucky. Here he commenced and continued the practice till the
year 1803, when he was first elected to the Kentucky Legislature.
By successive elections he was continued in the Legislature till the
latter part of 1806, when he was elected to fill a vacancy, of a single
session, in the United States Senate. In 1807 he was again elected
to the Kentucky House of Representatives, and by that body, chosen
its Speaker. In 1808 he was re-elected to the same body. In 1809
he was again chosen to fill a vacancy of two years in the United
States Senate. In 1811 he was elected to the United States House
of Representatives, and on the first day of taking his seat in that
body, he was chosen its speaker. In 1813 he was again elected
Speaker. Early in 1814, being the period of our last British war,
Mr. Clay was sent as commissioner, with others, to negotiate a
treaty of peace, which treaty was concluded in the latter part of
the same year. On his return from Europe he was again elected
to the lower branch of Congress, and on taking his seat in December
1815 was called to his old post-- the speaker's chair, a position in
which he was retained by successive elections, with one brief
intermission, till the inauguration of John Q. Adams in March 1825.
He was then appointed Secretary of State, and occupied that
important station till the inauguration of Gen. Jackson in March
1829. After this he returned to Kentucky, resumed the practice
of the law, and continued it till the Autumn of 1831, when he
was by the legislature of Kentucky, again placed in the United
States Senate. By a re-election he continued in the Senate till
he resigned his seat, and retired, in March 1848. In December
1849 he again took his seat in the Senate, which he again
resigned only a few months before his death.

By the foregoing it is perceived that the period from the
beginning of Mr. Clay's official life, in 1803, to the end of it in
1852, is but one year short of half a century; and that the
sum of all the intervals in it, will not amount to ten years.
But mere duration of time in office, constitutes the smallest
part of Mr. Clay's history. Throughout that long period, he has
constantly been the most loved, and most implicitly followed
by friends, and the most dreaded by opponents, of all living
American politicians. In all the great questions which have
agitated the country, and particularly in those great and
fearful crises, the Missouri question-- the Nullification question,
and the late slavery question, as connected with the newly
acquired territory, involving and endangering the stability
of the Union, his has been the leading and most conspicuous
part. In 1824 he was first a candidate for the Presidency,
and was defeated; and, although he was successively
defeated for the same office in 1832 and in 1844, there
has never been a moment since 1824 till after 1848 when
a very large portion of the American people did not cling to
him with an enthusiastic hope and purpose of still elevating
him to the Presidency. With other men, to be defeated, was
to be forgotten; but to him, defeat was but a trifling incident,
neither changing him, or the world's estimate of him. Even
those of both political parties who have been preferred to
him for the highest office, have run far briefer courses than
he, and left him, still shining high in the heavens of the political
world. Jackson, Van Buren, Harrison, Polk, and Taylor, all rose
after, and set long before him. The spell-- the long enduring
spell-- with which the souls of men were bound to him, is
a miracle. Who can compass it? It is probably true he owed
his pre-eminence to no one quality, but to a fortunate
combination of several. He was surpassingly eloquent; but
many eloquent men fail utterly; and they are not, as a class,
generally successful. His judgment was excellent; but many
men of good judgment, live and die unnoticed. His will was
indomitable; but this quality often secures to its owner
nothing better than a character for useless obstinacy. These
then were Mr. Clay's leading qualities. No one of them is
very uncommon; but all taken together are rarely combined
in a single individual; and this is probably the reason why
such men as Henry Clay are so rare in the world.

Mr. Clay's eloquence did not consist, as many fine specimens
of eloquence does [do], of types and figures-- of antithesis,
and elegant arrangement of words and sentences; but
rather of that deeply earnest and impassioned tone, and
manner, which can proceed only from great sincerity and a
thorough conviction, in the speaker of the justice and
importance of his cause. This it is, that truly touches the
chords of sympathy; and those who heard Mr. Clay never
failed to be moved by it, or ever afterwards, forgot the
impression. All his efforts were made for practical effect.
He never spoke merely to be heard. He never delivered a
Fourth of July oration, or an eulogy on an occasion like this.
As a politician or statesman, no one was so habitually careful
to avoid all sectional ground. Whatever he did, he did for the
whole country. In the construction of his measures he ever
carefully surveyed every part of the field, and duly weighed
every conflicting interest. Feeling, as he did, and as the truth
surely is, that the world's best hope depended on the
continued Union of these States, he was ever jealous of,
and watchful for, whatever might have the slightest tendency
to separate them.

