As the first few years of the 1760s dawned, the American colonists enjoyed their position within the great British Empire. They had opportunities for self-government and economic prosperity. In the previous chapter, we learned about how our status as humans with agency confers upon us natural rights, liberty, and political equality. In this chapter, we will look at how these ideals played out in the creation of the United States of America. We will learn how thirteen fledgling colonies became a single nation that secures freedom for its citizens under the Rule of Law.
As we’ve established, the colonies were free, democratic, and independent; so why did they have to fight a war for independence? To understand the answer to that question, we have to understand how and why the relationship between the colonies and the English government shifted.
The change of the colonies' relationship with England began with the “French and Indian War.” In the 1750s, the American colonies were filling up with people. Immigration and a high birth rate meant that new settlers were flowing west of the Appalachian Mountains, taming the frontier, staking out land, cutting down forests, and establishing new agricultural towns. Since full participation in political life depended upon land ownership, the colonists would have to continue moving west if future generations were to enjoy their liberties.
While the colonists were moving west for new land, French trappers were moving south from their base in Canada seeking new waters for trapping. As their paths converged, they clashed over who had rights to this land in the North American interior. The first skirmish happened at the confluence of two rivers where the French had established “Fort Duquesne” (we call it Pittsburgh today). A young colonel in the Virginia militia went to Fort Duquesne and ordered the French to leave. When they refused, the Virginians exchanged shots with the French and started the “Seven Years War” (referred to in the Americas as the French and Indian War). The young Virginia Colonel responsible for the squirmish was none other than George Washington, future general of the American Revolution and the nation’s first president.
After extensive fighting all over the world (there were even prominent battles on the Indian subcontinent), the English triumphed and replaced France as the dominant power in Europe and North America. This meant that English language and institutions would prevail as the colonies expanded westward.
The French and Indian War left the English two big problems that led directly to the War for Independence. First, the British crown, tired of fighting on the frontier, issued The Proclamation of 1763. This proclamation forbade the colonists from moving west of the Appalachian Mountains. To the Americans, this Proclamation would put an end to their liberty and democracy as the availability of open land in the West was the only hope for the growing number of Americans to be full citizens with voting rights and equality.
The second, bigger problem was the cost of the war. The English government had borrowed heavily to defeat the French and now needed to pay those debts. To raise the revenue, they decided, for the first time, to start taxing the American colonists.
The colonists did not accept these taxes because they did not accept the English Parliament’s governance without colonist input. . Remember, each colony had its own representative government to whom they paid taxes. Their local governments could tax them because they were represented in those governments, but they were not represented in the English Parliament.
As George Washington said, “Parliament has no right to put its hands into our pockets without our consent.”
Furthermore, at this time in history, the only people taxed without their consent were servants, those without property (such as women), and children. This British tax placed the colonists on this same level and was a severe blow to their pride and sense of equality as fellow Englishmen.
The first attempts at taxation were small. The British began to enforce revenue-generating Navigation Acts that controlled trade and prohibited the colonists from trading with whomever they wanted. Then they passed a tax on molasses (the “Sugar Tax”),but this latter act didn’t generate a widespread outcry.
Then in 1765, the Parliament passed a huge, burdensome tax that fell heavily on colonists of nearly all regions, professions, and classes—the Stamp Tax. This tax, notoriously hated, required that all official documents be printed on expensive, government-stamped paper.
The backlash to the Stamp Tax was widespread and dramatic. Up to this point in their history, the colonists had been free, independent, and democratic, but this tax removed those. The cry of “no taxation without representation” went up in all the colonies. Politicians like Patrick Henry gained prominence speaking out against it. Underground organizations, such as the Sons of Liberty, arose to protest the tax and terrorize tax collectors.
The Stamp Tax also represented the beginning of American unity. Before 1765, there were thirteen independent colonies, as different from one another as Australia is from New Zealand today. This common grievance, however, gave them common cause. In order to fight the Stamp Tax, the colonies created a congress to unify, coordinate, and strengthen their protest. For the first time in U.S. history, all of the colonies were working together. This congress, in a modified and reconstituted form, is still with us in Washington, D.C., and the states still send representatives to congress as they began doing in 1765.
