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“Pride and Prejudice” and Slavery in America

Deirdre Le Faye’s authoritative Family Record quotes Cassandra Austen’s timeline for the novel that became Pride and Prejudice.  “First Impressions begun in Oct. 1796.  Finished in Augt. 1797.  Publish’d afterwards, with alterations & contractions, under the Title of Pride & Prejudice” (189–90).  With Sense and Sensibility accepted for publication, Jane returned to First Impressions, but Minerva Press, that copious outlet for gothics and sentimental novels, had published a novel titled First Impressions by Margaret Holford in 1801.  As with Austen’s Susan when a different Susan came out, the author had to find a new title.  Her most conspicuous source, and a dominant influence, was Frances Burney.

As Le Faye points out, Burney highlighted the phrase in Cecilia, in a passage that itself has parallels in Austen’s novel (Burney 930–31).  Austen was an unabashed fan.  In a famous passage in Northanger Abbey, she praised Burney’s Cecilia and Camilla, along with Maria Edgeworth’s Belinda, unequivocally (38).  The choice of Pride and Prejudice as a title may have compensated for the fact that her earlier tribute to Burney seemed unlikely to be published.  Austen, however, had other reasons to find the title eligible. 

Many newly discovered uses of “pride and prejudice” published before Jane Austen’s novel reveal greater resonance for the title and further reason for Austen to choose it.  In addition to approximately one dozen examples previously found by scholars, there were at least 120 other published uses of “pride and prejudice” by as many individual authors before Austen’s Pride and Prejudice in 1813.  This discovery changes the old question about Austen’s title phrase from where Austen got it to why she chose it.  One significant factor was the linguistic trend of using the phrase to oppose slavery.  And one way to explore the trend is to survey it further after Austen’s lifetime, especially in America, when “pride and prejudice” became shorthand for criticizing and condemning enslavement. 

By 1763, the phrase “pride and prejudice” was so familiar in religious writing that evangelical Henry Venn, a founder of the anti-slavery Clapham Sect, could advise that preachers sermonize with love and tenderness, “lest by seeming to upbraid, pride and prejudice should be excited” (348).1  Venn did not have to explain why pride and prejudice were to be headed off if possible.  Sermons and prayers against them had been voiced and printed since the seventeenth century.  Prominent Anglican minister Jeremy Taylor (1613–1667) at different times referred to “Pride and Prejudice” as causing all heresies, “the one criminally, the other innocently”; as offshoots of deadly anger; and as “the parents of misbelief” (Collection 517; Rule 262; Worthy 172).  Archbishop of Canterbury John Tillotson (1630–1694) also used the phrase, and more than once.2  Venn’s phrasing was neither chosen at random nor a prophetic literary tribute to Jane Austen; it reflected Venn’s evangelical views, of course, but also the religious practices of Anglicans and American Episcopalians. 

Obviously, linking pride and prejudice with religious refusal to convert to Christianity or to join or stay in the Church of England had potential to incite prejudice rather than to counter it.  Venn’s advice began, “Whilst you are thus unanswerably proving their innate corruption, it is your duty to do it with tender expressions of love.”  The phrase was also used in secular nonfiction and fiction, and it was adopted for and adapted to humanitarian ends early on.  As the eighteenth century progressed, it became more often associated with benevolence in England and less often with fire and brimstone, even among religious writers.  Several Clapham Sect members and other Venn associates used the phrase, religiously, but over time targeting less the scribes and pharisees and more the pharisaical.  An example in 1792 comes from likeminded fellow churchman Thomas Robinson, a visitor of Venn:  “In general, the lower orders have been found to yield a serious and eager attention to the Gospel; but the rich too frequently, possessing more pride and prejudice, turn away their ears in disdain” (476). 

One of the most prominent Clapham associates was British Quaker Thomas Clarkson (1760–1846), the famed abolitionist who founded the Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade.  On 20 June 1843, as President of the General Anti-Slavery Convention in London, Clarkson did not mince words.  Addressing all “Christian professors” in America, he reminded them that slavery, “with all its foul and evil influences on the oppressor and the oppressed,” was “a most unjust and cruel outrage on the inalienable rights of humanity, and the sanction of it a flagrant violation of the precepts of the gospel” (British and Foreign Anti-Slavery Reporter 4: 142).  Clarkson exhorted the faithful to repudiate slavery “at once and forever” if there were any among them “whose eyes may be so far blinded, or their consciences so far seared by interest or ignorance, pride or prejudice, as still to sanction or uphold this unjust and sinful system.”  Clarkson followed up with the similar and more familiar “pride and prejudice.”  Acknowledging reaction against the more violent abolitionists, he admonished his audience that “this state of feeling arises as much from pride and prejudice on the one hand, as from indiscretion or impropriety on the other; and that at any rate the weakness or the violence of others can form no excuse for our own inactivity in a righteous cause” (143). 

