The Relevance of Thomas JeffersonDONALD D'ELIA
Among the Founding Fathers of the American nation there appears to be none more deserving of the title of “modern man” than the Virginian, Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration of Independence and third President of the United States.
Often it happens in history and life itself, that a good but naive man’s principles have been mercilessly exposed by time to reveal logical implications which he would have condemned in his own lifetime. Such, we shall argue, was notably the case with Thomas Jefferson who, bereft of the Church’s wisdom and maternal protection, fell victim to false principles long ago unmasked by Revelation and true philosophy. These false principles, known collectively as liberalism, were made by Jefferson into a kind of religion, as we shall see; and in using the prestige of the presidency to advance this secular religion, Jefferson unwittingly proved himself to be the first of a long line of abusers of the highest office of the land. For the Jeffersonian mentality, despite all good intentions, leads inexorably to moral nihilism and the abortionist Supreme Court of the 1970’s.
Jefferson was born in 1743, the son of Peter Jefferson, a Virginian surveyor without pretensions to wealth or title. After studying Latin and Greek with Anglican priests in Albemarle county, who apparently failed to teach him the rudiments of a Christian faith, Jefferson entered the College of William and Mary where he remained a student until his graduation in 1762. It was in Williamsburg that the intelligent and highly impressionable young man came under the decisive influence of the only lay member of the faculty, Dr. William Small, professor of mathematics and natural philosophy. Small had recently come over from Scotland to teach at the Anglican college, and had brought with him many of the leading ideas of the Scottish Enlightenment, ideas which challenged religious orthodoxy and promoted the empirical philosophy of Francis Bacon (1561-1626) and John Locke (1632-1704). 
In his autobiography, Jefferson later wrote that Dr. Small’s influence on him was so great as to have “probably fixed the destinies of my life.” The Scottish philosophe was “a man profound in most of the useful branches of science, with a happy talent of communication, correct and gentlemanly manners, and an enlarged and liberal mind. He, most happily for me, became soon attached to me, and made me his daily companion when not engaged in the school; and from his conversation I got my first views of the expansion of science and of the system of things in which we are placed.” 
That “system of things,” as we have intimated, was the narrow one of modern philosophy, to wit, that of English empiricism, or better, Sensism. According to John Locke, its most famous exponent, Sensism taught that true knowledge consists only of the facts of sense experience (seeing, hearing,. etc), that, therefore, natural reason — as understood by Aristotle, St. Thomas Aquinas, and the great majority of Western thinkers — is incapable of arriving at knowledge and truth, which come after and directly from experience per se. It was a philosophy as erroneous and destructive as that of Rene Descartes (1596-1650), the other major thinker of the Enlightenment, whose “Exaggerated Intellectualism” overemphasized natural reason and altogether rejected sense experience. Paradoxically, both the Sensism of Locke and the a priori rationalism of Descartes, while seemingly opposite in the extreme amount to a radical idealism that denies the mind’s ability to transcend its own ideas.  But Thomas Jefferson, like most Enlightenment philosophes, was not rigorously analytical enough to see this. A derivative and eclectic thinker, he was to appropriate ideas from both the Lockean and Cartesian tradition and elaborate his thinking within this world view or “system of things.”
Dr. Small also taught ethics at the College of William and Mary, and it is easy to infer from what we know about Small’s other views–and Jefferson’s–that it was not Christian ethics in any recognizable sense. Small probably had abandoned Revelation, if he had ever considered it in a mature way, and Jefferson, as we shall see, seems never to have appreciated its very possibility. The same may be said for metaphysics in general. Neither Dr. Small nor Governor Francis Fauquier, F. R. S. and Newtonian philosopher, his friend and another mentor of young Jefferson, were given to metaphysical discussions. Jefferson tells us in his autobiography that he was often a dinner guest at Gov. Fauquier’s mansion where, with Fauquier, Small, and George Wythe, professor of classics, he “heard more good sense, more rational and philosophical conversations, than in all my life besides.”  It was doubtless the example of these Virginia philosophes, Small and Wythe, the latter a fellow Signer of the Declaration of Independence and an intimate lifelong friend, that Jefferson came to worship his “trinity of genius,” Francis Bacon, Sir Isaac Newton, and John Locke. 
