Web Exclusive: Who Was Delaware’s John Dickinson and Why You Should Care

William Murchison authors the new biography “The Cost of Liberty: The Life of John Dickinson.”

About the Book
William Murchison is the author of the new biography “The Cost of Liberty: The Life of John Dickinson,” from which this essay is adapted. Reprinted with permission of ISI Books (Wilmington, Del.). The book is available at isibooks.org or wherever books are sold.


We lose track of our great men and women sometimes—especially if they wore a lot of lace when alive, and could talk for hours without uttering a word modern TV censors would find worthy of a bleep. Take John Dickinson, native Delawarean and possessor of a name once familiar enough to adorn high schools, not to mention a college in Pennsylvania. He had a plantation in Dover. Schoolchildren still visit it. John Dickinson—yes; famous for . . . That depends, in some measure, upon how much faith one places in modern narratives regarding Dickinson’s agonized decision to withhold his signature from the Declaration of Independence. All the rest of his deeds—representing Delaware brilliantly at the Constitutional Convention, writing the major prerevolutionary assertions of colonial rights against England—get lost in popular accountings (HBO’s John Adams miniseries, the musical 1776) of his deliberate absence from the Continental Congress the day of the vote for independence.

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The moment would seem at hand to restore balance to general perceptions of the life and career of a gifted and influential patriot—“one of the great worthies of the Revolution,” in the words of the man whose masterpiece Dickinson felt unable to sign. Thomas Jefferson knew a patriot when he saw one. He saw in John Dickinson a deep lover of the American cause.

How did it come to be otherwise?


A Shaper of Mighty Events

Contrary to the simplistic image of The Man Who Would Not Sign the Declaration of Independence, Delaware’s John Dickinson was one of the most complex and influential figures of the entire revolutionary period, someone who was present at all the major assemblages where thinkers and activists charted the young nation’s path. The historian Forrest McDonald has called Dickinson “the most underrated of all the Founders of this nation.” 

There is much to examine in the life of a patriot who wrote with force and intellectual brilliance many of the revolutionary era’s major documents—pamphlets, petitions, and speeches, by turns forceful and intricate. Dickinson wrote an extremely popular patriotic song (“The Liberty Song”)—and probably would have written the Declaration of Independence had he been as hot as John Adams to strike off the mother country’s shackles at that precise moment. His Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania, which carefully enunciated the argument for colonial rights, were read and huzzaed throughout the colonies. London took exasperated note of them. They made him the leader, in a rhetorical and sometimes operational sense, of colonial opposition to Britain’s transgressions against her overseas sons and daughters. Historians have dubbed Dickinson the “Penman of the Revolution.” It is not a bad phrase; nor is it a totally adequate one, suggesting as much as anything else a recording secretary in half-moon spectacles, with head bent low over his journal—a note taker rather than a shaper of mighty events.

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Among the large fraternity active in the cause of independence, John Dickinson gave place, intellectually, to no one. Whenever large decisions were in the offing, his presence and counsel were wanted. In the preconstitutional period he served as chief executive of two different states, Delaware and Pennsylvania. His was the first draft of the Articles of Confederation. A decade later he was instrumental in arranging the convention that wrote the Constitution.

He was deeply learned in history and law alike. Out of the deep net of the past, he fished principles that bore directly on current affairs: respect for the admonitions and precedents of past centuries, and prudence that called for heeding guideposts and warning signs. “Experience,” Dickinson said at the Constitutional Convention in 1787, “must be our only guide. Reason may mislead us.”

Brains, energy, analytical power—one thing more John Dickinson had. The thing was moral courage of an order not often enough glimpsed today. The shifty, weasel-like Dickinson of the HBO series is hardly a man you picture facing down powerful adversaries whose shouts grow fiercer as their numbers grow greater. Yet so he faced them down—and never, as far as history knows, did he give thought to acting otherwise. He was one of the revolutionary era’s authentically great men.

