Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category


As many of you will have noticed, Monticello has a brand-new shiny website.  This development came along in October, and as part of Phase II of the new website, we’ll be launching a whole bunch of social media features, including a Megablog.  That’s what I call it, anyway.  This will be one big blog containing posts from all sorts of Monticello staff members, including myself.

Which brings me to the point of this post.  I’ll be ceasing blogging operations here as of Monday, December 20, and will resume blogging operations over at Monticello.org.  It won’t be hosted on my beloved WordPress, but don’t worry, I’ll still be me, and I’ve been assured that it will still be called “A Summary View.”  All that, and you’ll have a chance to hear from some of my inimitable compatriots here at Monticello, too.  If you’d like to revise your bookmarks, here’s the new URL (it will probably still say “Page Not Found” until Monday).

So, this isn’t really a goodbye or an ending, just a metamorphosis – an awesome butterfly-type metamorphosis, not a creepy Franz Kafka-like Metamorphosis.  That said, I do want to say that I’ve loved blogging here at WordPress, and I’m truly honored that people have taken the time to read what I’ve written.  I’ve met lots of wonderful and fascinating people through this blog, and I hope you’ll all stick with me as I trundle over to my new blogging digs!


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There are a lot of stories about Monticello that crept into the lore over the years – mostly after Jefferson died, after all the family had left Monticello, and no one who had lived there during its heyday was around anymore to refute them.   These stories found their way into popular literature and are still coming back home to roost, so to speak, in the form of queries from visitors.  One of the most persistent of these stories is one about Jefferson using the Dome Room as a billiard hall.

This myth flourished with some very able help from no less than Sarah Nicholas Randolph, great-granddaughter of Thomas Jefferson and author of The Domestic Life of Thomas Jefferson (1871).  In this book she matter-of-factly relates the Billiard Story, which information was given to her by a “member of Mr. Jefferson’s family, who lived there for many years”:

The west front the rooms occupy the whole height, making the house one story, except the parlor or central room, which is surmounted by an octagonal story, with a dome or spherical roof. This was designed for a billiard-room; but, before completion, a law was passed prohibiting public and private billiard-tables in the State. It was to have been approached by stairways connected with a gallery at the inner extremity of the hall, which itself forms the communication between the lodging-rooms on either side above. The use designed for the room being prohibited, these stairways were never erected, leaving in this respect a great deficiency in the house.

This is a rather well-developed and fascinating piece of family lore, and I would love to know how it came into being.  Needless to say, we have no reason whatsoever (other than this story) to believe that Thomas Jefferson originally intended the Dome Room for billiards, or that he actually employed it as such.

But…the Levy family did!  Check this out:

Photograph of a billiard table in the Dome Room, 1899.

If I’m not mistaken, that’s a billiard table.  In the Dome Room.

This is from an article that appeared in the January, 1899 issue of Munsey’s Magazine, “The Home of Jefferson,” by Maud Howard Peterson.  This account of a visit to Monticello was also published in Merrill Peterson’s Visitors to Monticello, and Peterson (Merrill, that is) takes pains to refute Maud’s billiard story.  Her version of the billiard story is even more elaborate than Sarah Randolph’s:

On the third floor is the famous ballroom, built originally for billiards of which Jefferson was extremely fond. Scarcely was it completed, however, when he discovered, to his chagrin, that the game was prohibited by a law recently passed by the State Legislature. The story runs that some years earlier there lived within the borders of Virginia a very brilliant and promising young lawyer named John Marshall, who insisted on wasting his time on games of all sorts, and most especially on billiards.  In vain his friends urged him to work seriously and give up such unprofitable pastimes.  Marshall was not to be moved.  Finally some one suggested that a law should be enacted to suppress billiards, declaring that “Marshall would never break a law.” The State Legislature, at the time, was composed largely of the young man’s friends, and they passed the necessary bill.  They laughingly used to say, afterwards, that Marshall owed to their timely intervention his subsequent brilliant career, which made him chief justice of the United States Supreme Court.