Mr. Clay's predominant sentiment, from first to last, was a
deep devotion to the cause of human liberty-- a strong
sympathy with the oppressed everywhere, and an ardent
wish for their elevation. With him, this was a primary and
all controlling passion. Subsidiary to this was the conduct
of his whole life. He loved his country partly because it was
his own country, but mostly because it was a free country;
and he burned with a zeal for its advancement, prosperity
and glory, because he saw in such, the advancement,
prosperity and glory, of human liberty, human right and
human nature. He desired the prosperity of his countrymen
partly because they were his countrymen, but chiefly to
show to the world that freemen could be prosperous.

That his views and measures were always the wisest,
needs not to be affirmed; nor should it be, on this occasion,
where so many, thinking differently, join in doing honor to
his memory. A free people, in times of peace and quiet--
when pressed by no common danger-- naturally divide into
parties. At such times the man who is of neither party, is not
-- cannot be, of any consequence. Mr. Clay, therefore, was
of a party. Taking a prominent part, as he did, in all the great
political questions of his country for the last half century,
the wisdom of his course on many, is doubted and denied by
a large portion of his countrymen; and of such it is not now
proper to speak particularly. But there are many others,
about his course upon which, there is little or no disagreement
amongst intelligent and patriotic Americans. Of these last are
the War of 1812, the Missouri question, Nullification, and the
now recent compromise measures. In 1812 Mr. Clay, though
not unknown, was still a young man. Whether we should go
to war with Great Britain, being the question of the day, a
minority opposed the declaration of war by Congress, while
the majority, though apparently inclining to war, had, for
years, wavered, and hesitated to act decisively. Meanwhile
British aggressions multiplied, and grew more daring and
aggravated. By Mr. Clay, more than any other man, the
struggle was brought to a decision in Congress. The question,
being now fully before congress, came up, in a variety of ways,
in rapid succession, on most of which occasions Mr. Clay spoke.
Adding to all the logic, of which the subject was susceptible,
that noble inspiration, which came to him as it came to no
other, he aroused, and nerved, and inspired his friends, and
confounded and bore-down all opposition. Several of his
speeches, on these occasions, were reported, and are still
extant; but the best of these all never was. During its delivery
the reporters forgot their vocations, dropped their pens, and
sat enchanted from near the beginning to quite the close. The
speech now lives only in the memory of a few old men; and
the enthusiasm with which they cherish their recollection of
it is absolutely astonishing. The precise language of this
speech we shall never know; but we do know-- we cannot help
knowing-- that, with deep pathos, it pleaded the cause of the
injured sailor-- that it invoked the genius of the revolution--
that it apostrophised the names of Otis, of Henry and of
Washington-- that it appealed to the interest, the pride, the
honor and the glory of the nation-- that it shamed and taunted
the timidity of friends-- that it scorned, and scouted, and
withered the temerity of domestic foes-- that it bearded and
defied the British Lion-- and rising, and swelling, and maddening
in its course, it sounded the onset, till the charge, the shock,
the steady struggle, and the glorious victory, all passed in
vivid review before the entranced hearers.

Important and exciting as was the war question, of 1812, it
never so alarmed the sagacious statesmen of the country for
the safety of the republic, as afterwards did the Missouri question.
This sprang from that unfortunate source of discord-- negro slavery.
When our Federal Constitution was adopted, we owned no territory
beyond the limits or ownership of the States, except the territory
North-West of the River Ohio, and east of the Mississippi. What
has since been formed into the States of Maine, Kentucky, and
Tennessee, was, I believe, within the limits of or owned by
Massachusetts, Virginia, and North Carolina. As to the North
Western Territory, provision had been made, even before the
adoption of the Constitution, that slavery should never go there.
On the admission of the States into the Union carved from the
territory we owned before the constitution, no question-- or
at most, no considerable question-- arose about slavery--
those which were within the limits of or owned by the old
states, following, respectively, the condition of the parent state,
and those within the North West territory, following the previously
made provision. But in 1803 we purchased Louisiana of the
French; and it included with much more, what has since been
formed into the State of Missouri. With regard to it, nothing had
been done to forestall the question of slavery. When, therefore,
in 1819, Missouri, having formed a State constitution, without
excluding slavery, and with slavery already actually existing
within its limits, knocked at the door of the Union for admission,
almost the entire representation of the non-slave-holding states,
objected. A fearful and angry struggle instantly followed. This
alarmed thinking men, more than any previous question,
because, unlike all the former, it divided the country by
geographical lines. Other questions had their opposing partizans
in all localities of the country and in almost every family; so that
no division of the Union could follow such, without a separation
of friends, to quite as great an extent, as that of opponents.
Not so with the Missouri question. On this a geographical line
could be traced which, in the main, would separate opponents
only. This was the danger. Mr. Jefferson, then in retirement,
wrote:

"I had for a long time ceased to read newspapers, or to pay
any attention to public affairs, confident they were in good
hands, and content to be a passenger in our bark to the
shore from which I am not distant. But this momentous
question, like a fire bell in the night, awakened, and filled
me with terror. I considered it at once as the knell of the
Union. It is hushed, indeed, for the moment. But this is a
reprieve only, not a final sentence. A geographical line,
co-inciding with a marked principle, moral and political, once
conceived, and held up to the angry passions of men, will
never be obliterated; and every irritation will mark it deeper
and deeper. I can say, with conscious truth, that there is
not a man on earth who would sacrifice more than I would
to relieve us from this heavy reproach, in any practicable
way. The cession of that kind of property, for so it is misnamed,
is a bagatelle which would not cost me a second thought, if,
in that way, a general emancipation, and expatriation could
be effected; and, gradually, and with due sacrifices I think it
might be. But as it is, we have the wolf by the ears and we
can neither hold him, nor safely let him go. Justice is in one
scale, and self-preservation in the other."

Mr. Clay was in congress, and, perceiving the danger, at
once engaged his whole energies to avert it. It began, as
I have said, in 1819; and it did not terminate till 1821. Missouri
would not yield the point; and congress-- that is, a majority in
congress-- by repeated votes, showed a determination to not
admit the state unless it should yield. After several failures,
and great labor on the part of Mr. Clay to so present the question
that a majority could consent to the admission, it was, by a vote,
rejected, and as all seemed to think, finally. A sullen gloom hung
over the nation. All felt that the rejection of Missouri, was
equivalent to a dissolution of the Union, because those states
which already had, what Missouri was rejected for refusing to
relinquish, would go with Missouri. All deprecated and deplored
this, but none saw how to avert it. For the judgment of Members
to be convinced of the necessity of yielding, was not the whole
difficulty; each had a constituency to meet, and to answer to.
Mr. Clay, though worn down, and exhausted, was appealed
to by members, to renew his efforts at compromise. He did so,
and by some judicious modifications of his plan, coupled with
laborious efforts with individual members, and his own
over-mastering eloquence upon the floor, he finally secured
the admission of the State. Brightly, and captivating as it
had previously shown, it was now perceived that his great
eloquence, was a mere embellishment, or, at most, but a
helping hand to his inventive genius, and his devotion to
his country in the day of her extreme peril.

After the settlement of the Missouri question, although a
portion of the American people have differed with Mr. Clay,
and a majority even, appear generally to have been opposed
to him on questions of ordinary administration, he seems
constantly to have been regarded by all, as the man for a crisis.
Accordingly, in the days of Nullification, and more recently in
the re-appearance of the slavery question, connected with our
territory newly acquired of Mexico, the task of devising a mode
of adjustment, seems to have been cast upon Mr. Clay, by
common consent-- and his performance of the task, in each
case, was little else than, a literal fulfilment of the public
expectation.

Mr. Clay's efforts in behalf of the South Americans, and
afterwards, in behalf of the Greeks, in the times of their
respective struggles for civil liberty are among the finest
on record, upon the noblest of all themes; and bear ample
corroboration of what I have said was his ruling passion--
a love of liberty and right, unselfishly, and for their own
sakes.

Having been led to allude to domestic slavery so frequently
already, I am unwilling to close without referring more
particularly to Mr. Clay's views and conduct in regard to it.
He ever was on principle and in feeling, opposed to slavery.
The very earliest, and one of the latest public efforts of his life,
separated by a period of more than fifty years, were both
made in favor of gradual emancipation of the slaves in Kentucky.
He did not perceive, that on a question of human right, the
negroes were to be excepted from the human race. And yet
Mr. Clay was the owner of slaves. Cast into life where slavery
was already widely spread and deeply seated, he did not
perceive, as I think no wise man has perceived, how it could
be at once eradicated, without producing a greater evil, even
to the cause of human liberty itself. His feeling and his judgment,
therefore, ever led him to oppose both extremes of opinion on
the subject. Those who would shiver into fragments the Union
of these States; tear to tatters its now venerated constitution;
and even burn the last copy of the Bible, rather than slavery
should continue a single hour, together with all their more
halting sympathisers, have received, and are receiving their
just execration; and the name, and opinions, and influence of
Mr. Clay, are fully, and, as I trust, effectually and enduringly,
arrayed against them. But I would also, if I could, array his
name, opinions, and influence against the opposite extreme
-- against a few, but an increasing number of men, who, for
the sake of perpetuating slavery, are beginning to assail and
to ridicule the white man's charter of freedom-- the declaration
that "all men are created free and equal." So far as I have
learned, the first American, of any note, to do or attempt this,
was the late John C. Calhoun; and if I mistake not, it soon
after found its way into some of the messages of the Governors
of South Carolina. We, however, look for, and are not much
shocked by, political eccentricities and heresies in South
Carolina. But, only last year, I saw with astonishment, what
purported to be a letter of a very distinguished and influential
clergyman of Virginia, copied, with apparent approbation, into
a St. Louis newspaper, containing the following, to me, very
extraordinary language--

"I am fully aware that there is a text in some Bibles that is
not in mine. Professional abolitionists have made more use
of it, than of any passage in the Bible. It came, however, as
I trace it, from Saint Voltaire, and was baptized by Thomas
Jefferson, and since almost universally regarded as canonical
authority, 'All men are born free and equal.'

