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Theodore Roosevelt and His Times
The Progressive Party
by Howland, Harold


The Progressive party and the Progressive movement were two things. The one was born on a day, lived a stirring, strenuous span of life, suffered its fatal wound, lingered on for a few more years, and received its coup de grace. The other sprang like a great river system from a multitude of sources, flowed onward by a hundred channels, always converging and uniting, until a single mighty stream emerged to water and enrich and serve a broad country and a great people. The one was ephemeral, abortive--a failure. The other was permanent, creative--a triumph. The two were inseparable, each indispensable to the other. Just as the party would never have existed if there had been no movement, so the movement would not have attained such a surpassing measure of achievement so swiftly without the party.

The Progressive party came into full being at the convention held in Chicago on August 5, 1912 under dramatic circumstances. Every drama must have a beginning and this one had opened for the public when, on the 10th of February in the same year, the Republican Governors of West Virginia, Nebraska, New Hampshire, Wyoming, Michigan, Kansas, and Missouri addressed a letter to Roosevelt, in which they declared that, in considering what would best insure the continuation of the Republican party as a useful agency of good government, they had reached the conclusion that a large majority of the Republican voters of the country favored Roosevelt's nomination, and a large majority of the people favored his election as the next President. They asserted their belief that, in view of this public demand, he should soon declare whether, if the nomination came to him unsolicited and unsought, he would accept it. They concluded their request with this paragraph:
"In submitting this request we are not considering your personal interests. We do not regard it as proper to consider either the interest or the preference of any man as regards the nomination for the Presidency. We are expressing our sincere belief and best judgment as to what is demanded of you in the interests of the people as a whole. And we feel that you would be unresponsive to a plain public duty if you should decline to accept the nomination, coming as the voluntary expression of the wishes of a majority of the Republican voters of the United States, through the action of their delegates in the next National Convention."
The sincerity and whole-heartedness of the convictions here expressed are in no wise vitiated by the fact that the letter was not written until the seven Governors were assured what the answer to it would be. For the very beginning of our drama, then, we must go back a little farther to that day in late January of 1912 when Theodore Roosevelt himself came face to face with a momentous decision. On that day he definitely determined that his duty to the things in which he profoundly believed--and no less to the friends and associates who shared his beliefs--constrained him once more to enter the arena of political conflict and lead the fight.

Roosevelt had come to this conclusion with extreme reluctance. He had no illusions as to the probable effect upon his personal fortunes. Twice he had been President once by the hand of fate, once by a great popular vote. To be President again could add nothing to his prestige or fame; it could only subject him for four years to the dangerous vagaries of the unstable popular mood. He had nothing to gain for himself by entering the ring of political conflict again; the chances for personal loss were great. His enemies, his critics, and his political adversaries would have it that he was eaten up with ambition, that he came back from his African and European trip eager to thrust himself again into the limelight of national political life and to demand for himself again a great political prize. But his friends, his associates, and those who, knowing him at close range, understood him, realized that this was no picture of the truth. He accepted what hundreds of Progressive leaders and followers throughout the country--for the man in the ranks had as ready access to him as the most prominent leader, and received as warm consideration--asserted was his clear duty and obligation.