However, the fact remains that billiards were prohibited throughout Virginia; and Jefferson, with the calm philosophy that characterized so much of his life, made the best of a bad bargain, and the room was converted into a ballroom, perhaps the most famous in any private residence of the time.  Could its walls speak, they would tell strange tales of the beauty, gallantry, and wit that once assembled there.  It was to have been approached by stairways connected with a gallery at the inner extremity of the hall.  For some unknown reason these were never erected; instead, a staircase was built in each wing, of such narrow dimensions that it is still a problem how the grand ladies with their ample hoopskirts ever ascended to the ballroom above.

I started to try to pick apart all the errors, distortions, and outright fantasies in Maud’s description of the Dome Room, but then I got tired.  Let’s just say, the only thing she’s right about is that the Dome Room is on the third floor.

In Maud’s defense, there was a billiard table right there in the Dome Room, at least in 1898.  You know and I know that that doesn’t mean there was one there in 1815, but Maud seems an easily suggestible lady.  Bless her heart.

The billiard table was apparently still in the Dome Room at least into the late 1920s, years after the Thomas Jefferson Foundation had opened Monticello’s doors to the public.  This no doubt helped to keep the myth going.  Here’s an image, taken ca. 1928, from I.T. Frary’s Thomas Jefferson: Architect and Builder (Richmond: Garrett and Massie, 1931), in which the corner of the (presumably) very same billiard table is clearly visible.

And, the author actually calls it “the Billiard Room” right there, in the caption!   No wonder people thought the Dome Room was a billiard room, what with all this calling it a “billiard room” and having billiard tables in it.

Regarding Maud’s Ballroom Fantasy, well…if there were any glittering balls held up there, then all the guests of these balls must have been sworn to silence, because I’m unaware of anyone ever mentioning attending such a thing in any letters, diaries, or memoirs.

The truth is that we simply don’t have good evidence for any specific intended function for the Dome Room.  But Nature abhors a vacuum, and so do inquiring minds.  In the absence of any clear explanation for the Dome Room’s existence, it’s no wonder that more interesting stories creep in to fill the space.

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Oddly Precise

I’m currently engaged in a long-term quest to acquire every single item in Frank Shuffelton’s epic Thomas Jefferson: A Comprehensive, Annotated Bibliography of Writings About Him, 1826-1997. Frank Shuffelton, as some of you may already know, was a professor of English at the University of Rochester, compiler of the above bibliography as well as editing an excellent edition of Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia and the recent Cambridge Companion to Thomas Jefferson, and a member of the ICJS Advisory Board.  He was also a very nice man – I met him once for 2 minutes over a cheese plate at the 2004 launch of the new Papers of Thomas Jefferson: Retirement Series.

When the Jefferson Library was just a little baby library, we used Frank’s bibliography to jump-start our online catalog, loading all of the citations into it.  Frank died earlier this year, but we’re carrying on his Jefferson bibliographizing here.  We’re pretty on top of the recent stuff about Jefferson, but for older stuff, we sometimes just have a citation in the catalog and no holdings; that’s the stuff that I’m filling in now.

So this is the first in a running series of Amusing Shuffelton Items.  Item #1 is a book called The People’s Choice, by Herbert Agar (Riverside Press, 1933).  Herbert Agar, we learn from the Internet, was “an American journalist and editor of the Louisville Courier-Journal.”  This book also won the Pulitzer Prize for History in 1934.  Hmmm.  Anyway, I managed to get a copy that still has its dust jacket, which is fortunate because this one is pretty awesome: check out those 1930s-vintage graphics!

It is one specific chapter of this book, of course, that we are particularly interested in, because it is titled “John Adams and Thomas Jefferson.”  Fortunately I don’t need to bother to read it, because Frank already did, and summarized it thusly in his annotated bibliography:

Adams and TJ were part of the oligarchic class, “A little group of privileged and public-spirited men” which occupied the presidency during the first fifty years of the nation’s existence. The election of 1800 was no revolution; “in fact, there was no important change.”

“No important change”?!  Whatever, Herbert!  As you will have divined from Frank’s summary, Mr. Agar is a man of strong opinions.  Witness the question posed on the cover, which seems to be the result of Mr. Agar’s very strong opinions combined with some oddly precise math.

Good question, Mr. Agar!  How those eighteen bunglers among the twenty-two presidents after the first seven presidents got elected to office is truly one of the great mysteries of our time.

