The History of New York State
Book XII, Chapter 7, Part 3

Editor, Dr. James Sullivan

Online Edition by Holice, Deb & Pam


So Lieutenant-Governor Bradish, who had impressed most public men with whom he had rubbed shoulders, was thought most of by the State delegates. Eventually, he secured the nomination, Gabriel Furman, a Brooklyn lawyer and historian, and then a State Senator, being nominated for Lieutenant-Governor. The Democrats nominated the men who had headed their ticket in the campaign of 1840--William C. Bouck for Governor and Daniel S. Dickinson for Lieutenant-Governor.

Seward may have been visionary in some mattes, but the state of the public mind had been accurately gauged by him. In the election of 1842 Bouck was given 208,072 and Luther Bradish only 186,091. This was more than four times as great a majority as Seward had had over Bouck in 1840. The Whig disaster in the Legislature was even more overwhelming, for only one Whig Senator and thirty Whig Assemblymen succeeded in breasting the wave. Fillmore, as usual in adversity, was extremely pessimistic. "I fear the party must break up from its very foundation," he wrote to Weed. "There is no cohesive principle--no common head." Had he looked a little closet he would have seen that there was serious division among the Democrats also. Seward was much more optimistic. Writing, consolingly to one unseated congressman, he said: "It is not a bad thing to be left out of Congress. You will soon be wanted in the State, and that is a better field." #12

Bouck the Canal Man--There were many despondent Whigs who soon saw that Seward's prediction was not fanciful. The Democratic factions, which had merged for the purpose of the campaign, began to give voice to their differences soon after the inauguration of Bouck. The Democrats had for some years divided into two parts, one known as Radicals, and the other as Conservatives. So great a difference had there been that the Conservatives has voted with the Whigs for Seward in 1838. The main difference was as to canal expenditures, the Conservative Democrats favoring incurrment of debt to carry through canal improvements, and the Radical Democrats clinging to the niggardly attitude of the Regency toward outlays for canal construction. The original members of the Regency had passed its control to others. Talcott was dead; Benjamin F. Butler, who had been United States Attorney-General in 1838, had resumed the practice of law; Marcy was in Washington; Van Buren, the supreme heard of the Regency in days gone by, was resting in dignified retirement. Of those who joined the triumvirate after the three lieutenants of Van Buren had brought the Regency into powerful functioning, some were still active in its affairs, or at least in Democratic affairs. Edwin Croswell, who still published the Albany "Argus" and still was an inveterate enemy of Weed's, though they had been acquaintances if not chums in boyhood, was now leading the Conservatives, with Daniel S. Dickinson, Samuel Beardsley, Henry A. Foster and Horatio Seymour. The Radical leaders were Azariah C. Flagg, Samuel Young, George P. Barker, and Michael Hoffman. Bouck had been among the conservatives, and only in 1842, when at his instigation the Conservatives had ceased opposing the Radical demand that canal construction be halted, had temporary unity come to Democrats. Had they not done so, Bouck would probably not have been elected Governor in that year. But Bouck was a canal man; canals, in his estimation, were the greatest wealth the State could possess; and it was hardly to be expected that he, possessing authority, would fail to foster canal projects.

Although Governor Bouck well knew that he owed his election to those who were opposed to such public works, he could not resist the temptation to refer fosteringly to the subject in his message after inauguration. It is true that his reference was not positive. He merely "suggested the propriety of taking advantage of the low prices of labor and provisions" to finish some of the canal work which had been stopped halfway. His words were not vigorous enough to satisfy the Conservatives, but were looked upon as ominous by the Radicals. So the cleavage in Democratic ranks soon became against positive.

