Frederick Douglass's
A NATION IN THE MIDST OF A NATION

 E Pluribus Unum

 

 

MR. PRESIDENT, LADIES AND GENTLEMEN: The resolution upon which I propose to make a few remarks respects the present condition and the future prospects of the whole colored people of the United States. I The subject is a great one, and opens ample scope for thought and feeling. I feel a diffidence in undertaking its consideration, for two causes: first, my own in- competence to do it justice-and the second is, the peculiar relation subsisting between me and the audience I am about to address. Sir, I am a colored man, and this is a white audience. No colored man, with any nervous sensibility, can stand before an American audience without an intense and painful sense of the immense disadvantage under which he labors. He feels little borne up by that brotherly sympathy and generous enthusiasm which give wings to the eloquence and strength to the hearts of abler men engaged in other and more popular causes. The ground which a colored man occupies in this country is every inch of it sternly disputed. Not by argument, or any just appeal to the understanding; but by a cold, flinty-hearted, unreasoning and unreasonable prejudice against him as a man and a member of the human family. Sir, were I a white man, speaking before and for white men, I should in this country have a smooth sea and a fair wind. It is, perhaps, creditable to the American people, (and, Sir, I am not the man to detract from their credit), that they listen eagerly to the report of wrongs endured by distant nations. The Hungarian, the Italian, the Irishman, the Jew, and the Gentile, all find in this land a home, and when any of them, or all of them desire to speak, they find willing ears, warm hearts and open hands. For these people, the Americans, have principles of justice, maxims of mercy, sentiments of religion, and feelings of brotherhood in abundance. But for my poor people enslaved-blasted and ruined-it would appear, that America had neither justice, mercy nor religion. She has no scales in which to weigh our wrongs-she has no standard by which to measure our rights.

Just here lies the difficulty of my cause. It is found in the fact that we may not avail ourselves of admitted American principles. If I do not misinterpret the feelings of my white countrymen generally, they wish us to understand distinctly and fully, that they wish most of all to have nothing whatever to do with us, unless it may be to coin dollars out of our blood. Our position here is anomalous, unequal, and extraordinary. It is a position to which the most courageous of us cannot look without deep concern. We are, Sir, a hopeful people, and in this we are fortunate: but for this we should have long before the present seemingly unpropitious hour, sunk down under a sense of despair. Look at it, Sir. Here, upon the soil of our birth, in a country which has known us for centuries, among a people who did not wait for us to seek them, but a people who sought us, and who brought us to their own chosen land-a people for whom we have performed the humblest services, and whose greatest comforts and luxuries have been won from the earth by the strength of our sable and sinewy arms. I say, Sir, among such a people and with such recommendations to favor, we are esteemed less than strangers and sojourners-aliens are we in our native land. The fundamental principles of the Republic to which the humblest white man, whether born here or elsewhere, may appeal with confidence in the hope of awakening a favorable response, are held to be inapplicable to us. The glorious doctrines of your revolutionary fathers, and the still more glorious teachings of the Son of God, are construed and applied against us. We are literally scourged beyond the beneficent range of both authorities human and divine. We plead for our rights in the name of the immortal Declaration of Independence and of the Constitution, and we are answered by our countrymen with imprecations and curses. In the sacred name of Jesus we beg for mercy, and the slave whip, red with blood, cracks over us in mockery. We invoke the aid of the ministers of Him who came to preach deliverance to the captives, and to set at liberty them that are bound; and from the loftiest summits of this ministry comes the inhuman and blasphemous response, that if one prayer would move the almighty arm in mercy to break our galling chains, that prayer would be withheld! We cry for help to humanity, a common humanity, and here too we are repulsed. American humanity hates us, scorns, disowns and denies our personality. The outspread wing of American Christianity-apparently broad enough to give shelter to a perishing world-refuses to cover us. To us its bones are brass and its feathers iron. In running thither for shelter and succor, we have only fled from the hungry bloodhound to the devouring wolf-from a corrupt and selfish world to a hollow and hypocritical church; and may I not add, from the agonies of earth to the flames of hell!

Sir, this is strong language. For the sake of my people, I would to God it were extravagantly strong. But, Sir, I fear our fault here to-day will not be that we have pleaded the cause of the slave too vehemently, but too tamely; that we have not contemplated his wrongs with too much excitement, but with unnatural calmness and composure. For my part, I cannot speak as I feel on this subject. My language, though never so bitter, is less bitter than my experience. At best, my poor speech is, to the facts in the case, but as the shadow to the substance.