Seriously, I poke a little fun at Mr. Agar’s convoluted ranking, but his comment actually puts me in mind of Jefferson’s own famous comment, speaking of his daughter, that “the chance that in marriage she will draw a blockhead I calculate at about fourteen to one…”  I would love to know what kind of analysis led to that oddly precise math…but that’s for another blog post.

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So, I logged onto WordPress a few days ago, with vague thoughts of doing a semi-religion-related post, when I saw this.  A sign from God?  Well, at the very least, it’s a sign from Barbie dressed up as an Episcopalian minister, and that’s good enough for me.

Now, last time I talked about religion here, we had some argumentation.  And I will admit, I was completely, utterly caught off guard by it.  I’d never really consciously thought about my audience before, but if you asked me three months ago who I thought was reading the blog here I would have guessed my mom, my aunt and uncle, and possibly my aunt and uncle’s three cats.   One of the latter in particular, Mitzi, doesn’t seem to like me much, but I don’t worry about her being offended by anything I say on the blog because she’s unlikely to express her displeasure at me on Facebook.  Now I’ve been forcibly reminded of the fact that there are people other than Mitzi the cat reading what I write here, and they don’t necessarily know me personally or have a sense of my motivations.   So I just want to state, for the record, that my personal political and religious beliefs do not enter into my work, nor should they.  I feel very strongly about that.  I, and my other colleagues who engage in social media on behalf of Monticello, occasionally bring up the subjects of religion and politics, but we do so because any mention of Jefferson is of academic interest to us, and we think it might be of interest to you.   Truly.

Now that I’ve cleared that up, we shall now proceed with the latest Jefferson-related curiosity.  This item was recently the subject of a reference question we received.  It’s a document with Jefferson’s signature (and some other things) on it, and you will note that the description reads as follows:

Following is an original document in our possession, signed by Thomas Jefferson on September 24, 1807. This document is permission for a ship called the Herschel to proceed on its journey to the port of London.

(Here’s the interesting part):

The interesting characteristic of this document is the use of the phrase “in the year of our Lord Christ.” Many official documents say “in the year of our Lord,” but we have found very few that include the word “Christ.” However, this is the explicitly Christian language that President Thomas Jefferson chose to use in official public presidential documents.

Hmmm.  Two phrases in that last sentence that I’d like to look at more closely:

  1. “explicitly Christian language.”  Well, actually I guess it is literally explicit Christian language, mentioning Christ as it does.  What I mean is, it’s also…the date.  This is not usually the portion of a document in which important points are made.   Now, I totally agree that “In the year of our Lord Christ” instead of “In the year of our Lord” sounds a bit unusual, but I just don’t know that it really has anything to do with the religious beliefs of the person who signed the document.
  2. “that President Thomas Jefferson chose to use” – But did Jefferson specifically choose that language?  It seems unlikely to me.  It seems more likely that a clerk would be doing that.

As I was googling around, investigating this document, it became clear to me that it’s become a “thing,” or maybe the kids would call it a “meme” (possibly just a mini-meme).  I gather that somebody said something about this document on the television, and now it’s proliferating around the Internet, gathering more religious connotations as it goes.  Like this person.  Here it seems to be getting associated with Jefferson’s views on separation of church and state.  My googling turned up other appearances as well, each slightly different.  But I see the way this choo-choo is chugging, hence my post here to say, very sensitively, in the most kid-glove-way possible…let’s think about this before we draw any conclusions.  (And before I get any more reference questions about this.)  When in doubt, you can’t go wrong with thinking.  Unless maybe you’re standing in front of a rushing choo-choo.

I personally don’t have all the facts about this document – I don’t have any facts, in fact! – but now I’m super intrigued.  Especially since I can only read half the English portion in the image on the site above, and I can only understand half the Dutch part.  But I bet if we all put our heads together, we can come up with some good context for this document and maybe be able to figure out why it bears the unusually-extended phrase “in the year of our Lord Christ” instead of your usual “in the year of our Lord.”   I already have my own cockamamie theory about that, but I will keep it to myself for now.  Unless it turns out to have some merit, in which case I will tell everyone that’s what I was thinking all along.