A letter which he had written two days before Christmas, 1911, shows unmistakably how his mind was working in those days of prologue to the great decision. The letter was entirely private, and was addressed to my father who was a publisher and a friend and not a politician. There is, therefore, no reason whatever why the letter should not be accepted as an accurate picture of Mr. Roosevelt's mind at that time:
"Now for the message Harold gave me, that I should write you a little concerning political conditions. They are very, very mixed. Curiously enough, my article on the trusts was generally accepted as bringing me forward for the Presidential nomination. Evidently what really happened was that there had been a strong undercurrent of feeling about me, and that the talk concerning the article enabled this feeling to come to the surface. I do not think it amounts to anything. It merely means that a great many people do not get the leadership they are looking for from any of the prominent men in public life, and that under the circumstances they grasp at any one; and as my article on the McNamaras possessed at least the merit of being entirely clearcut and of showing that I knew my own mind and had definite views, a good many plain people turned longingly to me as a leader. Taft is very weak, but La Follette has not developed real strength east of the Mississippi River, excepting of course in Wisconsin. West of the River he has a large following, although there is a good deal of opposition to him even in States like Kansas, Washington, and California. East of the Mississippi, I believe he can only pick up a few delegates here and there. Taft will have most of the Southern delegates, he will have the officeholders, and also the tepid and acquiescent, rather than active, support of the ordinary people who do not feel very strongly one way or the other, and who think it is the usual thing to renominate a President. If there were a strong candidate against him, he would I believe be beaten, but there are plenty of men, many of the leaders not only here but in Texas, for instance, in Ohio, in New Hampshire and Illinois, who are against him, but who are even more against La Follette, and who regard themselves as limited to the alternative between the two. There is, of course, always the danger that there may be a movement for me, the danger coming partly because the men who may be candidates are very anxious that the ticket shall be strengthened and care nothing for the fate of the man who strengthens it, and partly because there is a good deal of honest feeling for me among plain simple people who wish leadership, but who will not accept leadership unless they believe it to be sincere, fearless, and intelligent. I most emphatically do not wish the nomination. Personally I should regard it as a calamity to be nominated. In the first place, I might very possibly be beaten, and in the next place, even if elected I should be confronted with almost impossible conditions out of which to make good results. In the tariff, for instance, I would have to face the fact that men would keep comparing what I did, not with what the Democrats would or could have done but with an ideal, or rather with a multitude of entirely separate and really incompatible ideals. I am not a candidate, I will never be a candidate; but I have to tell the La Follette men and the Taft men that while I am absolutely sincere in saying that I am not a candidate and do not wish the nomination, yet that I do not feel it would be right or proper for me to say that under no circumstances would I accept it if it came; because, while wildly improbable, it is yet possible that there might be a public demand which would present the matter to me in the light of a duty which I could not shirk. In other words, while I emphatically do not want office, and have not the slightest idea that any demand for me will come, yet if there were a real public demand that in the public interest I should do a given job, it might be that I would not feel like flinching from the task. However, this is all in the air, and I do not for one moment believe that it will be necessary for me even to consider the matter. As for the Democrats, they have their troubles too. Wilson, although still the strongest man the Democrats could nominate, is much weaker than he was. He has given a good many people a feeling that he is very ambitious and not entirely sincere, and his demand for the Carnegie pension created an unpleasant impression. Harmon is a good old solid Democrat, with the standards of political and commercial morality of twenty years ago, who would be eagerly welcomed by all the conservative crowd. Champ Clark is a good fellow, but impossible as President.

"I think a good deal will depend upon what this Congress does. Taft may redeem himself. He was fairly strong at the end of the last session, but went off lamentably on account of his wavering and shillyshallying on so many matters during his speaking trip. His speeches generally hurt him, and rarely benefit him. But it is possible that the Democrats in Congress may play the fool, and give him the chance to appear as the strong leader, the man who must be accepted to oppose them."
This was what Roosevelt at the end, of December sincerely believed would be the situation as time went on. But he underestimated the strength and the volume of the tide that was rising.

The crucial decision was made on the 18th of January. I was in the closest possible touch with Roosevelt in those pregnant days, and I know, as well as any but the man himself could know, how his mind was working. An entry in my diary on that date shows the origin of the letter of the seven governors:

"Senator Beveridge called on T. R. to urge him to make a public statement soon. T. R. impressed by his arguments and by letters just received from three Governors, Hadley, Glasscock, and Bass. Practically determined to ask these Governors, and Stubbs and Osborne, to send him a joint letter asking him to make a public statement to the effect that if there is a genuine popular demand for his nomination he will not refuse-in other words to say to him in a joint letter for publication just what they have each said to him in private letters. Such joint action would give him a proper reason--or occasion--for making a public declaration. T. R. telegraphed Frank Knox, Republican State Chairman of Michigan and former member of his regiment, to come down, with intention of asking him to see the various governors. H. H., at Ernest Abbott's suggestion, asked him not to make final decision till he has had conference--already arranged--with editorial staff. T. R. agrees, but the inevitableness of the matter is evident.

