American Roots

Jane Addams was a country girl who reformed the big city. Anative of rural Illinois in nineteenth- century mid-America, she wentto booming, roaring Chicago, forged her lifework amid teeming streetsand squalid tenements, and permanently changed the metropolis of herstate. Only a genius could have done this. Jane Addams was a geniuswho, luckily, arrived on the scene at just the right moment to playher role in history. Between her birth in 1860 and her establishmentof Hull-House in 1889, the United States, rising from the disaster ofthe Civil War, became a nation less and less agrarian, more and moreurban. And Jane Addams imaginatively and energetically utilized thenew urban environment, with its unsolved problems, to carry out themission to which she dedicated herself.

That mission, based on individual effort, mutual help, peacefulreform, and faith in progress, placed her squarely in the Americantradition--appropriately, for she had deep American roots. Herparents, John Huy Addams and Sarah (Weber) Addams, were originallyfrom Pennsylvania, where their ancestors had lived since Colonialtimes. In 1681, William Penn had granted a tract of land in his newcolony to an Englishman named Robert Adams, who crossed the Atlanticand became one of the earliest Pennsylvanians. He was joined by hisbrother Walter, progenitor of the line that produced Jane Addams.Walter's son Isaac (Jane's great-grandfather) seems to have been thefirst "Addams," adding the extra "d" apparently to avoid confusionwith a relative of the same name. Isaac's son was Samuel Addams, andhis son was John Huy Addams, the father of Jane Addams.

Born in 1822, John grew up in the rich farmlands close to thePennsylvania Dutch country. Pious and hardworking, much concernedwith personal salvation, John apprenticed himself to the owner of aflour mill on the Wissahickon Creek, soon developed the calloused andflattened "miller's-thumb," formed diligent habits that shaped hisentire life, and developed a taste for books and ideas that he laterpassed on to his famous daughter. He also fell in love with SarahWeber, a belle of Kreidersville, Pennsylvania, who had received apolished education in Philadelphia. Sarah, a keen-witted, personablegirl "accomplished in music and drawing," reciprocated John'sfeelings. They were married in 1844.

Sarah's father, Colonel George Weber, an enterprising flour-millowner, was descended from German immigrants who came to Philadelphiain 1727. Some of Colonel Weber's friends and relatives had migratedto Illinois; their reports of boundless opportunity in that rapidlygrowing region made him feel that young John Addams might make asuccess if he too headed west after his marriage to Sarah. In fact,the Colonel offered to travel with the newlyweds, evidently so thathis expertise might be of assistance in the setting up of a new millin the wilderness. John's father, Samuel Addams, was prosperousenough to provide four thousand dollars for the expedition, quite ahandsome sum of money at a time when the average wage was only a fewdollars a week-- and one dollar went a long way.

"A two-wheeled conveyance"

So it happened that John Addams married Sarah Weber, and, as hisdiary puts it: "July 29, 1844. Myself and wife left Kreidersville atfour a.m. in a two-wheeled conveyance." They would pick up ColonelWeber in New York City, and be on their way to Illinois. Followingthe frontier was nothing new for an Addams. John's great-grandfatherhad made the trip from England when "the frontier" was whereverEuropeans could get a foothold on the Atlantic coast. Hisdescendants took the rivers and Indian trails west, forgetting OldWorld customs and cottages, adapting to buckskin and log cabins. Likeso many others, they pushed into the interior, mastering nature asthey went but also being mastered by it.

After the Revolution, the Northwest Territory--that broad basinbetween the Ohio River and the Mississippi--was the giant magnetluring men westward. Formerly it had been a domain of darkness,blocked off by the French, but known to have northern lakes spreadingvast as a sea. Out beyond Pennsylvania, explorers said, were hugetracts, covered like a green rug by the great forest, piercedoccasionally by deer or buffalo trails. Oak and maple, tulip andsycamore, beech and hickory covered the land. Then the woods ended.After that came two hundred and fifty miles of gently rolling plains,through which flowed rivers called Kaskaskia, Sangamon, and Illinois.The grass was so tall it bent and swayed like waves.