By no coincidence, Clarkson was a writer whom Jane Austen admired; as several scholars have remarked, she read his earlier work and referred to him in correspondence.  Austen had not only read Clarkson’s History of the Rise, Progress, and Accomplishment of the Abolition of the African Slave Trade by the British Parliament but borrowed the name “Norris” from it for the toxic character Aunt Norris in Mansfield Park (Perry 98–99).  Moreland Perkins has discussed how much Clarkson’s history of abolition informs Mansfield Park

When Clarkson addressed the convention, enslavement had been banned in British colonies for ten years but continued in America.  His lexicon demonstrates that he knew his audience on both sides of the Atlantic.  Anglican use of “pride and prejudice” crossed to America very early.  In fact, its religious sanction could hardly have been more official; in 1799, the Episcopal Church in the United States adopted it for the prayer to be said “during the sitting of the convention”: 

Almighty and everlasting God, . . . we beseech thee to be present with the council of thy church here assembled in thy name and presence.  Save them from all error, ignorance, pride, and prejudice; and of thy great mercy vouchsafe we beseech thee, . . . to direct, govern, and sanctify us in our present work.  (Journal of the Proceedings 187) 

Like the pairing of pride and prejudice, the pairing of “error and ignorance,” or interest and ignorance in Clarkson’s handling, was traditional. 

Clergyman’s daughter, sister, cousin, niece, Jane Austen knew the binomials and had her own ways of playing with them; if Darcy and Elizabeth represent pride and prejudice in Austen’s more comic and more secular handling, error (interest) and ignorance are at least as well represented by George Wickham and Lydia Bennet.  Austen had fun with the pairings, though she did not choose to spell out either phrase within the novel. 

In a much grimmer and more topical context, Clarkson’s phrasing aligned not only with religious usage but with a large corpus in the public discourse connecting “pride and prejudice” to slavery.  Condemned and criticized by clergy and secular writers in Britain, repudiated by the Episcopal church in America, “pride and prejudice” became a byword for slavery in both British and American abolitionism.  While religion was not the sole source for abolitionists’ use of the phrase, in Britain and in America throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the frequent references to pride and prejudice by churchmen ran alongside an increasing association of the phrase with enslavement.  The theological associations partly aligned with the political association of abolitionism. 

The abolitionist connection may also have been a natural outgrowth of another association.  By Austen’s time, pride and prejudice were associated with an emphasis on rank by several famous writers, including Voltaire (in English translation).  Writing about Czar Peter the Great of Russia, Voltaire unexpectedly represented the Czar as a meritocrat. 

Peter being now master of all Ingria, conferred the government of that province upon Menzikoff; and at the same time gave him the title of prince, and the rank of major general.  Pride and prejudice might, in other countries, find means to gainsay, that a pastry-cook’s boy should be raised to be a general and a governor, and to princely dignity; but Peter had already accustomed his subjects to see, without surprise, everything given to merit, and nothing to mere nobility.  (Voltaire 20: 152) 

Voltaire’s history of Russia was republished throughout Austen’s lifetime; the passage on pride and prejudice and the pastry cook’s apprentice also showed up in journals, reinforcing individual merit by criticizing the two attributes. 

Popular poetry did something of the same, as in the handling of satirist and poet Charles Churchill.  Churchill’s poem “Independence,” first published in 1764, was famous in its day. 

But let not Pride and Prejudice misdeem,
And think that empty Titles are my Theme,
Titles, with Me, are vain, and nothing worth,
I rev’rence Virtue, but I laugh at Birth.  (3: 168) 

Shakespeare’s “Virtue is the true nobility” was the older and more trenchant expression of the idea, but Churchill’s verse exposition, which ran several pages, went over well, published in 1764, 1765, 1768, 1774, 1776, and several more times during Austen’s lifetime, not counting reprints and quotations in periodicals.  For obvious reasons, Churchill’s line of thought had appeal in America.  The 1768 edition of his poems, including “Independence,” listed “Names of the subscribers” chiefly in Maryland and Virginia (2: i–lvi).  But “Independence” was all over the place. 

