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   Chapter 16 PRESIDENT ADAMS AND THE OPPOSITION (1825-1827)

Rise of the New West, 1819-1829 By Frederick Jackson Turner Characters: 31135

Updated: 2017-11-29 00:03


For eight years President Monroe had administered the executive department of the federal government-years that have been called the "Era of Good Feeling." The reader who has followed the evidences of factional controversy among the rival presidential candidates in the cabinet, and noted the wide-spread distress following the panic of 1819, the growing sectional jealousies, the first skirmishes in the slavery struggle, and the clamor of a democracy eager to assert its control and profoundly distrustful of the reigning political powers, will question the reality of this good feeling. On the other hand, in spite of temporary reverses, the nation as a whole was bounding with vigor in these years of peace after war; and if in truth party was not dead, and a golden age had not yet been given to the American people, at least the heat of formal party contest had been for a time allayed. The bitterness of political warfare in the four years which we are next to consider might well make the administration of the last of the Virginia dynasty seem peaceful and happy by contrast.

Monroe's presidential career descended to a close in a mellow sunset of personal approval, despite the angry clouds that gathered on the horizon. He had grown in wisdom by his experiences, and, although not a genius, he had shown himself able, by patient and dispassionate investigation, to reach judgments of greater value than those of more brilliant but less safe statesmen. Candor, fair- mindedness, and magnanimity were attributed to him even by those who were engaged in bitter rivalry for the office which he now laid down. He was not rapid or inflexible in his decisions between the conflicting views of his official family; but in the last resort he chose between policies, accepted responsibility, and steered the ship of state between the shoals and reefs that underlay the apparently placid sea of the "Era of Good Feeling." How useful were his services in these transitional years appeared as soon as John Quincy Adams grasped, with incautious hands, the helm which Monroe relinquished.[Footnote: On Monroe's personal traits, see Adams, Memoirs, IV., 240 et passim; J. Q. Adams, Eulogy on the Life and Character of James Monroe; Schouler, United States, IV., 201-207.] "Less possessed of your confidence in advance than any of my predecessors," wrote President Adams, in his first annual message, "I am deeply conscious of the prospect that I shall stand more and oftener in need of your indulgence." In his reply to the notification of his election by the House, after adverting to the fact that one of his competitors had received a larger minority of the electoral vote than his own, he declared that, if his refusal of the office would enable the people authoritatively to express their choice, he should not hesitate to decline; [Footnote: Richardson, Messages and Papers, II., 293.] he believed that perhaps two-thirds of the people were adverse to the result of the election.[Footnote: Adams, Memoirs, VII., 98; cf. ibid., VI., 481.] In truth, the position of the new president was a delicate one, and he was destined neither to obtain the indulgence asked nor the popular ratification which he craved. By receiving his office from the hands of the House of Representatives in competition with a candidate who had a larger electoral vote, he fell heir to the popular opposition which had been aroused against congressional intrigue, and especially against the selection of the president by the congressional caucus. More than this, it was charged that Clay's support was the result of a corrupt bargain, by which the Kentucky leader was promised the office of secretary of state. This accusation was first publicly made by an obscure Pennsylvania member, George Kremer, who, in an unsigned communication to a newspaper, when Clay's decision to vote for Adams was first given out, reported that overtures were said to have been made by the friends of Adams to the friends of Clay, offering him the appointment of secretary of state for his aid to elect Adams; and that the friends of Clay gave this information to the friends of Jackson, hinting that for the same price they would close with the Tennesseean. When these overtures, said the writer, were rejected, Clay transferred his interest to Adams. [Footnote: Niles' Register, XXVII., 353.]