Dickinson understood the risks he ran by questioning the wisdom of severing all ties with Britain in the summer of 1776. Men who had hailed him scurried away from him. He held tight to conviction nonetheless, hazarding fame and reputation to tell the truth as he saw it. The necessity of independence he had come, however slowly, to acknowledge. Was it necessary, all the same, that the task be accomplished before the perils of precipitate action were properly explored? Dickinson, a venerated tribune of the colonists’ cause, counseled precaution and delay. Of his decision to withhold approval of the Declaration of Independence, he would say: “My Conduct this Day, I expect will give the finishing Blow to my once too great and (my integrity considered) now too diminished Popularity.”

Modern reactions to Dickinson’s decision are preordained: How could this man not stand with the great Adams, the great Jefferson, and the other greats at that moment we mark every year with flags and fireworks? We shall examine the matter in its right sequence.

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“I Should Like to Make an Immense Bustle in the World”

Born on Maryland’s Eastern Shore in 1732, John Dickinson moved to Delaware’s Jones Neck, some five miles below the new village of Dover, at the age of eight, after his landowning father built a suitably imposing Georgian-style house there. That home is now known as the Dickinson Plantation, and it is where, in spirit at least, Dickinson dwelt for the rest of his long, active life. He never ceased to love the house and its lands, returning to them whenever he could. “All nature is blooming around me,” he would write during one such rural reunion in the late 1780s, “and the fields are full of promises.”

Much as Dickinson might have loved the land, he was better cut out to be a lawyer than a farmer. After studying at the Middle Temple in London—a considerable privilege for a young colonial—in 1757 Dickinson settled in Philadelphia, then North America’s most populous and important city. He thrived in law practice. Yet Dickinson was unquestionably ambitious, and his attention, as a fellow Philadelphian observed, “was directed to historical and political studies.” His entry into electoral politics had been practically predetermined.

In 1760 he won election to the Assembly of the “lower counties”—the three Delaware counties that prior to the Revolution belonged to Pennsylvania yet maintained their own legislative body. The precocious and well-connected Dickinson became that assembly’s speaker, then won a 1762 special election to fill a vacancy in the Pennsylvania Assembly. To his friend George Read he wrote with beguiling candor: “I confess that I should like to make an immense bustle in the world, if it could be done by virtuous actions.”

He soon enough had his chance. When the Stamp Act crisis broke out in 1765, marking the beginning of the rupture between the British and the Americans, Pennsylvania sent Dickinson as one of its three delegates to the first congress of the American colonies. The congress chose him to draft the Declaration of Rights and Grievances.

That was the first of many important documents written by the “Penman of the Revolution.” In 1767, when Britain’s Parliament imposed even more objectionable duties on the Americans through the Townshend Acts, Dickinson stepped forth as the leading spokesman for colonial rights and liberties. His Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania were a triumph, published in almost all of America’s newspapers and achieving an impact and circulation exceeded only by that of Thomas Paine’s Common Sense nearly a decade later. Praises rang out everywhere. A Boston town meeting called the Farmer “the friend of Americans, and the common Benefactor of Mankind.” Songs were written in his honor. The College of New Jersey—now Princeton University—made him Doctor of Laws. 

Dickinson’s Letters intensified the colonists’ sense of grievance at ill treatment by the mother country and their desire to have the matter put right. Strenuous enough in tone, they were not, however, a bugle blast of resistance. The Letters were in one sense a plea for a grand constitutional solution in the English mode. John Dickinson’s faith in the English sense of right and justice was large.


The Olive Branch

By the 1770s, however, it was becoming plainer and plainer that peaceful reconciliation would be difficult to achieve. The colonies convened a congress in Philadelphia in September 1774. Soon named a delegate to the Continental Congress, Dickinson was called on to draft a new petition to Parliament.

The petition went nowhere. Dickinson could readily see that the British-American relationship was unraveling. As the First Continental Congress broke up, he wrote presciently to his friend Arthur Lee that they would soon see “the whole Continent in arms, from Nova Scotia to Georgia.”

The Second Continental Congress convened in Philadelphia on May 10, 1775, three weeks after the Battles of Lexington and Concord. Astonishing as it may seem in retrospect, and despite the fervor of John Adams, Samuel Adams, and others, there was no immediate clamor to declare independence, least of all on the part of the middle colonies of Delaware, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Maryland. New York delegates hoped for a solution short of independence. Jefferson himself hoped for reconciliation.