The Radical press promptly drew attention to the fact that the reunion of the factions in the previous year had been only a temporary patching. The governor's message had crumbled the patch, and new plaster would not hold. So, as the year 1843 passed, the Governor's difficulties grew. It is not strange that Whig Senators should be found uniting with Radical Democrats to reject nominations submitted by the Governor. Whigs, in general, favored loans for canal purposes, but in particular Whigs opposed Democrats. They found pleasurable zest in anticipating that this coalition would defeat the appointment of Edwin Croswell as State printer, to succeed Thurlow Weed. No man was more bitterly opposed to their leader than Croswell. Moreover, the "Argus" editor had already been State printer for seventeen years (1823-40), fattening upon State patronage, whereas Weed had had the office for only two years. If weed could not now hold the office, and if he must give way to a Democrat, they hoped that his successor might not be his old enemy, Croswell. The Radical Democrats had no desire to again add a few more gems to the crown, already heavy, of the leader of the Conservatives. So a great fight ensued over the question of Croswell's re-appointment. Ultimately, he gained the office by a vote of sixty-six to forty, but in the struggle a new political paper was given birth--the Albany "Atlas," which became the organ of the Radical Democrats, thus emphasizing the schism in the Democratic party. Conservatives were exasperated by the unexpected vetoing of the Croswell bill. He vetoed it on the ground that the State had entered into a four years' contract with Weed. The veto was sustained and disorganization became greater.

Nevertheless, in the State elections of 1843 the Democrats still held dominance--if one groups both factions as opposed to Whigs. The Democrats carried two-thirds of the Assembly districts and five-sixths of the Senate. To curb public expenditure is desirable, but such economy spelled unemployment for many men who, at best, lived from hand to mouth. So the public voice was for resumption of canal construction. In view of election returns, the Gubernatorial voice was more courageously for resumption in 1844.

The Radicals, though a legislative minority, struggled valiantly. It was shown that cost of canal construction had always exceeded the estimate. For instance, the Chenango Canal was estimated to cost $1,000,000, but $2,417,000 was the amount actually spent. The Black River project was expected to be carried through at an outlay of $437,000; it cost $2,800,000. The Genesee Valley Canal showed original estimate of $1,477,000; but the account books showed an expenditure of $5,500,000 in its construction. The Radicals therefore feared that whatever canal work was projected would involve an expenditure far in excess of planned cost.

Now another Horatio stepped onto the bridge. Horatio Seymour, a young Oneida statesman, cam forward as spokesman for the Administration. He was not so blunt as Bouck; his points were sharp but cushioned; he aimed to penetrate the obstruction by easement, instead of by direct piercing or battering. He even found it possible to commend the Regency for its policy of limiting construction to surplus revenues from canal operation. "The errors we have committed," he stated in his report, as chairman of the Assembly Canal committee, "are not without their utility or profitable teaching. The corruptions of extravagance and the bitter consequences of indebtedness have produced their own correctives, and public opinion, admonished by the past, has returned to its accustomed and healthful channels, from which it will not be readily diverted. There is no portion of our citizens who desire to increase the State indebtedness or to do aught to the detriment of our common interests, when they are shown the evils that inevitably follow in the train of borrowing large sums of money, to be repaid, perhaps, in periods of pecuniary distress and embarrassment. Neither is it true, on the other hand, that any considerable number of our citizens are opposed to the extension of our canals, when it can be affected by the aid of surplus revenues." #13 Seymour went on gently to unfold the plan of the administration, urging support of a legislative measure which would harmonize with the pledges of the act of 1842 and permit construction to be resumed, to the extent of the surplus revenues. The spokesman for the Radicals, #14 however, recommended that the surplus revenues be applied to reduce the State debt. Both opposed the beginning of any work that would increase the State debt; but there was a great distance between them; and this distance was that through which the Whigs hoped to pass into office again. Seymour, by his admirable suavity and patience, and his "incomparable temper under a thousand provocations," succeeded in getting his bill, as written, passed through the Assembly by a vote of sixty-seven to thirty-eight; but the opposition was fiercer in the Senate. Still, with the aid of five Whigs, the Seymour measure was finally passed by a majority of four.