Sir, it is known to you and to many who hear me, that I am alike familiar with the whip and chain of slavery, and the lash and sting of public neglect and scorn; that my back is marked with the one, and my soul is fretted with the other. My neck is galled by both yokes-that imposed by one master, and that imposed by many masters. More than twenty years of my life were passed in Slavery, and nearly fifteen years have been passed in nominal freedom. Mine has been the experience of the colored people of America, both slave and free. I was born a slave. Even before I [was] made part of this breathing world the scourge was platted for my back, and the fetters were forged for my limbs. My earliest recollections are associated with the appalling thought that I was a slave-a slave for life. How that crushing thought wrung my young heart I shall never be able fully to tell. But of some things I can tell-some things which are incident to the free and to the slave people of this country. Give me leave, then, in my own language to speak freely all that can be uttered of the thoughts of my heart in regard to the wrongs of the people with whom I thus stand associated in the two conditions to which I have thus alluded- for when I have said all, "the half will not then have been told. "

Sir, it was once said by that greatest of modem Irish orators, Daniel O'Connell- (a man whose patriotism was equalled only by his love of universal freedom)-that the history of the Irish people might be traced like a wounded man through a crowd, by the blood. That is a most startling saying. I read it with a shudder soon after it was said, and felt [that] if this were true in relation to the Irish people it was still more true in relation to the colored people of the United States. Our wrongs and outrages are as old as our country. They date back to its earliest settlement, and extend through two hundred and thirty years-and they are as numerous and as oft-repeated as the days of all these years. Even now while I speak and you listen the work of blood and sorrow goes on. Methinks I hear the noise of chains and the clang of the whip. There is not a day, not an hour in any day-not a minute in any hour of the day, that the blood of my people does not gush forth at the call of the scourge-that the tenderest ties of humanity are not sundered-that parents are not tom from children, and husbands are not tom from their wives for the convenience of those who gain fortune by the blood of souls.

But I do not propose to confine your attention to the details of Slavery. They are harrowing to think of and too shocking to fix the n-find upon for any length of time. I rather wish to speak of the condition of the colored people of the United States generally. This people, free and slave, are rapidly filling up the number of four millions. They are becoming a nation, in the midst of a nation which disowns them, and for weal or for woe this nation is united. The distinction between the slave and the free is not great, and their destiny seems one and the same. The black man is linked to his brother by indissoluble ties. The one cannot be truly free while the other is a slave. The free colored man is reminded by the ten thousand petty annoyances with which he meets every day, of his identity with an enslaved people-and that with them he is destined to fall or flourish. We are one nation then, if not one in immediate condition at least one in prospects.

I will not argue that we are men of like passions with the rest of mankind. That is unnecessary. All know at any rate that we are capable in some sort of love and hate, friendship and enmity. But whatever character or capacity you ascribe to us, I am not ashamed to be numbered with this race. I am not ashamed to speak here as a negro. Sir, I utterly abhor and spurn with all the contempt possible that cowardly meanness, I will not call it pride, which leads any colored man to repudiate his connection with his race. I cannot say, therefore, as was said recently by a distinguished colored man at a Convention in Cincinnati, that he did not speak as a colored man, for, Sir, as a colored man I do speak-as a colored man I was invited here to speak-and as a colored man there are peculiar reasons for my speaking. The man struck is the man to cry out. I would place myself-nay, I am placed-among the victims of American oppression. I view this subject from their stand-point-and scan the moral and political horizon of the country with their hopes, their fears, and their intense solicitude. Standing here, then, and judging from the events and indications of the past few years, the black man must see that a crisis has arrived in his relations with the American people. He is reminded that trials and hardships await him; that the times are portentous of storms which will try the strength of his bark.
Sir, it is evident that there is in this country a purely Slavery party-a party which exists for no other earthly purpose but to promote the interests of Slavery.