Still, it was late in the day—very late—for reconciliation. Dickinson acknowledged as much when he wrote to Lee following Lexington and Concord: “What topics of reconciliation are now left for men who think as I do, to address our countrymen? . . . While we revere and love our mother country, her sword is opening our veins.” Dickinson meant to try for it nevertheless.

First he drafted the so-called Olive Branch Petition to King George III, which was urgent in tone but still dutiful in address. That forty-nine members of the Continental Congress put their names to the petition—John Hancock’s at the top; the names of the Adamses, Sam and John, fourth and fifth, respectively; that of Thomas Jefferson still lower—shows the anguish and complexity of the moment. By the time the Declaration of Independence came to be signed, just a year later, jaws and hearts were set firmly.

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The Rush to Independence

Dickinson had anticipated that his Olive Branch Petition might be the last throw of the dice. “Our Rights,” he wrote to Arthur Lee, “have already been stated—our Claims made—War is actually begun, and we are carrying it on Vigorously. . . . If they reject this application with Contempt, the more humble it is, [the more such] Treatment will confirm the Minds of [our] Countrymen to endure all the Misfortunes that may attend the Contest.”

The petition failed to move the king or his ministers. In a speech to the new session of Parliament in October 1775, George III declared the colonies to be in a state of rebellion.

On January 9, 1776, Thomas Paine barged into the American conversation on liberty by means of a pamphlet published in Philadelphia. Common Sense offered short, sharp, shocking language. Reconciliation? It was “truly farcical.” No greater cause than separation had ever existed. Now was the time. No more waiting; no more fine talk or debate. Now!

By June 1, a waterborne British force had appeared opposite Charleston. Whatever the Continental Congress meant to do, it had to do quickly.

Dickinson himself seems to have recognized that there was little hope of averting what a year earlier he had spoken of as “the calamities of civil war.” The Dickinson biographer David Jacobson writes, “Sometime in February or March of 1776, Dickinson’s attitude shifted noticeably in the direction of attempting independence.” All that remained was to make the best terms possible for entry into the new state of affairs, where, by definition, disorder was the reigning passion.

The Congress’s first attempt to thrash out the matter of immediate independence began in earnest on Saturday, June 8. The debate was not the one-sided affair that legend may have conditioned us to suspect. There was intelligence in the opposition’s arguments that Jefferson noted in his account of the day’s proceedings. Of Dickinson and other members, he recorded: “Tho’ they were friends to the measures themselves, and saw the impossibility that we should ever again be united with Gr. Britain, yet they were against adopting them at [this] time. . . . The people of the middle colonies . . . were not yet ripe for bidding adieu to British connection but . . . they were fast ripening & in a short time would join in the general voice of America.” These representatives of the middle colonies suggested that if they held aloof from the cause, their “secession” would weaken it “more than could be compensated by any foreign alliance.” Why not take the time necessary, then, to form an alliance with the only overseas power equipped to take on the British—namely, France?

The delegates discovered that quick resolution to the debate was not to be looked for. A three-week recess was declared. In the interim a committee whose leading members were John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, and Thomas Jefferson was tasked with preparing a paper explaining to all the world just what case the colonists, in the event of independence, would make in behalf of that extraordinary commitment.


“The Finishing Blow”

The Congress reconvened on July 1. That day John Dickinson arose to make his case. He cannot have expected success. He was too good a lawyer to misread the courtroom. He laid out his arguments all the same.

Those arguments (which the twentieth-century historian J. H. Powell painstakingly recovered from Dickinson’s carefully prepared notes) are worth careful reading as a corrective to now-sanctified narratives of the American beginning—jubilant bells ringing out over the land, hearts beating as one to the divine promise of a free America.

Dickinson felt “unequal to the Burthen assigned me” of swimming against the tide. Here is where he acknowledged that he expected his conduct to deliver the “finishing Blow” to his reputation. He had nonetheless to “speak, tho I should lose my Life, tho I should lose the Affections of my Country,” for “Silence would be guilt.” He implored God “to enlighten the Members of this House, that this Decision will be such as will best promote the Liberty, Safety and Prosperity of these Colonies.” There were those in the Congress contending that “we ought to brave the storm in a skiff made of Paper.” John Dickinson was not of their number.

