Rediscovering Charles Thomson’s Forgotten Service to Early American Historiography

Portrait of Charles Thomson by Joseph Wright, c. 1783. (US Diplomacy Center)

George Washington’s perseverance kept the American army in the field long enough to win negotiated independence, and later saw him through the first presidency under the Constitution. Benjamin Franklin’s ingenuity and sagacity guided the formation of the young nation before it yet realized it could be a country of its own. Thomas Jefferson’s eloquence gave expression to the fundamental principles of equality and liberty in America’s Declaration of Independence. Their places in the popular memory are secure, even as they have and will continue to change.

Yet, the man who stood at the center of those vital years between 1774 and 1789 as the lone Secretary of the Congress, Charles Thomson, is quite often forgotten. It must be considered why this is so. It seems remiss that one whose zeal for patriotic resistance and formal separation from Britain earned him the moniker, “Sam Adams of Philadelphia,” should be shut out from the leading figures in the Founding pantheon. Since he is not included there, it must be wondered why and what has disqualified him. As historian James M. Smith notes, “There are many, many founding fathers in the story of America’s Revolution and unfortunately only a few are really known to the general public. Yet without those who are less known, there would have been no revolution. One of those men was the official secretary of the Continental Congress, Charles Thomson.”[1]

Charles Thomson was the lone figure at the center of the Continental Congress through the fifteen crucial years of Revolution up to the adoption of the Federal Constitution, 1774 through 1789. The glaring absence of Thomson’s definitive history of the American Revolution has furnished a contentious discussion among scholars focusing on him. Some biographers accept Thomson’s reasons for not publishing his history with little editorial comment.[2] Others can only mourn the “irreparable” loss of what never reached completion.[3] Still others find it “doubly difficult to forgive” that he should deprive future generations of the truth when the entire era deserves a thorough demystification, a labor they recognize only Thomson could have accomplished.[4] Some even take the task upon themselves, so driven are they by the loss of it, to reconstruct what that apparently destroyed manuscript ought to have said.[5] The literature is sharply divided between condemnation and exoneration.

Condemnation, as seen in monographs like Schlenther’s A Patriot’s Pursuit, is undeserved. Thomson was not negligent as a record keeper or historian. In fact, he contributed significantly to historiography. He was anything but an inconsequential, passive observer. From removing names out of Ramsey’s History of the American Revolution to preserving the content of the Congressional Journals, Thomson was a central force behind the collection and preservation of the earliest primary and secondary source materials on the Revolutionary and Confederation eras. The Journals of the Continental Congress and the thousands of related documents would not exist had he failed to preserve and protect them. He is neither a “secondary figure of the Revolution” nor among the “young men of the Revolution” (as Elkins and McKitrick describe the generation who led the 1787 constitution).[6] Rather, as Maier asserts, Thomson, like Samuel Adams, stands among the “primary figures of a distinct and early part of the Revolution . . . for reasons that have little to do with their objective historical importance.”[7]Without Thomson, there would have been no Revolution.

The Costs of Creating America’s Prime Ministry

Thomson kept in the main current of decisions; in fact, he helped form them as America’s “Prime Minister.”[8] It was his name alongside President John Hancock’s which appeared on the first copy of the Declaration of Independence circulated in America. He designed the Great Seal of the United States. He exercised remarkable discretionary authority over the keeping of Congressional Journals, maintained a wide and regular official correspondence, authenticated communiques and dispatches, authorized war documents, served on vital committees, safeguarded secret records, and stood as the link between the nation and the States.[9]

He certainly did not serve for regular pay, which came in unsteady intervals, or (as the First Congress appropriated) in nothing more than a silver bowl at the end of his service in October 1774.[10] He seemed to envision a broader role for the Secretary’s office, a department that would have combined powers of a Home Secretary coordinating between the executive departments and legislative committees of the young federal government. He also seemed unaware of the political risk of leaving New York for Mount Vernon just as they the new Congress was to decide its officers, as Thomson confided in his letter to Senator Robert Morris on April 7, 1789:

I cannot express the anxiety I feel on the determination I had taken to retire to private life while so many of my friends whom I love and esteem express such an earnest desire that I should continue in a public line. I am afraid they rate my abilities too high. Sure I am they rate them much higher than I do myself and more than they deserve. But such as they are to shew that I am not unwilling to devote them to the public service, I will make this proposition: that the keeping of the great seal with the duties thereto annexed and to be annexed, and the custody and care of the papers which belonged to the late Congress be committed to me, this office to be made the depository of the acts laws and archives of Congress; that the same salary be continued to me and my style be Secretary of the Senate and of the United States or Congress . . . If this proposition be approved by the Senate and acceptable I am ready to serve them to the utmost of my power, at least till the present government be organized and begin to take its due tone. If otherwise I must pursue my first determination and retire to the private walk but with an anxious wish and most earnest prayer that the measures of the present government may prove effectual to secure the tranquility and promote the happiness and glory of the United States.[11]

It seems therefore that Thomson left town at the worst time for his personal fortunes, simultaneously the most advantageous for his enemies. He was thus deprived by the unrecorded vote of a narrow margin that conspired to exact recompense for old incidents during the Continental Congress years, sore spots like the Silas Deane and Arthur Lee affair along with old grievances going back to Thomson’s clash with John Adams over what the Congressional journals should include, not to mention the Secretary’s problems with President Henry Laurens. It seemed these old offenses were finally coming home to roost. This revival of the animus by Lee, Adams, and their friends against Thomson gave them the opportunity to block once and for all his apparent political resilience. Thus, it was not some character deficiency on Thomson’s part—aside from what Senator Maclay attributes to Thomson’s relative ambivalence—but unpaid grievances by Congressional enemies that denied him a vital role in federal office, relegating him to an undeserved and forgotten place in the shadows.[12]

One More Push to Craft America’s Office of the “Home Secretary”

Nevertheless, Thomson carried out his responsibilities to the end. He steadfastly supported President Washington, remained the reliable protégé of Franklin, and continued the provocative correspondent of Jefferson. He avidly supported the arguments by Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay for a strong political alternative to the Confederation, advocating with Jay for the end of slavery, an institution that he reminded Jefferson continued to be “a blot in our character.”[13] Yet, when it was in President Washington’s power to name him to a cabinet post, he did not. The one who could have been an unshakable asset to the administration—especially as voluntary federal service was at a premium, only to increase with time—was not even given the opportunity to decline an offer to serve in the executive branch, an offer altogether absent in Washington’s letter to Thomson of April 14, 1789. It was that same day Thomson, appointed by the newly-seated federal Senate, arrived at Mount Vernon to escort Washington to his inauguration in New York City.[14] The Inauguration was especially humiliating to Thomson, who wrote: “I was struck with surprise at being passed by unnoticed in the arrangement made by the committee . . . To what cause this has been owing I am altogether a stranger.”[15] Thomson included this in his resignation to Congress on April 30, which he never sent. Instead, he dispatched his notice of retirement to President Washington in July 1789, only after Thomson’s conception of a centralized “Home Office” fell short of passage in Congress on July 23.[16] Washington, sensible to this slight to the Secretary, wrote to him the following day that while Congress had been remiss in gratitude to Thomson,

The present age does so much justice to the unsullied reputation with which you have always conducted yourself in the execution of the duties of your office, and posterity will find your name so honourably connected with the verification of such a multitude of astonishing facts, that my single suffrage would add little to the illustration of your merits . . . Accept, then, this serious declaration, that your services have been important as your patriotism was distinguished; and enjoy that best of all rewards, the consciousness of having done your duty well.[17]

Skeptically read, this was salt in the wound for an injured public servant, but it gave some explanation of why Washington did not extend an invitation to the Cabinet. Thomson’s integrity remained unimpeachable in the estimation of John Jay of New York. “No Person in the World is so perfectly acquainted with the Rise, Conduct, and Conclusion of the American Revolution, as yourself,” Jay later wrote to him.[18]Jay wrote again to Thomson after more than two years on the Supreme Court, offering some consolation:

As we enter this, our new beginning in the history of our nation and have reflected on the fact that you are not part of our new government, I know that you are disappointed in that omission. However, upon reflection I wonder if that may not turn out for the best. My friend, you have been at the very center, the heart of our revolution from the beginning to the end . . . When others have absconded and abandoned their duties, you have remained at your post. During the fifteen years of our government in which the Continental Congress was our government and led us through the revolution and early days of peace and hard times you have never failed your duty.[19]