None of these Enlightenment thinkers, whom Jefferson saw as personifying his naive faith in empirical science, could offer him that deeper view of man as spiritual person. They were modern, Protestant writers whose understanding of the philosophy and civilization of the Middle Ages was tenuous at best. So far was John Locke from the medieval Catholic appreciation of man as made in the image of God, as a spiritual person with all its consequences for private and social life, that his empiricism led him in his political and ethical theory to reduce man to a kind of atom in mere combination with others (social compact theory); led him, accordingly, to neglect a serious analysis of the concept of the common good, and to suggest a crude hedonistic utilitarianism.  All of these typically Enlightenment errors and superficialities were repeated by Jefferson and Locke’s other American students, undermining the very edifice of the new nation that they were to build. However, the Englishman’s Positive contribution of a natural rights doctrine in his Second Treatise Of Government perhaps compensated for these grave weaknesses of thought at least in the short run.
Locke’s spell over Jefferson was so complete, especially in writing the Declaration of Independence, that, when he was accused of plagiarizing from the Treatise, he vindicated himself by admitting that the ideas were so much a part of him as to be second nature. And, indeed, so they were, along with other of Locke’s characteristic doctrines. “We hold these truths to be self-evident,” Jefferson had written, 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. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, 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, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. 
The Declaration, in essence, was a transcript of Locke’s partisan 17th century Whig political theory; only Locke’s timeless normative concept of natural and moral law, which Jefferson and his colleagues likewise accepted, raised the American charter above past historical circumstances. 
Locke’s — and Jefferson’s — hedonistic utilitarianism is presupposed in the Declaration, as are social and political atomism, all of them manifestations of that Protestant individualism which was elaborated and radicalized by Jefferson into the first principle of his thought. Just as Locke’s Sensism in his Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1690), his nominalistic teaching that knowledge is merely the perception of the agreement or disagreement of ideas (sensations), developed logically into the skepticism of David Hume, so Locke’s social and political nominalism led to the radical individualism of Jefferson and his modern followers.
The Epicurean phrase, “the pursuit of Happiness,” which Jefferson substituted in the Declaration of Independence for Locke’s “property” in the triad, “life, liberty, and property,” illustrates this well. Man had a natural right to happiness, to pursue happiness, and correlative to this right, Jefferson believed, was man’s absolute freedom of conscience as the means necessary to achieve happiness, i.e. personal gratification. True, he intimated throughout his early writings that this freedom of conscience was subject to objective natural and moral law, but there is no doubt that ultimately Jefferson radically absolutized reason, the individual’s own reason, as normative. With Protagoras, his logic was bound to hold that man is the measure of all things. He frankly said as much in his writings on religion, which unlike much of his political rhetoric reveal his true character as a thinker. “I never will, by any word or act, bow to the shrine of intolerance, or admit a right of inquiry into the religious opinions of others,” Jefferson wrote in 1813. “On the contrary, we are bound, you, I, and everyone, to make common cause, even with error itself, to maintain the common right of freedom of conscience”(my italics).  Each of us “must act according to the dictates of his own reason.”  Not the right use of the faculty of reason, which the more respectable Enlightenment philosophers taught, but simply willy nilly the use of reason, was Jefferson’s ultimate statement on religion and everything else. “We should all then, like the Quakers, live without an order of priests, moralize for ourselves, follow the oracle of conscience, and say nothing about what no man can understand, nor therefore believe; for I suppose belief to be the assent of the mind to an intelligible proposition.” 
Thomas Jefferson Randolph claimed that his grandfather would not even discuss religion with his own family, lest he influence their religious “opinions” which they must work out for themselves. “It was a subject each was bound to study assiduously for himself, unbiased by the opinions of others — it was a matter solely of conscience; after thorough investigation, they were responsible for the righteousness, but not the rightfulness of their opinions; that the expression of his opinion might influence theirs, and he would not give it.”  One must be free to do one’s thing, Jefferson believed, since there was no God’s thing, no Church, no Revelation.