The presence of this party is felt everywhere in the Republic. It is known by no particular name, and has assumed no definite shape; but its branches reach far and wide in the Church and in the State. This shapeless and nameless party is not intangible in other and more important respects. That party, Sir, has determined upon a fixed, definite, and comprehensive policy toward the whole colored population of the United States. What that policy is, it becomes us as Abolitionists, and especially does it become the colored people themselves, to consider and to understand fully. We ought to know who our enemies are, where they are, and what are their objects and measures.

Well, Sir, here is my version of it-not original with me-but mine because I hold it to be true. I understand this policy to comprehend five cardinal objects. They are these: Ist. The complete suppression of all Anti-Slavery discussion. 2d. The expatriation of the entire free people of color from the United States. 3d. The unending perpetuation of Slavery in this Republic. 4th. The nationalization of Slavery to the extent of making Slavery respected in every State of the Union. 5th. The extension of Slavery over Mexico and the entire South American States. Sir, these objects are forcibly presented to us in the stem logic of passing events-in the facts which are and have been passing around us during the last three years. The country has been and is now dividing on these grand issues. In their magnitude these issues cast all others into the shade, depriving them of all life and vitality. Old party ties are broken. Like is finding its like on either side of this great issues-and the great battle is at hand.

For the present, the best representative of the Slavery party in politics is the Democratic party. Its great head for the present is President Pierce, whose boast it was-before his election-that his whole life had been consistent with the interests of Slavery, that he is above reproach, on that score. In his inaugural address, he re-assures the South on this point. Well, the head of the slave power being in power, it is natural that the pro-slavery elements should cluster around the Administration, and this is rapidly being done. A fraternization is going on. The stringent Protectionists and the Free Traders strike hands. The supporters of Fillmore are becoming the supporters of Pierce. The Silver Gray Whig shakes hands with the Hunker Democrat-the former only differing from the latter in name. They are of one heart, one mind, and the union is natural and perhaps inevitable. Both hate negroes, both hate progress, both hate the "Higher Law, " both hate Wm. H. Seward, both hate the Free Democratic party, and upon this hateful basis they are forming a union of hatred. "Pilate and Herod are thus made friends. " Even the central organ of the Whig party is extending its beggar hand for a morsel from the table of Slavery Democracy, and when spurned from the feast by the more deserving, it pockets the insult; when kicked on one side it turns the other, and perseveres in its importunities. The fact is, that paper comprehends the demands of the times; it understands the age and its issues; it wisely sees that Slavery and Freedom are the great antagonistic forces in the country, and it goes to its own side. Silver Grays and Hunkers all understand this. They are, therefore, rapidly sinking all other questions to nothing, compared with the increasing demands of Slavery. They are collecting, arranging, and consolidating their forces for the accomplishment of their appointed work.

The key stone to the arch of this grand union of the Slavery party of the United States is the Compromise of 1850. In that Compromise, we have all the objects of our slaveholding policy specified. It is, Sir, favorable to this view of the designs of the slave power, that both the Whig and the Democratic party bent lower, sunk deeper, and strained harder, in their conventions, preparatory to the late presidential election, to meet the demands of the Slavery party, than at any previous time in their history. Never did parties come before the northern people with propositions of such undisguised contempt for the moral sentiment and the religious ideas of that people. They virtually asked them to unite in a war upon free speech, upon conscience, and to drive the Almighty presence from the councils of the nation. Resting their platforms upon the Fugitive Slave bill, they boldly asked the people for political power to execute the horrible and hell black provisions of that bill. The history of that election reveals, with great clearness, the extent to which Slavery has shot its leprous distillrnent through the lifeblood of the nation. The party most thoroughly opposed to the cause of justice and humanity triumphed, while the party suspected of a leaning towards Liberty was overwhelmingly defeated, some say annihilated.

But here is a still more important fact, illustrating the designs of the slave power. It is a fact full of meaning, that no sooner did the Democratic slavery party come into power, than a system of legislation was presented to the Legislatures of the Northern States, designed to put the States in harmony with the Fugitive Slave Law and the malignant bearing of the National Government towards the colored inhabitants of the country. This whole movement on the part of the States bears the evidence of having one origin, emanating from one head, and urged forward by one power. It was simultaneous, uniform and general, and looked to one end. It was intended to put thorns under feet already bleeding; to crush a people already bowed down; to enslave a people already but half free; in a word, it was intended to discourage, dishearten, and drive the free colored people out of the country. In looking at the recent black law of Illinois, one is struck dumb with its enormity. It would seem that the men who enacted that law, had not only banished from their minds all sense of justice, but all sense of shame. It coolly proposes to sell the bodies and souls of the black[s] to increase the intelligence and refinement of the whites. To rob every black stranger who ventures among them, to increase their literary fund.