So, back to the Herschel, and that document that started this whole thing.  Any maritime historians or similar out there, who can give us an idea of what this document is?  Any experts on government procedure or forms, who can help us out with how the specific language for this form may have been devised, and by whom?  Any experts in the history of the phrase “in the year of our Lord”?  Anybody?  Mitzi?

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With the coming of Thanksgiving comes also a burble of chatty news stories about the origins thereof, and usually something about turkeys.  Not far behind comes some sort of mention of the Founding Fathers, and how they all felt about turkeys.  I’ve seen several of these articles in the last few days and I don’t know what else to think but that somebody out there has been working overtime, making up stories about Founding Fathers and turkeys.

The primary misconception that I’m seeing on the Internet-waves seems to be the perceived opposition between Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin during the designing process of the Seal of the United States, and their relative preference for turkeys or eagles.  Apparently TJ wanted an eagle on the seal, and Franklin wanted a turkey – TJ obviously having prevailed.  And some articles have added the intriguing tidbit that Franklin, in a fit of pique after his beloved turkey was not chosen for the seal, began calling turkeys “Tom.”

Where do people come up with this stuff?  That doesn’t even make sense – if Franklin thought so highly of the turkey, it wouldn’t be an insult to name it after somebody he was supposedly mad at. Anyway, in case the precarious logic of this story didn’t tip you off as to its unreliability, I can also confidently tell you that it bears no relationship to anything that one might call “facts.”  Consider the following:

  1. The appellation “Tom” for various male animals, chiefly poultry and cats, was around long before Jefferson and Franklin didn’t have a disagreement about birds for the Great Seal.  According to the Oxford English Dictionary: “In 1760 was published an anonymous work ‘The Life and Adventures of a Cat’, which became very popular. The hero, a male or ‘ram’ cat, bore the name of Tom, and is commonly mentioned as ‘Tom the Cat’, as ‘Tybert the Catte’ is in Caxton’s Reynard the Fox. Thus Tom became a favourite allusive name for a male cat.”  (Ditto turkeys.)
  2. Jefferson had nothing to do with the selection of the eagle for the seal (see link to article on Seal above).  There was no eagle in any of the proposals submitted by Jefferson and his fellow committee members in 1776, and after that Jefferson was no longer involved in seal-designing for the new nation.  (Know what Jefferson did want on the seal?  Hengist and Horsa, his favorite Anglo-Saxon heroes.  What a dork.)
  3. Franklin did not propose (formally) that there be a turkey on the seal.
  4. Therefore, Jefferson and Franklin didn’t have a disagreement about whether there should be a turkey or an eagle on the Great Seal.
  5. After the seal’s design was finalized in the early 1780s (by a completely different committee), Franklin did grump a bit at the choice of the eagle over, say, the turkey:

Others object to the Bald Eagle, as looking too much like a Dindon, or Turkey. For my own part I wish the Bald Eagle had not been chosen as the Representative of our Country. He is a Bird of bad moral Character. He does not get his Living honestly. You may have seen him perch’d on some dead Tree near the River, where, too lazy to fish for himself, he watches the Labour of the Fishing Hawk; and when that diligent Bird has at length taken a Fish, and is bearing it to his Nest for the Support of his Mate and young Ones, the Bald Eagle pursues him and takes it from him. With all this Injustice, he is never in good Case but like those among Men who live by Sharping and Robbing he is generally poor and often very lousy. Besides he is a rank Coward: The little King Bird not bigger than a Sparrow attacks him boldly and drives him out of the District. He is therefore by no means a proper Emblem for the brave and honest Cincinnati of America who have driven all the King birds from our Country, tho’ exactly fit for that Order of Knights which the French call Chevaliers d’Industrie. I am on this account not displeas’d that the Figure is not known as a Bald Eagle, but looks more like a Turkey. For in Truth the Turkey is in Comparison a much more respectable Bird, and withal a true original Native of America. Eagles have been found in all Countries, but the Turkey was peculiar to ours, the first of the Species seen in Europe being brought to France by the Jesuits from Canada, and serv’d up at the Wedding Table of Charles the ninth. He is besides, tho’ a little vain and silly, a Bird of Courage, and would not hesitate to attack a Grenadier of the British Guards who should presume to invade his Farm Yard with a red Coat on.  (BF to Sarah Bache, January 26, 1784)

And besides all that, turkeys probably taste way better than bald eagles.  So, off you all go then, and and enjoy chowing down on a Very Respectable Bird this Thanksgiving.