Parliament realized that their plans had backfired. The angry colonists opposed this tax with so much energy and violence that it cost the government more to enforce it than they collected in revenues. It only made British finances worse.
With their plan having failed, the British tried to save face. Parliament repealed the Stamp Tax in 1767, but simultaneously passed the Declaratory Act which asserted their right to control the colonies “in all cases whatsoever.” The British wanted to make it clear to the colonists that even though they were not taxing them anymore, they could do so anytime they wanted.
To prove it, they tried again later that year. The Stamp Tax hadn’t worked, they reasoned, because it was “internal,” but the colonists would agree to “external” (excise) taxes. They passed a series of Townshend Duties, sales taxes on goods like paint, glass, lead, and tea that they hoped would succeed where the Stamp Tax had failed.
The British judged wrong. The colonists protested the Townshend Acts just as loudly and forcefully as they had the Stamp Tax. The Sons of Liberty revived to continue their underground protests, terrorize tax collectors, and enforce boycotts. Things became so chaotic that the British had to send soldiers to enforce their decrees. This further inflamed the colonies.
At this point, the British politicians realized that it was no longer about raising revenue but showing the colonists who was in charge. To prove their point, they repealed all of the taxes except one—the tax on tea. The British knew it would only raise a token amount of money, but it would at least uphold the principle of Parliament’s right of taxation and prove to the colonists that they would be obedient to English authority.
The colonists saw the Tea Tax for what it was and fought against it accordingly. They were fighting for the principle of “no taxation without representation,” regardless of whether the tax was one penny or one million pounds. To show their unwillingness to submit, Sons of Liberty boarded the East India Company ships in 1763 and threw the taxed tea into Boston Harbor. They were careful not to harm anything except the tea itself. The event was referred to as the Boston Tea Party.
This destruction of royal property enraged King George III. In his view, the colonists were behaving like spoiled children defying a parent. They had to be taught a lesson. He believed that he was the rightful sovereign of the people and that they should gratefully and humbly accept his authority. He and the Parliament would punish them.
They did so through the Coercive Acts (the “Intolerable Acts” to the colonies), a series of laws passed to bring the participants of the Boston Tea Party to justice and force them to pay for the tea they destroyed. There were four major parts of the Coercive Acts. First, they closed the port of Boston. This was a major blow to the New England economy. Merchants would go broke, the ship crews and stevedores would lose their jobs, and even those in unrelated professions (like silversmith Paul Revere) would lose business from the depressed economy.
Second, the Acts required colonists to house British soldiers on their own private property. In other words, they were forced to accommodate their enemies and were having their natural right to property violated.
Third, the Acts said that any person accused of a crime would be tried in England, not by a sympathetic jury in the colonies that would probably acquit them. This violated the fundamental Common Law right to a trial by jury of one’s own peers.
Fourth, the Acts disbanded the Massachusetts legislature, taking away their democracy and representative government. Their right to self-government had become subject to his majesty’s whims. Not only would Parliament tax without representation, but the colonists could even lose their own representative assemblies.
There was a major shift between the colonies and the English government through 1763 and 1774. In just over ten years, the British government had stripped the colonists of key elements of their freedom, independence, and democracy. The English government had turned away from the legacy of liberty it had pioneered.
Colonial actions against the Coercive Acts were bold and decisive. First, they called a “Continental Congress”—a united body consisting of representatives from all the colonies—to protest British actions and serve as an independent government. Even though the Coercive Acts were directed primarily at Massachusetts, the colonies now had a sense of solidarity. An attack on one was an attack on all. If Parliament could do this to Massachusetts, the other colonies could be next. The Congress then called for a boycott of British goods and for a day of fasting and prayer. (Washington himself spent the entire day at his local church in Virginia.) Most tellingly, the Congress called for the colonists to begin forming militias, stockpiling weapons, and preparing for war.
The British ministers saw what was going on. They sent General Thomas Gage to stop this incipient rebellion by seizing the colonists’ weapons at Concord and arresting the “radical” leaders (Samuel Adams and John Hancock). Gage decided to avoid conflict with the colonists by carrying out these orders at night and heading for Concord covertly.