Saving the Papers of the Revolution: Crafting the Story

Maybe it was for the best that Thomson, so closely associated with the Continental Congress of the 1780s, avoided close association with the turmoil of the Washington administration. But Jay was not done. There remained a silver lining in Thomson’s forced retirement. Even though it offered no guarantee of inclusion in favorable memory for posterity, it gave an opportunity to supply what early historiography of the Revolution was lacking. Jay continued,

As you know a number of persons, none of which have been as faithful from the beginning to the end, have written histories of our revolution. I have found them all wanting, either in completeness, candor, or truthfulness. They are almost all full of faction and point of view. You, my friend, who have been at the very center of it all, from the beginning to the end, can set the record straight. I am persuaded that heaven in its mysterious ways, have spared you further employ to your country in order that you may perform more great and lasting service. You, my friend, should be the one to tell the story of our struggles as a nation. Only you were there from the beginning to the end, only you have the reputation to tell the story as it really happened without regard to faction or personality. Do this, my friend, do this great service for your country and posterity.[20]

Thomson had not evaded this difficult task. Back in 1785, he admitted, he already had a thousand folio pages underway for his “secret historical memoirs,” encompassing what was omitted from the Congressional journals, a manuscript he continued to build upon in retirement. David Ramsey consulted him continuously in his own two-volume History of the American Revolution, published in 1789.[21] Thomson actively censored Ramsey’s history, excising names that would be compromised by inclusion.[22] In 1786, Thomson even wrote a seventeen-page review of Ramsey’s account, the original now lost.[23]

Then something changed his mind in the 1790s. Perhaps it was the solidification of the two political camps around Hamilton and Jefferson. Moreover, the historiographical narratives that began circulating, as inadequate as they were, served a higher good when the Republic needed continuity of a gilded legend over fuel for disillusionment and division. His decision to destroy his manuscript solidified his decision to consistently decline any urge to write a “real” account. “No, no . . . I will not,” Thomson went on to declare, giving his reasons to Dr. Benjamin Rush (who also urged him to compose such a history), which Rush reported to John Adams in 1812, adding his own editorial comments to Thomson’s reply:

I could not tell the truth without giving great offense. Let the world admire our patriots and heroes. Their supposed talents and virtues (where they were so) by commanding imitation will serve the cause of patriotism and our country. Perhaps they may adopt the qualities that have been ascribed to them, and thus good may be done. I shall not undeceive future generations.’ I concur in this sentiment, and therefore I earnestly request that you will destroy this letter as soon as you read it. I do not even wish it to be known that General W. was deficient in that mark of true greatness . . . the talent to forgive.[24]

Perhaps this was less a stubborn refusal to correct falsehoods than a justification that it was not Thomson’s place to demolish reputations in so honest a history as he had written. His would be a lone voice crying in the wilderness with few readers inclined to take him favorably let alone seriously.

Thomson’s Choice Not to Write His History

If, on the other hand, his history had the power to alter impressions, the future could get much darker than it already was. Joanne Freeman has well documented that disturbing turn for American politics.[25] As Thomson noted, it would not necessarily be beneficial to attempt that coup for truth and orchestrate constructive results. It could also circumvent what good may yet be possible despite the deception under which Americans remained. The very careful balance—which some today call “surrender”—worked out because leaders were prepared to sacrifice something for still larger causes, outcomes that were not easily replicable. Washington, not one given to grand hyperbole, considered the work at Philadelphia in the summer of 1787 nothing short of a “miracle.”[26]

Such miracles were not waiting in the wings on subsequent attempts. If the “great men” were dismantled, Americans may not have been inclined to continue the constitutional experiment at all while what took its place promised less not more in return. If Providence had wrought success inspite of, not because of, leadership by less than wise and able men, Americans might take their chances with another revolution under no greater circumspection, led by lesser characters and baser motives than those of the First Continental Congress of 1774, however imperfect it was. Perfection was hardly more attainable in 1815 than it was forty years prior.