Stung to the quick, Clay rushed into print with a denunciation of the writer as a dastard and a liar, and held him responsible to the laws which govern men of honor. [Footnote: Ibid., 355.] In reply to this evident invitation to a duel, Kremer avowed his authorship and his readiness to prove his charges. If Clay had known the identity of his traducer, he would hardly have summoned him to the field of honor, for Kremer was a well-meaning but credulous and thick-headed rustic noted solely for his leopard-skin overcoat. The speaker, therefore, abandoned his first idea, and asked of the House an investigation of the charges, which Kremer reiterated his readiness to prove. But when the investigating committee was ready to take testimony, the Pennsylvania congressman refused to appear. He was, in fact, the tool of Jackson's managers, who greatly preferred to let the scandal go unprobed by Congress. If Clay transferred his following to Adams, the charge would gain credence with the masses; if he were not made secretary of state, it would be alleged that honest George Kremer had exposed the bargain and prevented its consummation. In vain, in two successive and elaborate addresses, [Footnote: Address of 1825 and of 1827, in Clay, Works (Colton's ed.), V., 299, 341.] did Clay marshal evidence that, before he left Kentucky, he had determined to vote for Adams in preference to Crawford or Jackson, and that there was no proof of Kremer's charge. [Footnote: Clay, Address to the Public (1827), 52; ibid., Works (Colton's ed.), IV., 109; Adams, Memoirs, VII., 4.] In vain was evidence produced to show that friends of Jackson [Footnote: Clay, Works (Colton's ed.), I., chaps. xvi., xvii.; Parton, Jackson, III., 56, 110-116.] and Crawford [Footnote: Adams, Memoirs, VI., 464, 513, VII., 91.] solicited Clay's support by even more unblushing offers of political reward than those alleged against Adams. To the end of his career, the charge remained a stumbling-block to Clay's ambitions, and the more he denounced and summoned witnesses [Footnote: See, for example, testimony of congressmen, Niles' Register, XXVIII., 69, 133, 134, 203; Address of David Trimble (1828).] the more the scandal did its poisonous work.

After all, it was Adams who gave the charge immortality. Even if he had appreciated the power of public feeling he would not have hesitated. If the accusation was a challenge to the spirited Kentuckian, it was a call to duty to the Puritan. Two days after his election, Adams, asking Monroe's advice about the composition of the cabinet, announced that he had already determined to appoint Clay secretary of state, "considering it due," said he, "to his talents and services to the western section of the Union, whence he comes, and to the confidence in me manifested by their delegations." [Footnote: Adams, Memoirs, VI., 508.] Clay spoke lightly of the threatened opposition as a mere temporary ebullition of disappointment at the issue of the election, [Footnote: Adams, Memoirs, VI., 509.] and after a short interval accepted the appointment. [Footnote: For his reasons, see Clay, Works (Colton's ed.), IV., 114, 192.]

Up to this time Jackson had kept his temper remarkably; but now that Adams had called to the department of state the man who made him president, the man who justified his choice by the statement that Jackson was a "military chieftain," the great deep of his wrath was stirred. Clay seemed to him the "Judas of the West," and he wrote a letter, probably for publication, passionately defending the disinterestedness of his military services, calling attention to the fact that Clay had never yet risked himself for his country, and soothing himself in defeat by this consolation: "No midnight taper burnt by me; no secret conclaves were held; no cabals entered into to persuade any one to a violation of pledges given or of instructions received. By me no plans were concerted to impair the pure principles of our republican institutions, nor to prostrate that fundamental maxim, which maintains the supremacy of the people's will." [Footnote: Niles' Register, XXVIII., 20; Parton, Jackson, III., 77.]

On his way back to Tennessee, he spread broadcast in conversation his conviction that "honest George Kremer" had exposed a corrupt bargain between Clay and Adams, [Footnote: Parton, Jackson, III., 107.] and to this belief he stuck through the rest of his life, appealing, when his witnesses failed him, to the stubborn fact of Clay's appointment. [Footnote: Parton, Jackson, III., 110-116.] In October, 1825, Tennessee renominated Jackson, who accepted, and resigned his seat in the Senate, accompanying his action with a plea for a constitutional amendment rendering congressmen ineligible to office during their term of service and for two years thereafter, except in cases of judicial appointment. The purpose was evidently to wage a new campaign to give effect to "the will of the people." [Footnote: Ibid., III., 95; Niles' Register, XXIX., 155.]

