Tag Archives: slavery

Division of Household Labor in Pre-Industrial America

The question of which member of a household performed each particular task of housework was, in pre-Industrial America, strictly determined according to gender, age, and social status.

Although some household tasks, such as milking cows, carrying water, and peeling potatoes, were shared by both men and women, many more jobs were considered either “men’s work” or “women’s work.” We might assume that men were expected to perform tasks requiring brute strength, while women did the jobs that required finesse, but this is not quite the case. In fact, this particular division of labor seems to have been determined more by custom, in a way that looks almost arbitrary today. For example, the making of cider and mead was a man’s job, while women made beer and wine. Men repaired the clothing that was made of leather, while women mended clothing made of fabric. Women had small side jobs to fill in the slow times of their day (sewing, spinning) and so did men (whittling, chopping wood). Men had jobs requiring physical strength (hauling wood), and so did women (doing laundry).

These customary rules were broken only in times of extreme necessity. Men and women were simply not well trained to do the jobs that belonged to the other gender. A man could, in time of need, make his own shirts, or a woman repair her own shoes without fear of disgrace, but he or she would inevitably do a clumsy job owing to the fact that these jobs required skills neither would have had the opportunity of developing.

Therefore, whenever possible, the more usual solution in case of emergency was to simply hire the work done by someone else of the appropriate gender. Since children began learning gender-appropriate tasks at a young age, it was extremely common to “loan” children to other households to perform the necessary work. Although there were always many young immigrant men and women who could well perform household labor, the easy availability of land meant that most of these eventually chose to set up their own households rather than go into service in the home of another. This was the “servant problem,” and it was partially solved by the institution of slavery. Still, slaves were expensive, while borrowing a young niece or nephew to help with childcare or harvesting cost only a little room and board. This custom allowed households to function smoothly while keeping the sexual division of labor intact.

When children, relatives or servants were present in a home to help with the housework, labor was divided not only according to gender, but age and class as well. It is important to remember that in most households, the housewife worked side-by-side with the lowliest slaves; only the extremely rich could afford to leave all the work to others. Hierarchies were maintained through the specific tasks performed by each member of the household. In general, children were expected to perform the tasks that required the least skill or organizational ability, such as fetching water and milking cows. Servants did the most physically arduous jobs, like scrubbing floors or doing laundry. Jobs which required creativity, judgment, experience and organization, like preparing meals or making clothes, were reserved for the housewife herself. Each task carried an implied social status.

Although housework has been traditionally considered “women’s work,” the daily reality of agrarian life meant that men as well as women were required to contribute to the efficient running of a household. The reciprocal nature of the contributions of each member of a household meant, among other things, that for most adults marriage was nearly indispensable, and certainly a very different institution than it would become as a result of the Industrial Revolution.

(Cowan 26-31)

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Abolition vs. Gradual Emancipation

American slavery was widely criticized from the very beginning, and many of the nation’s founders hoped, perhaps naively, that the Peculiar Institution would soon die a natural death. But critics of slavery could never seem to agree on how the institution should best be discontinued.

The War of Independence generated a lot of public discourse concerning freedom and personal liberty, and during the last several decades of the eighteenth century, every northern state in the U.S. enacted measures to prohibit slavery. But the hoped-for natural death of slavery did not follow. Partly this was attributable to the fact that the federal government remained largely in the hands of southerners; between 1788 and 1848 all but four U.S. presidents were slaveholders.

Then, in the early nineteenth century, slavery was given a new lease on life. This was due to the sudden and spectacular growth in world demand for cotton, which quickly became the country’s most important export. Slave states and free states alike benefited from the cotton trade, and the antislavery sentiments inspired by the War for Independence soon faded in the light of these new economic considerations.

Still, slavery remained a divisive political issue, and between 1790 and 1830 dozens of antislavery proposals came before Congress. During this period, most antislavery proposals were paired with the idea of “colonization” – the removal of the black population from the United States. Advocates of this idea envisioned a nation peacefully freed from both the institution of slavery and the unwanted presence of free blacks.

Although colonization may sound far-fetched today, it was quite popular in its time, and Thomas Jefferson remained committed to the idea to his dying day. He personally proposed that the federal government purchase all slave children born each year for the purpose of deporting them – yes, infants – so that the slave population would age and eventually die out.