Van Buren Fades Out of the Picture--the Year 1844 was, of course, a Presidential year, and New York seemed likely to come in for especial favor. At one time it seemed as if the standard bearers of the three parties, Abolition, Whig, and Democrat, might be New Yorkers. Birney was the accepted nominee of the Abolition, r Liberty Party; Millard Fillmore was not hopelessly out of the running for the Whig nomination, and ex-President Van Buren was undoubtedly the favorite for the Democratic honor. Although divided in State affairs, the New York Democrats were one in National politics, and most of the Democrats in the South as well as in the North favored Van Buren's return to the White House, but there was one perplexing question. Tyler had secretly negotiated a treaty of annexation with Texas; and it was quite clear that annexation would mean an extension of slavery into that vast territory. This would have strengthened the position of the South, and Van Buren needed the South, though opposed to slavery. Unfortunately, within a month or so of the Democratic National convention in 1844, an unpledged delegate called upon Van Buren to state clearly his attitude. Van Buren fervently hoped for a second term; yet he could not answer the query in any other way than to oppose annexation, if it carried slavery with it. Whether Van Buren knew it or not, it appears that the Democratic party, almost as a whole, were committed to annexation, though they could not harmonize such an action with their desire not to disturb relations with Mexico, of which Texas as then an integral part. Van Buren stumbled on this point, and it was his political end. When he became cognizant that sentiment was so strong, especially in the South, for annexation, he made it known that he would yield his opinion tot he judgment of a new Congress. "If you elect a Congress that will ratify the treaty and pay the price, I will not stand in your way," he hinted, when too late. Other Democratic forces, led by men who hands were reaching out to grasp the presidential chair themselves, were strengthened just before the convention by Jackson's letter, which favored annexation. Calhoun, Walker, Buchanan, and Cass were the arch conspirators.

Van Buren's supporters sought to have a majority vote adopted by the convention, knowing that it would be tantamount to the nomination of their candidate. But the ex-President's enemies block this move, and the two-thirds rule was retained. At the first ballot Van Buren was given 146 votes, a few more than a majority. His strength, however, declined until, at the fifth ballot, he was passed by Lewis Cass, of Michigan. In the eighth ballot, a new name came into the list, James K. Polk receiving forty-four votes; and on the ninth ballot he was nominated unanimously. At one time it seemed that New York would "bolt" the convention and that the Democratic cause would go to disaster. After the seventh ballot a motion was made to declare Van Buren the nominee by a majority vote. This was ruled out of order; whereupon the New York delegates no longer bridled their opinions of the traitors. Disorder led to the adjournment of the convention, after a Virginian had put forward the name of James K. Polk as that of a "pure whole-hogged Democrat." The New Yorkers were calmer next morning, and before the ninth ballot withdrew Van Buren's name. New York's thirty-five votes were then cast for Polk.

This was the first time in the history of national conventions that a "dark horse" had come into the race for Presidential office. The nomination of Polk cheered the Whigs as much as it disappointed some Democrats. His was not a conspicuous personality; in act, he was diminutive, politically, by comparison with some of the other Democratic leaders. There were many in New York State whose political record was more commanding, if not more commendable. "Polk! Great god, what a nomination!" exclaimed Governor Letcher, of Kentucky. Silas Wright, of New York, was given the Vice-Presidential nomination, by acclamation, but he declined the honor, preferring, as he said, not "to ride behind a black pony." So, at the third ballot, George M. Dallas, of Pennsylvania, became the understudy of Polk. Van Buren faded out of the picture absolutely.

Some New Yorkers expected a "dark horse" to ride into the Whig convention also; but this mount was spent almost before he had reached the convention hall. Fillmore was barely noticed. Henry Clay had been the unsuccessful candidate twelve years before, but now he was nominated by acclamation. The strength for Millard Fillmore did not reached greater force than to secure him third place in the voting for Vice-President. Theodore Frelinghuysen, of New Jersey, was made second-in-command of the Whig army.

Silas Wright who, out of loyalty to Van Buren had declined nomination at the convention, returned to New York with added prestige. The Radical Democrats were insistent upon giving him the place that Bouck of the conservative Democrats, held. Indeed, Wright was much distressed by the persistence of the Radicals. He considered that the office he then held--United States Senator--was as high as, if not higher than, that of Governor. In any case, he preferred the National office; and he was quite frank in announcing "his distress at being thrown from that delightful eminence into the whirlpools and quicksands at Albany." #15 Wright refused to consider the Governorship offered by the Radicals. He refused again when the Conservatives joined with them in assuring him that Bouck would withdraw in his favor. Then Van Buren intervened. Faithful to his party despite his conviction that his party had betrayed him, he assured Wright that a Whig President would probably succeed Tyler, if the Democrats lost New York. Still Wright refused, although under certain circumstances, it could be twisted into consent.

