Research Forum Exploration of Local History
|Posted: Wed Aug 15, 2007 4:06 pm
Joined: 16 Apr 2007
Location: Live Oak
|SETTING THE SCENE
by Phil Reader
ANTEBELLUM POLITICS IN SANTA CRUZ COUNTY
Democrats, Republicans - Abolition and Secession
A few words of political background are necessary here in order to understand the national, state and local situation that the pioneering generation of African Americans found themselves stepping into when they migrated to California. As mentioned earlier, they fell into two categories- free and slave. Both groups would be exposed to the exact same social and political environment, but because of their differing status each would be forced to react in a distinctly varying fashion.
Commencing with the Louisiana Purchase during the presidency of Thomas Jefferson, Americans began to cast a greedy eye toward the lands west of the Mississippi and Ohio rivers. This yearning for territorial expansion was given voice in 1845, when an enterprising newspaper editor coined the phrase “Manifest Destiny.” This vague doctrine envisioned a United States stretching from the Atlantic seaboard to the shores of the Pacific ocean - and to many, this end seemed inevitable. The only thing that stood in the way of American ambitions in the southwest was the nation of Mexico, holder of the rightful claim to this territory.
In 1836, a number of American settlers living in Texas, under the leadership of Sam Houston, declared their independence from Mexico and formed the Republic of Texas. Shortly thereafter the Texans sent a petition of Annexation to the American Congress in Washington asking for inclusion to the U.S. Meanwhile, in California similar actions were being taken by U.S. citizens living in that region. First came the so-called “Bear Flag” revolt at Sonoma which captured most of northern California and, in this case, “The California Republic” was declared. From this point, events moved quickly as a group of American volunteers styling themselves the “California Battalion of Mounted Riflemen” and led by Col. John C. Fremont, marched on a filibuster to southern California meeting with little opposition along the way.
To Mexico, all of these activities constituted a breach of their sovereignty over the disputed territories. Outward acts of undisguised aggression on the part of the United States. But at this juncture, there could be no turning back and war was a certainty.
Hostilities between the two nations began on May 13, 1846, when President James Polk signed a declaration of war against Mexico. General Zachary Taylor marched his troops into Texas crossing the border, sweeping south towards the important city of Monterrey. By September, Taylor’s army was in complete control of the region. At the same time General Winfield Scott led his Infantry and cavalry units on the Mexican capital at Mexico City which he occupied by the end of 1847. Smaller American armies had also seized control San Francisco and Santa Fe. The war between Mexico and the United States ended with the signing of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo on February 2, 1848. Humiliating terms were forced upon the Mexican government, which had no choice but to cede nearly half of its northern territories to the United States . California, New Mexico and Arizona - 855,000 square acres - were added to the nation at that time.
The acquisition of the rich province of Alta California was always one of the foremost objectives for the initiation of a war with Mexico. The value of the territory was made even more attractive when, several days before the end of the war, gold was discovered in the foothills of the Sierra Mountains. This event was to prove to be a powerful attraction for settlement of the region.
However, accumulation any of new territory brought with it the thorny question of the extension of slavery. At the time of the Mexican War, the United States congress was locked in a quandary over the future of slavery in any new lands that might be gained during the conflict. It had long been a given principle in the politics of the United States, that a free state would only be admitted to the union if accompanied by a corresponding slave state. So from the beginning of the 19th century, numerical equality between free and slave states had been maintained through much political maneuvering.
The 1818, when the Missouri Territory applied for statehood the settlers, who came largely from the South, expected that Missouri would be a slave state. However the application sparked a bitter debate in Congress over the issue of slavery in the new territories that had been created as a result of the Louisiana Purchase of 1803. The entry of Missouri as a slave state would threaten to upset the delicate balance of representation in Congress and give the southern states a distinct advantage. When the statehood petition was submitted to the house for approval, New York Congressman James Tallmadge proposed an amendment to ban slavery in Missouri, in spite of the fact there were over 2,000 slaves living already there.