The first emancipation – that of slaves in the north – had contained no provision for colonization. That emancipation had been gradual rather than immediate, and usually included some sort of compensation to the owners. For example, slave children born after a certain date were required to work for the mother’s owner for a certain number of years before eventually becoming free. In effect, these slaves were required to purchase their own freedom with a period of indentured servitude.

It seems to have been assumed in the north that the former slaves would somehow just be absorbed into mainstream society. But this did not happen. Indeed, it should not be imagined that free northern blacks enjoyed either political or social equality with whites; they could neither vote, become citizens, nor serve in the armed forces. Instead, the rapid growth of the free northern black population was followed by a upsurge of anti-black sentiment among northern whites. The American Colonization Society, founded in 1816, first directed its efforts at removing free blacks from the north.

Although a few African-Americans agreed with the colonization movement, most were strongly against the idea of being deported, either voluntarily or by force, from the land of their birth. Their vision of an America of birthright citizenship and equality before the law helped to give rise to a new, militant abolitionism in the 1820s and 30s.

Abolitionism combined the energies of two impulses – black anti-colonization and white evangelicalism. It rejected gradual emancipation, compensation, and colonization, and called for immediate, uncompensated emancipation and an America that was fully biracial. Rather than spending time formulating detailed plans for emancipation, abolitionists focused on altering public opinion, using the public media of the day – lectures, petitions, and pamphlets. Abolitionist rhetoric often appealed to the heart as well the mind, exposing the day-to-day brutality of slavery as well as its weakness as an economic system.

Abolitionists diverged most widely from other critics of slavery in their vision of a post-slavery America. The first racially integrated social movement in America, abolitionism was also the first to link emancipation with equal rights.

This was a radical departure from the mainstream, and many northerners expressed their disfavor by violently attacking abolitionist meetings and destroying printing presses. Still, during the 1830s between 200,000 and 300,000 northerners joined the movement.

Colonizationists resented the spread of abolitionism, and they were responsible for instigating a series of anti-abolitionist riots that swept the north. Their main objection was that abolitionism would harm the cause of emancipation since no southerner would ever accept the idea of equal rights.

(Foner 14-22)

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Howell v. Netherland

In 1770, a mixed-race man from Virginia, Samuel Howell, brought suit against his master to be freed from indentured servitude. His pro bono lawyer was future president Thomas Jefferson.

Howell’s enslavement was due to the law of partus sequitur ventrem. This ancient Roman law, adopted by Virginians, simply meant that whatever your mother was, you were. As punishment for having a black child out of wedlock, Howell’s white grandmother had been fined, and her child had been bound out for servitude until the age of thirty-one. That child, Howell’s mother, had borne Samuel Howell while she was still an indentured servant; under the law, it meant that her child would also be enslaved.

When Howell sued to gain his freedom, the 27-year-old Jefferson had been practicing law for only three years. By serving as Howell’s lawyer in this very weak case, Jefferson had to appear against his own beloved mentor and law teacher, George Whythe.

Jefferson, whose views on race are notoriously complicated, appears in this instance to have worked tirelessly in support of the natural rights of man, regardless of color. His brief in Howell v. Netherland contains his first known public comment on human rights.

Written five years before the Declaration of Independence, the brief includes the following statement:

“All men are born free and everyone comes into the world with a right to his own person and using it at his own will. This is what is called personal liberty, and is given him by the author of nature, because it is necessary for his own sustenance.”

Jefferson would use this idea to better effect in 1776; in this case, no one even got the chance to hear it. The judge immediately decided against Howell, cutting Jefferson off in midsentence. (Howell later solved his own problem by running away, aided with money given him by Jefferson.)

The legal brief also contains an intriguing statement about sex across the color line. Jefferson wrote that laws against such behavior were meant to “deter women from the confusion of species which the legislature seems to have considered an evil.” For a man as careful as Jefferson was about verbal precision, “seems to have considered” hints at some equivocation on his part about the inherent evils of race mixing. Although he would later profess other views, this is an important early statement about “confusion of species” from the man who would later become the father of Sally Hemings’ children.