Dickinson’s case was anything but negligible. War was on. The colonies lacked a military force that was more than an assortment of militias. A war of independence could prove a terrible thing, he warned, bringing the “Burning of Towns” and the “Setting Loose of Indians on our Frontiers.” 

The Americans also lacked a national government. Let us “take the Regular form of a State,” Dickinson said. “These preventive measures will show Deliberation, wisdom, caution & Unanimity.” Americans could come “in Bitterness of Soul to complain against our Rashness & ask why We did not settle Differences among ourselves, [why we did not] Take Care to secure unsettled Lands . . . Why [we did] not wait till [we were] better prepar’d [or] till We had made an Experiment of our Strength.”

America needed French help, too. The problem, as Dickinson saw it, was that the French were unready to come in on the American side. “ ‘We are not ready for a Rupture,’ ” he saw them saying. “ ‘You should have negotiated Till We were. We will not be hurried by your impetuosity.’ ” 

The colonies, in short, were in a “wretched” state of preparation. Where was the foresight in this endeavor? “To escape from the protections we have in British rule by declaring independence,” Dickinson said, “would be like Destroying a House before We have got another, In Winter with a small Family, Then asking a Neighbour to take Us in [and finding] He [is] unprepared.”

It was not, in certain senses, John Dickinson’s grandest oratorical hour. He presented a diffuse collection of doubts and warnings rather than a focused vision of what great things might be achieved by delay. There seems to have been in the whole presentation very little of genuine refutation. A likely reason is that the verdict had been settled in advance, and was known to all. Jefferson’s account of the proceedings before the recess made clear that opponents of independence—including, specifically, Dickinson—“were friends to the measures themselves,” if reluctant to move without greater assurance that the moment was right.

The difference between John Adams and John Dickinson consisted less in respective attachments to English-made liberties than in matters of temperament. Adams was a high-stakes gambler, unafraid to shove in all his chips, counting on his innate ability to brazen his way through any crisis. Not so Dickinson, who wanted to know that all things essential to a great enterprise had been taken into account. Both were men of vast moral courage—but courage weighed from different sacks, upon scales differently balanced.

The first vote on the resolution for independence came shortly afterward. Pennsylvania and South Carolina said no, the former by a single vote. The Delaware delegates split. The delegates from New York abstained, in accordance with instructions from their provincial congress. Edward Rutledge of South Carolina was beginning, all the same, to shift his ground. He asked for a vote the next day on grounds that his delegation might go along for the sake of unanimity.

Would Dickinson stand athwart the proceedings for so long as he thought it essential? The HBO series on John Adams represents Adams as visiting a pale and wigless Dickinson the night before the crucial vote, coaxing him to stand aside and let destiny have its way. No such visit took place. A man who had chosen to throw away his “once too great” popularity had no trouble forming his own conceptions of duty and the public interest. When the Congress convened on July 2, two dissenters from the resolution were discovered absent from the Pennsylvania delegation. They were Robert Morris, the opulent merchant, and John Dickinson. Pennsylvania’s 4–3 vote the previous day against the resolution became a 3–2 vote in favor. South Carolina switched to the affirmative. Delaware’s split having healed, that colony, too, voted for independence. New York abstained once more, according to legislative instructions. Twelve colonies stood together at last for the new liberty they saw as their undoubted right.

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Serving Delaware

Having failed to temper his colleagues’ enthusiasm for immediate independence, John Dickinson rode away to serve the colonial cause in uniform—something only one actual Declaration signer did. (That signer was Thomas McKean, another Delawarean.) Dickinson “fought for what he could not vote for,” the historian Carl Bridenbaugh has deftly said.

Dickinson recovered in time from the blow to his once too great popularity. He was too imposing a figure for his fellow Americans to cast into outer darkness. In fact, in the fall elections of 1776, the voters of Philadelphia County returned him to the Assembly. Yet he declined to serve under the radical new constitution Pennsylvania had established that year to replace its long-standing charter. In December, with reports in the air concerning a British descent upon Philadelphia, he decamped with his family to the estate in Kent County, Delaware, where he had grown up.