Among secular luminaries of the long eighteenth century before Frances Burney, the writer who most used “pride and prejudice” was historian Edward Gibbon.  Beginning in 1776, Gibbon was also among the pantheon of prominent secular writers who used the phrase in the context of slavery.  Gibbon threw no bouquets for the Romans’ treatment of slaves in his famed History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.  As he explained, even manumitted slaves—freedmen—could not attain honors, “nor were the traces of a servile origin allowed to be completely obliterated till the third or fourth generation.  Without destroying the distinction of ranks, a distant prospect of freedom and honours was presented, even to those whom pride and prejudice almost disdained to number among the human species” (1: 41–42).  The echo in Mr. Collins’s description of Lady Catherine de Bourgh, who “‘likes to have the distinction of rank preserved’” (PP 161), is too exact to be accidental.  Gibbon, however, did not reduce Roman distinction of ranks to an attribute of personality.  As he observed, a badge or uniform symbol for slaves was proposed but rejected because a visible sign would inform the slaves how numerous they were. 

This Gibbon passage was first noted in connection with Austen in 1934 (Hogan 755).  Scholars have not discussed the fact that Gibbon reused “pride and prejudice” each time he brought out new volumes of the history.  In 1781, he again connected it with servitude and slavery, this time in Gaul, where “Time and violence almost obliterated the intermediate ranks of society; and left an obscure and narrow interval between the noble and the slave.  This arbitrary and recent division has been transformed by pride and prejudice into a national distinction.”  The nobles claimed descent from the Franks, “over a prostrate crowd of slaves and plebeians, to whom they imputed the imaginary disgrace of a Gallic, or Roman, extraction” (3: 597).  In Gaul the cultural blindness for which the shorthand is “pride and prejudice” was aimed against the Romans rather than for them, but again it served to ossify distinctions of rank.  Gibbon’s new editions also retained the previous use of the phrase, further associating it with slavery. 

The association became firmer during Austen’s lifetime, not only in Gibbon.  The English “pride and prejudice” appeared in translating three other works from French, in addition to the translations of Voltaire.  All three were fiercely anti-slavery—Jacques-Vincent Delacroix’s Memoirs of an American in 1773; Claude Helvétius’s De l’Esprit, or Essays on the Mind; and especially Abbé Raynal’s Philosophical and Political History of the Settlements and Trade of the Europeans in the East and West Indies in 1776.  The phrase in Delacroix and Helvétius occurs separately from the passages condemning slavery, but its use is another common denominator linking the authors, the phrase, and the opposition to slavery.  Delacroix’s book is little known today, and Delacroix himself is more referenced for having introduced the secret ballot in elections (Crook).  Lauren Clay has discussed how Voltaire added a fiery anti-slavery episode to Candide in 1759 “after reading Helvétius’s condemnation of slavery in De l’Esprit” (264). 

Raynal’s influential history was published in thirty editions in France and in more than fifty elsewhere.  Like Gibbon, Abbé Raynal used “pride and prejudice” as deleterious to a society and connected it to enslavement:  “The colonists of Louisiana were stout hearty men, come from Canada, or disbanded soldiers, who wisely preferred the labours of agriculture to a life of idleness, the frequent consequence of pride and prejudice.”  The French government provided each settler with land and supplies for farming; some affluent settlers, however, expanded these holdings into “considerable plantations, which employed six thousand slaves,” undermining the establishment of a viable colony.  “But,” as Raynal commented, “the fruit of their labour was very inconsiderable” (4: 111). 

Raynal also made more than clear the societal impact of slavery.  A powerful excerpt from his history appeared in the 1776 Annual Register, the tenor accurately indicated by its title, beginning, “Slavery absolutely inconsistent with, and even contrary to, sound policy, humanity, reason, and justice” (168–76).  That the Annual Register republished Raynal’s excoriation of the slave trade with ample space and emphatic indexing attests to its reception.  The 1776 translation with the passages on slavery was reviewed favorably in periodicals alongside Gibbon. 

In my view, then, Austen chose the title of her famous novel partly for its statement against the slave trade.  While Austen readers have mainly associated abolition with Emma or Mansfield Park, the connection is available earlier.3 

The connection manifested longer in America, where slavery lasted longer.  After Austen’s lifetime, the linguistic tradition associating the phrase with enslavement lasted for decades.  The linguistic connection in Britain was in effect ratified by the even more emphatic connection in America.  An overview of nineteenth-century public discourse on slavery in America confirms a few patterns.  First, the slavery system was consistently associated with the individual or cultural attributes of pride and prejudice.  Second, pride and prejudice themselves were held to cause slavery, or to stem from it, or both.  In the reciprocal cause-and-effect of evil, if slavery was the disease, pride and prejudice could be treated as germ or symptom or both.  Third, condemning slavery and its attributes by using the exact phrase “pride and prejudice” became an abolitionist hallmark. 