(Gordon-Reed, 99-101)

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Abolitionism and Evangelical Christianity

The Abolitionist movement began in Britain, where evangelical Christians like William Wilberforce succeeded in ending slavery by 1833. The idea migrated to America with religious groups such as the Quakers and the Methodists. But Abolitionism would prove more problematic in the U.S., with its millions of slaves throughout the southern states, than in the British Empire, where slavery mostly existed in far-flung colonies.

In the 18th century, most Americans, North and South, believed that slavery was basically an evil, although regrettably a necessary one. But by the 1820s and 30s the cotton gin, the amazing profits to be made from cotton, and the correspondingly high price of slaves had effected a change in attitudes. Slavery was increasingly being promoted in the South as a positive good, something that needed to be expanded. A number of states passed laws making manumission illegal. Southerners became hostile to any criticism of slavery.

The earliest anti-slavery organizations in the U.S. advocated the resettlement of African-Americans to Africa. Groups like the American Colonization Society believed that slaveholders would willingly let their slaves go if they knew that upon their emancipation the freedmen would immediately leave the country. But this supposedly painless option never materialized; only a few free African Americans migrated to Liberia, and the Society never freed a single slave.

Abolitionists found the deportation idea offensively tame. They called for an immediate, uncompensated termination of slavery. Most Abolitionists were evangelical Christians, to whom slavery was a blatant violation of God’s command to love one’s neighbor, a sin that must be completely renounced.

Churches were enormously important institutions in the early 19th century. The American Methodist Episcopal denomination had more than one million members, with regular church attenders numbering two to three times that many. On any given Sunday, one in five Americans was sitting in a Methodist church! The Methodist church had always been strongly anti-slavery, and in 1800 the General Conference required conferences in slave states to petition their legislatures for abolition.

But mainstream Americans considered abolition a dangerously radical idea. It was frightening, not so much because of the financial loss it would cause, which was considerable, but because the specter of a lot of freed slaves suddenly living among whites on a basis of equality was too shocking to comprehend.

In the 1820s and 30s, Abolitionists were a radical minority; even in the North, abolitionist orators were often the targets of mob action. Southern leaders threatened to lynch any northerner found carrying Abolitionist literature. Southern congressmen succeeded in banning Abolitionist materials from the U.S. Mail. In 1836, proslavery congressmen passed a “Gag Rule” – no petition about slavery would be read or debated. A similar rule was passed in the Senate.

But the harder proslavery forces worked to suppress Abolition, the more northerners joined the cause. Americans who were not at first interested in slavery were stirred by Congress’s blatant infringement of their time-honored right of petition. Suddenly, antislavery petitions began flooding the Capitol, and a small group of sympathetic congressmen, including John Quincy Adams, fought to get them read. And it seemed that every time a southern mob attacked an Abolitionist, more and more complacent northerners were awakened to the tyranny of slavery.

To many northerners, the final straw was Article IV, Section 2 of the U.S. Constitution: the Fugitive Slave Law. This law meant that slave states could override the rights of free states by retrieving escaped slaves from states were slavery did not exist. This was an intolerable violation of states’ rights.

For many citizens, the Fugitive Slave Law was asking them to place human law above divine law. Church congregations and abolitionist groups all over the North passed resolutions declaring that human laws contrary to divine law were not binding. By 1848, seven northern states had passed personal liberty laws, declaring that no state personnel or facilities could be used for retrieving runaway slaves. If the federal government insisted on dragging people into slavery, it would have to attend to the matter itself.

Meanwhile, more and more northerners were becoming involved in aiding fugitive slaves, and many colleges, seminaries and other Christian institutions became stations on the Underground Railroad.

But Methodism, facing constant pressure from its southern congregations, dropped the ball. National Methodist leadership began to assert that slavery was a social evil, rather than an individual one. Therefore, slaveholders would not be barred from church membership. The rapid influx of unrepentant slaveholders irreparably weakened the denomination’s stance on slavery. By the 1820s Methodist periodicals were urging church members not to be “judgmental” against slavery. In 1836 the General Conference, as always more interested in stability than in religious zeal, announced that the Methodist Church would henceforth refrain from discussing the disturbing subject of slavery.