Thomson did not destroy everything he wrote. Two companion manuscripts on Pennsylvania politics during the critical developments in 1774 and 1775 survived destruction. They underscore that the old Secretary “possessed a rare talent for vivid personal characterization and shrewd historical analysis.”[27] As James M. Smith has observed, Thomson anticipated the critical historiography of British (and American) attitudes toward the indigenous peoples of the North American continent in his writing, so he offers a welcome voice to the record. It was Thomson who wrote:

It is a matter of no small consequence to know the ground of complaints made by the Indians, that in case they are false, justice may be done to the characters of those who are injured thereby; and if true, that proper remedies may be applied, and that the Crown of Great Britain may not, by the avarice and wickedness of a few be deprived of the friendship and alliance of those nations who are capable of being our most useful friends, or most dangerous enemies.

It could be wished, for the sake of truth, that access had been allowed to the minutes of Council, which are the only public records kept of the transactions between the Government of Pennsylvania and the Indians, or the minutes of several conferences with the Indians had been duly taken, and regularly published, or that all the deeds granted by the Indians had been recorded in the Rolls-Office, as they ought to have been: had these been done, the matter might have been set in a fuller and clearer light. However, by perusing the following extracts taken from such treaties as could be met with, from the votes of the assembly, from the deeds as have been recorded, and from other authentic papers and letters, it will be clearly seen whether the complaints of the Indians are only invented to palliate their late conduct; whether they are objects of party; or whether their pretensions are reasonable and their demands consistent with justice.[28]

Thomson reflected further on what differentiated the Anglo-Americans from the French, with astonishing clarity, a pointedness befitting current historiographical debates. Of British North America, he declared:

In order to get their lands, drive them as far from them as possible, nor seem to care what becomes of them, provided they get them removed out of the way of their permanent settlements; whereas the French, considering that they can never want land in America, who enjoy the friendship of the Indians, use all the means in their power to draw as many into their alliance as possible; and to secure their affection, invite as many as can to come and live near them, and to make their towns as near the French settlements as they can. By this means they have drawn off a great number of Mohawks, and other Six Nation tribes and having settled them in towns along the banks of the river St. Lawrence, have so secured them to their interest, that even these, they can command about six or seven hundred fighting men . . . a purchase of land was made by the proprietors of Pennsylvania which ruined our interest with the Indians and from then, especially those westward of us and drove them entirely into the hands of the French . . . By this the lands where the Shawnese and Ohio Indians lived and the hunting grounds of the Delaware, the Mohicans and the Tuteloes were included and consequently these nations had nothing to expect but to see themselves in in a short time, at the rate the English settled, violently driven from their lands, as the Delaware had formally been, and reduced to leave their country and seek settlement they knew not where. This engaged many of the people to give ear to the French, who declared that they did not come to deprive the Indians of their land but to hinder the English from settling westward of the Alleghany hills.[29]

Perhaps this frankness is why President Washington later decided not to task Thomson with addressing the indigenous tribes on behalf of the Americans after all.[30] It makes the loss of Thomson’s “secret historical memoirs” even more painful for historians. Even so, it is not without good reason that Thomson chose to destroy his manuscript. It seems the decisively divided parties threatened to undo the ideals of the Revolution, and so warranted destruction of his pages.

Considering the Reasons for Thomson’s Neglected Place Among the Founders

It is remarkable that one so central as Thomson became so utterly unknown in American memory. Why is he forgotten? It may be that his specialized place so central to the early years of Revolution, like the place of Samuel Adams, is now the reason for his marginalization in the shadow of the “young men of the Revolution,” as Elkins and McKitrick dub the Framers of the 1787 Constitution.[31] According to Schlenther, Thomson left his revolutionary roots and so crafted a comfortable position over continuing radical politics. This claim is not persuasive to all scholars.[32] By declining to complete his history of the Revolution as his contemporaries advised him to do, he may, it is argued, deserve his obscurity. Still, most of the remembered figures of the founding were not historians of it. It has less to do with his steadfast friends and more to do with how effective, even spiteful, his enemies were. The fact remains that Charles Thomson was abruptly excluded from federal office and unceremoniously retired for his remaining thirty-five years. For friends like John Jay, this was an egregious mistake.