Studying the area on his maps, land-minded Thomas Jefferson drewtentative boundaries for fourteen new states. His suggested names--such as Cherronesus, Pelisipia, Sylvania, Assenisipia, andPolypotamia--combined native Indian words with classical Greek. Mostof the names were far too complicated and soon forgotten; others,such as Illinoia and Michigania, were adapted with slightchanges--but in any case the land was taken and loved. The pattern ofimmigration was set under the Jefferson, Madison, and Monroeadministrations. Family farms, which these agrarian-minded Presidentsinsisted were the backbone of democracy, flourished.

Whooping and hollering men, who adopted nicknames like Buckeyes,Hoosiers, Badgers, Suckers, and Wolverines, poured into the regionthat was larger than all France, richer than fabled Cathay. In thefertile green fields they planted corn, wheat--and democracy. Thisland would feed their children's children, and people in far-offplaces. Here men of the new republic could stretch their muscles andimaginations, now that title to the rich farmlands had been clearedby a series of Indian treaties. The soil was waiting for the plow.Literature of the period reflected the spirit of the venture: "If youare willing to work at any honest business, for which your previoustraining has fitted you--if willing to join the great army, which,with the axe, the plough, and the steam engine, is striking out intothe desert, and conquering an empire greater than was ever ruled by aTimberline or a Bonaparte-- come on!"


In 1849, some doggerel in the Boston Post proclaimed:

"Come leave the fields of childhood
Worn out by long employ
And travel west and settle
In the state of Illinois."

Thousands of Easterners accepted this challenge to adventure,hardship, opportunity, and self-betterment. One man, especially, madethe trek into the Midwest a national epic--Abraham Lincoln. Born inKentucky in 1809, Lincoln was thirteen years older than John Addams.His parents took him to the Indiana woods when he was seven, and in1830 the Lincolns continued farther west into Illinois, settling nearthe Sangamon River. Tall, gangling Abe eventually established himselfin New Salem, where for six years he made a scanty living by managinga mill, keeping a store, and doing odd jobs. His skill in wrestlingmade him something of a frontier hero even before he took to law andpolitics. He was elected to the Illinois legislature in 1834 andmarried Mary Todd in 1842. Two years later, John Addams also wed andstarted west.

To northern Illinois

John, Sarah, and her father chose to go (via Albany and Buffalo)to the city named Chicago, from the Indian word meaning "wild onion."The Indians had roamed the area from time immemorial. Then FatherJacques Marquette and Louis Joliet arrived in 1673; these Frenchexplorers were the first white men to see the site on Lake Michiganthat became Chicago. Pioneers, trappers, and traders came and wentfor another century, and, after the American Revolution, a permanenttrading post arose. The United States formally took possession ofChicago with the erection of Fort Dearborn in 1803, but the garrisonwas massacred and the fort burned during the War of 1812. Not until1816 did more troops arrive to rebuild it. The area remainedquiescent until the Black Hawk War of 1832, the result of whichtriggered a period of expansion. Twelve years after this war, thepopulation numbered some eight thousand, the harbor had beendeepened, the Illinois and Michigan Canal had been started, andChicago had become a thriving emporium for traffic on the GreatLakes.

Such was the Chicago that greeted John Addams in 1844. He was notvery impressed. Deep in mud, the business district, he noted in hisdiary, was "located entirely too low" for so sodden an area. Theinhabitants appeared to be engaged mainly in mercantile business, andthere were "in my opinion too many for the place." So the next day hebought a bay mare for $41, a "tolerably good" buggy and harness for$28, and kept moving west.

The road led into Stephenson county, one of the northern tiers inthe state that had been established in 1818 as Illinois, and thatstill had to negotiate with the Indians for some of the territorywithin its boundaries. The new constitution placed major authoritywith the state legislature, leaving the judiciary and the governorsomewhat at its mercy. There had been many financial and politicalproblems, but Thomas Ford, elected governor in 1842, was a vigorousman who would, in his four-year term, reduce the state debt from$313,000 to $31,000. A census in 1845 placed Illinois's population at662,150. The rich black soil, untouched for centuries, was ready forplow and seed. The rolling terrain--a mixture of prairie, forests,and lake bottom--seemed endless. Wheat, hay, oats, and corn would dowonderfully well here; it was a young miller's paradise.