The issue was resolved in 1820, with the passage of a series of measures, brokered by Henry Clay, known as the Missouri Compromises aimed at controlling sectional division over the issue of slavery. The northern part of Massachusetts was split off, became Maine and was admitted to the union as a free state at the same time that Missouri was admitted as a slave state. Also, an imaginary line was drawn at 36 degrees 30 minutes north latitude, and any portions of the Louisiana Territory lying north of that line would be free. Southern interests were placated by a number of “Fugitive Slave Laws” providing for the return of slaves who had escaped to the territories. The overall effect of the Missouri Compromise was to solidify the loyalties of both individuals and states along sectional lines and to set a precedent for the future struggle over the entry of California into the Union.
In 1848, immediately following the conclusion of armed conflict in the Mexican War, the settlers in the conquered territory of California turned to Washington for some direction in establishing an interim legal form of civilian government. But the U. S. Congress was once again deadlocked on the issue of extending slavery into the new territories and maintaining the sectional balance within the national legislature. So no guidance was forth coming for almost two years.
During this period, California was ruled by a series of 10 military “governors” while maintaining the old Mexican Alcalde system at the local level. The Alacade (or magistrate) performed the duties of mayor, judge, jury, sheriff and judicial enforcement officer. The office holder also had to power to interpret and create local legislation. This “localization” of jurisdictions coupled with the rapid economic and social development of the territory, led to confused conditions not only in the gold fields but also in settled areas as well.
Tiring of inaction by the U.S. Congress, the people of California petitioned, General Bennet Riley, acting “civil” governor, to hold a constitutional convention for the purpose of setting an election for a state government and drafting a state constitution to be sent to Washington along with an application for statehood. In response, Riley called for a convention to be held at Monterey in September of 1849.
When the convention assembled there were 48 attendees, a large number of that hailed originally from northern states. Among the issues to be dealt with were whether to apply for representation as a state or a territory. County and state boundaries lines had to be drawn, taxation rates had to be declared, as well as suffrage provisions, including the all important question of slavery.
While under Mexican rule, all forms of bondage in Alta California had been forbidden in 1824 by the adoption a liberal constitution. Since most citizens were of mixed Negro or Indian ancestry anyway the problem of racism did not exist. Early American settlers lived in pioneer conditions and therefore had no need of servants. Newcomers to the mines were usually young single males intent on roughing it in the mountains until they made their “big strike” and could return home. So that in truth before the gold rush, there was no history, nor any need for slavery in the region.
When the issue was finally brought before the convention, there was actually little debate on the subject. So the Subcommittee on Resolutions wrote the following recommendation to the convention: “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, unless for a punishment of crimes, shall ever be tolerated ....” And when the roll call was taken, the resolution to everyone's surprise, passed by a unanimous vote. It was the will of the conferrees that California should enter the union as a free state. However the motivation for their action would prove to be hardly egalitarian in nature.
More at issue was whether free black settlers would be excluded from the state. Miners sent to Monterey as representatives from the mother lode region voiced their objection to allowing free blacks in because of their “ne'er-do-well” lifestyle. On the other hand they objected to slave owners who brought their bondsmen to California on the condition that they could win their freedom after working in the mines for their masters. Most miners, regardless of their origin, took a great deal of pride in the dignity of their trade and took offense that the southerners considered that mining was “fit work for black slaves.” In this climate of racism this exclusion provision was first passed, but later removed for fear of an abolitionist backlash that would bring about the rejection of the whole constitution by congress - thereby delaying further the acceptance of California’s statehood petition.
The convention also set November 13, 1849 for a statewide poll to ratify the proposed constitution, elect a Governor and members of all three branches of state government as well as representatives to the U.S. Congress. On the given day, Californians went to the polls and okayed the state constitution by a overwhelming vote of 12,061 to 811.
In preparation for statehood, the new state legislature met in session and chose the famous “Pathfinder” John C. Fremont and newcomer William Gwin as U.S. Senators. The two men were to accompany the statehood application to Washington and squire it through the halls of congress.
However, the legislature of the United States nearly rejected the petition because the admission of California into the union as a free state would upset the balance of free versus slave states and the corresponding equal number of representatives in the Senate. Once again a battle was raged on the floor of congress over the issue of the extension of slavery, aggravating the hostility between North and South and a grave crisis threatened to dissolve the Union .