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In case you didn’t know, it was Banned Books Week last week – the American Library Association decreed it.  And if you’re following the Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello Facebook page, you will already have caught a glimpse of what I’m going to be talking about here.  (I should have suspected those guys would scoop me when I told them about this little episode a few weeks ago!  They looked way too interested…)

Anyway, I did some research on this letter exchange for a talk I gave at the Covenant School here in town last week, so I might as well get some more mileage out of it.  The story goes like this:

On November 25, 1812, a man named Regnault de Bécourt wrote to Thomas Jefferson, offering him a copy of his book, La Création du Monde… (Philadelphia, 1813).  Jefferson agreed to buy a copy and asked Bécourt to see Jefferson’s Philadelphia book dealer, Nicolas Dufief, and have Dufief put the cost of the book ($2) on Jefferson’s account there.

All seemed well.  Then, 5 months later, Jefferson received a distraught letter from Dufief.   It’s in French, but you might actually find it even more amusing if you don’t know French, because to us ignoramuses it looks like: “blah blah blah blah le blah two dollars blah blah blah.”  Anyway, the gist is that Dufief has found himself in something of a legal pickle, having been accused of selling a copy of the aforementioned M. de Bécourt’s book to Jefferson, and Dufief asks for Jefferson’s help in exonerating him.   The wily M. de Bécourt neglected to mention that the book contained some inflammatory statements vis-a-vis religion, and now it seems the legal authorities are coming down on Dufief for purveying Bécourt’s blasphemous scribblings.

Anyway, if you know anything about Jefferson you will know that nothing is more guaranteed to elicit a long impassioned screed than an infringement on intellectual freedom.   Stand back!  Jefferson sends back a two-page letter, in which he lays out –  in grand, eloquent Jeffersonian fashion – all of the most basic arguments against banning books.   Here’s the whole thing for your consumption:

Dear Sir

Your favor of the 6th inst. is just recieved, and I shall with equal willingness and truth state the degree of agency you had respecting the copy of M. de Becourt’s book which came to my hands. that gentleman informed me by letter that he was about to publish a volume in French ‘sur la Creation du monde, ou Systeme d’organisation primitive,’ which, it’s title promised to be either a geological, or astronomical work. I subscribed; and, when published, he sent me a copy; and as you were my correspondent in the book-line in Philadelphia, I took the liberty of desiring him to call on you for the price, which he afterwards informed me you were so kind as to pay him for me, being, I believe, 2. Dollars. but the sole copy which came to me was from himself directly, and, as far as I know, was never seen by you.

I am really mortified to be told that, in the United States of America, a fact like this can become a subject of enquiry, and of criminal enquiry too, as an offence against religion: that a question about the sale of a book can be carried before the civil magistrate. is this then our freedom of religion? and are we to have a Censor whose imprimatur shall say what books may be sold, and what we may buy? and who is thus to dogmatise religious opinions for our citizens? whose foot is to be the measure to which ours are all to be cut or stretched? is a Priest to be our Inquisitor, or shall a layman, simple as ourselves, set up his reason as the rule for what we are to read, & what we must believe? it is an insult to our citizens to question whether they are rational beings or not; and blasphemy against religion to suppose it cannot stand the test of truth and reason. if M. de Becourt’s book be false in it’s facts, disprove them; if false in it’s reasoning, refute it. but, for god’s sake, let us freely hear both sides, if we chuse. I know little of it’s contents, having barely glanced over here and there a passage, and over the table of contents. from this the Newtonian philosophy seemed the chief object of attack, the issue of which might be trusted to the strength of the two combatants; Newton certainly not needing the auxiliary arm of the government, and still less the holy author of our religion as to what in it concerns him. I thought the work would be very innocent, and one which might be confided to the reason of any man; not likely to be much read, if let alone, but if persecuted, it will be generally read. every man in the US. will think it a duty to buy a copy, in vindication of his right to buy, and to read what he pleases.        I have been just reading the new constitution of Spain. one of it’s fundamental bases is expressed in these words. ‘the Roman Catholic religion, the only true one, is, & always shall be that of the Spanish nation. the government protects it by wise & just laws, and prohibits the exercise of any other whatever.’ now I wish this presented to those who question what you may sell, or we may buy, with a request to strike out the words ‘Roman catholic’ and to insert the denomination of their own religion. this would ascertain the code of dogmas which each wishes should domineer over the opinions of all others, & be taken like the Spanish religion, under the ‘protection of wise and just laws.’ it would shew to what they wish to reduce the liberty for which one generation has sacrificed life and happiness. it would present our boasted freedom of religion as a thing of theory only, & not of practice, as what would be a poor exchange for the theoretic thraldom, but practical freedom of Europe. but it is impossible that the laws of Pensylvania, which set us the first example of the wholsome & happy effects of religious freedom, can permit these inquisitorial functions to be proposed to their courts. under them you are surely safe.