While this is going on in the States, a Pro-Slavery, Political Board of Health is established at Washington! Senators Hale, Chase and Sumner are robbed of a part of their Senatorial dignity and consequence as representing sovereign States, because they have refused to be inoculated with the Slavery virus. Among the services which a Senator is expected by his State to perform, are many that can only be done efficiently on Committees- and, in saying to these honorable Senators, you shall not serve on the Committees of this body, the Slavery party took the responsibility of robbing and insulting the States that sent them. It is an attempt at Washington to decide for the States who shall be sent to the Senate. Sir, it strikes me that this aggression on the part of the Slave power did not meet at the hands of the proscribed Senators the rebuke which we had a right to expect would be administered. It seems to me that an opportunity was lost that the great principles of Senatorial equality were left undefended, at a time when its vindication was sternly demanded. But it is not to the purpose of my present statement to criticise the conduct of our friends. I am persuaded that much ought to be left to the discretion of Anti-Slavery men in Congress, and charges of recreancy should never be made but on the most sufficient grounds. For, of all the places in the world where an Anti-Slavery man needs the confidence and encouragement of friends, I take Washington to be that place.

Let me now call attention to the social influences which are operating and cooperating with the Slavery party of the country, designed to contribute to one or all of the grand objects aimed at by that party. We see here the black man attacked in his vital interests-prejudice and hate are excited against him--enmity is stirred up between him and other laborers. The Irish people, warm hearted, generous, and sympathizing with the op- pressed everywhere when they stand upon their own green island, are instantly taught on arriving in this Christian country to hate and despise the colored people. They are taught to believe that we eat the bread which of right belongs to them. The cruel lie is told the Irish that our adversity is essential to their prosperity. Sir, the Irish American will find out his mistake one day. He will find that in assuming our avocation he also has assumed our degradation. But for the present we are sufferers. The old employments by which we have heretofore gained our livelihood are gradually, and it may be inevitably, passing into other hands. Every hour sees us elbowed out of some employment to make room perhaps for some newly arrived emigrants, whose hunger and color are thought to give them a title to especial favor. White men are becoming house servants, cooks and stewards, common laborers and flunkeys to our gentry; and, for aught I see, they adjust themselves to their stations with all becoming obsequiousness. This fact proves that if we cannot rise to the whites, the whites can fall to us.

Now, Sir, look once more. While the colored people are thus elbowed out of employment; while the enmity of emigrants is being excited against us; while State after State enacts laws against us; while we are hunted down, like wild game, and oppressed with a general feeling of insecurity; the American Colonization Society-that old offender against the best interests and slanderer of the colored people-awakens to new life, and vigorously presses its scheme upon the consideration of the people and the Government. New papers are started-some for the North and some for the South-and each in its tone adapting itself to its latitude. Government, [both] State and National, is called upon for appropriations to enable the Society to send us out of the country by steam! They want steamers to carry letters and negroes to Africa. Evidently this Society looks upon our "ex- tremity as its opportunity, " and we may expect that it will use the occasion well, that [it] does not deplore but glories in our misfortunes.

But, Sir, I must hasten. I have thus briefly given my view of one aspect of the present condition and future prospects of the colored people of the United States. And what I have said is far from encouraging to my afflicted people. I have seen the cloud gather upon the sable brows of some who hear me. I confess the case looks black enough. Sir, I am not a hopeful man. I think I am apt even to undercalculate the benefits of the future. Yet, Sir, in this seemingly desperate case, I do not despair for my people. There is a bright side to almost every picture of this kind; and ours is no exception to the general rule. If the influences against us are strong, those for us are also strong. To the inquiry, will our enemies prevail in the execution of their designs, in my God and in my soul, I believe they will not.

