The History of New York State
Book XII, Chapter 5, Part 5

Editor, Dr. James Sullivan

Online Edition by Holice, Deb & Pam


Van Buren discouraged this thought; and, as his ingenuity had failed to prevent a vacancy from occurring in the Governorship, he tried to clothe Clinton with disloyalty to party. He would have people remembered that the man whom they were now clamoring to put into the governorship, had conspired with Federalists not so long ago. Given the opportunity, he might again betray the Republican party. Even now, some of the Federalist leaders were drawing near him. Justices William W. Van Ness and Jonas Platt were among the canal man's supporters; the Van Rensselaers were out to elect him Governor; and several other signs seemed to point to a secret understanding between the meteoric republican and the Federalists. But Van Buren's arguments were futile--the canal influences were stronger than party just then.

Justice Joseph G. Yates was evidently of this opinion at the time when Van Buren asked him to become Republican candidate for the Governorship, against Clinton. Yates was as respectable and as ambitious as his father's cousin, Robert Yates, who had twice been gubernatorial candidate; but he saw that inevitable defeat would face him. Yates was of the cautious type--careful in everything, scarcely ever wrong in his actions, but never sensationally right. Following the correct middle course in everything, his personality was only about middling.

Of far different type, however, was Peter Buell Porter, whom Van Buren next approached. Major-General Porter had the Clintonian restlessness and daring. Almost everything he did was colorful. As a young lawyer, he, when twenty-two years old, had figured as counsel in the first trial by jury held in a court of record in western New York. That was at Canandaigua in 1795. Some years later, we find him associating with Red Jacket, the Indian orator, in defense of an Indian charged with the murder of a white man near Buffalo. In 1802 he was in the State Assembly, but he retired, so that his elder brother might have a chance. Soon Peter was heard of in Congress. In 1812 he was chairman of the Committee on Foreign Relations, and "advocated with great eloquence the declaration of war against Britain." Having succeeded in this, he at once resigned his seat in Congress to wield the sword. He was probably the first general to reach the Niagara frontier; brought to Buffalo, indeed, the first news of the declaration of war. He chafed under border inaction, under the inactivity of the regular commander, Brigadier-General Alexander Smyth especially. Once, in the last months of 1812, he begged to be permitted to lead his volunteers alone into Canada, if the regulars would not go. Upon being denied, he openly charged General Smyth with cowardice. The resultant duel happily ended without bloodshed, and it was quite characteristic of General Porter that the two duelists should afterwards repair to Dayton's Tavern "where they supped and spent a convivial evening together." General Smyth was soon removed but Porter remained at the front until peace came. In the summer of 1814 he was eager to cross "to take Canada for a breakfast spell." And when the British invested American forces at Fort Erie, Porter could hardly hold himself on the other side of the Niagara River long enough to scrape together a militia force strong enough to cross. With 3,000 militia eventually assembled, a murmur arose against service beyond the borders of the State. Porter met it in a characteristic way. Galloping up and down the line he alternately cursed and cajoled the men until, of the 3,000, only 100 refused to cross to the relief of Fort Erie. The others went on to glorious victory and their general "to undying fame." Porter was wined and fined, received honors galore--a gold metal, a sword of honor--he was even offered commission as commander-in-chief of the United States Army. So it was evident that General Porter, then forty-four years old, was one of the great men of New York. He was of striking personality, fearless, brilliant, eloquent, as happy in spoken expression as in facial, as honorable in his political records as his military. No man in New York at that time stood better chance of defeating DeWitt Clinton for the Governorship, thought Van Buren. Moreover, Porter was actually almost as great a proponent of the canal scheme as Clinton. He had been a canal commissioner for as long as Clinton, and had been interested longer. Why should Clinton be permitted to steal all the thunder?

Porter was willing to stand, and Spencer suspected that Van Buren--so skillful in the maneuvering of political factions--might in the end control the Legislature. Bit in this emergency, the judge proved to be just as subtle as the politician. Spencer wanted the Republican nomination for Clinton and he wanted all of the Republican strength. So he agitated Republicans in Federalist counties to demand a voice in the nominating caucus. Formerly, the minority in counties had been denied the privilege of participating in the nomination of a Governor. Spencer's agitation served his purpose, and was productive of a reform which brought into nominating conventions delegates selected by the people. DeWitt Clinton was nominated, and Van Buren was lampooned. Nevertheless, the latter took the defeat with good grace. Indeed, his worst enemy could not detect any meanness in his legislative actions at this time of defeat. He sincerely advocated Clinton's canal measure, and brought several bitter anti-Clintonians to its support.