After that day, things moved rapidly. Two days later the diary contains this record: "Everett Colby, William Fellowes Morgan, and Mark Sullivan call on T. R. All inclined to agree that time for statement is practically here. T. R.--"The time to use a man is when the people want to use him." M. S.--"The time to set a hen is when the hen wants to set." Frank Knox comes in response to telegram. Nat Wright also present at interview where Knox is informed of the job proposed for him. Gifford Pinchot also present at beginning of interview while T. R. tells how he views the situation, but leaves (at T. R.'s suggestion) before real business of conference begins. Plan outlined to Knox, who likes it, and subsequently, in H. H.'s office, draws up letter for Governors. Draft shown to T. R., who suggests a couple of added sentences emphasizing that the nomination must come as a real popular demand, and declaring that the Governors are taking their action not for his sake, but for the sake of the country. Knox takes copy of letter and starts for home, to go out to see Governors as soon as possible."

On the 22d of January the Conference with The Outlook editorial staff took place and is thus described in my diary:

"T. R. had long conference with entire staff. All except R. D. T. [Mr. Townsend, Managing Editor of The Outlook] and H. H. inclined to deprecate a public statement now. T. R.--"I have had all the honor the American public can give me. If I should be elected I would go back not so young as I once was, with all the first fine flavor gone, and take up the horrible task of going in and out, in and out, of the same hole over and over again. But I cannot decline the call. Too many of those who have fought with me the good fight for the things we believe in together, declare that at this critical moment I am the instrument that ought to be used to make it possible for me to refuse. I believe I shall be broken in the using. But I cannot refuse to permit myself to be used. I am not going to get those good fellows out on the end of a limb and then saw off the limb." R. D. T. suggested that it be said frankly that the Governors wrote the joint letter at T. R.'s request. T. R. accepted like a shot. Went into H. H.'s room, dictated two or three sentences to that effect, which H. H. later incorporated in letter. [This plan was later given up, I believe on the urging of some or all of the Governors involved.] T. R.--"I can't go on telling my friends in private letters what my position is, but asking them not to make it public, without seeming furtive." In afternoon H. H. suggests that T. R. write first draft of his letter of reply soon as possible to give all possible time for consideration and revision. T. R. has two inspirations--to propose presidential primaries in order to be sure of popular demand, and to use statement made at Battery when he returned home from Europe."

The next day's entry reads as follows:
"Sent revised letter to Knox. T. R. said, "Not to make a public statement soon would be to violate my cardinal principle--never hit if you can help it, but when you have to, hit hard. Never hit soft. You'll never get any thanks for hitting soft." McHarg called with three men from St. Louis. T. R. said exactly the same thing as usual--he would never accept the nomination if it came as the result of an intrigue, only if it came as the result of a genuine and widespread popular demand. The thing he wants to be sure of is that there is this widespread popular demand that he "do a job," and that the demand is genuine."
Meanwhile Frank Knox was consulting the seven Governors, each one of whom was delighted to have an opportunity to say to Roosevelt in this formal, public way just what they had each said to him privately and forcefully. The letter was signed and delivered to T. R. On the 24th of February Roosevelt replied to the letter of the seven Governors in unequivocal terms, "I will accept the nomination for President if it is tendered to me, and I will adhere to this decision until--the convention has expressed its preference." He added the hope that so far as possible the people might be given the chance, through direct primaries, to record their wish as to who should be the nominee. A month later, in a great address at Carnegie Hall in New York, he gave voice publicly to the same thought that he had expressed to his friends in that editorial conference: "The leader for the time being, whoever he may be, is but an instrument, to be used until broken and then cast aside; and if he is worth his salt he will care no more when he is broken than a soldier cares when he is sent where his life is forfeit that the victory may be won. In the long fight for righteousness the watchword for all is, 'Spend and be spent.' It is of little matter whether any one man fails or succeeds; but the cause shall not fail, for it is the cause of mankind."

The decision once made, Roosevelt threw himself into the contest for delegates to the nominating convention with his unparalleled vigor and forcefulness. His main opponent was, of course, the man who had been his friend and associate and whom he had done more than any other single force to make President as his successor. William Howard Taft had the undivided support of the national party organization; but the Progressive Republicans the country over thronged to Roosevelt's support with wild enthusiasm. The campaign for the nomination quickly developed two aspects, one of which delighted every Progressive in the Republican party, the other of which grieved every one of Roosevelt's levelheaded friends. It became a clean-cut conflict between progress and reaction, between the interests of the people, both as rulers and as governed, and the special interests, political and business. But it also became a bitter conflict of personalities between the erstwhile friends. The breach between the two men was afterwards healed, but it was several years after the reek of the battle had drifted away before even formal relations were restored between them.