So John Addams must have thought as he drove through the tallbeardgrass spotted with such wild flowers as oxeyes, blazing stars,and purple patches of ironweed. In addition to the groves of oak andmaple he observed pawpaw, wild plum, and crab apple. This was goodcountry. It would become the heartland of a democracy stretching fromone ocean to another. For three months John and Sarah Addams explorednorthern Illinois. Six miles north of Freeport, on the banks of theCedar River, they found just what they wanted: a six-year-old sawmilland gristmill for sale with eighty acres of adjoining woodland. Thiswas the place. John's first act after purchase was to plant Norwaypine trees on his new domain. He got to work, led the movement toconstruct a railroad through northern Illinois, and won a reputationas "the best-known man in the district." In 1854, he built a two-story gray brick house for his family. In this sturdy home, onSeptember 6,1860, his eighth child, Laura Jane, was born. She wouldcarry the Addams name to every corner of the nation, and around theworld.

A frail and sensitive child, Jane later described herself as"ugly," and placed the blame on the curvature of the spine from whichshe suffered. That description was scarcely justified. Earlyphotographs show Jane as a dainty, winsome child with large, softeyes, a meditative expression, and hair neatly parted in themiddle--altogether an attractive figure. Her spinal conditionobviously made her more withdrawn than she might otherwise have been,for, with the poignant intensity of the young, she exaggerated itseffect on her appearance.

Absolute adoration

Jane had a happy childhood. She lived in a fine house over whichpresided a loving father who could afford to give his family thecomforts of their period. John Addams worked, saved, profited fromhis integrity as a businessman, and acquired a bank in Freeport.Entering politics in 1854, he won eight successive elections to theIllinois legislature He hated slavery, venerated Lincoln, and,although a Quaker, supported the Civil War, during which heencouraged enlistments so successfully that one company called itselfthe "Addams Guard." His interest in freedom was not restricted toAmerican Negroes. The events then convulsing Europe aroused in him apassionate desire for the destruction of the tyrannies to which somany nations were subjected. He took for his European hero GiuseppeMazzini, the eloquent spokesman of the Italian Risorgimento,whose libertarian writings, widely admired outside his country,inspired his fellow Italians to struggle against Austrian and papaldomination. Jane Addams never forgot the sorrow with which her fatherread of Mazzini's death in 1872.

Jane's older sisters, Alice and Mary, described their mother as anindomitable woman of realistic and pioneering spirit who had a stronginfluence on the family. Life had taught Mrs. Addams many hardlessons, and she passed some of them on. Jane barely remembered her,but what Alice, especially, related about their mother made a deepimpression on the younger girl. Thus, Alice told Jane how she and herbrother Weber had continued to play by the millrace--a dangerousthing to do--despite their mother's warning. Suddenly Mrs. Addamsappeared and pushed the little lad into the water. Alice gazed inhorror as her brother struggled helplessly. Mrs. Addams ran to acurve in the stream and fished him out as he was borne by the currentto that spot. "There was no more careless playing by the millrace,"Alice reported. Jane herself learned from her mother only at secondhand, for she was but two years and four months old when Sarah Addamsdied only two weeks after the birth of a stillborn child, in thewinter of 1863. This tragedy was a terrible blow to the family,especially to John Addams, bereft of the wife who had accompanied himwest in 1844 and borne him nine children. The widower realized thathe would have to have another woman in the house, yet he did notremarry for five years.

Meanwhile, during his daughter's formative years, he became forJane the supreme inspiration for her life. In her own phrasing, herfather was the "single cord" on which her memories of early life werestrung--the cord that "not only held fast my supreme affection, butalso first drew me into the moral concerns of life." She would neveragain meet a man who could arouse her utter and unalloyed admiration.Her memory as an adult validated her childhood conviction that heembodied everything good--love, kindness, wisdom, rectitude--andnothing bad. She responded to his affection with absolute adoration.Her greatest joy was to be with him, whether in the privacy of theirhome or on a stroll through the streets of Cedarville. Taking him asa model, she got up before dawn to read books because he had done soas a boy in Pennsylvania. She even rubbed her forefinger against herthumb in the hope that she would develop a miller's-thumb like his.