Tammany would have neither Clinton nor his "impractical and chimerical" canal project which they declared to be "fit only for a ditch in which to bury Clinton." Ridiculing Clinton and blocking the bill at every stage, the measure might easily have been defeated in the Senate had Van Buren thrown his support to Clinton. By the way, it was in this contest that the friends of Clinton called their opponents: "Bucktails." #39

Porter, of course, was a staunch advocate of the canal project; this must have been evident to Tammany. Nevertheless, in their hatred of the former mayor, they accepted Porter as their candidate. He did nothing to cooperate with Tammany, however, seeming to think that his own distinguished career, as a legislator and soldier, should give him as strong a recommendation as was needed. Several inveterate enemies of Clinton were, however, working hard for Porter. Still, the people wanted the Grand Canal, and wanted only one man at its head. So, out of less than 45,000 votes cast, Clinton received 43,310. Porter received only 1,479 votes. Never before and only once since has such an overwhelming percentage of votes been cast for a gubernatorial candidate in New York State. #40

On the Fourth of July, 1817, three days after the inauguration of DeWitt Clinton as Governor, construction of the Erie Canal as begun.

Bucktails and Clintonians--DeWitt Clinton, now Governor and by almost unanimous vote, would seem to have an almost unobstructed road before him. As a matter of fact, the road he must travel remained very rough. All rods, indeed, would always be rough for him, who treated all men, friend and foe, so unceremoniously. Clinton, despite his sudden fall and meteoric rise, had not changed; he was still the Clinton of former days, still the "boss' who looked with contempt upon those who served him, and with arrogant intolerance upon those who differed from him.

Clinton could handle rough jobs and rough men. Undoubtedly, he was an excellent executive. He delighted in the rush of canal affairs, had a marvelous capacity for work, and what would have overcome the average man scarcely taxed his physical endurance. He was a humane dynamo. "The canal is in a fine way," he wrote to Henry Post, a month or so after his inauguration. #41 "Ten miles will be completely finished this season, and all within the estimate. The application of the simple labor-saving machinery of our contractors has the operation of magic. Trees, stumps, and everything vanish before it." Clinton could never have wished for a happier lot than was his now--in absolute control of the greatest public work that had ever been attempted in America.

Like all enthusiasts, his venturesome spirit carried him farther than he should have traveled. Had he transferred part of this canal burden onto the shoulders of willing and quite capable subordinates, he would have had time to study the significance of political movements a little more closely. He would then have seen that, although he had been the almost sole choice of the people, there was not like unanimity in the Legislature. He would have realized he could only be served by the people once in four years, whereas the Legislature would be at his elbow, or in his way, every year. Between elections, the Legislature should have been his constituency.

Clinton was not a good political manager. He was no match for Ban Buren in the management of political units. No man who assumes a "domineering, uncompromising, intolerant" dictatorship is likely to succeed as well in a democratic country as a man of considerate, serene placidity as one who sidles into a group with a quiet assurance of fellow-feeling and mutual interest. Clinton always relied upon his strong arm, Van Buren always upon his wits. Remembering his astounding majority, the Governor had been inclined to snap his fingers at any suggestion of political combinations against him; but he had eventually to realize that if he did not act against Van Buren, the latter would soon act against him. Indeed, when the Legislature convened in January, 1818, it was clear that Van Buren's word was more powerful than his own. Although the Kinderhook genius was quiet, it was the calmness of assured strength that possessed him. This quality, which was based in thoroughness, was destined to carry him to the highest office in the land. It had carried him far in his own State, already. Van Buren was not the "Little Marry" whom Elisha Williams had sneered at seven years before. Elisha Williams, "the idol of his time," one of the greatest orators of his day, the advocate whose presence and personality in court at once impressed everyone--bench, bar, jury--as "considerable," #42 could hardly be expected to have happy recollections of a painstaking "little" lawyer who "matched wits" with him in the court and, most astounding to relate, defeated him with his quiet, but remarkably effective way of reaching the hearts of the jury. The declamatory exciting eloquence of Williams, his vivid coloring and magnificent invective, his inimitable humor often had less effect upon jurors than the serene insinuating assurance possessed by Van Buren, whose logical words manifested only a clear analysis of a web of intricate affairs. Elisha Williams was apt to hide the fact in the flourish of rhetoric, but Van Buren presented truth, without flourish. It was humiliating tot he great advocate to be defeated by the comparatively colorless "Little Matty"; therefore, one does not wonder that he wrote so slightingly of one of Van Buren's early political successes. "Poor little Matty," he wrote, "what a blessing it is for one to think he is the greatest little fellow in the world,. It would be cruel to compel this man to estimate himself correctly. Inflated with pride, flattered for his pertness, caressed for his assurance, and praised for his impertinence, it is not to be wondered that in a market where those qualification pass for evidence of intrinsic merit he should think himself great." Men of small physical stature go through life heavily handicapped. Many of the great men who suffered under the masterly strokes of Van Buren's political rod were pained very much more by the exasperating thought that he was, after all, only a "little fellow."