Another possible cause for his being neglected may stem from his association with the weak, and often inept, Congress, especially through the demoralizing 1780s and fractious 1790s. In this light, perhaps Thomson’s withdrawal can be seen as a fitting end to a career rife with self-inflicted political wounds. None had quite been where Thomson stood through it all. Presiding officers came and went. So did Congressional delegations. He took no part in the attempts to replace General Washington but also knew the score, had the ability to name names, retained full access to the mountain of documentary records, and had the backing to have it printed. He lacked only the will.

The omission of Thomson’s own memoir for posterity disappoints historians, to be sure, who grieve its absence and fault Thomson for preserving the mythic narrative of America’s Founding. The one the Delaware knew as Wegh-wu-law-mo-end (“the man who tells the truth”),[33] fell prey to a refusal to mercilessly expose his enemies, even when it may have been self-serving. When he had it in his power to correct the record and demystify the era, “the man who tells the truth” stepped back from doing so. This determination of one reputed to be so honest should give us pause.

Thomson’s place in America’s historical memory deserves closer examination. His alleged disservice to historiography must be weighed against his definitive preservation of some 50,000 pages of materials catalogued in the National Archives, “now inventoried in the five-volume Papers of the Continental Congress.”[34] It is unfair to claim his role leaves only a deficit in the documentary record. The resentment by John Adams, the Lees, and their allies that traced back to Congressional disputes over diplomatic correspondence seemed to spill over into Thomson’s unilateral authority as steward of the official record. The Journals of the Continental Congress exist in the first place primarily because ofThomson’s efforts.

Thomson’s reasons for keeping all the minutiae of Congressional debates out of the written record in favor of what was finally adopted was as much about the legitimacy of decision-making as it was about the credibility of decision makers, many of whom were vital to the new federal government convening in New York by 1789. A number of those officers, seeking to distance themselves from their previous roles in Congress, found it easier to affiliate Thomson with the error-laden past. Thomson’s concerns, grounded in serious anxieties for the young country increasingly rending itself into two deepening party factions, are not insignificant simply because the nation weathered the dangers. His reluctance to publish myth-shattering revelations of the nation’s formative years may have prevented greater harm than realized by some historians now. The young republic lived on a fragile thread. Perhaps it has lasted more than two centuries with enough strength to forbear exposure to its mythic beginnings becauseThomson refrained from the temptations of deconstruction in his time. His self-denying forbearance is what prevailed. It is doubtful whether an unleashed spirit of vengeance would have commended him any higher in the estimate of posterity. Spewing venom on one’s contemporaries often backfired then as it does now.

Thomson, through it all, stood by Washington, Franklin, Jefferson, John Dickinson, and even John Adams in spite of theirshortcomings because, it seems, he understood the republic’s need for them, a need rising above the warts very much on display in the last decade of that century. Pointing out flaws in detail would have been an obvious thing to do but detrimental to future Americans, free and enslaved, in the long term. It becomes apparent, then, that without Thomson not only might there have been no American Revolution nor a documentary record preserved of those critical years. His role in preserving thousands of pages of Continental Congress records far outweighs the absence of an expose that could have easily derailed the American experiment in its infancy. Wisdom is not necessarily vindicated by satisfying our intellectual curiosities but by all of wisdom’s children: actions, motives, and results taken together.[35]

 

[1]James M. Smith, “Charles Thomson and the Delaware,” Journal of the American Revolution, May 23, 2022, www.allthingsliberty.com/2022/05/charles-thomson-and-the-delaware/.

[2]J. Edwin Hendricks, Charles Thomson and the Making of a New Nation, 1729-1824 (Rutherford, NJ: Associated University Presses, 1979), 188-189.

[3]Lewis R. Harley, The Life of Charles Thomson, Secretary of the Continental Congress and Translator of the Bible from the Greek(Philadelphia: George W. Jacobs, 1900), 158-160.

[4]Boyd Stanley Schlenther, Charles Thomson, A Patriot’s Pursuit (Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1990), 228.

[5]James Mitchell Smith, Undeceived: A Political History of the American Revolution as Inspired by Charles Thomson, Secretary of the Continental Congress, 1774-1789, Volume 1 (Columbia, SC: Createspace, 2018), 8-10.

[6]Pauline Maier, The Old Revolutionaries: Political Lives in the Age of Samuel Adams (New York: W. W. Norton), 1990, 280.

[7]Ibid., xxii.