Delaware elected him to a seat in Congress. He besought his old friend George Read, then Delaware’s president, to dispense him from that obligation in view of, among other things, his ill health. Read agreed.

There was still, of course, a war to be waged and won. With the British pressing down on the Delaware Valley in the late summer of 1777, Dickinson returned to military service—as a private serving in a force of Delawareans. The Battle of the Brandywine went poorly for the Americans, and the British industriously cleared the Delaware Valley of colonial resistance. In the neighborhood of the Germantown road, British troops put the torch to seventeen American homes and estates. One was John Dickinson’s Philadelphia home, Fair Hill.

In 1779 Delaware once more sought Dickinson out to serve in Congress. He accepted this time, and in that capacity he signed the Articles of Confederation—the original draft of which he had been called on to write. Delaware became the twelfth state to accede to the new political order.

In August 1781, only two months before the British surrender at Yorktown, a Loyalist raiding party looted Dickinson’s Kent County estate. Returning to Delaware to deal with the damage, he found himself drawn inadvertently into the state’s politics. New Castle County wanted him as a member of the Delaware governing council. He agreed—and before the year was out, he was nominated as president (chief executive, that is) of the whole state. The one legislative vote against his candidacy was his own, or so historians surmise.

Pennsylvania, too, clamored for his return. He was elected to the Pennsylvania executive council in October 1781. The new arrangement—a Delaware chief executive sitting in the councils of Pennsylvania—was decidedly odd: odder still after November, when this same Delaware chief executive accepted the presidency of Pennsylvania.

Dickinson remained at the center of affairs through those pivotal early years of the republic. In 1786 Dickinson was sent as delegate to a meeting of the states in Annapolis, Maryland. His fellow delegates quickly promoted him to chairman. The Annapolis Conference called for a new convention, to be held in Philadelphia in 1787, for the purpose of mending the defects of the government that the Articles of Confederation had patched together.

Naturally John Dickinson was on hand for that meeting as well—now known to us as the Constitutional Convention. Delaware leaders acknowledged not only the credentials of their most famous and accomplished statesman but also the peculiar peril Delaware faced as the least populous state (with a mere sixty thousand inhabitants). Could the likes of Virginia and Pennsylvania be counted on to respect its claims to something like moral equality in the Union?


The Constitutional Convention

Dickinson’s views were well suited both to the necessities of the state he represented and to the vision animating the convention as a whole. He understood the need for a stronger central government; he understood equally well the importance of the states and their particular, locally founded interests. Early in the deliberations, Dickinson (according to James Madison’s paraphrase of his remarks) said that “the division of the Country into distinct States” provided “a principal source of stability” and “ought therefore to be maintained and considerable power to be left with the States.”

On June 7 Dickinson proposed that individual states appoint the chamber we know as the Senate. This was in order (as the Massachusetts delegate Rufus King recorded) that “the mind & body of the State as such shd. be represented in the national Legislature” by “men of first Talents.” Dickinson’s overall vision for an American government—one that could be relied on to promote the urgent ends of virtue and liberty—he had reduced to writing by mid-June. Though he seems never to have introduced a “Dickinson Plan” as such, he argued during the long summer for the specific elements that revolved in his mind, and against proposals he found wrong or unlikely. 

Plagued by poor health, at the convention Dickinson had a frail, almost ghostly appearance. On July 4 a family member reported “Cousin Dickinson” as faring “very poorly” under the stresses. Dickinson did not speak on the floor of the convention for more than a month, from late June to late July. Yet his sense of duty drove him hard, and notes of speeches he prepared during the period speak of a Dickinson vitally engaged by the proceedings. He had useful things to say, as in a speech he prepared to make the case for the smaller states. They posed no danger, he said: “Their condition teaches them political Virtues and suppresses political Vices.” He spoke a word for the patriotic attributes of his own state: “Thro the little State of Delaware, the Army of the Enemy passed, while her whole seaboard was exposed to the continual Hostilities of her naval forces. . . . Weak as her arm was yet did her Mind ever waver? No.” No other delegate can have understood so impartially, and perhaps so perspicuously, the large state–small state imbroglio. He had lived in both sizes of state; he had represented both sizes.