Yet it was his influence on her thinking, rather than on her dailyschedule, that was pivotal. To him life was not a series ofpropositions to be debated, but an ideal of personal conduct to befollowed. Although he contributed to every church in town, he joinednone; he confessed to being a "Hicksite Quaker," and left it at that.Perhaps he considered the phrase self- explanatory, for the beliefsof the Hicksites were well known. The sect derived its name fromElias Hicks, a Long Islander who seceded from the main body ofFriends because of a disagreement about theological principles.George Fox, the English founder of the Society, had preached both theBible as a guide for all to follow and also the "inner light" as anindividual guide. But subsequent Quaker leaders tended to stress oneor the other of these two sources of religious truth. There wereevangelical Quakers who relied principally on Scripture, and mysticalQuakers for whom the "inner light" seemed sufficient. Both groupswere represented among American Quakers, and they managed to maintainthe unity of the movement until Elias Hicks began to preach thedoctrine of the "inner light" so emphatically that he appeared tosome Friends to be denying the authority of the Bible. The elders inPhiladelphia tried to silence him. He in turn led his followers outof the orthodox fold in 1827.

The Hicksite Quakers developed their concept of the "inner light"into a creed that committed them to personal integrity, charitytoward others, religious toleration, and democracy in church andstate. This, then, was the religion to which John Addams subscribed.He set great store by the Bible, which he taught to the localchildren who came to Sunday School, but he was above all a man of the"inner light." Stoic in his insistence on self-dependence, he drummedthis idea into Jane's head: "You must always be honest with yourselfinside, whatever happens." In her fifties she referred to herfather's counsel about truth and morality as "perhaps on the whole asvaluable a lesson as the shorter catechism itself contains."

A favorite childhood haunt of Jane's was the flour mill, full ofdusty, dusky corners and empty bins in which to romp. The piles ofbran and shorts were as good as sand to play in-- especially when themiller let her wet the edges of the pile with water carried in fromthe millrace. A meditative child, she was given to dreams by nightand reveries by day, and they often reflected a precocious sense ofpersonal responsibility. She dreamed, at the age of six, that"everyone in the world was dead excepting myself, and that upon merested the responsibility of making a wagon wheel."

In 1868 John Addams married Mrs. Anna Haldeman, a rich, handsome,talented, gregarious widow with two sons. The Addams and Haldemanfamilies united, apparently with little friction, and life went onfor all of them. The children were educated in a generation thatdepended on McGuffey's Readers as the staple of thecurriculum. Schools being ungraded, classroom procedure was whateverthe teacher wanted it to be. Administrations of the switch were astraditional as those of sulphur and molasses in the spring. Thegeneral emphasis in the schools of the Middle West was on theconcrete and the practical. "Men are not educated to be mere walkingabstractions," a group of western teachers had stated in 1835, "butactive, useful men," adding that the job of the West was "to improvethe organization of human society." Such mental training was thebeginning of Jane's commitment to the socially useful.

Jane was an excellent student, fascinated from the start with theprinted page. Among the books at home, she looked into translationsof Homer and Virgil, but found herself more at ease with historicalworks--Plutarch, Washington Irving's Life of Washington, andJohn Clark Ridpath's formidable history of the world. Her father, tosweeten these large doses of heavy reading, offered her smallmonetary rewards, payable after cross-questioning on what she hadread.

"Mr. Lincoln's Letters"

Carefully preserved in John Addams' desk reposed a small packet ofpapers that he considered priceless. It was marked simply: "Mr.Lincoln's Letters." Jane Addams could not finger these letterswithout emotion, for to her, as to her adored father, the GreatEmancipator was a martyr, a hero, almost a demigod. The fact thatLincoln had known John Addams well for ten years--well enough to sendhim informal letters that began "My dear Double-D'ed Addams"--madethe association even more vivid. Serving in the Illinois legislatureduring the days of Civil War contracts and Reconstructionopportunism, John Addams maintained his integrity. He acted strictlyaccording to his "inner light," and so sterling was his reputationthat he not only never accepted a bribe, but was never evenoffered one.

Lincoln understood this stern uprightness, like everyone else."You will of course," the President said to Addams in one letter,"vote according to your conscience, only it is a matter ofconsiderable importance to me to know how that conscience ispointing." No wonder John Addams was considered, by all acquaintedwith him, as a "king of gentlemen." No wonder he kept severalpictures of Lincoln in his Cedarville home, including two in hisbedroom. Although Jane was not yet five at the time of Lincoln'sassassination, the dreadful day of his death remained engraved on hermemory. She was not in the house when the news arrived, but as soonas she entered it, she found her father weeping--openly, unashamedly.His habitual calm reserve, which she thought unshakable, had cracked."The greatest man in the world" was dead, he told her. Despite hertender years, she comprehended something of the tragedy that came toher household from an event so far away, so removed from herexperience. Looking back later, she saw that this was "my initiation,my baptism" into the harsh reality of the grown-up world.