At the date of yours of the 6th you had not recieved mine of the 3d inst. asking a copy of an edition of Newton’s principia which I had seen advertised. when the cost of that shall be known, it shall be added to the balance of 4. D 93 c and incorporated with a larger remittance I have to make to Philadelphia. Accept the assurance of my great esteem & respect
Th: Jefferson

TJ’s really at his best when he’s roused to write in defense of freedom, isn’t he?  One couldn’t ask for a more eloquent spokesman for Not Banning Books.  Which is great for our theme this week, but not so great for Dufief.  The beleaguered bookseller received Jefferson’s diatribe and probably concluded that his heated words would only cause more trouble; Dufief wrote back, pleading for just a simple straightforward letter stating that Dufief did not sell Jefferson That Book.   TJ never complied, apparently.

I assume that Dufief was able to wriggle out of the legal charges.  At least, there are no later letters from Dufief postmarked from the slammer, asking TJ to send muffins and pickaxes.  One presumes that Dufief was forced to use the letter above as an affidavit that he did not sell the naughty book in question.  Although it is clearly not the nice straightforward statement that Dufief would have preferred, one has to think: what would the Philadelphia court authorities’ reaction have been when presented with an irate letter from the former President of the United States, arguing circles around them and chastizing them sharply for even contemplating prosecuting such a thing?  One is reminded in this instance that, on top of all the other things that Jefferson had been and done in his long life, he was also a lawyer.  No wonder the whole thing apparently fizzled.

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Here at the Jefferson Library we are great consumers of pie, leftover food, and quirky publishers’ catalogs.  (Also Alpenland catalogs.)  For the past month we’ve been amusing ourselves with the Shire Books catalog – you can buy entire books on things like perambulators and village pumps and Victorian undertakers from them! – but just a few days ago we received the newest brain candy, the University of Chicago Press catalog.

I find most university press catalogs tedious.  Chicago’s is delightfully wacky yet simultaneously intellectual.  Flipping through one of their catalogs is like a parade of all the fascinating little corners of human inquiry and experience.  To give you an idea, in this season’s catalog:

  • Bigfoot: The Life and Times of a Legend
  • The Subversive Copy Editor
  • Mr. Jefferson and the Giant Moose: Natural History in Early America
  • In Hock: Pawning in America from Independence through the Great Depression
  • A Tenth of a Second: A History
  • Playing the Fool: Subversive Laughter in Troubled Times
  • Making the Grade: The Economic Evolution of American School Districts
  • Socrates and the Fat Rabbis
  • Sinister Yogis
  • Collections of Nothing
  • Castles, Battles, and Bombs: How Economics Explains Military History
  • On the Fireline: Living and Dying with Wildland Firefighters
  • Running: A Global History
  • (which is cancelled out by) Pie: A Global History
  • Invented Knowledge: False History, Fake Science and Pseudo-Religions
  • The Rules of Association Football, 1863

And of course I won’t mention the naughty titles, because my mother is reading this blog.  Anyway, Chicago did not pay me to say this but, if you love books, their catalog is a garden of delights.  (You can actually download it in PDF form from their website here, if you’re interested.)

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