"Little Matty" knew all "the tricks of the trade." While he was not, as some of his contemporaries thought, "a stranger to a high standard of political morality," he did not hesitate to take advantage of technical slips which most broad-minded men would fail to see or would deem to be pardonable errors. For instance, Henry Fellows, a Federalist, was elected tot he Assembly from Ontario County, in 1817, by a majority of thirty votes over peter Allen, a Republican. Attorney-General Van Buren found that the Federalist member's certificate showed the name of Hen. Fellows; and as "Henry" was not "Hen," Peter Allen was seated. Incidentally, Allen's vote was needed to elect a Republican Council of Appointment.

Clinton might have acted similarly, but generally he got his ascendancy by stronger means. In January, 1818, Van Buren was desirous of making William Thompson, who disliked Clinton, the Speaker of the Assembly. To make sure that he would be nominated, Van Buren, in his characteristic thoroughness, brought his partisans together in secret caucus on the evening before the session opened. Clinton wanted Obadiah German to be the Speaker, and had no doubt that his recommendation would be followed. So sure of it was he that he did not even think it necessary to make known his wishes beforehand. But when the Republican caucus met, all the Bucktails were present, but seventeen Clintonians were absent. Hence, Thompson received forty-two votes and German only thirty-three. Clinton had been outwitted by the quiet, thorough Van Buren. Clinton then stumbled into another trap set by the Bucktails. His followers would not join with Ban Buren's to make the nomination of Thompson unanimous. After two days of balloting, Clinton's hand was uncovered on a motion declaring Obadiah German the speaker. German received sixty-seven votes against forty-eight; but on his side were seventeen Federalists. Again Clinton was brought under suspicion of party disloyalty.

The Governor, indeed--like many other more discerning politicians--was fast becoming convinced that the Federalists must soon cease to exist, that its membership must soon divide and pass into one or other of the Republican factions. Clinton was not disinclined to create a new party consisting of Federalists and Clintonian Republicans, the Bucktail republicans being left with Tammany and perhaps some conservative Federalists to constitute the other Republican party. Clinton was not the man who could build such a new party. He was not prepared to sacrifice enough to inspire radicals with confidence. He "was neither reformer nor pioneer. He loved the old order of things, the Council of Appointment, the Council of Revision. . . . .and all the machinery that gave power to the few and control to the boss." #43

Clinton's flagrant violation of the caucus rule--that a majority must have right of way--was a very grave blunder. Out of it, difficulties multiplied for him as time went on. In fact he was never able to correct it satisfactorily. The immediate result was an obvious cleavage of the Republican party--at least in New York. Bucktails would have little on common with Clintonians henceforth; and in the distrust Republicans had of the Governor's fealty, Van Buren was able to considerably add to the strength of the Bucktails. In the Council of appointment, he contrived to bring discredit upon the Governor. Moreover, he was soon able to undermine Clinton's authority even among canal men. "A majority of the canal commissioners are now politically opposed to the Governor," declared the Albany "Argus," upon the resignation of Joseph Ellicott and the appointment of Henry Seymour in 1818, "and it will not be necessary for a person who wishes to obtain employment on the canal, as agent, contractor, otherwise, to avow himself a Clintonian."