And once again, Senator Henry Clay, the great compromiser, placed before the legislature several provisions aimed at placating these sectional antagonisms. They called for California to be admitted as a free state, for passage of a strict Fugitive Slave law, and that new territories in the Southwest be allowed to organize with no restrictions on slavery - the so-called “Popular Sovereignty” clause which allowed settlers of these territories to decide the slavery issue for themselves. These proposals were met with opposition from one segment of Congress or the other. On March 7, 1850, however, Daniel Webster helped assure their passage with his famous speech before the Senate on the future of the union. After much bitter debate, Congress finally passed the compromise measures and President Zachary Taylor signed a bill for the admission of California on September 9th. A month later, word at last reached San Francisco and the gold fields.
Of all the sections in the Compromise of 1850, the Fugitive Slave Act was the most controversial. Enactment of the law only strengthened the resolve of abolitionists to put an end to slavery and also brought the subject to the attention of most of the nation. Many who had previously shown ambivalence toward slavery now took a definitive stance against it. Abolitionists involved with Underground Railroad became more active and the movement to the north by runaway slaves reached a peak between 1850 and 1860. While slave owners felt more and more threatened and isolated by national legislation which tended to curb and control their “peculiar institution,” and as they saw it, interfere with their economic and social self-determination.
But at the time many people, both north and south, believed that the Compromise of 1850, like the Missouri Compromise before it, was the final political solution to the question of slavery in the territories. Unfortunately the effect of this resolution proved to be only temporary in nature. The unintentional long term result of the two great compromises was to only further polarize of sectional divisions that already existed and forestalled for a time the eventual split between the north and south.
The issue of slavery flared up again in 1854 with the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act and its attendant violence . Seven years later, upon the election of Abraham Lincoln to the presidency, several southern states seceded from the union and a great civil war soon raged throughout the nation. Meanwhile, the new state of California followed these events from a “safe” distance.
During the gold rush years, the politics of California were in a state of flux, due more to the priority given “get rich quick” efforts rather than any lack of philosophical commitment. The microcosm of humanity that poured through port cities into the foothills and ranch lands of California brought their personal convictions with them. Politics were always a major topic of conversation at the diggings as well as in the saloons which proliferated seemly almost everywhere. Serious political debates often turned into heated quarrels and, on occasion, led to violence. Knifings and shootings over the subject were not uncommon. Just as often, alcohol driven, bombastic arguments echoed and boomed throughout the mining camps in comic mockery of the oratory of the times - “King” Dan’l vs. “Squire” Calhoon.
But all of this emotional boisterousness did not translate into activism as witnessed by the low attendance at the Constitutional Convention at Monterey in 1849. Of the 48 delegates, most came as representatives from the mining regions which, at the time, did indeed reflect the location of the population. A substantial majority had originally came to California from Northern states as opposed to Southern. And, as could be expected, lawyers made up the largest occupational group.
Of these lawyers, most were politically ambitious individuals who had migrated west in the pursuit of other opportunities, not merely the quest for gold. A surprisingly large number came from the northeast during the Mexican War as members of the military, particularly the 1st regiment of Foot - New York Volunteers under Colonel Jonathan D. Stevenson, a unit recruited with the understanding that after the war, they would muster out in California and remain as permanent settlers.
In the constitutional election of 1850, Democrats of varying persuasions were swept into power. At the state level Peter Burnett, an Independent Democrat with racial antipathies toward all nonwhites and who was openly hostile to free blacks was elected governor. Months earlier he had been one of the Constitional Convention delegates who had pressed unsuccessfully for the amendment to bar free negros from the state. During his term in office, he continued his efforts at exclusion of all people of color. When he left the governorship, Burnett was appointed to the state supreme court and, in that capacity, he passed judgement on several important cases relating to the Fugitive Slave Law.
Democrats were also successful in their for quest for regional and local political offices. In the Monterey District, which included the central coast area, two other Democrats were elected to the state legislature. Selim E. Woodworth as State Senator and Theron P. Per Lee as a member of the Assembly. Both men were ex-members of the military who supported the enforcement of the Fugitive Slave Law and the concept of popular sovereignty in the extension of slavery into the territories.
Woodworth, a son of the poet, Samuel Woodworth, author of "The Old Oaken Bucket," was born in the city of New York. He spent most of his adult life in the navy and during the Civil War, rose to the rank of Commodore. He was president of the San Francisco Vigliance Committee in 1851 and a member of the group that took part in the rescue of the Donner Party. His term in the state senate lasted from 1849 to 1851 during which he spent little time in his district, preferring life in Sacramento and San Francisco. He always followed the party line and, in the long run, authored little original leglistation.