Let us look at the first object sought for by the Slavery party of the country, viz: the suppression of anti-slavery discussion. They desire to suppress discussion on this subject, with a view to the peace of the slaveholder and the security of slavery. Now, Sir, neither the principle nor the subordinate objects, here declared can be at all gained by the slave power, and for this reason: It involves the proposition to padlock the lips of the whites in order to secure the fetters on the limbs of the blacks. The right of speech, precious and priceless, cannot, will not, be surrendered to Slavery. Its suppression is asked for, as I have said, to give peace and security to slaveholders. Sir, that thing cannot be done. God has interposed an insuperable obstacle to any such result. "There can be no peace, saith my God, to the wicked." Suppose it were possible to put down this discussion, what would it avail the guilty slaveholder, pillowed as he is upon the heaving bosoms of ruined souls? He could not have a peaceful spirit. If every anti-slavery tongue in the nation were silent- every anti-slavery organization dissolved-every anti-slavery press demolished- every anti-slavery periodical, paper, book, pamphlet or what not were searched out, gathered together, deliberately burned to ashes, and their ashes given to the four winds of heaven, still, still the slaveholder could have "no peace. " In every pulsation of his heart, in every throb of his life, in every glance of his eye, in the breeze that soothes and in the thunder that startles, would be waked up an accuser, whose cause is, "Thou art, verily, guilty concerning thy brother." Oh! Sir, I can say with the poet Cowper-and I speak from observation-

"I would not have a slave to till my ground,
To carry me, to fan me while I sleep,
And tremble when I wake, for all the wealth
That sinews bought and sold have ever earned, No: dear as freedom is, and in my heart's
Just estimation prized above all price,
I had much rather be myself the slave,
And wear the bonds, than fasten them on him."

Again: The prospect, Sir, of putting down this discussion is anything but flattering at the present moment. I am unable to detect any signs of the suppression of this discussion. I certainly do not see it in this crowded assembly-nor upon this platform-nor do I see it in any direction.
Why, Sir, look all over the North; look South-look at home-look abroad-look at the whole civilized world-and what are all this vast multitude doing at this moment? Why, Sir, they are reading " Uncle Tom's Cabin; " and when they have read that, they will probably read "The Key to Uncle Tom's Cabin "-a key not only to the Cabin, but, I believe to the slave's darkest dungeon. A nation's hand, with that "key, " will unlock the slave prisons to millions. Then look at the authoress of "Uncle Tom's Cabin. " There is nothing in her reception abroad which indicates a declen- sion of interest in the great subject which she has done so much to unfold and illustrate. The landing of a Princess on the shores of England would not have produced the same sensational
I take it, then, that the Slavery party will find this item of their pro- gramme the most difficult of execution, since it is the voice of all experi- ence that opposition to agitation is the most successful method of promot- ing it. Men will write-men will read-men will think-men will feel- and the result of this is, men will speak; and it were as well to chain the lightning as to repress the moral convictions and humane promptings of enlightened human nature. Herein, sirs, is our hope. Slavery cannot bear discussion: it is a monster of darkness: and, as Junius said of the character of Lord Granby, "it can only pass without censure, as it passes without observation. The second cardinal object of this party, viz: The expatriation of the free colored people from the United States, is a very desirable one to our enemies-and we read, in the vigorous efforts making to accomplish it, an acknowledgment of our manhood, and the danger to Slavery arising out of our presence. Despite the tremendous pressure brought to bear against us, the colored people are gradually increasing in welalth, in intelligence and in respectability. Here is the secret of the Colonization scheme. It is easily seen that just in proportion to the intelligence and respectability of the free colored race at the North is their power to endanger the stability of Slavery. Hence the desire to get rid of us. But, Sir, the desire is not merely to get us out of this country, but to get us at a convenient and harmless distance from Slavery. And here, Sir, I think I can speak as if by authority for the free colored people of the United States. The people of this Republic may commit the audacious and high-handed atrocity of driving us out of the limits of their borders. They may virtually confiscate our property; they may invade our civil and personal liberty, and render our lives intolerable burdens, so that we may be induced to leave the United States; but to compel us to go to Africa is quite another thing.
Thank God, the alternative is not quite so desperate as that we must be slaves here, or go to the pestilential shores of Africa. Other and more desirable lands are open to us. We can plant ourselves at the very portals of Slavery. We can hover about the Gulf of Mexico. Nearly all the isles of the Caribbean Sea bid us welcome, while the broad and fertile valleys Of British Guiana, under the sway of the emancipating Queen, invite us to their treasures, and to nationality. With the Gulf of Mexico on the South, and Canada on the North, we may still keep within hearing of the wails of our enslaved people in the United States. From the isles of the sea, and from the mountain tops of South America we can watch the meandering destiny of those we have left behind. Americans should remember that there are already on this Continent, and in the adjacent islands, all of 12,370,000 negroes, who only wait for the life-giving and organizing power of intelligence to mould them into one body and into a powerful nation. The following estimate of our numbers and localities is taken from one of the able Reports of the British and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society, carefully drawn up by its former Secretary, John Scoble, Esq.:


United States ................................... 3,650,000
Brazil: ................................…………....4,050,000
Spanish Colonies ..................………...1,470,000
South American Republics......................1,130,000
British Colonies .................................. 750,000
Hayti .........................................………..850,000
French Colonies ................................…...270,000
Dutch Colonies ..................................…..50,000
Danish Colonies .................................…..45,000
Mexico ........................................……...70,000
Canada .........................................………35,000
Total ...................................………….12,370,006

Now, Sir, it seems to me that the Slavery party will gain little by driving us out of this country, unless it drives us off this Continent and the adjacent islands. It seems to me that it would be after all of little advantage to Slavery to have the intelligence and energy of the free colored people all concentrated in the Gulf of Mexico! Sir, I am not for going anywhere. I am for staying precisely where I am, in the land of my birth. But, Sir, if I must go from this country-if it is impossible to stay here-I am then for doing the next best, and that will be to go to wherever I can hope to be of most service to the colored people of the United States.

Americans! there is a meaning in those figures I have read. God does not permit 12,000,000 of his creatures to live without the notice of His eye. That this vast people are tending to one point on this Continent is not without significance. All things are possible w-.th God. Let not the colored man despair then. Let him remember that a home, a country, a nationality are all attainable this side of Liberia. But for the present the colored people should stay just where they are, unless where they are compelled to leave. I have faith left yet in the wisdom and the justice of the country, and it may be that there are enough left of these to save the nation.

But there is a third object sought by the Slavery party-namely, to render Slavery a permanent system in this Republic, and to make the relation of master and slave respected in every State in the Union. Neither part of this object can be accomplished. Slavery has no means within itself of perpetuation or permanence. It is a huge lie. It is of the devil, and will go to its place. It is against nature, against progress, against improvement, and against the Government of God. It cannot stand. It has an enemy in every bar of railroad iron, in every electric wire, in every improvement in navigation, in the growing intercourse of nations, in cheap postage, in the relaxation of tariffs, in common schools, in the progress of education, the spread of knowledge, in the steam engine, and in the World's Fair, now about to assemble in New York, and in everything that will be exhibited there.

About making Slavery respectable in the North: laws have been made to accomplish just that thing. The law of '50, and the law of '93. And those laws, instead of getting respect for Slavery, have begot disgust and abhorrence. Congress may pass slave laws every day in the year for all time, if each one should be followed by such publications as "Uncle Tom " and the "Key. " It is not in the power of human law to make men entirely forget that the slave is a man. The freemen of the North can never be brought to look with the same feelings upon a man, escaping from his claimants, as upon a horse running from his owner. The slave is a man, and no law can take his manhood from him. His right to be free is written on all the powers and faculties of his soul, and is recorded in the great heart of God, and no human law can touch it.

Now, Sir, I had more to say on the encouraging aspects of the times, but the time fails me. I will only say, in conclusion, greater is he that is for us, than they that are against us; and though labor and peril beset the Anti-Slavery movements, so sure as that a God of mercy and justice is enthroned above all created things, so sure will that cause gloriously triumph. Sir, I have fully spoken out the thoughts of my heart. I have spoken as a colored man, and not as the representative of any Anti-Slavery society. There are many societies: but there is but ONE CAUSE. That cause I desire to serve with my whole heart. I have now spoken at the meeting of the "American A[nti-] S[laveryl Society," and at the "American and Foreign A[nti-] S[lavery] Society." The oppressed, among whom I am numbered, should be grateful to both. I honor and respect Lewis Tappan.I love and revere William Lloyd Garrison; and may God have mercy on me when I refuse to strike a blow against Slavery, in connection with either of these gentlemen. I will work with either; and if the one discards me because I work with the other, the responsibility is not mine. (Great and repeated applause.)

New York, New York, May 2, 1853

 

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