The Sons of Liberty had developed an elaborate system of signals to communicate British actions. Apprised of “Redcoat” movements, Paul Revere set off in the middle of the night to warn the militia of each town that was on the road to Concord.
Early on the morning of April 18, 1775, the British regulars drew up to Lexington Green. The ever-ready “Minutemen” of the local militia were there to meet them. The British ordered them to disband. They didn’t. After a few moments, a shot came from an unknown source and war was on. The first shot is often referred to as “the shot heard round the world,” as the implication of war with the British with its impressive Navy and war record was unprecedented. The British military elite quickly dispatched the untrained colonists. This scuffle at Lexington is considered the first battle in the War for American Independence.
As the British soldiers continued their march to Concord, the Americans began to use the tricks they had seen at work against them in the French and Indian War. Instead of lining up and fighting in a European style, they hid behind walls, trees, and houses and took unexpected and random shots at the soldiers marching down the road. These guerilla tactics were so effective that the British never completed their objective and had to make a hasty retreat back to the safety of Boston.
Round one had gone to the Americans, but the die was cast. The British, now aroused fully to anger, threw the weight of the mightiest economic and military power on the planet towards subduing these unruly colonies. Reconciliation between the two sides became less tenable and the momentum for independence began to rise.
The colonial response to specific British policies and laws became a catalyst for an unprecedented discussion and debate in America about the nature of liberty and freedom, as well as how the rights and liberties of the people might be protected. In an amazingly short decade following the French and Indian War, an unbridgeable separation developed between England and the colonies. This gulf developed because of rebellious colonists, who were passionate and willing to take direct action against the taxes and institutions created by Parliament.
There were also hundreds of educated men who shaped the appeal for liberty, creating a revolution of thinking even before the Revolution was fought. Their essays, editorials, and speeches filled hundreds of pages with carefully and skillfully articulated arguments for liberty and self-government. They desired to preserve their liberty, to justify their rebellion against England, and to create new forms of government based on the lessons of ancient and modern forms. They drew upon all available sources and traditions, including books on English law, history, and political philosophy; the Bible; the writings of Christian philosophers and historians; the writings of classical antiquity; and the political philosophers of the Enlightenment. They also drew on 150 years of experience with self-government in the colonies, 3,000 miles away from England, Parliament, and the King.
Thomas Paine, more than anyone else, helped turn the hearts and minds of the American colonists to freedom from England. Paine is fascinating, not only because he was one of the great persuasive writers in U.S. history, but also because he was so far along in life when he finally found his calling. Paine had tried school teaching, civil service, and small business and failed at all of them. Finally, as he approached the age at which people normally died (life expectancy was in the forties), he put pen to paper and discovered that he had a gift with words. One of the greatest writers of all time didn’t even know he was a writer until late in life.
Paine turned his remarkable skills to a remarkable cause when, in 1776, he wrote his masterwork Common Sense. It immediately sold 500,000 copies, saturated the colonies, and convinced the American people that protesting British tyranny was not enough—they should completely sever ties with the mother country. It was “common sense,” said Paine, that America should reject the king’s authority, declare independence from England, and become a great nation of its own.
Paine, for all of his foresight and patriotism, got something wrong. He subscribed to a false paradigm which saw the entire English system as hopelessly tyrannical and the American fight for liberty as a struggle against corrupt English traditions. Unfortunately, this view continues to distort much historical perception of the founding.
The reality is that the colonists were the freest people in the entire world long before independence. The English system was a great source, rather than enemy, of American liberty. The colonists did not fight the War for Independence to achieve something new; rather, it was a war to preserve freedoms that they had long enjoyed as “Englishmen.” They inherited a remarkable legacy of liberty from England and then added to it.
Thomas Jefferson and Congress produced the Declaration of Independence in the summer of 1776. At that point, the war was already in full swing. Congress was acting as an independent government, but they had to issue a statement to formalize and explain their break from England.
They understood that the Declaration of Independence was to become one of the most important political documents in history. They carefully selected a drafting committee among whose members were three key, inspired choices.