In the convention, Silas Wright was given the nomination, receiving more than twice as many votes as were cast for Bouck. Wright had no option but to accept it. Maybe, he thought that the nomination should have gone to Lieutenant-Governor Dickinson; at all events he wished Dickinson to be re-nominated. The latter, however, declined; he was one of the disgruntled conservatives who had clung to Bouck. So Justice Addison Gardiner took second place.

An echo of the Whig national convention was seen in the Whig State nomination for Governor. Millard Fillmore, whose congressional record had encouraged Horace Greeley to believe that he should no noticed for Vice-Presidential place, if not the presidential nomination, was deemed to be in need of consolation, when he returned to New York. So the sympathy of Whig leaders in his home State was made known to him by his nomination for the Governor. Weed and many other Whigs recognized that Fillmore was a desirable candidate. As George W. Patterson said to Weed; "Fillmore is a favorite everywhere; and among the Methodists, where 'old Father Fillmore' is almost worshipped, they will go him with a rush." But, the Buffalonian Congressman, like Wright, the Senator, did not relish severing the Washington connection, to again grip the political plough in stony New York. It is said that, as well as being disgruntled over his treatment at the Baltimore convention, Millard Fillmore suspected that Weed and Seward were bringing the Gubernatorial nomination to him only to destroy him, politically. He did not feel that a Whig could be elected. However, his refusal to stand was not taken seriously, and he was nominated unanimously, with Samuel J. Wilkin for Lieutenant-Governor.

Both parties thus had reluctant but strong and worthy candidates for the main State offices. Wright was five years older than a Fillmore, and f greater prestige, but both were exceptionally capable men in public responsibility; indeed, New York had not put forward two such strong candidates for many years. The election was by no means certain. There were other influences outside of both the main parties that might seriously disturb calculations. A Native-American political group was without party affiliation; so also were the anti-Renters, who were then turning Central New York into a turmoil of lawless unrest in their effort to stamp out, by other than constitutional means, the land-tenure bond which for more than two centuries had perpetuated a feudal system in democratic New York. In addition, there was the always uncertain and always perplexing abolition problem, all sincere Northerners being at heart Abolitionists, yet dreading to plunge the Nation into civil war or to impoverish good Southern whites by dispossessing them of what they deemed to be part of their personal property.

Surveying the national expanse in the spring of 1844, Seward had seen that Whig tide was strong. "We are at the flood," he wrote to Weed, "our opponents at the ebb." In New York State, as the year advanced,. The sentiment certainly seemed to be Whigward. Erastus Root addressed a gathering of 15,000 Clay enthusiasts at Utica; the only doubt that Fillmore had was that Whigs would take this mass-meeting for the election and omit to get the vote out.

Seward at this time saw far into the future. He was worried over the Texas question, which was inextricably intertwined in the vexing problem of slavery. "Texas and slavery are at war with the interests, the principles, the sympathies of all," he declared. "The integrity of the Union depends upon the result. To increase the slave-holding power is to subvert the constitution; to give a fearful preponderance which may, and probably will, be speedily followed by demands to which the Democratic free-labor States cannot yield, and the denial of which will be made the ground of secession, nullification and disunion."

But the public, outside the ranks of the Abolitionists, could see little danger in the Texas annexation. The average citizen calculated that the annexation would make the Nation that much larger; the foreboding might well be left to the future, with confidence that the Nation would be able to meet the danger. The Democrats pointed to Clay as a slaveholder, and though the Van Burenites were dissatisfied with Polk, they did not resent the nomination of the latter to the extent of voting against him and their own party. Clay, indeed, by September had come to the point where he, too, favored the annexation of Texas "upon just and fair terms"; so the Whigs who, like Seward, had denounced the Texas scheme, found that their platform was collapsing. Clay's letter was a stunning blow to Seward. "I met that letter at Geneva," he said, and thence here, and now everybody droops, despairs. It jeopardizes, perhaps, loses, the State." #16 Some weeks later, Seward, in his private calculations was conceding a majority to State Democrats. On the other hand, Fillmore was optimistic. Even though Clay might lose, he thought he himself would be the next governor of New York. His public record on the question of slavery was better reading then Wright's.