A complicating factor in the campaign was the candidacy of Senator La Follette of Wisconsin. In July, 1911, La Follette had begun, at the earnest solicitation of many Progressive leaders in Congress and out, an active campaign for the Republican nomination. Progressive organizations were perfected in numerous States and "in less than three months," as La Follette has written in his Autobiography, his candidacy "had taken on proportions which compelled recognition." Four months later a conference of some three hundred Progressives from thirty States, meeting in Chicago, declared that La Follette was, because of his record, the logical candidate for the Presidency. Following this conference he continued to campaign with increasing vigor, but concurrently the enthusiasm of some of his leading supporters began to cool and their support of his candidacy to weaken. Senator La Follette ascribes this effect to the surreptitious maneuvering of Roosevelt, whom he credits with an overwhelming appetite for another Presidential term, kept in check only by his fear that he could not be nominated or elected. But there is no evidence of any value whatever that Roosevelt was conducting underground operations or that he desired to be President again. The true explanation of the change in those Progressives who had favored the candidacy of La Follette and yet had gradually ceased to support him, is to be found in their growing conviction that Taft and the reactionary forces in the Republican party which he represented could be defeated only by one man--and that not the Senator from Wisconsin. In any event the La Follette candidacy rapidly declined until it ceased to be a serious element in the situation. Although the Senator, with characteristic consistency and pertinacity, stayed in the fight till the end, he entered the Convention with the delegates of but two States, his own Wisconsin and North Dakota, pledged to support him.

The pre-convention campaign was made unusually dramatic by the fact that, for the first time in the history of Presidential elections, the voters of thirteen States were privileged not only to select the delegates to the Convention by direct primary vote but to instruct them in the same way as to the candidate for whom they should cast their ballots. There were 388 such popularly instructed delegates from California, Georgia, Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts, Nebraska, New Jersey, North Dakota, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, South Dakota, and Wisconsin. It was naturally in these States that the two candidates concentrated their campaigning efforts. The result of the selection of delegates and of the preferential vote in these States was the best possible evidence of the desire of the rank and file of the party as to the Presidential candidate. Of these 388 delegates, Senator La Follette secured 36; President Taft 71--28 in Georgia, 2 in Illinois, 18 in Massachusetts, 14 in Ohio, and 9 in Pennsylvania; and Roosevelt 281--26 in California, 56 in Illinois, 16 in Maryland, 18 in Massachusetts, 16 in Nebraska, 28 in New Jersey, 34 in Ohio, 10 in Oregon, 67 in Pennsylvania, and 10 in South Dakota. Roosevelt therefore, in those States where the voters could actually declare at primary elections which candidate they preferred, was the expressed choice of more than five times as many voters as Taft.

When the Republican convention met in Chicago an interesting and peculiar situation presented itself. There were 1078 seats in the Convention. Of the delegates elected to those seats Taft had committed to him the vast majority of the delegates from the States which have never cast an electoral vote for a Republican candidate for President since there was a Republican party. Roosevelt had in support of him the great majority of the delegates from the States which are normally Republican and which must be relied upon at election time if a Republican President is to be chosen. Of the 1078 seats more than 200 were contested. Aside from these contested seats, neither candidate had a majority of the delegates. The problem that confronted each side was to secure the filling of a sufficient number of the disputed seats with its retainers to insure a majority for its candidate. In the solution of this problem the Taft forces had one insuperable advantage. The temporary roll of a nominating convention is made up by the National Committee of the party. The Republican National Committee had been selected at the close of the last national convention four years before. It accordingly represented the party as it had then stood, regardless of the significant changes that three and a quarter years of Taft's Presidency had wrought in party opinion.

In the National Committee the Taft forces had a strength of more than two to one; and all but an insignificant number of the contests were decided out of hand in favor of Mr. Taft. The temporary roll of the Convention therefore showed a distinct majority against Roosevelt. From the fall of the gavel, the Roosevelt forces fought with vigor and determination for what they described as the "purging of the roll" of those Taft delegates whose names they declared had been placed upon it by fraud. But at every turn the force of numbers was against them; and the Taft majority which the National Committee had constituted in the Convention remained intact, an impregnable defense against the Progressive attack.