Life went on, leaving "Mr. Lincoln's Letters" to be treasured andread. Fascinated with books, Jane nevertheless spent many of her daysout of doors, developing a romantic attachment to nature that neverdiminished afterward. When she settled in Chicago and began hersocial work, she felt sorry for the children of the slums because,among their other deprivations, they had never known the delights ofthe open country--the fresh air in the meadow, the bright sun on thetall corn, the autumn frost glistening on the pumpkins. She wishedthat these youngsters could have been transported from the citystreets to the banks of the millstream rising into high bluffs nearCedarville, the bluffs pitted by mysterious caves that she and herstepbrother George had explored in the best Tom Sawyer-Becky Sharptradition.

The abandoned limekiln was the arena where the two staged theirmock combats, with George as "The Knight of the Green Plume," readyto tilt at all enemies, imaginary and real, from knights in armor tothe snakes and muskrats that infested the underbrush. If nature wasbeautiful, it was also grim. The struggle for survival was broughthome to Jane when she spotted hawks circling overhead and weaselsprowling for rabbits, or when a muskrat turned at bay and bit Georgeseverely on the hand. Playing with George helped Jane to escape fromher childish introversion.

George's mother, Jane's strong-willed stepmother, also left anindelible impression--though not all to the good. Mrs. Addams playedthe guitar, conducted play-readings, read the latest novels, andsought social advantages for herself and her relatives. Determined toimpose on her new family more sophisticated manners and tastes, sheadded a bay window to the downstairs living room, moved her piano tothe most prominent spot, and insisted on more formal meals in thedining room. The Addams girls were instructed to wear frocks "moretasteful in line and color." All this was quite different from thesterner, simpler life to which the Addams family was accustomed. ButJohn did not object to the transformation.

The new Mrs. Addams was also determined to enjoy more gaiety andglamour than the hamlet of Cedarville provided. The state capital atSpringfield suited her better. Hence John's 1870 decision not to seekanother term-in the legislature, which met in Springfield, dismayedher. At this point she discovered that on such basic decisions, herhusband did not need her advice. If Anna Haldeman Addams wasambitious, her husband was adamant. The political career of the manwho had helped found the Republican party in Illinois and served hisstate well for sixteen years--who had even refused the nomination asgovernor of Illinois at a time when his election was all butassured--now came quietly but firmly to an end. Not outer acclaim butJohn Addams' "inner light" was his guide. There was nothing his newwife could do about it.

The riddle of life and death

Sometimes the elder Addams would take the family on excursions. Amost memorable one was the sixty-five-mile trip to Madison,Wisconsin, to visit not only the state capitol building, but also itsillustrious inmate--"Old Abe," war-eagle of the Eighth Wisconsin.This ride in the family buggy went north through the rollingcountryside. Stops at country towns were spaced so as to provideexcitement and variety: Beloit, Janesville, Milton Junction,Edgerton, Albion, Stoughton; then beautiful lakes Kegonsa, Waubesa,and Monona. "We were driven northward hour after hour," Miss Addamswrote, "past harvest fields in which the stubble glinted from bronzeto gold and the heavyheaded grain rested luxuriously in roundedshocks, until we reached that beautiful region of hills and lakeswhich surrounds the capital city of Wisconsin."

The grand climax of the trip was in the capitol; she noted that"Old Abe" looked like the proud eagle on a Roman standard. Hiskeeper, a veteran of the Civil War, ostentatiously in uniform,enthralled them with tales of the battles "Old Abe" had survived. Formany visitors the pilgrimage to see the bird that symbolized theUnited States was unforgettable. Standing under the great classicdome, hearing the solemn roll call of bloody engagements, theyrecalled another Old Abe who had been the standard-bearer of hiscountry's conscience. To the Addams family of Illinois, Lincoln gavepatriotism, in Shakespeare's phrase, "a local habitation and a name."They lived in his aura and venerated his memory.