But Seward was the better judge. Polk carried New York State b y a slight plurality, and Silas Wright gained the Governorship by a majority of 10,000. #17 of significance was the casting of more than 15,000 votes for the Abolition candidate for governor, Alvan Stewart. The Abolitionists had indeed held the balance o power in New York, and it seems more than possible that Fillmore would have become Governor, and Clay would have gone to the White House. "Until Mr. Clay wrote his letter to Alabama," wrote Weed, two years later, "his election as President was certain.' Many Whigs, it was thought, had voted with the Abolitionists.

The popular vote throughout the country was: Polk, 1,337,243; Clay, 1,300,518; Birney (Abolitionist), 62,300. In the Presidential campaign of 18409 Birney had not polled more than 7,000 votes. It is, therefore, clear that the Anti-Slavery bodies throughout the country defeated Clay. In the Electoral College Polk received 170 votes, and Clay 105 votes. New York's thirty-six votes were cast for Polk. The Whigs therefore had good reason to sink back despondent, in bitter reflection. To lose a State by 5,000, in a vote of almost 500,000 is hard enough to bear, but when one realizes that the thirty-six invaluable New York electoral votes which might have elected a Whig President, notwithstanding the popular vote, fell to the Democrats and elected Polk, it is seen how poignant must have been the reflection of Weed and other leading Whigs. Bitterest to bear, perhaps, was the open rejoicing of the little band of Abolitionists.

Hunkers and Barnburners--Governor Wright began his administration much as Bouck as done. He also was confronted by disturbing friction between Radical and conservative Democrats. They clashed bitterly regarding State appointments, but the base of the friction was in canal policy. A keenly fought battle resulted in the re-election of Seymour to the Speakership, but this was balanced by the retention of the Radical leader, Azariah C. Flagg as comptroller. A setback to Radicals came with the loss of the Secretaryship of State by Samuel Young by one vote, and the ousting of Thomas Farrington from the State Treasurership. Further animosity was aroused over the selection of United States Senators, in place of Silas Wright and Nathaniel P. Tallmadge, Tallmadge had resigned with one month still to go, but there were four years still unspent of Wright's term. Several annoying maneuvers were resorted to in caucus, abut after much debate and anger, Daniel s. Dickinson was give Tallmadge's thirty days, and John A Dix, a Radical, secured the Governor's four years' term. The Conservatives more than levelled the measure by securing the nomination of Dickinson to succeed himself, for a further full term of six years. They gained their end in this by adjourning the caucus as soon as Dickinson had been given the remaining month of Tallmadge's term; and when, in march, they next caucused, the conservatives were in a majority. The Radicals were well aware what adjournment would mean, and they were tempted to unite with the Whigs to outwit the conservatives and secure the election of Samuel Young; but Young himself would have nothing to do with such a scheme.

The Radicals were disappointed also when President Polk took Marcy into his cabinet as Secretary of War. They had hoped that one of their leaders, Azariah C. Flagg, would be given cabinet honor; and Van Buren had suggested Benjamin F. Butler for the Secretaryship of State, both of these recommendations being approved by Governor Wright, but Editor Croswell whispered in the Presidential ear that neither would support his Texan program, also that Flagg did not represent the majority Democrats of New York. Knowing that Governor Wright would refuse cabinet position under Polk, Croswell hinted that the Governor would make an excellent Secretary of the Treasury. Croswell was a shrewd politician. When invited by Polk to head the Treasury Department, Wright declined. The editor next suggested that butler be offered the war portfolio. He reasoned that Butler would think himself unfitted for such a post as a farriar would be at shipbuilding. Butler declined with reluctance, saying he would have take either the State or Treasury portfolio, but the War department "carried him too far from the line of his profession." Thus, by the tortuous way of politics, Marcy was able to march into Polk's cabinet, and give the Conservatives of New York control of Federal patronage.

Just at this time, and directly arising from it, came into State politics the word "hunker." Conservatives for some time thereafter were known as "Hunkers." The Radicals, by contract or in retaliation, became known as "Barnburners". The conservatives "hunkered," it is said, after the offices to be given by an administration committed to the annexation of Texas; and the Radicals were willing even to burn down the barn "to get rid of the rats."