This did not reflect majority sentiment in Methodist pews and pulpits in the North. Seven of every eight Abolitionists were evangelical Christians, and most were Methodists. Dissatisfaction with denominational acquiescence on slavery inspired about 15,000 Methodists to splinter off and form a new antislavery denomination, the Wesleyans, in 1843. Then in 1844, following a scandal concerning a slave-owning bishop, outraged southerners left to form their own strongly proslavery denomination, the Methodist Episcopal Church, South.

Similar splits occurred within the Baptist and Presbyterian denominations. These various schisms in the 1840s reflected the beginnings of a major rift within the nation as a whole. For the average American, religious matters were much more important day-to-day than the doings of Congress. By polarizing along strictly North-South lines, the denominations succeeded where politics had failed: now, to the average American, the country was beginning to seem divided in two.

(Woodworth 40-54)

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Chinese Plantation Workers

Before the 1870s, there were only a tiny handful of Chinese people living in the American South. But with the end of the Civil War and the emancipation of black slaves, Southern planters began to eye the Chinese as possible substitutes for their former human property.

It should have been an ideal match. After all, according to reports from California, Chinese laborers were docile and hardworking. Why should they be less so as field hands than as gold miners and railroad workers? If the Chinese would be willing to work according to the terms that had prevailed under slavery, perhaps the emancipated blacks could be persuaded to return to their former condition as well.

So in 1869, Southern elites organized a conference to discuss Chinese labor. Hundreds of delegates assembled in Memphis, Tennessee. A notable Chinese labor contractor assured the crowd that the Chinese were obedient, industrious, and naive; a famous importer of Chinese labor promised that workers could be brought from China on five-year contracts for as little as ten dollars a month.

Giddy with the prospect of building a new South on the backs of coolies, the delegates raised a million dollars for the cause, then set about aggressively recruiting Chinese labor.

American clipper companies distributed handbills in Chinese ports, making extravagant promises. For example, some of them claimed that Chinese workers could become “richer than mandarins” in the American South. This campaign succeeded in bringing about two thousand Chinese workers to the South in 1869 and 1870.

Both the Southern planters and the Chinese laborers quickly became disillusioned. The plantation owners were accustomed to exerting absolute control over their workers; they believed that the way to increase productivity was to have overseers whip grown men into tractability. But the Chinese considered their relationship to the planters to be a normal business arrangement; they expected their employers to adhere to the terms of their contracts, and had no intentions of laboring under oppressive conditions.

On one plantation, the Chinese responded to the whipping of a Chinese servant by staging a strike. Elsewhere, a Chinese labor gang attempted to lynch a Chinese agent for giving them false information about the terms of their employment. Unlike the former slaves, the Chinese laborers worked under contract, and they proved to be shrewd negotiators, hiring bilingual interpreters and lawyers to protect their interests. When employers violated contracts, the Chinese filed lawsuits. In this they were supported by a postwar government that was alert to any signs of racial exploitation in the South.

The Southern oligarchy’s dream of holding Chinese workers in bondage turned out to be a nightmare. Within a few years, most of the Chinese had walked away from their contracts and moved to cities, where they accepted real jobs or opened their own businesses. By 1915 there were almost no Chinese workers on Southern plantations.

(Chang 93-99)

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The Presidential Election of 1840

During the presidency of Democrat Andrew Jackson, every faction and splinter group in the nation that was opposed to him came together to form the other main political party of the era, the Whig Party. The closest thing the party had to a coherent program was Henry Clay’s American System, which encouraged inflation, high tariffs, and federal taxpayer funding for local projects. Although this appeared to be an ideal system for buying votes, the Whigs had not yet succeeded in placing a man in the White House; after Jackson refused to run for a third term in office, his vice-president Martin Van Buren easily won the presidency in 1836.

Then suddenly, within weeks of Van Buren’s taking office, came the Panic of 1873. Van Buren handled the economic crisis as well as any president could have, but to the American public, the president was a conspicuous target for blame. Newspapers began calling him “Van Ruin.”

With public opinion turning against the Democratic president, the Whigs saw their opportunity to win a presidential election, and quickly organized their first nominating convention, in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, in December, 1839.