The Union, preserved by the martyred President, grew at aremarkable rate during Jane's childhood. Not quite five when the warended, and sixteen when the Yankee troops finally withdrew from theSouth, she herself saw little of that dramatic growth. Later on shewould understand the full significance of the radical changes thattook place as the triumphant North concentrated its huge power tobolster industrial progress. Advances in agriculture, mining, andmanufacturing were phenomenal. Introduction of the Bessemer smeltingprocess turned this period into the Age of Steel and covered vastareas with smoke and soot. Robber barons came into theirown--powerful businessmen, industrialists, and bankers who foughttheir way to the top in the fierce competition of the marketplace.Many Americans felt that Horatio Alger, with his "rags to riches"stories, reflected the essential mood of the nation in the post-CivilWar period. Truth was indeed stranger than fiction in a land thatplaced no barriers before the aspirations and ambitions of the ruggedindividualist. Everyone craved success, and some achieved it.

But only some--there lay the root of a growing evil. The weak, theineffectual, and the luckless could not hope to compete. They oftenfell far behind in the race for the good things of American life,their hopes blighted by a wretchedness from which they could notextricate themselves. Nor could they look to the government forassistance. This was the heyday of laissez-faire, which meant thatthe government had no right to interfere with the individual as longas he stayed within the law--no matter what the social consequencesmight be. As a result, the American dream for the captains ofindustry had become a nightmare for the common man.

In fact, the spirit epitomized by the nation's capital appeared tobe one that favored the rich rather than the poor. In the 1870's,Washington was a city where corrupt practices flourished;speculators, lobbyists, and representatives of high finance made anart of wangling decisions in their favor from the President andCongress. The scandals of the Grant Administration became sonotorious that reformers began to demand a change in the system.

Jane Addams was nine when Jay Gould shook the nation by almostcornering gold on "Black Friday" of 1869. Gould and his piraticalcronies, Daniel Drew and James Fisk, bought large amounts of gold ata low figure, took what they acquired out of circulation, and createda shortage that pushed the price up. The conspirators then provoked apanic on the stock exchange by spreading the false rumor thatPresident Grant had decided to keep federal supplies of gold off themarket, which meant that the shortage would continue, and that theprice would keep climbing. This conspiracy might have reduced thenation's financial system to chaos if Grant, finally alerted to theperil, had not released four million dollars' worth of gold, a movethat ruined many speculators as the price tumbled back.

Jane was thirteen when Mark Twain published The Gilded Age,a biting satire on the money-grubbing, sordid politics andblatant chicanery that permitted scoundrels like Gould to operate soflagrantly. A character in this novel describes one road to successin Washington: "A Congressional appropriation costs money. Justreflect, for instance. A majority of the House committee, say $10,000apiece-- $40,000; a majority of the Senate committee, the sameeach--say $40,000; a little extra to one or two chairmen of one ortwo such committees, say $10,000 each--$20,000; and there's $100,000of the money gone, to begin with."

Misdeeds such as these abounded in America, but so did protests.Jane would find reformist ideas gathering strength when she steppedout of her secluded Cedarville home into the swirling, muddiedcurrents of public life. Meanwhile, she had some growing up to do.

Not all of her buggy rides were as pleasant as the one to Madison.On a winter trip in 1875, when she was fifteen, she came to aturningpoint in her life. Word arrived that Polly, the old familynurse, was dying in a lonely farmhouse about four miles away, andJane was the only one who at that moment could go to her. Strugglingthrough a snowstorm, Jane reached the farmhouse just before Pollysuccumbed. Alone by the bedside, transfixed with horror, the teenagegirl saw the eyes of the stricken woman staring at her, heard theharsh rattle in the throat, watched death triumphant. Jane Addamsfelt fearfully alone in a bleak universe that seemed heedless of thesorrows of mankind. On the return to Cedarville, she trembled as thecold wind cut her tear-stained face. She was beginning to understandthe human dimensions of the profound mystery that she termed "theriddle of life and death." She was beginning to realize howcomplicated the world is--and how complicated she herself was. Later,in recalling the episode of old Polly's death, Jane Addams summed upits meaning for herself: "Once to be young, to grow old and to die,everything came to that, and then a mysterious journey out into theUnknown."

From Fishwick, Marshall W. Illustrious American: Jane Addams.Pp. 9-20. Morristown, NJ: Silver Burdett Company, 1968.

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