"This is a genuine coin in the political currency of our generation.
I am sorry to say that I have never seen two men of whom it is
true. But I must admit I never saw the Siamese twins, and
therefore will not dogmatically say that no man ever saw a
proof of this sage aphorism."

This sounds strangely in republican America. The like was not
heard in the fresher days of the Republic. Let us contrast with
it the language of that truly national man, whose life and death
we now commemorate and lament. I quote from a speech of
Mr. Clay delivered before the American Colonization Society
in 1827.

"We are reproached with doing mischief by the agitation of
this question. The society goes into no household to disturb
its domestic tranquility; it addresses itself to no slaves to
weaken their obligations of obedience. It seeks to affect no
man's property. It neither has the power nor the will to affect
the property of any one contrary to his consent. The execution
of its scheme would augment instead of diminishing the value
of the property left behind. The society, composed of free men,
concerns itself only with the free. Collateral consequences we
are not responsible for. It is not this society which has produced
the great moral revolution which the age exhibits. What would
they, who thus reproach us, have done? If they would repress
all tendencies towards liberty, and ultimate emancipation, they
must do more than put down the benevolent efforts of this
society. They must go back to the era of our liberty and
independence, and muzzle the cannon which thunders its
annual joyous return. They must renew the slave trade with
all its train of atrocities. They must suppress the workings of
British philanthropy, seeking to meliorate the condition of the
unfortunate West Indian slave. They must arrest the career of
South American deliverance from thraldom. They must blow out
the moral lights around us, and extinguish that greatest torch
of all which America presents to a benighted world-- pointing
the way to their rights, their liberties, and their happiness.
And when they have achieved all those purposes their work
will be yet incomplete. They must penetrate the human soul,
and eradicate the light of reason, and the love of liberty.
Then, and not till then, when universal darkness and despair
prevail, can you perpetuate slavery, and repress all sympathy,
and all humane, and benevolent efforts among free men, in
behalf of the unhappy portion of our race doomed to bondage."

The American Colonization Society was organized in 1816.
Mr. Clay, though not its projector, was one of its earliest
members; and he died, as for the many preceding years he
had been, its President. It was one of the most cherished
objects of his direct care and consideration; and the association
of his name with it has probably been its very greatest collateral
support. He considered it no demerit in the society, that it
tended to relieve slave-holders from the troublesome presence
of the free negroes; but this was far from being its whole merit
in his estimation. In the same speech from which I have quoted
he says: "There is a moral fitness in the idea of returning to
Africa her children, whose ancestors have been torn from her
by the ruthless hand of fraud and violence. Transplanted in a
foreign land, they will carry back to their native soil the rich
fruits of religion, civilization, law and liberty. May it not be one
of the great designs of the Ruler of the universe, (whose ways
are often inscrutable by short-sighted mortals,) thus to
transform an original crime, into a signal blessing to that most
unfortunate portion of the globe?" This suggestion of the
possible ultimate redemption of the African race and African
continent, was made twenty-five years ago. Every succeeding
year has added strength to the hope of its realization. May it
indeed be realized! Pharaoh's country was cursed with plagues,
and his hosts were drowned in the Red Sea for striving to retain
a captive people who had already served them more than four
hundred years. May like disasters never befall us! If as the
friends of colonization hope, the present and coming generations
of our countrymen shall by any means, succeed in freeing our
land from the dangerous presence of slavery; and, at the same
time, in restoring a captive people to their long-lost father-land,
with bright prospects for the future; and this too, so gradually,
that neither races nor individuals shall have suffered by the
change, it will indeed be a glorious consummation. And if, to
such a consummation, the efforts of Mr. Clay shall have contributed,
it will be what he most ardently wished, and none of his labors
will have been more valuable to his country and his kind.

But Henry Clay is dead. His long and eventful life is closed.
Our country is prosperous and powerful; but could it have
been quite all it has been, and is, and is to be, without Henry
Clay? Such a man the times have demanded, and such, in the
providence of God was given us. But he is gone. Let us strive
to deserve, as far as mortals may, the continued care of Divine
Providence, trusting that, in future national emergencies, He
will not fail to provide us the instruments of safety and security.

(Springfield, Illinois)
 

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