Jefferson’s modern, negative conception of freedom was of course the basis for this solipsism. We are all too familiar today with this absolutizing of private judgment, this heresy of man’s first parent–”You shall be as gods.”  It clearly inverts the natural order, of first being and then judgment, of truth as a condition of freedom.  “And you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.”  Jefferson, deprived of the truths of Revelation by an 18th century bourgeois culture which opposed faith to reason, body to soul, and truth to freedom, could not see this, as millions today cannot. “Your own reason,” he told his nephew, Peter Carr, “is the only oracle given you by heaven, and you are answerable, not for the rightness, but uprightness of the decision.” 
None of his “trinity of genius,” Bacon, Locke, and Newton, had gone so far as to deny Revelation and isolate man in subjectivism. For all the dangerous implications of their Sensism, they were 17th century thinkers who still placed the norm of truth in the object. Jefferson, like his much greater contemporaries, David Hume and Immanuel Kant, was simply developing the logical consequences of British empiricism and Cartesian innatism in an idealism which located the norm of truth in the subject. He was not, of course, aware of this logical and historical development of thought: of the steady reduction of object to subject (which continues in our own day). Freedom of conscience, reason, and consciousness were so thrown together in his own superficial mind, lacking as he did a faculty of logical definition, that soon, despite his ostensible appeal to reason, Jefferson was in reality taking the idealistic position that individual consciousness alone determines the object.
“The error seems not sufficiently eradicated,” Jefferson wrote in his Notes on Virginia (1785),
that the operations of the mind, as well as the acts of the body, are subject to the coercion of laws. But our rulers can have no authority over such natural rights, only as we have submitted to them. The rights of conscience we never submitted, we could not submit. We are answerable for them to our God. The legitimate powers of government extend to such acts only as are injurious to others. But it does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods, or no God. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg. 
This famous quotation,’ which goes to the heart of Jefferson’s position, puts one in mind of William James’s “Will to Believe,” and doubtless comes from the same voluntaristic (Protestant) tradition. We are struck, too, by Jefferson’s inconsistency here in not recognizing that religious ideas, like all ideas, have consequences. Elsewhere, he emphasizes this and even judges a man’s religion by his life.  For clearly it does matter if one’s neighbor is a satanist; it does make a difference to you if he believes that God exists and forbids abortion. Jefferson’s own voluntaristic religious ideas had profound consequences for himself, his state, and the new nation, especially in his authorship of the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom which was enacted into law by the Virginia assembly in 1786 and became the model for the First Amendment to the U. S. Constitution.
As is evidenced above in the quotation from the Notes on Virginia, Jefferson viewed the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom as the religious complement to that social and political philosophy which he had articulated ten years before in the Declaration of Independence. He was a lawyer by training and mentality, we should remember, and, moreover, like other Enlightenment thinkers — Helvetius, for example — he
exaggerated the role of law in improving men according to his own liberal values. Thus, he profoundly believed to the very end of his life, as his carefully written epitaph shows, that he had guaranteed at law and for all time man’s natural rights to life, political and religious liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.  And once again, Jefferson’s master teacher in this, his life work, was John Locke, whose Essay Concerning Human Understanding and political and religious writings supported the extreme individualism of the Protestant tradition. And neither thinker, of course, rose above Locke’s famous definition of a “church” as merely a voluntary society of men, a reductionistic conception held by Jefferson in the Statute.
Well aware that Almighty God hath created the mind free; that all attempt to influence it by temporal punishments or burthens, or by civil incapacitations, tend only to beget habits of hypocrisy and meanness, and are a departure from the plan of the Holy Author of our religion, who, being Lord both of body and mind, yet chose not to propagate it by coercions on either, as was in his Almighty power to do,
Jefferson stated in his preamble to the Virginia law and went on to reflect the influence of Locke’s empiricist epistemology and his arguments from the nominalistic Reasonableness of Christianity and the Letter of Toleration.  But there were really significant differences between the two men too. Locke affirmed the existence of Revelation and denied in the strongest terms that Christianity was only natural religion. He recognized Jesus as the Messiah and his fulfillment of Old Testament prophecies and working of miracles. And Locke, unlike Jefferson, saw true morality as having more than a merely natural basis.  Here again, the student deduced from his teacher’s Sensism, his empiricist theory of knowledge, the conclusion that extra-sensory (extra-mental) realities like Revelation and supernatural morality could not exist, and that Locke was inconsistent with his own principles in holding to them. The practical minded American could, however, accept his master’s religious liberalism, with its aversion to priests and dogmas.
