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Cooper's Speculations on a New Moral America in the Novels of the 1840s

William Owen
(Ryerson Polytechnic Institute, Toronto)

Presented at the 11th Cooper Seminar, James Fenimore Cooper: His Country and His Art at the State University of New York College at Oneonta, July, 1997

©1999, James Fenimore Cooper Society and the College at Oneonta
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Originally published in James Fenimore Cooper: His Country and His Art (No. 11), Papers from the 1997 Cooper Seminar (No. 11), The State University of New York College at Oneonta. Oneonta, New York. Hugh C. MacDougall, editor. (pp. 86-92)

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Ever since John P. McWilliams's Political Justice, a comprehensive account of Cooper's political thought, it has been assumed that the novelist's commitment to the Constitution and its institutions was firm and life-long. Despite his expressed awareness in his earliest works of what was being lost -- the wilderness -- or what was being ignored -- the rights of the aboriginals -- during the development of the country, Cooper seemed to conclude that these were necessary sacrifices for the sake of the country's progress. He seemed to credit the law for America's advance.

What I wish to discuss today is the author's profound change of thinking in the 1840s about public values and manners in the country. I suggest that his concerns about the state of the nation became so great that they led him to embark on a speculative inquiry in the novels of the 1840s to locate a means other than the Constitution of ensuring an America worthy of the founding fathers.1

First, let us review briefly the signs of change in the author's thinking as it developed in the 1830s. After his return from Europe, instead of exploring issues of the nation's past and future, Cooper was given to lecturing his countrymen in such works as The American Democrat on the importance of American social values and political principles in the present and the need to know and practice them. As David Herbert Donald has shown in his recent biography of Lincoln, the future President had similar worries about the aimless direction of the country at this time (see pp. 80-82). Cooper summed up his complaints about the behaviour of his countrymen, their provincialism and their lack of independence, in his satire Home as Found. The concern that stimulated his rethinking of American politics was his strong belief that the political institutions were prone to manipulation. His disillusionment developed into a fear for the future of the young republic. In The Two Admirals (l842), a story of the Jacobite Rebellion, he suggested that a country emerging from a Revolution, whether the Glorious or American one, faced the danger of reverting to the former political system and values.

My thesis is that Cooper thought that the institutions of America, the law primarily, established to preserve the tenets of the American Constitution, were manipulated so often and so effectively, that they lacked inherent morality even if they retained social and political force. Consequently, he ruled out the possibility of their reform. He expressed this belief succinctly in The Two Admirals: "no institutions can be invented, which a short working does not show will be perverted from their original intention" (80). Thus, he set himself the task of finding an alternative to the institutions of society. His first recourse is to turn to the private and domestic spheres of society. Initially, he entrusts the individual with the responsibility to act morally and ethically. But his own reservations about the variousness of human nature cause him to look for a more dependable source of morality. He locates it in the family, particularly in the influence of the mother. When he imagines the possibility of the moral individual becoming a leader of like-minded people, the author hopes the populace can bypass the institutions and still function as a moral society.

The profound shift in Cooper's ideas about the way society should function is made possible, I suggest, by his apparent adoption of the concepts of Common Sense philosophy. Known as the Scottish philosophy, Common Sense ideas as developed by such philosophers as Thomas Reid and Dugald Stewart were influential in eighteenth century America. As Carry Wills has shown, Jefferson used them in drafting the Declaration of Independence. Common Sense ideas were also important in early nineteenth century America. As D.H. Meyer has shown, they were an important part of the moral philosophy courses in fourth year university curricula. While there is no direct evidence of Cooper's having read or studied the Common Sense philosophers on moral issues, their works help illuminate many of the ideas he advances in this period. However, we do know that Common Sense writings on aesthetic issues contributed to Cooper's art.2

Common Sense's separation of moral values from the law is perhaps the most important idea featured in Cooper's inquiry. This separation is made possible, according to Thomas Reid, because "the moral faculty or conscience which God hath planted in every mans breast distinguishes right conduct from wrong" (Practical Ethics, 179). Thus the individual possesses an innate moral common sense that enables him or her to act morally and ethically in daily life. Moreover, he or she can become an autonomous agent and act without guidance from the State. Presumably, the individual will fulfil the triad of duties articulated by Common Sense philosophy: duty to oneself, to others and to God. Also of importance to Cooper in the ideas of Scottish Common Sense philosophers is their promotion of nurture and a principle of sociability that paid attention to the way humans interact. The Common Sense emphasis on affections helped to provide, as Jay Fliegelman points out, a new paradigm of social relations (271) that corresponds to Cooper's ideas.