Although he realized that an organized opposition would be formed, Adams sought to give a non-partisan character to his administration. [Footnote: Richardson, Messages and Papers, II., 295-297.] In spite of the low opinion expressed in his diary for the honesty and political rectitude of the secretary of the treasury, he asked him to retain his office, but Crawford refused. [Footnote: Adams, Memoirs, VI., 506, 508.] Ascertaining that Gallatin would also decline the place, [Footnote: Ibid., Life of Gallatin, 607; Gallatin, Writings, II., 301.] he appointed Richard Rush, of Pennsylvania, then serving as minister to England. Jackson's friends made it clear that he would take unkindly the offer of the department of war, and Adams gave that office to James Barbour, of Virginia. [Footnote: Adams, Memoirs, VI., 510; cf. ibid., 450.] He retained Southard, of New Jersey, as secretary of the navy, William Wirt, of Virginia, as attorney-general, and McLean, of Ohio, as postmaster-general. The latter selection proved peculiarly unfortunate, since it gave the influence and the patronage of the post-office to the friends of Jackson. For the mission to England, he first selected Clinton, and after his refusal he persuaded Rufus King to take the post. [Footnote: Adams, Memoirs, VI., 523.] Since King's acceptance of the senatorship at the hands of the Van Buren element in New York, he had been less a representative of the Federalists than in his earlier days; but the appointment met in some measure the obligations which Adams owed to supporters in that party.

Far from organizing party machinery and using the federal office- holders as a political engine, he rigidly refused to introduce rotation in office at the expiration of the term of the incumbent-a principle which "would make the Government a perpetual and unintermitting scramble for office." [Footnote: Ibid., 521.] He determined to renominate every person against whom there was no complaint which would have warranted his removal. By this choice he not only retained many outworn and superfluous officers and thus fostered a bureaucratic feeling, [Footnote: Fish, Civil Service, 76- 78.] but he also furnished to his enemies local managers of the opposition, for these office-holders were, in general, appointees of Crawford, in his own interest, or of McLean, in the interest of Calhoun and Jackson.

So rigidly did Adams interpret his duty in the matter that only twelve removals altogether were made during his term. [Footnote: Fish, Civil Service, 72.] He even retained the surveyor of the port of Philadelphia, whose negligence had occasioned the loss of large sums of money to the government and whose subordinates were hostile to Adams. Under such conditions, the friends of the administration had to contend not only against their enemies, but against the Adams administration itself, which left its power in the hands of its enemies to be wielded against its friends. [Footnote: Adams, Memoirs, VII., 163.] Binns, the editor of one of the leading administration papers, in an interview was informed that the president did not intend to make any removals. "I bowed respectfully," said the editor, "assuring the president that I had no doubt the consequence would be that he himself would be removed so soon as the term for which he had been elected had expired. This intimation gave the president no concern." [Footnote: Parton, Jackson, III., 92; Adams, Memoirs, VII., 154.]

Another illustration of his tenacity in this matter, even in opposition to the wishes of Henry Clay, was his refusal to remove a naval officer at New Orleans who had made preparations for a public demonstration to insult a member of Congress who had assisted in electing Adams. Clay believed that the administration "should avoid, on the one hand, political persecution, and, on the other, an appearance of pusillanimity." But the president refused to remove a man for an intention not carried into effect, and particularly because he could frame no general policy applicable to this case which would not result in a clean sweep. Four-fifths of the custom officers throughout the Union, he thought, were opposed to his election. To depart in one case from the rule which he had laid down against removals would be to expose himself to demands from all parts of the country. [Footnote: Adams, Memoirs, VI., 546.]

The president who rejected these favorite instruments of political success was unable to find compensation in personal popularity or the graces of manner. Cold and repellent, he leaned backward in his desire to do the right, and alienated men by his testy and uncompromising reception of advances. And yet there never was a president more in need of conciliating, for already the forces of the opposition were forming. Even before his election he had been warned that the price of his victory would be an organized opposition to the measures of the administration, [Footnote: Ibid., 476, 481, 495, 506, 510.] and that Calhoun and his friends in South Carolina and Pennsylvania would be the leaders. [Footnote: Am. Hist. Assoc., Report 1899, II., 230, 231; Calhoun, Works, III., 51; Sargent, Public Men and Events, I., 106, 109.]

The union of the opposition forces into a party was perfected slowly, for between Crawford, Jackson, and Calhoun there had been sharp rivalry. Virginia by no means relished the idea of the promotion of the military hero; and in New York Jackson had been sustained by Clinton in 1824 against Crawford, the candidate of Van Buren. The Senate ratification of the nomination of Clay (March 7, 1825) foreshadowed the alliance of southern interests with those of Pennsylvania; [Footnote: Adams, Memoirs, VI., 525, VII., 69.] but only fourteen votes, including that of Jackson, were mustered against him, while among the twenty-seven who ratified the nomination was Van Buren. By the opening of the nineteenth Congress, in December, 1825, however, the situation might well have convinced Adams of the need of caution. Taylor, the administration candidate for speaker, was elected by a majority of only five against his opponents' combined vote, and, in the Senate, Calhoun appointed committees unf

riendly to the president.