First, Benjamin Franklin, who had more prestige than any other American. Congress wanted the colonists, Great Britain, and the whole world to take notice of this Declaration, and Franklin’s participation in producing and signing it would have that effect. Franklin was not only the scientist who discovered the workings of electricity, but also a publishing tycoon, a self-made millionaire, a philosopher, and an inventor. Because of his prestige, Franklin was an obvious choice to help write the Declaration.
Second, Congress chose John Adams. He had been the foremost advocate for independence in their debates. Adams was not a great writer, but he could move and persuade in his speeches. It is often said that Adams was the voice of independence, and Jefferson its pen. Adams also had an eye for talent. It was Adams who had the foresight to nominate George Washington as Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army. And now Adams selected Jefferson to write the first draft of the Declaration.
Third, Congress chose Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson was an inspired choice because of his ability to write with the precision and cadence that we all know. It’s not just what the Declaration says, but how it is said. The words themselves, as well as the principles, would stand the test of time.
Unlike Abraham Lincoln, Joseph Smith, Thomas Edison, and other great Americans, Jefferson was born into wealth. His father belonged to the privileged Virginia gentry class and passed on to Jefferson an abundance of land, slaves, and property. Although many in such circumstances would become spoiled and squander their opportunities, Jefferson did not. As a young man, he went off to William & Mary College and fell under the mentorship of a professor named George Wythe who taught young Thomas to ask questions and diligently seek answers—to thirst for knowledge.
That became the guiding principle of Jefferson’s life. As an attorney, Jefferson knew the law, and he also studied science, philosophy, invention, music, poetry, literature, classics, languages, mathematics, and even architecture (his home Monticello remains one of the great examples of Greek Revival architecture in America). In fact, when President John F. Kennedy welcomed forty-nine Nobel Prize winners to the White House in 1962 he said, “I think this is the most extraordinary collection of talent and of human knowledge that has ever been gathered together at the White House—with the possible exception of when Thomas Jefferson dined alone.”
Jefferson remains widely revered by many Americans, but he also had glaring weaknesses. He can’t escape the charges of hypocrisy: he wrote the proposition “all men are created equal” but owned many slaves; he condemned excess but lived in luxury; he encouraged fiscal prudence but died heavily in debt.
Jefferson explained beliefs concerning Christianity by writing:
My views [of the Christian religion] are the result of a life of inquiry and reflection, and very different from that anti-Christian system imputed to me by those who know nothing of my opinions. To the corruptions of Christianity I am, indeed, opposed; but not to the genuine precepts of Jesus himself.
Jefferson’s solution to the corruption of Christianity was a return to the pure, original doctrines that Christ himself had taught. Near the end of his life, Jefferson wrote:
I hold the precepts of Jesus, as delivered by Himself, to be the most pure, benevolent, and sublime which have ever been preached to man. I adhere to the principles of the first age, and consider all subsequent innovations as corruptions of His religion, having no foundation in what came from Him … If the freedom of religion guaranteed to us … can ever rise … truth will prevail of fanaticism, and the genuine doctrines of Jesus, so long perverted by His pseudo-priests, will again be restored to their original purity. This reformation will advance with the other improvements of the human mind, but too late for me to witness it.
Jefferson died in 1826; Joseph Smith went to the Hill Cumorah in 1827. The truth was indeed restored after his death, just as he predicted. But the story doesn’t even end with Jefferson’s death. In 1877, Wilford Woodruff was serving as president of the newly dedicated St. George Temple when a group of men appeared to him in vision, asking that their temple work be done. “These were the signers of the Declaration of Independence,” said President Woodruff, “and they waited on me for two days and two nights.” In fact, he said, “they argued with me”—they berated President Woodruff for being lax in bringing gospel ordinances to them. “We laid the foundation of the government you now enjoy,” they said, “and we never apostatized from it; but we remained true to it and were faithful to God.”
The relationship between Adams and Jefferson is worth pursuing for a moment because it is one of tragedy and redemption. Here in 1776 they were friends, “Founding Brothers,” fighting for a common cause of freedom. They spent hundreds of hours together working, traveling, and conversing both as colleagues and friends.