A Whig Assemblyman, John Young, saw an opportunity of benefiting by the division between the Democrats. He once caught the Hunkers napping. With the aid of Whigs, Native-Americans, Anti-Renters, and Barnburners, he managed to turn a minority into a reliable majority in both houses, and to pass a bill recommending a National convention, bitterly opposed by the normally dominant conservatives. Moreover, this bill, which was introduced by a Radical Democrat--William C. Crain--was, by Young's alert opportunism, turned into a Whig measure, giving the victory really to the Whigs, to the confusion of the Hunkers and the discredit of the Barnburners. Young had served a couple of terms in the Assembly and once had been a congressman, but he had never before come into the ranks of the notable leaders. His skillful handling of the Crain bill placed him "upon a higher pedestal than is often reached by men of far greater genius and eloquence."

Next we find the alert Young leading his Whig followers into the camp of the Hunkers, to pass canal appropriations. He realized that Governor Wright would veto the measure, n principle, inasmuch as he was committed to suspension of canal work until the State debt had been brought within safe control of its revenues. He also realized that the vetoing would hatter Wright support in the canal counties. It must be admitted that Wright, who had made an excellent Senator in National politics, was not happily fitting into State politics. He was undeviatingly honorable. He would not bend his conscience to meet party interest, whatever the consequence. He could not even deviate from frank honesty even to be tactful, when he thought that tactful evasion would be tantamount to dishonest. He could not meet the trickery of his enemies with the wiles of the successful politician. Wright was not a Burr, a Clinton, or a Van Buren; as a political manager he was a failure. Had he been more tactful, he might have outwitted Young, and held the Democrats together on the Crain measure. Had he exercised a little political shrewdness, he might have held the United States Senatorship until he had actually been inaugurated as Governor, and so have prevented Bouck appointing a Hunker as his successor. Undoubtedly, the Radical Democrats were disappointed with Silas Wright ad Governor, but Wright followed his conscience regardless of self-interest. In vetoing the canal appropriation, he declared that if the Legislature should be unable to pass the measure over his veto but still showed that a majority favored it, he would not hesitate to submit it tot he people, "determined that the decision of our common constituents shall be submitted to by me in the same spirit in which I have joined the issue." He was quite willing to step down from the Governor's chair; and there seems no doubt that this was one of the vital issues that divided the Democrats and prevented his re-election in 1846.

The Barnburners had am majority of two to one over the Hunkers in the Legislature of 1846; but this surprising outcome of the fall campaign of 1845 did not result from the people's satisfaction with Governor Wright. It arose from differences far deeper than those of State politics. The people of New York were profoundly interested in the slavery issue, and watched with approval the fearless stand of Preston King, a St. Lawrence congressman, in support of the Wilmot Proviso, excluding slavery from Texas. As a Radical Democrat, king focused this sentiment toward the Barnburners, although as a party the Democrats were supporters of Polk's policy of annexation. The Hunkers tried to weaken the Barnburners by forcing them into opposition to the Polk administration. For this purpose they introduced in the State Senate, soon after its reorganization, a resolution approving the course of New York Congressmen who had supported the Polk program. The Radical were up in arms, and for some weeks debate continued. The annexation of Texas had, of course, been accomplished a year earlier, and there was no real need for such a resolution. Of course, the Radicals saw that the Conservatives merely wished Washington to see that the Democratic factions on the State were as had been indicated by alignment of New York's representatives in the National houses on this issue. Secretary Marcy had, of course, supported Polk, so had Senator Dickinson. On the other hand, the junior Senator, John A. Dix, had strongly opposed annexation. So had Van Buren and Wright, for that matter. They and Dix were numbered among the Barnburners; and the Hunkers would have Polk realize that his politics could receive no support from the Barnburners' therefore, that faction should not be considered for any office.

Attached to the resolution which the Hunkers introduced into the State Senate, was a reference to the Oregon question. It demanded the whole of Oregon up to "fifty-four forty." In trying to evade the Texas question a substitute resolution, which made no reference to Texas, was also offered. The stormy debate continued for many weeks, but neither resolution reached a vote. The sentiments which were to find expression in the forming of the Republican party had already taken deep root in the Radical Democrats. Seward wrote at this time: "If you study the papers at all, you will see that the Barnburners of this State have carried the war into Africa, and the extraordinary spectacle is exhibited of Democrats making up an issue of slavery at Washington. The consequences of this movement cannot be fully apprehended. It brings on the great question sooner and more directly than we have even hoped. The hour for discussion of emancipation is nearer at hand, by many years, than had been supposed." #18


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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