Nevertheless, in his first annual message [Footnote: Richardson, Messages and Papers, II., 299.] Adams challenged his critics by avowing the boldest doctrines of loose construction. The tide of sentiment in favor of internal improvements was so strong [Footnote: Jefferson, Writings (Ford's ed.), X., 348.] that, to insure its complete success, it would have been necessary only for the executive to cease to interpose the checks which Monroe had placed upon this movement. Prudence would have dictated to a president anxious to enlarge his following the avoidance of irritating utterances upon this point. But Adams characteristically threw away his opportunity, choosing rather to make extreme proposals which he realized had slight chance of success, and to state broad principles of national power.

In this respect he went even further than Clay approved. [Footnote: Adams, Memoirs, VII., 59, 61-63.] Defining the object of civil government as the improvement of the condition of those over whom it is established, not only did he urge the construction of roads and canals, but, in his enlarged view of internal improvements, he included the establishment of a national university, the support of observatories, "light-houses of the skies," and the exploration of the interior of the United States and of the northwest coast. Appealing to the example of European nations, as well as of various states of the Union, he urged Congress to pass laws for the promotion of agriculture, commerce, and manufactures, the "encouragement of the mechanic and of the elegant arts, the advancement of literature, and the progress of the sciences, ornamental and profound." "Were we," he asked, "to slumber in indolence or fold up our arms and proclaim to the world that we are palsied by the will of our constituents, would it not be to cast away the bounties of Providence and doom ourselves to perpetual inferiority?" Such a profession of faith as this sounded strangely in the ears of Americans, respectful of their constituents and accustomed to regard government as a necessary evil. At a stroke, Adams had destroyed his fair prospects of winning the support of Virginia, and, what is more, he had aroused the fears of the whole slave-holding section.

At the beginning of 1824 the legislature of Ohio passed a resolution in favor of the emancipation and colonization of the adult children of slaves, and was supported by the legislatures of at least six northern states, including Pennsylvania, while the proposal was attacked by all the states of the lower south. [Footnote: Ames, State Docs. on Federal Relations, No. 5, p. II (with citations); McMaster, United States, V., 204.] This followed soon after the excitement aroused by an attempted Negro insurrection in Charleston, [Footnote: McMaster, United States, V., 199; Atlantic Monthly, VII., 728.] in 1822, and from the fears aroused by this plot the south had not yet recovered. Already Governor Wilson, of South Carolina, was sounding the alarm in a message [Footnote: December 1, 1824. Ames, State Docs. on Federal Relations, No. 5, p. 13; Niles' Register, XXVII., 263, 292.] denouncing the Ohio proposition, and declaring that there would be more "glory in forming a rampart with our bodies on the confines of our territory than to be the victims of a successful rebellion or the slaves of a great consolidated government." Governor Troup, of Georgia, stirred by the same proposition, and especially by a resolution which Senator King, of New York, submitted (February 18, 1825) for the use of the funds arising from the public lands to aid in emancipating and removing the slaves, warned his constituents that very soon "the United States government, discarding the mask, will openly lend itself to a combination of fanatics for the destruction of everything valuable in the southern country"; and he entreated the legislature, "having exhausted the argument, to stand by its arms." [Footnote: Ames, State Docs. on Federal Relations, No. 5, p. 17; House Exec. Docs., 19 Cong., 2 Sess., IV., No. 59, pp. 69, 70.] While Georgia was in this frame of mind, the administration, as we shall see, [Footnote: Chap, xviii., below.] completed the breach by refusing to permit the survey of the Indian lands by the state, and thus forced the followers of Crawford in Georgia to unite with their former opponents in South Carolina.