Theron Per Lee was also a New Yorker, a native of Chenango County, who studied law before he enlisted as a Lieutenant in the 1st regiment of New York Volunteers at the start of the Mexican War. At the end of his tour of duty, he settled in San Francisco and set up a law practice. In February of 1849, he was elected to his first political office, the of Justice of the Peace for San Francisco. That fall, he resigned so that he could run for the state assembly from Monterey.
Unlike Woodworth, he relocated to the central coast so that he could represent his district more effectively. Like Woodworth, he followed the Democratic philosophy in the legislature. Per Lee served in the assembly from 1849 to 1851, when he came to Santa Cruz bought a piece of land on Beach Hill. In 1851, he was elected as County Judge during the first statewide election which saw the Democrats sweep most of the state offices and all of the local seats.
He was an eccentric and colorful character who was addicted to strong drink. A newspaper article relates the story about the time, when Judge Per Lee interrupted the legal proceedings to “consult an authority in the case” - it was soon revealed that the “authority” was a large flask containing corn whiskey and rye. He was also fond of bombastic quotes from his favorite poets which he had read into the record.
Per Lee and Woodworth’s attitude toward the Fugitive Slave Act, extension of slavery and the issue of slavery itself duly reflect the beliefs of most of their constituents at that time. In 1850, the state legislature passed a law which declared “ that no black or mulatto person .... shall be permitted to give evidence in favor, or against any white person.” Thus denying the constitutional right of testimony to all African Americans even involving those cases where they were litigants. Two years later, the state enacted a fugitive slave law of its own and advised local authorities to enforce the National Fugitive Slave Act that was a part of the Compromise of 1850.
The political system in America was in the process of a major change. The continuous western geographic migration of the population and the accompanying economic and social movements were bringing about a realignment in the political structure. This change was driven by three issues. Sectionalism (or states-rights), free-soil, and most importantly, the extension of slavery. The confusion of eastern politics had found its way out west with the gold rush migration as did many of the sectional and racial difficulties.
The two prevailing political parties when California entered the Union were the Whigs and Democrats. The Whigs, flush with success in the national elections of 1848 when they elected Zachary Taylor to the presidency, were however hopelessly split over the issue of Slavery. A division which would soon lead to its demise. The Democrats, also far from a unified party, were having there own sectional fractures over slavery. Yet inspite of this splintering, Democratic candidates would dominate California politics until 1860.
But as mentioned earlier, the political stance of Californians was influx. With the Whig Party in fatal decline and regionalism splitting the Democrats, a void was created among the electorate. Old “third” or minor parties pushed their platforms forward to fill the gap, but it was three new political movements which would crystalize in the 1850s and seek to provide avenues of ingress to the voting populous as well as answers to the duel problems of slavery and enfranchisement rights in the state. A look at the election results in Santa Cruz county during the decade will provide a snapshot of the rise and, in some cases, fall of these parties.
The first election held in Santa Cruz was the Constitutional election of 1850. It was called for the purpose of ratification of the state constitution and the election of state representatives. At the time the demographics of the local electorate was equally divide three ways. One third was made up of native Californians (locally born residents of Mexican and Indian stock,) one third of whites hailing from northern states and one third of southern born whites. The overwhelming majority voted as Whigs, approving the constitution while electing Theron Per Lee as Assemblymen and Selim Woodworth, State Senator. Peter Burnett, a racist and Southern Democrat was chosen as Governor.
In the presidental election of 1852, with the power of the Whig Party in decline, Santa Cruzens voted with the state majority, casting their ballots for Democrat Franklyn Pierce as President over Winifeld Scott, the Whig candidate. Pierce was elected by a slim margin. But party realignment was rapidly becoming a reality. But slavery was not the cause for the change. Of greater importance were the duel issues of states-rights and preservation of the union. Such was the case with most people at the time, including Abraham Lincoln. Slavery could, and should, be despised but also tolorated at the same time - as long as it was not expanded into the territories. Such was the principle belief of the Democratic party, except, naturally, the southern wing.