But in the early days of the republic the curse of partisanship arose. Jefferson led the Republican Party and Adams drifted towards the Federalists. The Republicans would make terrible accusations against Adams, and the Federalists would make terrible accusations against Jefferson. This wedge drove them apart until they would not even speak to one another. The friends had become enemies.
Fortunately, at the end of their lives, resolution was achieved. Touched by a letter received from a mutual friend urging reconciliation, Adams wrote to Jefferson who then reciprocated. Adams and Jefferson renewed their friendship with a correspondence that remains a valuable historical source and window into the minds of the Founders. Most remarkable of all, these men sank into the grave at nearly the same time. On July 4th, 1826, Adams lay dying in his Braintree, Massachusetts home. Before breathing his last, he said, “Jefferson yet lives.” He was wrong. Jefferson had died just a few hours before—50 years to the day of the adoption of the Declaration of Independence. U.S. President John Quincy Adams saw this not as coincidence, but “visible and palpable marks of divine favor for which I would humble myself before the ruler of the universe.”
The Declaration of Independence marked the birth of the United States, but its importance goes well beyond that. Its principles have also inspired the whole world. Since 1776, people worldwide have claimed the right of self-government; consent of the governed; and the rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. The spark of the Declaration set the world ablaze with freedom and that fire continues to spread a liberal democracy, which is increasingly the default form of government worldwide. The principles of the Declaration have become the aspiration of all mankind.
Finally, the Declaration not only created America, but also defined it. America is not an ethnicity, race, geography, or language. It is a creed—the set of ideals laid forth by Jefferson in the Declaration. America was made in 1776 not just because the Declaration formally separated the colonies from Great Britain, but also because it set down the principles that define this creedal nation.
The Declaration has four sections. The first is an introduction, or statement of purpose:
When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.
After setting the stage with this statement of intentions, Jefferson then digresses to give us a summary of John Locke’s philosophy. These basic philosophical principles are crucial to the Declaration’s purposes. He begins with the following statement:
We hold these truths to be self evident
Notice that Jefferson does not say, “We hold these perspectives” or “opinions” to be self-evident, but truths. There are relative truths, but there are also eternal truths, and these Lockean principles are among them. They are final, absolute, and independent of time or space. As U.S. President Calvin Coolidge explained,
About the Declaration there is a finality that is exceedingly restful. It is often asserted that the world has made a great deal of progress since 1776, that we have had new thoughts and new experiences which have given us a great advance over the people of that day, and that we may therefore very well discard their conclusions for something more modern. But that reasoning can not be applied to this great charter. If all men are created equal, that is final. If they are endowed with inalienable rights, that is final. If governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed, that is final. No advance, no progress can be made beyond these propositions. If anyone wishes to deny their truth or their soundness, the only direction in which he can proceed historically is not forward, but backward toward the time when there was no equality, no rights of the individual, no rule of the people. Those who wish to proceed in that direction can not lay claim to progress.
These truths are also self-evident, meaning they appeal so directly and forcibly to the common moral sense that we know them even prior to reflection. Since we can’t not know these truths, they are available to all, not just educated elites. Pre-Civil War southerners said that slavery may have been considered morally wrong in the North, but it wasn’t immoral in the South. The Southerners were mistaken. Slavery is wrong in all places and all times and always will be.
Jefferson then listed the relevant self-evident truths of politics:
That all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.
By “equal,” Jefferson didn’t mean all were equal in their talents, resources, or the way they looked. He was talking about their intrinsic worth, agency, and natural rights. Regardless of who we are, we possess rights to Locke’s trinity of life, liberty, and property. Jefferson even went beyond property to the more expansive, “the pursuit of Happiness”—not only do we have the right to pursue and control property, but also to use that property to pursue happiness as we see fit.
Jefferson then moves from Locke’s view on rights to his social contract theory:
That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed
Jefferson is saying that government exists not by divine right or arbitrary control, but by agreement with the people it is under contract to protect. The power of government is only legitimate if it is living up to its end of the bargain–protecting rights. The government doesn’t give you rights; they are yours naturally, it is under contractual obligation to protect them. For thousands of years, monarchs, oligarchs, and tyrants had been telling people that they owed their lives, liberties, and properties to the government. Jefferson totally turned that around. Public servants protect rights only because the people have delegated that power to them.