Van Buren's logical mind next became convinced that the Bucktails must be converted from opposition to advocacy of the canal project. He saw that this was the "pet scheme' of the people, and that this party could not hope to defeat the Clintonians by opposing the canal. Bucktails might continue to oppose Clinton--that was a personal animosity he would have the people know. As a party, the Bucktails now favored the canal; indeed, the people had a false conception of the true state of things if they believed Clinton to be the only many who was pushing, or could push, the great undertaking to completion. It occupied the attention of very many men--many of greater technical ability than Clinton. The shrewd Bucktail leader was determined that the canal could no longer be the monopoly of one man. There were others who were better fitted than Clinton to carry through the great undertaking.

Bucktails and Clintonians drifted farther apart in the bitterness of differing opinions as to who should succeed Rufus King, as United States Senator, in 1821. King, of course, had always been a Federalist, and both factions of the republican party would prefer to have a Democrat in the office. Clinton wanted John C. Spencer, son of Ambrose; Van Buren preferred Samuel Young. Both were capable lawyers. Spencer had much of the strength of character of his father. While district attorney for Western New York six years before, he had shown no mercy for wrongdoers. He was relentless in his pursuits, no less relentless when he pursued politicians instead of criminals. Like Clinton, he was imperious and strong-willed; went on to a political goal, no matter who went under in consequence. Spencer had served a term in congress, and had had little difficulty in taking place among the leaders. Indeed, he seemed to quite fittingly drop into the place of the great south Carolinian, Calhoun, who was just then leaving Congress to enter Monroe's Cabinet. So Clinton's nominee at least had merit. Van Buren's choice, Samuel Young, was also a man of outstanding qualities. He was brilliant on the platform, and forceful with his pen. Of distinguished bearing, he spoke with such natural confidence, such magical fluency, such ease, such commanding eloquence, that he was much more effective on the public platform than Spencer. He was equally outstanding with his pen. His series of essays defending privateering legislation by New York in 1814 made him known throughout the State as "the sword, the shield, and the ornament of his party." He was at that time Speaker of the New York Assembly, and seemed to be heading for a distinguished political career. Clinton did not like him--for the reason that he did not like Clinton. Young was just as intolerant of opposition. This characteristic, and a somewhat hasty tempter, indeed, lost Young many friends who recognized his many excellent qualities, and would have liked to help him on.

The Bucktails, it seems, did not see any chance of electing Young. It is doubtful whether they really wanted him. What they wanted more was to prevent the nomination of Spencer. They succeeded in breaking up the caucus, when German's and Peter Livingston's differing opinions seemed likely to turn to blows; and the joint session of the legislature was adjourned, on February 2, 1819, before choice could be made. Rufus King, it seems, wanted to continue as Senator, and neither the Bucktails nor the Clintonians could afford to oppose him very strenuously, for what little power there still was in the Federalist party in New York would seen to be in his hand. Senator King was then about sixty years old, and "of living statesmen he had no superior." He had the distinction of being the first United States Senator elected from New York State; and during the three decades since that time, had always been leading Federalist. He had seen all the great leaders of its early heyday pass from power; had seen the party dwindle to--scarcely a faction. Of what remained of it, Senator king was one of the respected elder Statesmen, if not the recognized leader. It would entirely pass away ere long, there seemed to be no doubt, and then New York Bucktails would rather take former Federalists into its own fold than see them pass under the Clinton banner.