[87] Cooper worked quickly towards these positions in the first few novels of the decade but wavered in his commitment to them as the decade advanced. His cautious approach is best indicated in the new uses to which he put old and familiar genres. For The Pathfinder (1840), the first novel written after Home as Found, the author chose to revive Leatherstocking, the character in his work best known for independence and integrity. While many critics have regarded their primary interpretative task in reading the novel as establishing The Pathfinder's relationship to the other Leatherstocking tales, an alternative approach is one suggested by Donald A. Ringe's observation that the novel has more in common with Home as Found and the novels contiguous to it (61). Pathfinder's dilemmas in the novel, set on Lake Ontario during the French and Indian Wars, are surprisingly similar to those of Home as Found -- how to deal with the perplexing social rite of marriage and how to cope with the manipulation of institutions, represented in this case by the military rather than the law. Pathfinder's first decision is whether to accede to his old friend Dunham's request to marry his daughter Mabel. Natty finally recognizes that this would have led to an unsuitable marriage. His second, and more serious, concern is whether to take Sergeant Muir's advice to leave a strategically important island in the Thousand Islands. While Pathfinder does not know that following the advice will allow the French and Indian enemies to take uncontested control of the region, he resists Muir's devious suggestion. In both cases, Dunham and Muir have asserted a false authority to gain their own ends. What Pathfinder learns is the importance of trusting his own instincts, acting upon what the Common Sense philosophers called a duty to oneself. We are also aware that Cooper has focused attention upon the personal rather than national issues as he did in the first three novels of the series. It is small wonder that Robert Zoellner noted that The Pathfinder broke the paradigm established in the first three Leatherstocking Tales.

To expand on the significance of Pathfinder's experience, Cooper devises a debate between Cap and Pathfinder in which Pathfinder expostulates that the individual possesses innately, or develops, abilities, called "gifts," that should be recognized as unique.3 This idea allows the individual to become equal with others and important in his own domain. As a means of defining character, gifts challenge the validity and artificiality of other means, such as class, laws and political labels, commonly used to describe character.4 Because Pathfinder's disobedience of authority comes from his belief in his "gifts", the novelist endorses his resistance, a significant change from his position in the earlier Leatherstocking tales and even in a work as recent as The American Democrat which gave primacy to laws. "Laws," he writes, "though varying with circumstances, possess a common character, being formed on that consciousness of right, which God has bestowed in order that men may judge between good and evil" (75). Notice that this statement is in language that is almost identical to Reid's articulation of the individual's consciousness of right but the agency responsible is very different. Cap, however, opposes Natty's views, arguing that authority must be respected since hierarchies reflect the various levels of human abilities. When Cap contends that his ocean going skills subsume sailing abilities learned on the lake and demands that Jasper turn the ship over to him, the near disaster that ensues demonstrates that society's use of hierarchies often fails to regard individuals in their true light, thwarting their talents deliberately or accidentally. The argument between Cap and Pathfinder resembles another debate, a contemporary national one, concerning the respective roles of the government and the individual. According to Rush Welter, the conservatives claimed government was necessary to curtail the individual while the Democrats demanded self-government (187).

In The Deerslayer (1841), Cooper consolidates his views of the individual. After demonstrating the level of personal achievements in the story of Christopher Columbus in Mercedes of Castile (1840), he depicts an individual, Deerslayer, as a model of "the highest principles (7)." His strategy is to concentrate on the best qualities that define the individual as an autonomous agent. In order to do so, he cleans his narrative canvas of a number of contingent factors such as social and historical forces by creating a setting in nature.5 While Terence Martin claims that the novel depicts the unrealized moral values of the Leatherstocking series (69), Cooper's concerns in the 1840s lead him to develop Deerslayer as an individual with a set of values, that, if not totally different, are often new in relation to those of Leatherstocking in previous volumes. Deerslayer's first look at the lake bears significantly on his new values. Announced in Natty's words as "my first lake" (23) and "an edication in itself," (36) the effect on his character is profound. Initially, his reaction is an aesthetic one, but soon Natty declares that the lake's solemn solitude and sweet repose "inculcate a soothing spirit" (47). This soothing spirit introduces the quality of restraint that marks Leatherstocking's actions in the novel. The influence stems from a different conception of nature from that present in the wilderness of the earlier Tales. As a means of presenting the origins of Leatherstocking's exemplary nature, the experience indicates that society has no hegemony on the creation of moral values.