These preliminary engagements concerned with the determination of the final membership of the Convention had occupied several days. Meanwhile the temper of the Roosevelt delegates had burned hotter and hotter. Roosevelt was present, leading the fight in person--not, of course, on the floor of the Convention, to which he was not a delegate, but at headquarters in the Congress Hotel. There were not wanting in the Progressive forces counsels of moderation and compromise. It was suggested by those of less fiery mettle that harmony might be arrived at on the basis of the elimination of both Roosevelt and Taft and the selection of a candidate not unsatisfactory to either side. But Roosevelt, backed by the majority of the Progressive delegates, stood firm and immovable on the ground that the "roll must be purged" and that he would consent to no traffic with a Convention whose make-up contained delegates holding their seats by virtue of fraud. "Let them purge the roll," he declared again and again, "and I will accept any candidate the Convention may name." But the organization leaders knew that a yielding to this demand for a reconstitution of the personnel of the Convention would result in but one thing--the nomination for Roosevelt--and this was the one thing they were resolved not to permit.

As the hours of conflict and turmoil passed, there grew steadily and surely in the Roosevelt ranks a demand for a severance of relations with the fraudulent Convention and the formation of a new party devoted, without equivocation or compromise, to Progressive principles. A typical incident of these days of confusion and uncertainty was the drawing up of a declaration of purpose by a Progressive alternate from New Jersey, disgusted with the progress of the machine steam roller and disappointed at the delayed appearance of a positive Progressive programme of action. Circulated privately, with the knowledge and approval of Roosevelt, it was promptly signed by dozens of Progressive delegates. It read as follows:
"We, the undersigned, in the event that the Republican National Convention as at present constituted refuses to purge its roll of the delegates fraudulently placed upon it by the action of the majority of the Republican National Committee, pledge ourselves, as American citizens devoted to the progressive principles of genuine popular rule and social justice, to join in the organization of a new party founded upon those principles, under the leadership of Theodore Roosevelt."
The first signer of the declaration was Governor Hiram W. Johnson of California, the second, Governor Robert S. Vessey of South Dakota, the third, Governor Joseph M. Carey of Wyoming, and farther down the list were the names of Gifford and Amos Pinchot, James R. Garfield, ex-Governor John Franklin Fort of New Jersey, with Everett Colby and George L. Record of the same State, Matthew Hale of Massachusetts, "Jack" Greenway of Arizona, Judge Ben B. Lindsey of Colorado, Medill McCormick of Illinois, George Rublee of New Hampshire, and Elon Huntington Hooker, of New York, who was to become the National Treasurer of the new party. The document was, of course, a purely informal assertion of purpose; but it was the first substantial straw to predict the whirlwind which the masters of the convention were to reap.

When at last it had become unmistakably clear that the Taft forces were and would remain to the end in control of the Convention, the Progressive delegates, with a few exceptions, united in dramatic action. Speaking for them with passion and intensity Henry J. Allen of Kansas announced their intention to participate no longer in the actions of a convention vitiated by fraud. The Progressive delegates would, he declared, remain in their places but they would neither vote nor take any part whatever in the proceedings. He then read, by permission of the Convention, a statement from Roosevelt, in which he pronounced the following indictment:
"The Convention has now declined to purge the roll of the fraudulent delegates placed thereon by the defunct National Committee, and the majority which has thus indorsed the fraud was made a majority only because it included the fraudulent delegates themselves who all sat as judges on one another's cases . . . . The Convention as now composed has no claim to represent the voters of the Republican party . . . . Any man nominated by the Convention as now constituted would merely be the beneficiary of this successful fraud; it would be deeply discreditable for any man to accept the Convention's nomination under these circumstances; and any man thus accepting it would have no claim to the support of any Republican on party grounds and would have forfeited the right to ask the support of any honest man of any party on moral grounds."
So while most of the Roosevelt delegates sat in ominous quiet and refused to vote, the Convention proceeded to nominate Taft for President by the following vote: Taft 561--21 votes more than a majority; Roosevelt 107; La Follette 41; Cummins 17; Hughes 2; absent 6; present and not voting 344.