Intriguers were busy during 1819. Clintonians were suspicious of Bucktails, and the latter looked upon all the movements of Clinton as sinister. As the Legislative session of 1820 neared, the latter's movements were very closely watched. It seemed that he might win both the day and the party--that Clinton might make someone else then King the next Untied States Senator, and sweep into his fold all Federalists save a few of the most old-fashioned. At this time, Van Buren saw that half measures would no longer do. He decided positively upon King. "We are committed to his support," he wrote. "It is both wise and honest. Mr. King's views toward us are honourable and correct. It will put my head on its propriety." #44 Van Buren, who only a year ago, had accused Clinton of party disloyalty in consorting with Federalists, now saw virtues in his own alliance with the aristocrats. Of course, circumstances alter cases. Our outlook is changed by the color of the glass. Undoubtedly circumstances had changed considerably during the year. Van Buren's own circumstances were less affluent. The fat fees of the attorney-generalship had been taken from him. Clinton had actually given the office, as a "sop," to the Federalists, by appointing Thomas J. Oakley, in his place in July, 1819. So perhaps Van Buren may be pardoned for now wishing to place the whole of the Bucktail strength behind King. To bring this about a cunning letter was drafted. It was evidently inspired by Van Buren, even if written by Marcy--it was so much like other later remarkable letters that originated in the long head of the Kinderhook statesman. The letter reached all Bucktail Republicans at the psychological moment. It stated many plausible, good and honorable reasons why they should support the Federalist, Rufus king. One of the reasons, the most forcible, was that King was opposed to the re-election of Clinton as Governor. This was most effective, for, of all political desires, Bucktails craved the defeat of Clinton most. And the time was fast approaching when nominations for Governor would be in order. Clintonians were not aware of this, and their leader dreaded to offend any section of the Federalist Party; he stood in need of all its strength if he would confound the Bucktails in the coming struggle.

So it happened that, in the end, al Legislators--Clintonians, Federalist, and Bucktails--voted for King, for United States Senator. Van Buren had been the master-mind. His letter had done its work thoroughly, being so skillfully phrased as to be as unanswerable by Clintonians as by demurring Bucktails. Therefore, it was quite natural that Rufus king returned to the Senate with kindly feelings toward Van Buren. The younger Federalists, however, remained under the domination, or at least the influence, of Clinton. They were ambitious, and he held the State patronage. Sot he radical Federalist faction drifted away from King, and, as very few conservative Federalists still survived, and King would not ally himself with the Bucktail republicans, the venerable Senator was to al intents a man without a party. Still Van Buren was contended. He knew that what influence the Senator could exert would be directed against Clinton, thus benefiting the Bucktails.

The Martyred Governor--Lines soon began to be drawn for the Governorship campaign. Clinton had been sharpening his sword for many days. In 1819, he had overcome the Van Buren hold on the Council of appointment, and now held that trusty weapon firmly in his own hand. It was useful. Even such a "high-minded" Federalist as peter A. Jay, son of the peerless John Jay, had been influence into association with Clinton by being appointed recorder of New York City. In many other ways, Clinton added to his store of munitions. The belligerent Governor was indeed eager for another fray with Van Buren. According to his letters to Post, Van Buren was "an arch scoundrel" "the prince of villains," and a "confirmed knave." #45 Evidently his diminutive frame but mighty brain were ruffling the irritability of the Governor, just as they had that of another great man of the Bucktail leader's professional days. Perhaps the man from Kinderhook, though outwardly serene, was also somewhat disturbed and perturbed by the vigorous measures of the Governor. At all events, in his letter to Rufus King, in January, 1820, Van Buren refers to Clinton and his friends as "very profligate men," "political blacklegs," and "a set of desperadoes." #46

For some time Van Buren looked forward to the contest with more than his usual serenity, for he had prevailed upon Vice-President Daniel D. Tompkins to accept nomination. The Great War Governor, four times in the office and now very near to the highest office in the Nation, should be able to defeat Clinton, he thought. There was just one cloud in the wide expanse of blue sky, but it would pass, thought Van Buren. The attempt of the Clintonians to impute dishonesty to Tompkins--in connection with the distribution of the million dollars raised for war purposes, at a critical period of the war--could not for a moment be construed by any sane voter as meaning anything else than it actually was--a mean, despicable political ruse to discredit a worthy, high-minded statesman, one who had manifested such sterling practical patriotism, such courageous initiative, at a time when part of the people of New York were not disposed to even raise a hand to repel the invader. Tompkins' record as a Governor was unimpeachable, his ability as an administrator had been hardly equaled and never excelled; and his personal character was without blemish. He was known from one end of the State tot he other as a man of incorruptible honor, steadfast, upright, sincere. No dastardly trick like this which the Clintonians were now devising could shake the people's good opinion of their high-minded ex-Governor, thought Van Buren.