Jefferson’s nominalistic conception of man as a “law unto himself” in. religious matters, and the consequences of this belief for religious orthodoxy, make up a good part of his writings over the years. Everything he ever wrote on Christianity was vitiated by his puerile understanding of the claims of Revelation and the Incarnation. Deep mysteries like the Trinity, Creation, Original Sin, the Immaculate Conception, the Atonement, the Resurrection, and the Real Presence of Christ he scorned as priestly frauds.  They were empirically unverifiable, to use the modern expression of positivists. “Rejecting all organs of information, therefore, but my senses,” he arrogantly observed to John Adams late in life,
I rid myself of the pyrrhonisms with which an indulgence in speculations hyperphysical and antiphysical, so uselessly occupy and disquiet the mind. A single sense may indeed be sometimes deceived, but rarely; and never all our senses together, with their faculty of reasoning. They evidence realities, and there are enough of these for all the purposes of life, without plunging into the fathomless abyss of dreams and phantasms. I am satisfied, and sufficiently occupied with the things which are, without tormenting or troubling myself about those which may indeed be, but of which I have no evidence. 
Take one world at a time, was the way like-minded Mark Twain was to put it years later, and with equal superficiality.
Jefferson’s attitude towards the Bible was well described in his letter to his nephew, Peter Carr, whose education he was supervising after the death of the boy’s parents. Once again betraying the destructive influence of Locke and especially Hume, who drew out the latent skepticism in Locke’s work, Jefferson urged the young man to take “nature” (sensible reality) as his only guide. “Read the Bible, then, as you would read Livy or Tacitus. The facts which are within the ordinary course of nature, you will believe on the authority of the writer, as you do those of the same kind in Livy and Tacitus.” But a so-called inspired writer’s claim of a miracle, he goes on to say, requires that the boy’s own reason decide whether “its falsehood would be more improbable than a change in the laws of nature, in the case he relates. For example, in the book of Joshua, we are told, the sun stood still several hours. Were we to read that fact in Livy or Tacitus, we should class it with their showers of blood, speaking of statues, beasts, etc.” Nephew Peter was astronomer enough to know how contrary it is to the law of nature that a body revolving on its axis, as the earth does, should have stopped, should not, by that sudden stoppage, have prostrated animals, trees, buildings, and should after a certain time have resumed its revolution, and that without a second-general prostration. Is this arrest of the earth’s motion, or the evidence which affirms it, most within the law of probabilities? 
The same reasoning, Jefferson argued, the same appeal to the objective laws of nature (whose existence is notoriously inconsistent with Hume’s and Jefferson’s exaggerated Sensism) demonstrated that Jesus was only a man, if a great one.  Convinced of this by his naive “higher criticism,” and dismissing almost two millennia of judgment and learning as irrelevant to the conclusion of his own “oracle” of reason, Jefferson turned to the “simplifying of the Christian philosophy” and its reconstruction as natural religion consonant with modern science. As for those speculative questions about, say, the nature of life after death, which he believed lay beyond reason in the unknown, “I have for many years,” he wrote in 1801, “ceased to read or to think concerning them, and have reposed my head on that pillow of ignorance which a benevolent Creator has made soft for us, knowing how much we should be forced to use it.” 
Jefferson’s “oracle” of reason answered enough questions about Christianity, however, to purge it of what he considered corruptions and superstitions and to reconstruct it on a “rational” basis. No sooner had he been elected President of the United States than he began privately to reform Christianity according to his own ideas. The formal project consisted of two exercises: “an estimate of the merit of the doctrines of Jesus, compared with those of others,” as Jefferson himself put it, and a selection of those passages of the New Testament concerning the life and morals of Jesus which the new Chief Executive of the United States approved as probable in the light of natural reason. In this work, which Jefferson thought to be of the highest scholarship, he took for his inspiration Martin Luther and the other Reformers of the 16th century; and there is no question that he viewed his revolutionizing of Christianity as the other side of his political mission to liberate America from Old World tyranny. The “metaphysical insanities of Athanasius, of Loyola, and of Calvin” had no place in the new, progressive religion of republican America.  That religion was “rational Christianity” or Unitarianism, and Jefferson was its prophet.  But even here Jefferson’s extreme nominalism was the final norm: “As the Creator has made no two forces alike, so no two minds, and probably no two creeds.” 