Henry Clay seemed to be the obvious choice for the Whigs’ presidential candidate. Yet he and his American System had already come before the voters twice, in 1824 and 1832, and lost both times. The Whigs wanted a victory, and when the delegates gathered in Harrisburg, they were ready to search for a more electable candidate. After much wheeling and dealing, they settled on Ohio soldier and politician William Henry Harrison, who was nicknamed “Old Tippecanoe” after an early military victory at the Battle of Tippecanoe.

To placate southern Clay supporters, the convention looked for a vice-presidential nominee who was a Clay man and a southerner. After the first four men to whom it was offered turned it down, Virginia aristocrat John Tyler accepted the nomination. Tyler’s best qualification was that he was available, but it was also helpful that his name fit euphoniously into the Whig Party’s otherwise meaningless campaign slogan: “Tippecanoe and Tyler too.”

As the convention was coming to a close, a young delegate asked whether the party ought to adopt a platform.

Party leaders were strongly against it. Harrison had been nominated on the strength of his past performance, and Whig leaders were convinced that his past was where the public gaze should be directed. As one delegate wrote, “Let him say not one single word about his principles, or his creed – let him say nothing, promise nothing… about what he thinks now, or what he will do hereafter.”

This pig-in-a-poke approach was ideal, because the only matter on which all Whigs agreed was that they wanted to win an election. Therefore, if they were to put a Whig in the White House, it was important to say nothing about issues. They would attract votes solely with slogans and hoopla.

Democrats were quick to recognize, and denounce, the lack of principles put forth by the Whig convention, and began referring to Harrison as “General Mum.” They also pointed to his age; at sixty-seven he was the oldest man yet to seek the presidency. “Give him a barrel of hard cider, and settle a pension of two thousand a year on him,” wrote a Baltimore Democratic newspaper editor, “and my word for it, he will sit the remainder of his days in his log cabin.”

The Whig managers recognized a good thing, and came up with a storyline: Harrison was a farmer who lived in a log cabin and drank hard cider, the beverage of the common man. In contrast, Van Buren was an aristocrat who wore ruffled silk shirts, drank champagne, and lived in luxury at the public’s expense. This became the theme of the campaign, and Harrison was “the Log-Cabin Candidate.”

It was all an utter fabrication. Harrison did not live in a log cabin, but in a commodious mansion, and had been born in an opulent plantation house. By birth, upbringing and taste he was far more of an aristocrat than was Van Buren, whose father was a Dutch tavern-keeper. Yet the Whigs set out to sell the American public the exact opposite story.

Whigs in Congress made much of a $3,665 appropriations bill for White House upkeep. The amount was tiny; the frugal Van Buren had asked for only the most necessary repairs. Yet the Whigs criticized the expenditure as proof of Van Buren’s aristocratic pretensions. They accused the president of living in splendor among thousands of dollars worth of foreign-made luxuries, dressing in finery before gilt-framed mirrors and eating from gold and silver tableware. No part of this story was true, yet Whig newspapers reported it throughout the country.

The Whigs held party rallies in every state of the Union. Each included an elaborate grand parade, three miles long, with marching bands, dignitaries in barouches, hundreds of banners, and log cabins of every variety. One log cabin float featured smoke emerging from the chimney and a barrel of hard cider from which the float riders were free to continually refresh themselves. There were also giant canoe floats and sailing ship floats pulled by teams of horses. The most popular parade item was a large leather ball, eight or nine feet in diameter, that was decorated with campaign slogans; a long pole was inserted through the center of the ball, and half a dozen men could walk on each side and “roll the ball for Old Tippecanoe.”

After the parade came speeches. These were intentionally vague: “The time has come when the cry is change,” declared Daniel Webster, the era’s foremost orator, “Every breeze says change.” No particular type of change was specified.

Harrison himself appeared at some of the rallies, sporting a broad-brimmed hat in place of his customary high silk one, and made speeches. In those days, it was unheard-of for a presidential candidate to stump for his own victory; according to prevailing standards, a presidential candidate was expected to imitate George Washington by staying quietly at home and taking no part in the political campaign being waged on his behalf. By showing up at his own rallies, Harrison risked appearing immodest and dangerously ambitious. Yet amid the mind-numbing hoopla of the 1840 campaign, no one seemed to notice the impropriety.