While the large corpus of American examples exceeds the scope of one article, it can be illustrated from the beginning of the nineteenth century to the end.  In 1811, in one early example, the Christian Observer reviewed the most recent report on a colony for former slaves in Sierra Leone. 

The crimes to be repressed are chiefly the crimes of the oligarchy of white inhabitants, who, whatever differences they may have on other points, in every thing that regards the laws regulating slavery and protecting slaves, are, for the most part, so knit together by common feelings of pride and prejudice, and are so wakefully alive to the minutest circumstance which may tend to lessen the importance of the white as compared with the black population, that . . . little hope can be entertained that justice will be fairly administered between master and slave.  (10: 439) 

Reviewing the laws supposedly regulating slavery in British colonies in the Caribbean, the report scathingly compared British treatment of slaves unfavorably to that of Spain—a rarity for Anglicans or for English writers in general. 

In 1830, abolitionist David Walker had tried to warn Americans that the sins of slavery would find them out:  “Even here in Boston, pride and prejudice have got to such a pitch, that in the very houses erected to the Lord, they have built little places for the reception of the coloured people, where they must sit during meeting, or keep away from the house of God, and the preachers say nothing about it” (44–45).  In 1838, the Anti-Slavery Convention of American Women in New York had used language like Clarkson’s before Clarkson’s 1843 address: 

Of the principles of Colonization, then, we fully and freely express our entire disapprobation.  We believe them to be utterly unchristian—calculated alike to foster the feelings of pride and prejudice in the aristocracy of the North, and the unjust, unreasonable oppression of our colored brethren and sisters—and to blind the eyes, sear the conscience, and steel the heart of the slaveholder at the South.  (44) 

The women opposed the Sierra Leone project.  The same year, on behalf of the American Anti-Slavery Society, two authors published a long, detailed pamphlet on Barbados after abolition, arguing that life in Barbados had improved once slavery ended:  “freedom is a mighty leveller of human distinctions.  The pyramid of pride and prejudice which slavery had upreared there, must soon crumble in the dust” (Thome and Kimball 79).  They noted regretfully, however, that “Prejudice is the last viper of the slave-gendered brood that dies.” 

As with Clarkson’s 1843 address, the abolitionist periodicals in Britain and in the United States were a dependable channel for disseminating proceedings and action items from the emancipation societies.  The periodicals, too, routinely used “pride and prejudice” in characterizing slavery.  In 1847, the Non-Slaveholder, published in Philadelphia, ran a communication that opened, “An evil, sustained by the strong arm of the law, and by popularity, pride, and prejudice, however flagrant its character, claims but a small share of considerations from those who float with the current” (D. I.).  The Quaker author went on to exhort Friends, especially, to “cleanse their own hands from the pollution of slavery” (80).  In both the conferences and the periodicals reporting them, the expression was part of their language of public address. 

This is not to say that the expression “pride and prejudice” came only from pontificates; it also appeared, as part of ordinary discourse, in newspapers.  Some rather heartening examples surface in a collection of Cleveland, Ohio, newspapers later transcribed by the Works Progress Administration (WPA).  On 23 March 1850, a Cleveland paper ran a letter stating that “Human governments have no right to single out a class as scapegoats of its avarice, pride and prejudice.  It is hoped that the despondent hearts of our much-wronged colored fellow-citizens will be fully righted under the New [Ohio] Constitution” (Annals 33: 172).  On 17 June 1853, a columnist invited former Whigs to join with abolition: 

Our chief desire is to get at the people, the voters of all sides, and to persuade them to overlook leaders, break the fetters of party, sink forever its pride and prejudice, and do what is right on the great issues of the day.  “We want to see our national government freed from the foul blot of upholding slavery.”  (Annals 36: 342) 

Both the phrase itself and its association with slavery transferred to public debates over the Whigs—the party that withered when it could not take a firm stand against slavery.  On 25 June 1853, another paper recommended the demise of the Whig Party in America:  “Let the old thing be put aside in its burial place, with its party name, and pride and prejudice clustering around it, and the demand of the hour satisfied by men fit for the hour” (36: 344).  On 10 February 1854, an editorial railed against the new Kansas-Nebraska Act, which allowed territories to enter the union as slave states:  “let the country rouse itself—let us forget party—let pride and prejudice be burned out, and let us all unite to damn the villainy threatened against the Union and let us do it now” (37: 285).  That the WPA consistently transcribed and excerpted such comments, in effect highlighting them, suggests that the New Dealers in 1936 sympathized with the positions expressed. 