The focus on Deerslayer's character has been described often by the critics.6 Marius Bewley first posited the importance of the contrast between the flaws in Hurry Harry and Leatherstocking's virtues (96) and Geoffrey Rans has since defined the allegorical depiction of Deerslayer's character by drawing up a long list of the values exemplified in Deerslayer's actions (219). What is important is the uses to which these values are put. His ethical control or self-government acquires a dimension not present in the earlier novels. It applies to moral and ethical issues, not only to [88] hunting and woodcraft practices. When Hurry Harry discusses with Leatherstocking the gossip and rumours surrounding the daughters of Thomas Hutter, Natty has to counsel him on the need to be respectful of people's reputations. Even in the killing of Le Loup Cervier, Natty is unusually restrained, giving the aboriginal every opportunity to retreat, and he responds only when the attack is obvious. He demonstrates the moral lessons learned from the first initiation rather than reaffirming frontier values which are historically grounded.

While Leatherstocking's ethical and moral nature has received much attention, it must be remembered that Cooper devotes most of the novel to Deerslayer's interaction with the other characters on the lake. During the author's new focus on social relationships, he delineates the manner by which Deerslayer performs his duties to others, the second of the Common Sense principles. As well, Deerslayer demonstrates an ability to lead others. Cooper is thereby suggesting that there will always be the need for guidance in a cohesive society but this direction should not necessarily be provided by institutions. As Natty's personal values are different from and superior to those of most other persons, so is his form of leadership. Natty becomes a leader through others' acceptance of his abilities rather than achieving it through the hierarchical structures that prevail in society.

In the narrative, Cooper's critique of existing social and political relationships focuses on the patriarch who is often equated with the law. While Cooper had reservations about the patriarch in earlier novels, Hutter forms the most corrosive portrait of the father in Cooper's works. In his eagerness to go a scalping mission with Hurry Harry, Hutter overlooks his moral responsibilities to serve and protect his daughters. Furthermore, his justification of scalping because society pays bounties for scalps serves to indict the law rather than provide an excuse for him. The girls are his harshest critics. Judith, for instance, says, "I almost wish I had no father" (269). The daughters also point to the alternative to the patriarch by their love for their mother, whom they recall with fondness. Even Natty, supporting Cooper's new emphasis, testifies to the influence of his mother when he enters the Hutter houseboat: "the sight brought back to his mind a rush of childish recollections, and he lingered in the room with a tenderness of feeling to which he had long been a stranger. He bethought him of his mother" (43). The words contrast those of The Prairie where Leatherstocking recalled his father: "and well do I remember that I tried the virtues of the first rifle that I ever bore, after such a march from the door of my father to the forest" (250). The switch of remembered parents is a small but significant indicator of the change in Cooper's values. It is noteworthy that it is the father who is now the absent parent as a new paradigm of the family featuring the mother is created.

A clear example of how individuals in society benefit from the change to new values emanating from kinship and the family occurs after Deerslayer is asked by Hutter to act as the girls' guardian. In fulfilling the new responsibilities placed upon him, Deerslayer changes the definition of his relationship to the girls as that of "an equal and a friend"(160). Given these terms of the relationship, his virtuous character can influence another directly rather than through structures. The beneficial effect of Natty's qualities is demonstrated in the dramatic transformation of Judith's character. Attributing the change to Natty, she thinks better of herself and becomes more confident.7