In April of 1803 Jefferson sent Dr. Benjamin Rush, his friend and co-signer of the Declaration of Independence, an outline or syllabus of “the comparative merit of Christianity.” He had promised Rush, who was a more mature Christian thinker, his controversial views on the subject.
They are the result of a life of inquiry and reflection, [he wrote in the covering letter] 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. I am a Christian, in the only sense in which he wished any one to be; sincerely attached to his doctrines, in preference to all others; ascribing to himself every human excellence; and believing he never claimed any other. 
The other moral doctrines which Jefferson compared with those of Christianity were those of the Jews and of Epicurus, Socrates, Pythagoras, Epictetus, and other Stoic and Epicurean philosophers. Jesus, like Socrates and all men who try “to enlighten and reform mankind,” was doomed to fall “an early victim to the jealousy and combination of the altar and the throne, “but even in his short life he carried ethics beyond the mere externalism of the Jews and ancient philosophers and “pushed his scrutinies into the heart of man; erected his tribunal in the region of his thoughts, and purified the waters at the fountain head.”  Like Socrates too, Jefferson believed, Jesus had his false disciples, his Platos. “Of this band of dupes and imposters, Paul was the great Coryphaeus, and first corruptor of the doctrines of Jesus.” 
But it was Plato who was most responsible for caricaturing the simple moral teachings of Jesus. It was he who, “dealing out mysticisms incomprehensible to the human mind, has been deified by certain sects usurping the name of Christians; because, in his foggy conceptions, they found a basis of impenetrable darkness whereon to rear fabrications as delirious, of their own invention.”  And that was not all. Jefferson’s arrogant Sensism knew no bounds. “We must dismiss the Platonists and Plotinists, the Stagyrites and Gamalielites, the Eclectics, the Gnostics and Scholastics, their essences and emanations, their Logos and Demiurgos, Aeons and Daemons, male and female, with a long train of etc., etc., etc., or, shall I say at once, of nonsense.”  Orthodox Christianity was priest-ridden, Platonized Christianity, Jefferson wrote again and again.
It was true, Jefferson conceded, that Jesus, while admirable in his moral doctrine, was in error as to his alledged spiritualism, if that was really what he meant by saying that, “God is a spirit.” More likely, it was Jesus’ metaphysical followers, the “spiritualizing” Platonists, who introduced this “heresy of immaterialism” into the Christian church.  Jesus himself never denied that matter was all that existed.  He may even have been an empiricist and materialist like Epicurus, Locke, and Jefferson, who believed, in the words of the latter, that “to talk of immaterial existences is to talk of nothings. To say that the human souls, angels, God, are immaterial, is to say, they are nothings, or that there is no God, no angels, no soul. I cannot reason otherwise.  Here Jefferson was reflecting, too, the influence of lesser modern thinkers, especially the French sensationalists, P.J.G. Cabanis 1757-1808) and Destutt de Tracy (1754-1836), who drew the necessary materialistic conclusion from Locke’s Sensism. 
In addition to his “estimate of the merit of the doctrines of Jesus,” and as a consequence of it, Jefferson set about revising — demythologizing would be the modem word — the New Testament. He began the project while in the White House, but finished it only after his retirement to Monticello. “I have performed this operation for my own use,” he wrote John Adams in 1813, “by cutting verse by verse out of the printed book, and arranging the matter which is evidently his, and which is easily distinguishable as diamonds in a dunghill. The result is an octavo of forty-six pages, of pure and unsophisticated doctrines, such as were professed and acted on by the unlettered Apostles, the Apostolic Fathers, and the Christians of the first century.”  It marked, he hoped, the beginning of “euthanasia for Platonic Christianity, and its restoration to the primitive simplicity of its founder.”  The mutilated text that Jefferson finally produced after his scissors-and-paste exercise would make a study in itself, and offers a striking example of how to trivialize one’s own thinking along with the Word of God. Shorn of every evidence of transcendence, Jefferson’s Bible characteristically ends with Jesus’s death and entombment.  The Resurrection, after all, was unscientific because it was beyond the realm of positive sense experience.