Then the Taft delegates went home to meditate on the fight which they had won and the more portentous fight which they must wage in the coming months on a broader field. The Roosevelt delegates, on the other hand, went out to Orchestra Hall, and in an exalted mood of passionate devotion to their cause and their beloved leader proceeded to nominate Theodore Roosevelt for the Presidency and Hiram Johnson for the Vice-Presidency. A committee was sent to notify Roosevelt of the nomination and when he appeared in the hall all precedents of spontaneous enthusiasm were broken. This was no conventional--if the double entendre may be permitted--demonstration. It had rather the quality of religious exaltation.

Roosevelt made a short speech, in which he adjured his hearers to go to their several homes "to find out the sentiment of the people at home and then again come together, I suggest by mass convention, to nominate for the Presidency a Progressive on a Progressive platform that will enable us to appeal to Northerner and Southerner, Easterner and Westerner, Republican and Democrat alike, in the name of our common American citizenship. If you wish me to make the fight I will make it, even if only one State should support me."

Thus ended the first act in the drama. The second opened with the gathering of some two thousand men and women at Chicago on August 5, 1912. It was a unique gathering. Many of the delegates were women; one of the "keynote" speeches was delivered by Miss Jane Addams of Hull House. The whole tone and atmosphere of the occasion seemed religious rather than political. The old-timers among the delegates, who found themselves in the new party for diverse reasons, selfish, sincere, or mixed, must have felt astonishment at themselves as they stood and shouted out Onward Christian Soldiers as the battle-hymn of their new allegiance. The long address which Roosevelt made to the Convention he denominated his "Confession of Faith." The platform which the gathering adopted was entitled "A Contract with the People." The sessions of the Convention seethed with enthusiasm and burned hot with earnest devotion to high purpose. There could be no doubt in the mind of any but the most cynical of political reactionaries that here was the manifestation of a new and revivifying force to be reckoned with in the future development of American political life.

The platform adopted by the Progressive Convention was no less a novelty. Its very title--even the fact that it had a title marked it off from the pompous and shopworn documents emanating from the usual nominating Convention--declared a reversal of the time-honored view of a platform as, like that of a street-car, "something to get in on, not something to stand on." The delegates to that Convention were perfectly ready to have their party sued before the bar of public opinion for breach of contract if their candidates when elected did not do everything in their power to carry out the pledges of the platform. The planks of the platform grouped themselves into three main sections: political reforms, control of trusts and combinations, and measures of "social and industrial justice."

In the first section were included direct primaries, nation-wide preferential primaries for the selection of candidates for the Presidency, direct popular election of United States Senators, the short ballot, the initiative, referendum and recall, an easier method of amending the Federal constitution, woman suffrage, and the recall of judicial decisions in the form of a popular review of any decision annulling a law passed under the police power of the State.

The platform in the second place opposed vigorously the indiscriminate dissolution of trusts and combinations, on the ground that combination in the business field was not only inevitable but necessary and desirable for the promotion of national and international efficiency. It condemned the evils of inflated capitalization and unfair competition; and it proposed, in order to eliminate those is evils while preserving the unquestioned advantages that flow from combination, the establishment of a strong Federal commission empowered and directed to maintain permanent active supervision over industrial corporations engaged in interstate commerce, doing for them what the Federal Government now does for the national banks and, through the Interstate Commerce Commission, for the transportation lines.

Finally in the field of social justice the platform pledged the party to the abolition of child labor, to minimum wage laws, the eight-hour day, publicity in regard to working conditions, compensation for industrial accidents, continuation schools for industrial education, and to legislation to prevent industrial accidents, occupational diseases, overwork, involuntary unemployment, and other injurious effects incident to modern industry.

To stand upon this platform and to carry out the terms of this "contract with the people," the Convention nominated without debate or dissent Theodore Roosevelt for President and Hiram W. Johnson of California for Vice-President. Governor Johnson was an appropriate running mate for Roosevelt. In his own State he had led one of the most virile and fast moving of the local Progressive movements. He burned with a white-hot enthusiasm for the democratic ideal and the rights of man as embodied in equality of opportunity, freedom of individual development, and protection from the "dark forces" of special privilege, political autocracy and concentrated wealth. He was a brilliant and fiery campaigner where his convictions were enlisted.

So passed the second act in the drama of the Progressive party.

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