When Hutter dies, the opportunity for new social arrangements occurs. The small group of persons at the lake are from the same generation, equal and free to make their own individual decisions. When Natty is captured by the tribe, their unusual demands test the cohesion of the group. The nature of the requests -- certain individuals are told to marry members of the tribe -- means that the scene should be interpreted allegorically. The surrounding tribes represent the pressures of society intruding upon the freedom of individuals to make their own decisions and choose their own values. Deerslayer's response to the situation reveals Cooper's view of the relationship between the individual and the family and the individual and his own values. As Judith, Hist-oh-Hist and Chingachgook each reject the demands of the tribe, Deerslayer praises them for resisting the social order. He asserts that natural feelings and personal imperatives should prevail. To oppose society's structure based on power and tradition, he privileges the values of family, friendship and kinship stressed in the novel. At the top of this new set of values is marriage, since it means the continuation of the family, and thus it is placed ahead of friendship (434).To reinforce his commitment to these new values, Leatherstocking bequeaths his property to Hist-oh-Hist, the potential mother in the group. This contrasts with Natty's decision to pass on his legacy to Hard Heart in The Prairie, a novel whose values still support the patriarch.

The primacy of the family in The Deerslayer is further demonstrated by Leatherstocking's willingness to sacrifice himself. As a sacrifice involves an exchange, Deerslayer's act signifies that the individual is ready to give up his life to preserve the family since the individual cannot perpetuate his values. On another level, the act reaffirms his ethical refusal to accept the compromise of one's values since to bow to social pressure would mean the death of the individual.8

The close of the action of The Deerslayer shows that Cooper reached an impasse in his thinking. Even though he could identify the character values he wanted, the source of these values in the family and the leadership qualities he desired, he still felt that he needed to transfer these to a wider society. The stalemate between Leatherstocking and [89] Rivenoak in their last scene together shows that even a tolerant leader of society such as Rivenoak cannot completely hold the base instincts of the populace at bay or effect a change in their traditions. When the group at the lake is rescued by the military, the brutal slaughter that ensues is to some degree a sign of Cooper's own frustration, although it amounts to an indictment of another institution.

In his next three novels, Cooper's pessimistic attitude continues in his presentation of three individuals with leadership abilities who exhibit a fatal flaw- self-centeredness. In The Two Admirals Richard Bluewater, an esteemed Admiral, is prepared to become a traitor for political beliefs he held early in his life but let lie dormant until the Jacobite Rebellion. At the last moment he steps back from treachery when he recalls the loyalty he owes his friend Sir Gervaise Oakes. His deathbed testimony to the excellence of his mother indicates his guilt at betraying her values (411). Similarly, in Wyandotté, (1843), Saucy Nick, also known as Wyandotté, is torn between the damage caused to his self-image as a courageous warrior by the blows of Captain Willoughby, his master and former military leader, and his gratitude to the mistress of the house, Mrs. Willoughby for saving his life from smallpox. In giving in to the hatred for Willoughby by killing him he also is responsible for her subsequent death. What these figures illustrate is the neglect of their duties to others. In fulfilling what they regard as their duties to themselves, they commit the error defined by the Scottish Common Sense philosopher Dugald Stewart of resolving duty to oneself as self-love (Works 6, 219-20).

Wyandotté's other story's account of Joel Strides provides another reason why Cooper preferred the new affectional paradigm. Strides, who leads a uprising against his employer, Captain Willoughby during the Revolutionary war, is an example of the demagogue who misuses the slogans of American democracy for his own selfish purposes. In pointing out that language can be used to mislead, Cooper demonstrates why he has turned to the unspoken but authentic truths of the family as an alternative. The apparent reason of the laws can be manipulated but the bonds of the family cannot. A quotation from Dugald Stewart stresses the formative value of family relationships:

Nor are these affections of parent and child useful solely for the preservation of the race. They form the heart in infancy for its more extensive social duties, and gradually prepare it for those affections which constitute the character of the good citizen, not to mention that, in every period of life, it is our private attachments which furnish the most powerful of all incentives to patriotism and heroic virtue. (Works 6, 173)

However, the author's questions about the moral integrity of many individuals leads him to consider religion as a stronger transforming force than the family. In The Wing-and-Wing, (1842), Raoul Yvard, a pirate, acts outside the laws of the nation and of God. His one commitment is to Ghita Caraccioli but she demands he convert to Catholicism before she will consider marrying him. A new pattern thus emerges in the novels of the 1840s. If family values are represented by the mother, religion is represented by a young woman whose influence is more direct and persistent than the mother's. Cooper's focus on religion in this novel is the first clear sign of his eventual disillusionment with the possibility of obtaining a secular morality effective enough to guide society.