Jefferson did not relent in his crusade against Platonizing Christians even in the final years of his life. Indeed, his founding of the University of Virginia, in 1819, was conceived as a means of promoting his Enlightenment philosophy of reason and science against the forces of reaction. These were being led by the old enemies of Jefferson and the rights of man, the Presbyterians, the Jesuits, and other Platonized followers of that “fanatic Athanasius,” who opposed “freedom of religious opinion and its external divorce from the civil authority.”  Their creeds and formulas, their “hocus-pocus phantasm of a God like another Cerberus, with one body and three heads” were “the bane and ruin of the Christian church, its own fatal invention, which, through so many ages, made of Christendom a slaughter-house, and at this day divides it into casts of inextinguishable hatred to one another.” 
America must be saved from “the fire and faggots of Calvin and his victim Servetus. “ And it would be saved, Jefferson was certain, by that very materialistic and anti-trinitarian doctrine for which Servetus was martyred: Unitarianism. “The diffusion of instruction, to which there is now so growing an attention,” he confided to his friend, Thomas Cooper, his choice for a professorship at the University of Virginia, “will be the remote remedy to this fever of fanaticism; while the more proximate one will be the progress of Unitarianism. That this will, ere long, be the religion of the majority from north to south, I have no doubt.” 
It was, apparently, with these views that Thomas Jefferson, the third President of the United States, went to his death on July 4, 1826, the fiftieth anniversary of the Declaration of Independence. We have no evidence that he ever thought otherwise. Just before he died, he composed his epitaph, listing his authorship of the Declaration, of the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, and his founding of the University of Virginia as his greatest achievements. His nephew, Thomas Jefferson Randolph, said that the eighty-seven year old patriot had nothing to confess on his death bed.  Dr. Robley Dunglinson, Jefferson’s friend and attending physician, testified, after his patient’s death, that he had “never heard an observation that savored, in the slightest degree, of impiety.” 
Yet, Jefferson’s false principles in philosophy and religion and his private scurrilities must be an affront to real Christians. This truth, is beyond opinion, despite Jefferson’s transparent sincerity. The man who had “sworn upon the altar of God, eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man”  was himself the victim of the most dangerous tyranny of all: ignorance of the Word of God. For Jefferson could not declare himself independent of God’s truth.
D’Elia, Donald J. “The Relevance of Thomas Jefferson.” Chap. 1 in The Spirits of ‘76 (Front Royal, VA: Christendom College Press, 1983), 9-23.
Reprinted with permission of Christendom College Press and Don D’Elia. All rights reserved.
Donald J D'Elia was professor of history at The State University of New York at New Paltz. The author and co-author of many books on American history, Dr. D'Elia's Dr. Benjamin Rush: Philosopher of the American Revolution, published by the American Philosophical Society in 1974, is a standard in the field of American Revolution scholarship. The book was described as "magnificent" in the Journal of the American Medical Association and was cited for its importance by the Institute for Early American History and Culture in its "Bicentennial Bibliography of the American Revolution" (1976). The Library of the History of Ideas has selected his work as among the "best of the essays on the American Enlightenment" to have appeared in the prestigious Journal of the History of Ideas. He is the author of The Catholic As Historian, and Spirits Of '76: Catholic Inquiry among other works.
Dr. D'Elia was cited by Governor Mario Cuomo in 1984, for his "many years of dedicated service to the humanities." He is listed in Marquis "Who's Who in America" (East), "Who's Who Among Italian Americans," "American Catholic Who's Who," and other reference works. Don D'Elia was active with the Society of Catholic Social Scientists and was a member of the Advisory Board of the Catholic Education Resource Center.
Copyright © 1983 Christendom College Press
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