After this summary of Lockean philosophy, Jefferson showed why it matters for the subject at hand:
That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government
A contract can be created, but contracts can also be violated and thereby made null and void. The same is true of the social contract that creates governments. When a government violates its contract to protect our natural rights, then that contract is no longer in force. This justifies rebellion against an unjust government.
But Jefferson needed to add a caution, making sure people didn’t just overthrow their government on a whim:
Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes
Jefferson wanted to make clear that governments shouldn’t be overthrown every time the people disagree with something it does. Instead, there must be a “long train of abuses” that reveals a tyrannical design. It’s also important to remember that those of us who live in a democratic society have redress for government abuse at the polls. The Founders had no such option. After all, their primary point of contention with Britain was “taxation without representation.” Without democratic recourse, our founders had no choice but revolution.
Since the whole principle of independence hinged on whether or not the British government had violated the social contract, Jefferson spent most of the remainder of the Declaration proving that the British had, indeed, taken away American rights to life, liberty, and property. In his third section, he listed, in great detail, that “long train of abuses” that brought the colonies to this point.
Then, in a climactic final paragraph—the fourth section—Jefferson takes us to the actual declaration itself. Everything preceding was merely preparation for this grand crescendo:
We, therefore, the Representatives of the United States of America, in General Congress, Assembled, appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions, do, in the Name, and by Authority of the good People of these Colonies, solemnly publish and declare, That these United Colonies are, and of Right ought to be Free and Independent States; that they are Absolved from all Allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain, is and ought to be totally dissolved; and that as Free and Independent States, they have full Power to levy War, conclude Peace, contract Alliances, establish Commerce, and to do all other Acts and Things which Independent States may of right do. And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.
We must focus on that final line because it alone puts to rest a commonly held view that first gained currency a century ago. In 1913 a book came out called An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution that accused the Founders of doing what they did because it was in their economic interest. The book's thesis has since been soundly refuted, but it kicked off a whole industry of Founding Father bashing that continues into the present. Thousands of books have been written claiming that the Founders were greedy, exploitative men whose ultimate motivations were money, domination, and power.
While some of this critical tradition has served the useful purpose of helping us to see the Founders’ imperfections, much of it makes quite ridiculous claims. We could go one by one through these arguments and refute them with historical evidence, but we don’t need to. All we have to do is look at those last four lines in the Declaration of Independence. Who, in pursuit of private wealth and gain, would sign their own potential death sentence and pledge away all of their earthly possessions? Each of the signers would have been executed had the revolution failed. After everyone had signed the Declaration, somebody said, “Gentlemen we must now hang together,” and Franklin chimed in, “yes, or we most assuredly will hang separately.”
Some may say this pledge was just an empty promise; however, over a dozen of the signers did lose everything. Many had their homes ransacked, plundered, and/or burned by the British. Some of them were captured or exiled and suffered extreme hardships that led to premature deaths; some had family members taken, others fought as soldiers in the war—physically putting their lives on the line. They did, in fact, give their fortunes to their “support of the Declaration.” Had they been seeking power and fortune, they would have recanted at the first sign of sacrifice. None of them did; the exact opposite of the misguided views of some historians.
The divine truths in the Declaration of Independence fueled the American war against the British, which ended with the surrender of British General Cornwallis on October 19, 1781. The official Treaty of Paris was signed two years later.
American General George Washington firmly believed that only Divine Power had allowed his army to succeed against such great odds and that he had only been an instrument in the hands of the Almighty. Washington said the hand of Providence was so conspicuous that anyone who doubted it was “worse than an infidel that lacks faith” and “more than wicked” for not acknowledging that obligation to the Creator.
Although the Americans had successfully and miraculously won their war for independence, it is far from the conclusion of the story. The Founders would need to ensure its continued success through their implementation of the principles in the Declaration and the United States Constitution. This, however, proved to be a long and arduous process.
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