Given the pessimism of these three novels, it is surprising that Cooper returns in works such as the two volumes featuring Miles Wallingford and the Littlepage trilogy to explore the lives of young men such as idealistic Deerslayer in more realistic settings. The protagonists are young, trying to make their way in the world, and they remember the guidance of their families, particularly their mothers. Like Deerslayer paired with Hurry Harry, they are often contrasted with others who lack their qualities. The unfortunate result of the comparison in Afloat and Ashore is that while the young moral character, Miles Wallingford achieves success at sea, a natural domain comparable to Deerslayer's Glimmerglass, his less worthy counterpart, Rupert Hardinge, is apparently equally successful in society merely by following the current fashions. The irony is that the ship, with its rigid hierarchy, becomes Cooper's model of an effective society. However, as David Simpson and others have pointed out, Miles has earned his position in a hierarchy based on merit (200).

Cooper's disillusionment with public values is evident in the second volume, Miles Wallingford, as attention is placed on religion. Miles survives a near drowning through submission to Providence and the memory of his friends. This religious experience makes him value his private relationships more fully. There is a note of sadness and more than a hint of Cooper's alienation when Miles finds happiness only in retreating from public life.

Despite this conclusion, the author has developed a new and important aspect of his new moral America in his creation of a contrast between private and legal arrangements. The law is used to pressure Miles to accept a bad bargain on his property in order to pay the debts incurred on a failed trading expedition. He is rescued by his cousin's will which left Miles an estate as a result of an agreement between them to bequeath each one's estate to the other. Cooper is asserting that one's voluntary acts have more moral force than the law. The emphasis on voluntary contracts as the [90] preferred means of conducting transactions was raised in the preface to Wyandotté but more fully developed here. It is worthy of note that voluntary transactions occupy an important position in the libertarian philosophy of Charles Murray who determines the need for a restricted number of legal remedies in society. In Cooper's avoidance of the institutions of the state we realize that his ideas often have an aura of libertarianism to them.

Oddly, Cooper jumps back to a defense of the Constitution and the law in the Littlepage trilogy as the only means of resolving the social chaos of the Anti- Rent crisis. While his position seems incongruent with the social experimentation of The Deerslayer, he does exhibit some of the values we have been exploring. He is loyal to his friends the Patroons, the landlords, rather than to the tenants who are trying to use the law to their own advantage and he believes that persons of merit will influence the rest of the populace. Unfortunately, the people he wants to be viewed as moral exemplars seem to be determined by class rather than ethics and morality. The novel also shows the tendency for Cooper to revert to the status quo when pressured by the forces of history. It is usually in novels most removed from social and historical contingencies that we see the generous side of Cooper's exploration of new social arrangements.

The inquiry the author embarked upon at the beginning of the decade comes to a close at the end of the decade. His utopia, The Crater (1847), is the most fully developed expression of his views since The Deerslayer, due mainly to the capacity of the utopia form to present abstract speculation. However, the novel conveys a sense that Cooper is summing up both his hopes and the reasons why they are doomed to fail.

Mark Woolston, the young protagonist of The Crater, is often viewed by critics as a variant of Robinson Crusoe. However, it must be remembered that Woolston has the aid of Providence when he shapes the island into utopia. Thus he is no longer as self-reliant as Deerslayer. His relationship with Providence fulfils the third Common Sense duty: the duty to God. The relationship and the utopian situation give Woolston advantages that the other young heroes of earlier works did not have. As founder of the utopia, he controls who comes to the island and the type of settlement that is developed. In many ways it is the Jeffersonian agrarian dream fulfilled. The society is composed of independent family farms. Each settler has been allotted land to encourage self-sufficiency and initiative.