Between 1853 and 1855, a large number of voters from the Whig Party and the northern wing of the Democratic Party flirted with the American Party or Know Nothing Party - one of two new political parties who were filling the gap created by the collapse of the Whigs.The party took its strange designation from the fact that when members were asked about the inner workings of the party, they were supposed to reply, "I know nothing."
In principle, it was anti-Catholic and anti-immigrant evolving in reaction to the massive wave of three million Europeans immigrating between 1846 and 1855, as well as a fear of the growing political influence of Catholics. Limiting its membership to native-born Protestants, the Know Nothings sought to increase the naturalization period for immigrants from five to twenty-one years while barring all immigrants and Catholics from public office. They were split along sectional lines over the slavery extension issue. In 1854, it was first formally organized in California. But its influence with the voting public would prove to be short lived.
The second political party to come forward to replace the Whigs was the liberal Republican Party and in just a few years its platform and candidates would prove to be dominant, not only in California but across the nation. In the beginning was not an abolutionist party, although like most of the other parties, it was opposed to the extension of slavery into the territories. But the basis for its doctrine was a strong and indivisible union.
Beginning in 1854, these two new parties would siphon off support from the Whigs - although it was the Know Nothings who would dominate the next tree years. In the state election of 1854, 280 Democrats and 410 Whigs in Santa Cruz jumped to the Know Nothing banner and elected William W. Stowe, a controversial Watsonville lawyer to the Legislature . Stowe would later become Speaker of the House and fall from grace after shouting anti-semitic slogans from the chair of the assembly . At the same time staunch Southerner and former slaver owner, Henry Rice chosen as county judge. It is also interesting to note that the local native Californian voters remained loyal to the Whigs.
The swing to the new parties continued on into the pivotal presidential election of 1856.
With the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act by congress in the 1854, tensions in the territories began to rise. The act repealed the Missouri Compromise when it allowed the concept of “Popular Sovereignty” to prevail in Kansas and Nebraska territories. In May of 1856, pro-slavery men attempted to discourage the settlement of Kansas by “Free-Soil” advocates when they sacked the town of Lawrance. A few days later the raid was avenged by John Brown at the massacre of Pottawatomie Creek, when abolitionist killed 5 southern men. With these actions, the hopes for a peaceful resolution of the slavery question began to pale.
In the national elections that year, three parties presented candidates for the office of the Presidency. After much wrangling a badly splintered Democratic party, that supported the Kansas-Nebraska Act chose James Buchanan as their standard bearer, while the newly emerged Republicans, urging the repeal of the Kansas-Nebraska Act, selected John Fremont to head their ticket. The Know Nothings, who found themselves caught in the crossfire between the other two parties over the issue of the extension of slavery, nominated Millard Fillmore.
This poll was the first to be covered by a local newspaper, The Pacific Sentinel (later the Santa Cruz Sentinel,) so a detailed account of the election is available. The final tally showed that the Democratic Party had once again gained control of the local electorate. Of the 704 votes cast in the presidential race, Buchanan received 320, Fillmore 288, and Fremont 196. In the county races, Democrats swept literally every seat. These returns reflect the rapid decline of the Know Nothings and the steady rise of Republicanism. The native Californian vote was about evenly divided between the Democrats and Republicans. This election was to set the scene for the 1860 debacle which would bring about the election of Abraham Lincoln and the U.S. Civil War.
The next three elections (1857, ‘58 and ‘59) proved to be merely a search for a “quick political fix” to the explosive issues that were vexing the nation. With each set of election results it became increasingly obvious that this chaos was rapidly moving toward disaster.
The chaos was also reflected locally at county political conventions and at the polls. Voters were searching for a party or movement that fit their personal prospective but unfortunately most solutions presented them were to prove to little to late. By the time of the state election in 1857, the Know Nothings had disappeared from the scene and the Republicans smarting from Fremont’s defeat in 1856 were still in the minority. Democrats, also, were very much split and in disarray over the issues. Regional factions were viewing each other with almost as much hostility as the viewed the Republicans and abolitionist.
At the local level only two parties stood for election, presenting candidates in all county races. The Democrats, who’s county convention was marked with constant interruptions, catcalls, angry reports to the press, put forth a full slate of contenders. The other party to enter candidates was a group calling themselves the People’s Party consisting of Republicans and new recruits from the ranks of the defunct Know Nothings. Although the Democrats won most races, the Peoples’s Party did pick up a couple of important seats. Republican Israel.C. Willson was elected to the Assembly and Godfrey Bockius as County Judge. Several minor offices went to the People’s Party, including the Sheriff. It was clear that basic changes were taking place.