Vice-president Tompkins was not so confident. In fact, he was very much concerned--more that such an accusation should even for a moment be thought of, than that it could be proved against him. His conscience was clear, and he needed no "white-wash" such as Clintonian leaders in the State legislature were craftily contriving to maneuver through the houses--to make it appear that even they were sorry for the obviously guilty ex-Governor, and would pardon him, stupendous though the defalcation was. Tompkins could have fought the changes successfully in almost any impartial court of law, but he knew how long and poisonous could be the tentacles of the loathsome octopus, suspicion, once the body of the hideous thing had become excited. Evil seems to find readier place in men's minds than good. So, for a while, Vice-President Tompkins hovered between a desire to shrink from courting public expression on the matter and a grim determination to fight it out publicly.

Even before he was nominated, in January, 18209, the sky began to darken ominously. Van Buren and some other Bucktails, and also Rufus King, were forced to recognize that unless the unsettled accounts were disposed of, Tompkins would not be likely to succeed against the "Junto who have stole into the seats of power." Politics is no respector of persons. Its only kind of power. And unless an aspirant for office has power on his side, politics must ostracize him, though he possess the noblest of characters. Van Buren realized that the Tompkins influence was dwindling fast. He soon found himself inclining more and more to Smith Thompson, who was then Secretary of the Navy. Rufus King, at Van Buren's suggestion, did what he could to persuade Tompkins to retire in favor of Thompson. The latter was willing to stand, but Tompkins could not at once decide. He soon acted, confirming the opinion of Judge Yates, who had declared that Tompkins would accept; that he had, indeed, "never refused an offer of any sort in his life." #47 However, Van Buren had said that all Republicans loved and respected the Vice-President and that if he should decide to stand, they would support him "to the bat's end," even though they considered that Thompson's chance of election was greater. As the Vice-President has now decided to face his accusers squarely, all loyal Bucktail leaders must enthusiastically take the field as strong pace-makers in Tompkins; fifth race for the Governorship.

The situation was not very bright for Bucktails, although they were not unaware that Clinton was not finding his way at all easy. Rufus king had apprehended that a "majority, possibly a large majority of Federalists would vote for Mr. Clinton," but this majority was by no means a certain factor. Indeed, it soon chilled in the presence of the overbearing dictator. The Federalist "majority" did go so far as to publish a document "dissolved and annihilated "; but it also pronounced the Clinton party as "simply a personal one." Entity, independence, self-respect must be sacrificed, if one would curry favor with Clinton; and the Federalists were not all prepared to go as far in self-effacement. They were mostly ambitious young radicals, craving office. "To obtain office" in a Clintonian government, they said, "one must laud its head and bow the knee, a system of sycophancy disgusting to all 'high-minded' men."

However, there was something stronger than party in DeWitt Clinton--a hypnotism superior to political blundering. His very ruthlessness was attractive at times. DeWitt Clinton was one of the great men of his time--a man of vision and courage. Success followed him because he had no feat of failure. In the face of almost certain defeat, his confident personality carried him again into the Governorship. Although there was an obvious popular swing to the Bucktails, it was found, when the ballots were counted, that in a polling of almost 100,000 votes, Clinton's majority over Tompkins was about 1,400. #48 this was a distinct tribute to his personality, for in the same election, Bucktail legislators achieved pronounced success, strengthening their control of the State Senate and capturing the Assembly by a majority of eighteen over all factions.

Tompkins grieved over his defeat--grieved mortally over the cause of it. although innocent, he wanted to hide his face; thought at one time even of resigning from the Vice-Presidency. He retired to his private estate, and excited the sympathy, it seems, of even the victorious Clinton. "Our friend on Staten Island is unfortunately sick in body and mind," write Clinton in September. "His situation upon the whole is deplorable and calculated to excite sympathy." Although Tompkins was eventually vindicated and again elected Vice-President, his heart had sustained a mortal wound. Life left his shrunken frame altogether shortly after the close of his second term in the National office. Who knows what the wolfish adversaries of "the farmer's boy," Tompkins, filched from him when they tried to rob him of his honor? Who can say that he might not have gone on to the Presidency had his life been permitted to run even another decade, which would hardly have been its normal span, for he was only fifty-one years old when death came. The pathos of the Tompkins case became more extreme in the fact that after his death--many years after--came the discovery that the State was his debtor--financially as well as in many other respects. Honor to whom honor is due. Unfortunately, honor is apt to be denied to the greatest men until long past due date.


The History of New York State, Lewis Historical Publishing Company, Inc., 1927

This book is owned by Pam Rietsch and is a part of the Mardos Memorial Library

Transcribed by Holice B. Young

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