[8]Fred S. Rolater, “Charles Thomson, ‘Prime Minister’ of the United States,” The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, Vol. 103, No. 3 (July 1977): 322f.

[9]Kenneth R. Bowling, “Good-by ‘Charle’: The Lee-Adams Interest and The Political Demise of Charles Thomson, Secretary of Congress, 1774-1789,” Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, Vol. 100, No. 3 (July 1976), 314-335.

[10]J. Edwin Hendricks, Charles Thomson and the Making of a New Nation, 1729-1824, (Cranbury, NJ: Associated University Presses, 1979), 135.

[11]Edmund C. Burnett, ed. Letters of Members of the Continental Congress. Vol. 8 (Washington: Carnegie Institute, 1936), 829-830. It appears that Army quartermaster (and James Otis, Jr.’s younger brother) Samuel A. Otis of Massachusetts had been the most eager lobbyist for Senate clerk, though not the first choice, and was positioning to cement the votes by early April, with the active help, it seems, of Thomson’s adversaries like incoming Vice President John Adams, Elbridge Gerry and Tristram Dalton, with South Carolinian Ralph Izard and Virginian Richard Henry Lee, who employed their efforts to divert just enough votes in favor of Thomson – in coincidence with the absence of Thomson and his stalwart ally, Senator George Read – to prevent his selection. They moved the day after Thomson was dispatched from New York to escort President-elect Washington from Mount Vernon to his inauguration (Bowling, “Good-by ‘Charle’,” 319-321).

[12]Maclay confided to his diary on April 29, 1789 that Thomson was most certainly “ill used” by the whole glaring oversight that excluded him in the inauguration plans and future involvement. Kenneth R. Bowling and Helen E. Veit, eds., The Diary of William Maclay and Other Notes on Senate Debates (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University, 1988), 10n16.

[13]Schlenther, Charles Thomson: A Patriot’s Pursuit, 201.

[14]George Washington, “Reply to Charles Thomson.” Washington Writings (New York: Library of America, 1997), 729; David S. Heidler and Jeanne T. Heidler, Washington’s Circle: The Creation of the President (New York: Random House, 2015), 10-13, 436n14.

[15]Thomas Patrick Chorlton, The First American Republic, 1774-1789: The First Fourteen American Presidents Before Washington (Bloomington: AuthorHouse, 2012), 618.

[16]Ibid., 618-619.

[17]Ibid., 619.

[18]Elizabeth M. Nuxoll, The Selected Papers of John Jay, Vol. 3, 1782-1784 (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2013), 435.

[19]Smith, Undeceived, 8-10.

[20]Ibid.

[21]Ibid., 160.

[22]Maier, The Old Revolutionaries, xiv.

[23]Smith, Undeceived, 160.

[24]Hendricks, Charles Thomson and the Making of a New Nation, 189; The Letters of Benjamin Rush, Lyman H. Butterfield, ed., 2 vols. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1951), 1123.

[25]Joanne B. Freeman, Affairs of Honor: National Politics in the New Republic (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2001).

[26]Catherine Drinker Bowen, Miracle at Philadelphia: The Story of the Constitutional Convention, May to September 1787 (New York: The American Past, 1986), xvi, xxiii.

[27]Eugene R. Sheridan and John M. Murrin, eds., Congress at Princeton: Being the Letters of Charles Thomson to Hannah Thomson, June-October 1783 (Princeton: Princeton University Library, 1985), xxi-xxii; Charles Thomson, “Early Days of the Revolution in Philadelphia,” The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography2, no. 4 (1878), 411-423.

[28]James M. Smith, “Charles Thomson and the Delaware.”

[29]Ibid.

[30]Richard H. Kohn, Eagle and Sword: The Beginnings of the Military Establishment in America (New York: The Free Press, 1985), 151.

[31]Maier, The Old Revolutionaries, 280.

[32]Douglas M. Arnold, “Review of Charles Thomson: A Patriot’s Pursuitby Boyd Stanley Schlenther,” William & Mary Quarterly 48, no. 3 (July 1991), 501-503.

[33]Bowling, “Good-by ‘Charle’,” 330: Thomson was arguably “the Founding Father most committed to humane treatment for the Indian.”

[34]Chorlton, The First American Republic, 2012, 591.

[35]A reference to Luke 7:35, ESV.

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