Cooper's continuing emphasis on marriage and family is especially pronounced in the humorous conversion of the early settlers, all sailors, an occupation suited for single men, to become married men and stay-at-home farmers. When Mark is elected ruler, he maintains the importance of the family by instituting family rules as the governing ones. He asserts that the "moral truths which existed as the law of the human family" (301) will constitute his political philosophy. Warren Motley's assertion that The Crater reaffirms the power of the patriarch (1) must be balanced by the role of the family in the utopia. The Crater also allows Cooper to address the utopian speculations of others, especially the writings of Charles Fourier, because they touch on the issue of family. What appals Cooper is the absence of family in the utopist's ideas. In denying both Fourier's criticism of the family and his suggestion that the group dynamics of a phalanx of 1600 persons is the ideal community, Cooper contends that the individual "by nature" was "more disposed to seek happiness in a very small circle" (325). Recognizing that the corollary of Fourier's views is to transfer the responsibility for making decisions to the state, Cooper maintains that the individual should "concede no more of his natural rights than were necessary to the great ends of peace, security and law" (325).

If the utopia form brings into the open the author's hope for an alternative society, it also reveals his persistent fears. The last third of the utopia details the community's collapse as the representatives of the institutions, the lawyers, newspaper editors and ministers, Cooper's old foes, enter the utopia in later, uncontrolled migrations of settlers to the utopia. As they, like their predecessors in Home as Found, pursue their own self-interest, they fracture the community. Cooper suggests that when a community grows so large that individuals lose direct contact with their leader, the society is susceptible to division into factions. At this point the community also loses its moral cohesion. The concluding apocalypse denotes Cooper's recourse to Providence as the only source of morality that has power superior to that of the institutions. His view of religion as revealed and interventionist show how he has changed from the natural religion in The Deerslaver which is closer to Common Sense's inductive understanding of it.

The Crater, viewed often as Cooper's only utopia, should be better understood as the conclusion of a longer speculative period in his work. It is perhaps also the time when he was committed most strongly to ensuring a moral America. The novels of the decade reveal an author who wished for a nation populated with individuals of moral integrity and who wanted the cohesion of the family extended into the public arena. It is a measure of his bitter disappointment with his own hopes for a better America that, ultimately, Cooper concludes that only Providence has the power to obtain moral justice in society.


1. McWilliams notices the changes in the presentation of Cooper's political thought in the novels of the 1840s, but writes, "Cooper's changing feelings about American character and American historical fact are not to be confused with his unchanging approval of the constitutional republic that had been established in 1787" (99). I argue that his changing feelings about these matters are part of his disgust with the political process and thus ultimately involve the Constitution. One reason for McWilliams' lack of recognition of the development of Cooper's new speculation may be the decision to focus only on books with an American setting. Consequently, he does not treat the decade's novels consecutively and thus excludes works such as The Two Admirals and The Wing-and-Wing, whose significant criticisms of politics can be understood through analogy as applicable to the American scene-as he expressly points out in The Two Admirals (80)

2. See Terence Martin, The Instructed Vision, and Donald A. Ringe, The Pictorial Mode, for accounts of the influence of Common Sense aesthetic theory on Cooper's art.

3. The meaning of the term "gifts" poses problems for the Cooper scholar. For further discussions of gifts, see Joel M. Forte, The Romance in America: Studies in Cooper, Poe, Hawthorne, Melville and James, Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press, 1969, (15), and Gaile McGregor, The Noble Savage in the New World Garden, Toronto: University of Toronto Press, Bowling Green, Ohio: Bowling Green State University Popular Press, 1988. (147)

4. Examples of other critical means of defining character are to be found in Henry Nash Smith's Virgin Land which treats characters in The Pathfinder in terms of class (71-73) and Charles Hansford Adams's The Guardian of the Law which discusses many of the characters presented in Cooper's 1840s novels in terms of legal identities.

5. While the novel's setting is ahistorical, it facilitates the use of the allegorical mode to comment on contemporary problems. Thus, I share Dekker's (176)and Bewley's opinions (95) that Hurry Harry represents the worst features of character in the 1840s.

6. While I am focussing on issues of character and how they relate to Common Sense philosophy, it is worth noting that Peter Lapp has written that Cooper's narrative assumptions of character are derived from Common Sense philosophy's faculty psychology.

7. Deerslayer's reform of Judith is often overlooked in the presentations of her as a tragic figure. See Donald Darnell's treatment of her as a victim of "tragedy of class" (410) and Leland S. Person's account of her "legacy of woman's fate under patriarchy" (232).

8. I am indebted here to Mark Patterson's discussion of Girard's ideas on sacrifice. See Patterson, 99-120.

Works Cited

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