Even in North Carolina, where there had been a considerable sentiment in favor of Adams, [Footnote: Univ. of North Carolina, James Sprunt Hist. Monographs, No. 2, pp. 79, 88, 106.] the conviction grew strong that, under such a loose construction of the Constitution as that which his message advocated, the abolition of slavery might be effected. The venerable Senator Macon, to whom Adams had at one time looked as a possible candidate for the vice- presidency, believed that the spirit of emancipation was stronger than that for internal improvements; and that the president's loose- construction doctrine would render it possible for Congress to free every slave. [Footnote: Ibid., 76, 106, 107.] One of the senators of South Carolina, desirous of supporting the administration in opposition to the Calhoun faction, begged Adams to include in his message some passage reassuring the south in the matter of slavery, but he received a chilling reply. [Footnote: Adams, Memoirs, VII., 57.] The speaker, Taylor, already obnoxious because of his previous championship of the proposed exclusion of slavery from Missouri, aroused the wrath of the south by presenting to the House a memorial from a "crazy Frenchman," who invited Congress to destroy all the states which should refuse to free their slaves. [Footnote: Ibid., 103.] In short, there was a wide-spread though absolutely unfounded fear that the administration favored emancipation, and that the doctrines avowed in the message of the president gave full constitutional pretext for such action.

On the other hand, the opposition was in no agreement on principles. [Footnote: Univ. of North Carolina, James Sprunt Hist. Monographs, No. 2, p. 79.] It was dangerous for the south to marshal its forces on an issue which might alienate the support of Pennsylvania. Much more safely could the enemies of the president press the charge that the favorite of the people had been deprived of his rights by a corrupt political intrigue. Consequently, a flood of proposed amendments to the Constitution poured upon both branches of Congress day after day, demanding the abolition of the choice of president by the House of Representatives and the exclusion of members of Congress from appointment to executive office during their term of service. [Footnote: Ames, Amendments to the Const., in Am. Hist. Assoc., Report 1896, II., 21, 106, 339, 343.]

These measures were championed by McDuffie, Benton, and other friends of Calhoun and Jackson. Although they were undoubtedly called out in part by a sincere desire to effect a change in a system which was regarded as dangerous, they also served admirably the purpose of popular agitation. In pursuance of the same policy, a report proposing restrictions upon the executive patronage was made in the Senate (1826) by a committee which included Benton and Van Buren. This was accompanied by six bills, transferring a large share of the patronage from the president to the congressmen, and proposing the repeal of the four-year tenure of office act. [Footnote: Fish, Civil Service, 73; McMaster, United States, V., 432.] Six thousand copies of this report were printed for distribution, and the Puritan president, so scrupulous in the matter of the civil service that he disgusted his own followers, found himself bitterly attacked throughout the country as a corrupt manipulator of patronage.

The first fully organized opposition, however, was effected in the debates over Adams's proposal to send delegates to the Panama Congress, for here was a topic that permitted combined attack under many flags. In the spring of 1825 the ministers of Mexico and Colombia sounded Clay to ascertain whether the United States would welcome an invitation to a congress [Footnote: Adams, Memoirs, VI., 531, 536, 542; International Am. Conference, Reports, etc., IV., "The Congress of 1826 at Panama," 23.] initiated by Bolivar, with the design of consolidating the Spanish-American policy, though at first the United States had not been included among the states invited. [Footnote: International Am. Conference, Reports, etc., IV., "The Congress of 1826 at Panama," 155.] Clay was predisposed to accept the overture, for he saw in the congress an opportunity to complete the American system, which he had long advocated and which appealed strongly to his idealistic view of the destiny of the new republics. [Footnote: See chap, xi., above.] But Adams was skeptical of the future of these new nations, and, as for an American system, he had once (1820) declared that we had one already, "we constituted the whole of it; there is no community of interests or of principles between North and South America." [Footnote: Adams, Memoirs, V., 176; cf. Am. Hist. Rev., XII., 113.]

Adams had learned something from Clay in the mean time, however, and his own share in announcing the Monroe Doctrine inclined him to favor the idea of such a congress, under careful restrictions, to safeguard our neutrality and independence. So the inquiries were met in a friendly spirit, and formal invitations were received from Mexico, Colombia, and Central America in the fall of 1825, defining more clearly the purposes of the congress and the mode of procedure. [Footnote: International Am. Conference, Report, IV., 24-34.] The explanations still left much to be desired, and it may be doubted whether the president would have accepted the invitation had not Clay's zeal influenced his decision.