Whig rhymesters turned out hundreds of campaign songs; Whig publishers released dozens of Harrison biographies. There were log-cabin-shaped liquor bottles, canes with log cabins for heads, and all manner of merchandise incorporating log cabins, hard cider, or both. Coonskin caps were much in evidence as well, and the raccoon became another symbol of the Whig Party. Whig employers fired workers who refused to sign testimonials for Harrison, and Whig newspaper editors called for violence if Harrison did not win the election.

The Democrats responded to the Whigs’ circuslike tactics with outmoded means such as logic and evidence, and attempted to shift the focus away from personalities and back to issues. To most Americans, this approach could not compete with the Log Cabin and Hard Cider campaign.

The main political issue of the day was slavery. But the Democrats were firmly opposed to congress taking any action at all on the subject, while the Whigs were willing to say anything to get votes. Since both the Democrats and the Whigs refused to state a position on slavery, abolitionists were forced to form their own, little-known, third party, the Liberty Party. Their candidate was former slaveholder-turned-abolitionist James G. Birney of Kentucky. Neither Birney nor his supporters harbored any illusions about their chances of success in the 1840 election. Their only consolation would be knowing that they had stood for what was right.

The popular vote was surprisingly close. Harrison defeated Van Buren only by a margin of about 53 to 47 percent. The electoral vote was much more of a landslide, with 234 Harrison votes to only 60 for Van Buren.

All of the Whigs’ campaign hijinks served to draw a much higher percentage of eligible voters to the polls that year. From a voter turnout of 55 to 58 percent during the 1830s, participation shot up to 80 percent in 1840. It seemed that large numbers of Americans were eager to vote, as long as they didn’t have to think about issues. It was more fun to drink hard cider and chant campaign slogans.

The Liberty Party drew only one-fourth of one percent of the popular votes, and did not affect the outcome in a single state.

(Woodworth, 5-24)

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From Reconstruction to Jim Crow

In the years immediately following the Civil War, most former slaves did not leave the South. Instead, they placed their faith in the federal government’s plan for Reconstruction. As the defeated Confederate states were rejoined to the Union, the freedmen hoped they would be able to enjoy the rights of American citizenship in a redeemed, Reconstructed South.

Initially, Reconstruction was amazingly successful. Three Constitutional amendments were ratified in quick order: The Thirteenth Amendment (1865) outlawed slavery, the Fourteenth Amendment (1868) gave full citizenship to former slaves, and the Fifteenth Amendment (1870) extended the franchise to all male citizens, regardless of race or color. Southern Reconstruction governments also quickly established systems of public education for former slaves and their children.

These gains were not to last. As the party of Lincoln began to morph into the party of Big Business, Northern Republicans lost interest in southern racial conflicts; the last federal troops were withdrawn from the South in 1877. This officially ended the Reconstruction process, and things went bad very quickly.

Outraged by the loss of slavery, the former Confederates, now the Democratic Party, committed themselves to creating a strict racial caste system instead. They began by systematically destroying the Republican Party in the South. Republican leaders were run out of town, or murdered outright. Republican voters were threatened, beaten, and killed. Democrats destroyed Republican votes or stuffed ballot boxes with fake Democratic votes. As the North declined to interfere, Southern Democrats pushed black voters, and white Republican voters, out of the political system.

The Democrats used several methods to disfranchise black voters. One way was to require an annual tax of anyone wishing to maintain their voters’ registration; most blacks and poor whites did not have the necessary cash to pay for a vote that probably wouldn’t be counted anyway. Another method was to require registrants to read and successfully interpret the Constitution – to the satisfaction of the Democratic registrar – in order to be allowed to vote.

During the 1890s, thousands of black men and women were lynched by white mobs. No white southerner was ever convicted of any crime related to the lynchings, and few were even charged. Often, law enforcement officials themselves were involved in the murders. This was the ultimate form of disfranchisement: the unchecked, wholesale murder of black citizens, with no consequences for the murderers.

With disfranchisement complete, segregation laws were quickly passed throughout the South. By the end of the century, the white supremacist system known as Jim Crow was firmly established. African Americans in the South had no legal or political rights at all, and the dream of Reconstruction was over.

(Flamming 94-98)

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