In 1857, two events took place that would move the country further down the road towards civil war. One was the United States Supreme Court in a decision written by Chief Justice Roger B. Taney handed down a verdict in the Dred Scott case. Having lived with his master on free soil, Scott sued for his freedom with the support of northern abolitionists. However the court ruled that Negroes, both free and slave were not citizens, so therefore they did not have regress to American laws. So Scott did not have the right to sue for his freedom. Taney also declared that Congress did not have the power to exclude slavery from the territories, thereby nullifying the Missouri Compromise. Reactions were swift and predictable. While Southerners applauded the decision, Northerners and most Westerners were furious at the courts findings.
Also the Kansas legislature, under the guidence of Territorial Supreme Court Cheif Justice Samuel D. Lecompte drew up a state constitution asking that Kansas be accepted into the union as a slave state. When the people became aware of the Lecompton Constitution, all hell broke loose and the violence only escalated in “Bleeding Kansas.” Democrats across the country split off and formed the Anti-Lecomption Party which opposed the admission of Kansas under the Lecomption constitution.
This was 1858, at the time of the famous Lincoln-Douglas debates over the future of the nation as it slid toward civil war.
A large number of Santa Cruzens of all political pursuasions joined the Anti-Lecomption faction because of concerns over the threatened breakup of the union. At at county convention in August of 1858, they nominated a slate of candidates to contend the elections. The Republicans, holding fast to their stated principle against any expansion of slavery, also nominated candidates. In some cases they were the same aspirant who had accepted the Anti-Lecomption nomination. The two parties had fused their candidates for an office, these nominees were known as “fusion” candidates. The Democrats limped into the elections hopeless split into five different segments.
In the general elections that year, the Anti-Lecomption ticket was generally successful in the county, but on an evenly divided vote. The margin of victory for the winners was in all cases ranged a meger 4 to 20 votes. Hiram Imus, a northern Democrat of long standing, was elected to the Assembly from Santa Cruz. In several races, the “fusion” candidates were triumphant. The Republicans moved closer to becoming a major political party in the area.
For the next two years the nation was in a free fall, as the system began to break up over states rights and slavery. Conflict was on the horizon and the Santa Cruz electorate could see the writing on the wall. In 1859, there were two buzz words on everyone's mind and lips - Secession and Abolition. They could be heard on every street corner, barber shop and saloon. The political season began early and was one of the busiest and most controversial in the history of the county.
At this time, the area had two newspapers. The Santa Cruz Sentinel, in its third year of publication, edited by John McElroy, and with a strong Democratic orientation. One of his top contributors was Lovick P. Hall, an unrepentant secessionist and pro-slavery man who, during the Civil War, would edit several rabid pro-confederate tabloids. In opposition was a new weekly journal called the Santa Cruz News founded in August of 1859 under the direction of William D. Slocum, a young newcomer and avowed Republican. From the very beginning Slocum’s liberal editorial stance drew the ire of, not only the Sentinel, but the Democratic establishment as a whole.
For a year, the two journals hammered away at each other with a reckless abandonment which, on the part of McElroy and his crew, included personal and moral attacks upon the character of Slocum and his followers.
All sides were drawing lines and at the various political conventions in 1859 emotions ran high mostly over the issue of Slavery. As expected, Santa Cruzens of southern origins supported the system of negro servitude and believed that freeing the slaves amounted to the theft of personal property and that the federal government had no right interfering in the relationship between the master and his bondsmen. The two most outspoken members of this group was ex-county judge, Henry Rice and William Farrend who All of this bellicose excitement led to fisticuffs on several occasion.
Once again, belief in the importance of the union, was behind the effort to form another new party, The Union Party. The effort was a collection of "strange bedfellows" which included proslavery people, antislavery people, free-soil Republicans, Abolitionist, and defecters from both wings of the Democratic Party. The only motivation they had in common was the desire to keep the union in tact. Concerns over slavery were only secondary.
But this was not to be, the election of Lincoln was the flashpoint that brought on secession and the great civil war.
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