Debates involving how to apportion representation inevitably touched on the issue of slavery. Dickinson was one of the few at the Constitutional Convention to express principled opposition to slavery.

John Dickinson had himself been a slave owner, holding as many as three dozen slaves at one point. He was far from unusual in this respect among the delegates in Philadelphia. He was, however, unique in that he was the only one to have already freed his slaves. As early as 1776, in An Essay of a Frame of Government for Pennsylvania, he had proposed a law by which “no person hereafter coming into, or born in this country,” would “be held in Slavery under any pretense whatever.” In 1786, a year before going to the Constitutional Convention, he had written abolition legislation for Delaware, though the bill failed to pass. Dickinson came (as he later put it in a letter) to see slavery as “deeply, deeply injurious to the morals of the masters and their families.”

These strenuous views on the subject came through clearly in the arguments he prepared for the Constitutional Convention. In August, Dickinson took to the floor to challenge the slave trade. As Madison recorded it, the Delawarean declared that it would be “inadmissible on every principle of honor & Safety that the importation of slaves should be authorised to the States by the Constitution.” His impassioned plea appears to have won him a seat on the Committee on Slave Trade, charged with working out a compromise. The committee proposed allowing Congress to regulate the slave trade beginning in 1800; the convention eventually accepted the compromise but pushed the date out to 1808.

Dickinson’s struggles with ill health rendered him silent during the period when the “three-fifths” compromise was thrashed out. We need not speculate, even so, as to where he stood on the matter. By the terms of this much-mocked, internally inconsistent bargain, three-fifths of the slave population would be counted both for a state’s representation in the lower house of Congress and for its apportioned direct-tax liability. In a speech he prepared in July (but was unable to deliver), Dickinson reminded his fellow delegates that they were “acting before the World.” “What,” he asked, “will be said of this new principle of founding a Right to govern Freemen on a power derived from Slaves”—those “incapable of governing yet giving to others what they have not”?

The artfulness of the three-fifths compromise betokened nothing good in terms of the slavery question’s divisive power. “The omitting of the Word,” Dickinson recorded prophetically—that word being slavery—“will be regarded as an Endeavour to conceal a principle of which we are ashamed.”

By September, the drafting of the Constitution was complete. The document at hand was of greater weight in certain particular senses than any proclamation, however stirring, of the right to walk a different national path. John Dickinson had held aloof from the Declaration of Independence. He wished his name firmly affixed to the plan of government he had helped to shape, against physical odds.

Yet Dickinson could not sign the Constitution himself. His health had given out. He had to return home to the Wilmington town house (at Eighth and Market streets) where he had lived since laying down the Pennsylvania presidency. At Dickinson’s request, his friend and fellow delegate George Read signed for him. Dickinson’s name remains affixed to the U.S. Constitution, one more testament to love of country and to character and intellectual wattage.

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At Rest in Wilmington

John Dickinson would never again sit in a great council of the republic. Citing his infirmities, he swept away invitations in 1788 to represent Delaware in the new U.S. Senate. He was only fifty-five, but a life of public service had crested. He did sit, formally, as a member of the convention that wrote Delaware’s 1792 constitution, occupying for that year only an at-large seat in the state senate from New Castle County.

Dickinson would live—improbably enough, given a lifetime of physical miseries—until February 14, 1808. He is laid to rest in the Friends Meeting House Burial Ground at Fourth and West streets in Wilmington, the city he called home for more than two decades.

History’s oddities, we all understand, include the assignment of definitive instances and characteristics to its greater participants—Franklin’s rakishness, Jefferson’s polymathy, Washington’s steadfastness. To this catalog, convention has appended Dickinson’s deliberate absence from the Pennsylvania State House on July 2, 1776. A day, by this reckoning, can define a life. Yet the life of John Dickinson has a breadth and depth unsubmissive to such corner cutting. No patriot of Dickinson’s day was more intensely patriotic, no lover of liberty more ardent. “Liberty,” he wrote, “is the sun of society. Rights are the beams.” No expositor of the ideas of liberty wrote with greater learning and eloquence—or enjoyed for a long time more commensurate respect, even veneration.

His persistence in seeking essential guarantees for the pursuit of liberty is the legacy to which history will one day pay overdue tribute.

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