As its proceedings finally showed, the real purpose of the congress was to form a close union of the new republics against Spain or other nations which might attack them or make colonial settlements in violation of their territory, and to determine the troops and funds to be contributed by each state for this end. Its general assembly was to meet every two years, and, during the war, its members were to be bound by the action of the majority. [Footnote: International Am. Conference, Report, IV., 169 (Bolivar's instructions); 184 (Treaty of Confederation framed by the Panama Congress).] Such an organization was manifestly dangerous to the predominance of the United States, and participation in it was incompatible with our neutrality and independence. Having reason to apprehend that the congress might go to this extent, the president, in determining to accept the invitation, also determined so to limit our representatives that they should have no power to commit either our neutrality or our independent action, unless their action were ratified by the government.

Nevertheless, the prospect of an American system from which the United States was excluded was not a pleasing one, and certain topics which were suggested for consideration made the situation really critical. The presence of a large French fleet off the coast of Cuba, in the summer of 1825, revived the apprehension of an invasion of that island, and both Colombia and Mexico contemplated an attack upon this remaining stronghold of Spain. The annexation of Cuba and Puerto Rico by any of the South American republics would unquestionably have meant the emancipation of the slaves, and already the spectacle of the black republic of Haiti had brought uneasiness to the south. In this juncture the administration endeavored to persuade the South American republics to suspend their expedition, and made overtures for Russian influence to induce Spain to recognize the revolted republics and thus avoid the danger of loss of her remaining possessions.

Adams sent a special message to the Senate (December 26, 1825), nominating two delegates to the Panama Congress. He attempted to disarm the gathering opposition by declaring that, although the commissioning of these delegates was regarded as within the rights of the executive, he desired the advice and consent of the Senate and the House of Representatives to the proposed mission. Among the topics named by Adams as suitable for discussion at the congress were the principles of maritime neutrality, and "an agreement between all of the parties represented at the meeting that each will guard by its own means against the establishment of any future European colony within its borders." This was a striking qualification of a portion of the Monroe Doctrine, and it indicates the anxiety of the executive not to commit the United States to any permanent defensive alliance of the American republics. Seeing their opportunity, however, the opposition brought in a report strongly antagonizing the recommendation of this congress, on the ground that it involved a departure from our time-honored policy of avoiding entangling alliances, that the congress would really constitute a government, and that the topics of discussion might better be handled by negotiation with the respective states. The opposition considered rather the purposes of the congress as contemplated by the South American promoters than the propositions which the United States was willing to discuss in the purely consultative body which Adams and Clay had in mind.

The knowledge, ignored in the executive message, that the congress proposed to deal with the problem of the slave-trade and of the destiny of Cuba, Puerto Rico, and Haiti, kindled southern indignation at the idea of submitting the subject of slavery to the discussion of an international tribunal. In a notable speech, Hayne declared this an entirely "domestic question." "With respect to foreign Nations," said he, "the language of the United States ought to be, that it concerns the peace of our own political family, and therefore we cannot permit it to be touched; and in respect to the slave-holding States, the only safe and constitutional ground on which they can stand, is, that they will not permit it to be brought into question either by their sister States, or by the Federal Government." [Footnote: Register of Debates, 19 Cong., 1 Sess., II., pt. i., 165.] "The peace of eleven States in this Union," said Benton, "will not permit the fruits of a successful Negro insurrection to be exhibited among them." [Footnote: Register of Debates, 19 Cong., 1 Sess., II., pt. i., 330.]

This southern resentment against the submission of the question of our connection with slavery and with the insurrectionary Negro republics to the discussion of a foreign tribunal, was combined with the opposition of northern men like Van Buren to engaging the United States in a system for the control of American affairs by a congress. Thus the enemies of the administration were brought into unison. Nevertheless, the Senate assented to the mission (March 14, 1826) by a vote of 24 to 19; and, after an animated debate, the House, by a vote of 134 to 60, made the necessary appropriations. It was a barren victory, however, for one of the delegates died while on his way, and the other reached Panama after the Congress had adjourned. Although a subsequent session was to have been held at Tacubaya, near the city of Mexico, dissensions among the Spanish- American states prevented its meeting. [Footnote: Richardson, Messages and Papers, II., 329; International Am. Conference, Report, IV., 81, 113, 173-201.]

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