Connections in American print between “pride and prejudice” and slavery appeared throughout the 1840s and the 1850s.  As the Civil War approached, those connections intensified.  In 1859, two books by Methodist ministers opposing enslavement both connected it explicitly to the phrase.  One was the autobiography of the formerly enslaved Jermain Wesley Loguen (1813–1872).  Loguen had escaped, made his way north, and become a bishop in the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, taking the middle name “Wesley” in honor of the Methodist founder.  His book was written in third person but dealt with enslavement firsthand.  In one episode, he described being sent temporarily to a household where the slaveholding family treated him well and mildly, giving him a short-term experience of better conditions.  As he wrote in a remarkable passage, “The slaveholders looked upon him as a liveried slave—the brothers embraced him as a boon companion, the sisters admired his personal appearance and kind attentions.  Caste, and pride, and prejudice of color, were given to the winds, in the house and in the field” (181). 

The same year, Methodist minister Elias Bowen in New York State criticized his church for continuing to allow slavery.  Heatedly referring to “church-slavery,” Bowen queried rhetorically, “How then, we would ask, is the anti-slavery cause advancing?  How can it advance when church and state, law and administration, pride and prejudice and worldly interests, are all combined against it; throwing the full weight of their united influence into the opposing scale?” (15).  Retired at the time he wrote, Bowen had been a church elder, a trustee at Cazenovia Seminary, and a delegate to Methodist General Conventions.  After the Civil War, he left the Methodist Episcopal Church to join the Free Methodist Church. 

In 1860, the phrase thus cemented with abolition became more so—connected in print with two of America’s most famous abolitionists, John Brown and Frederick Douglass.  Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry had taken place in October 1859; Brown was hanged on 2 December; his funeral was held near Lake Placid, New York, on 8 December.  The minister prayed over his body:  “we supplicate thy special blessing upon God’s despised ones,—the poor enslaved, for whom our brother laid down his life.  Oh, God, cause the oppressed to go free; break any yoke, and prostrate the pride and prejudice that dare to lift themselves up” (Drew 74). 

In December 1860, in Rochester, New York, when the New York State legislature failed to pass equal suffrage for whites and blacks, Frederick Douglass’s Monthly newspaper ran the article “Equal Suffrage Defeated” on the front page.  The law on the books required black men, but not white men, to have $250 in real property before they could vote.  (Women could not vote.)  Douglass criticized “the triumphant party”—newly elected Republicans—for supporting equality less zealously than Democrats supported “slavery and oppression” (369).  The election itself had been tainted and compromised, in Douglass’s colorful description:  “white men, native and foreign, were brought to the polls so drunk, that they needed support on both sides while depositing their votes.”  Their “only political principle seemed to be injustice to the negro.”  Having watched at the polls himself, Douglass concluded that “[t]he victory over us is simply one of blind ignorance and prejudice, hardly less destitute of manly intelligence than the kick of an ass.”  Failing to equalize suffrage was “an act of unmitigated pride and prejudice, intended to depress and degrade a class which, of all others in the State, need the ballot box as a means of self-elevation and popular regard.” 

As the Civil War began, associating the phrase with slavery continued.  On 12 April 1861, Fort Sumter was fired upon.  On 27 April, Episcopal Bishop Alonzo Potter of Pennsylvania (1800–1865) published a prayer for the diocese that included “Abate the violence of passion; banish pride and prejudice from every heart, and incline us to trust in thy righteous Providence, and to be ready for every duty” (Wallace 70).  The bishop also pleaded, “Have pity upon our brethren who are in arms against the constituted authorities of the land, and show them the error of their way”; he prayed as well for “the return of unity and concord to our borders.”  The prayer was published in Bishop Charles P. McIlvaine’s Christian Duty in the Present Crisis (4) and in the Episcopal periodical Living Age (69, 767).  Interestingly, it was also soon reprinted, wording intact, by the Protestant Episcopal Church in the Confederate States of America.  Headed “Prayer during our present National Troubles,” it appeared in the short Soldier’s Prayer Book for use by troops (Soldier’s Prayer Book [1861] 13). 

Among many other churchmen linking slavery with “pride and prejudice” was Bishop Gilbert Haven of the Methodist Episcopal Church.  In March 1862, Haven compared Abraham Lincoln’s first Emancipation Proclamation to the sun breaking through clouds:  “So this declaration in favor of the abolishment of slavery pierces the mighty clouds of pride, and prejudice, and fear, that have hung heavily over the nation, and every eye sees clearly the great evil of slavery, and the necessity of its extirpation” (279).  The language also continued to appear in religious periodicals.  On 25 September 1862, the Boston Watchman and Reflector ran a long column opposing the project to send enslaved people to Africa, “all deprived, through the pride, and prejudice, and oppression of white men, of their inalienable rights” (Crane 11).  The solution was not “colonization” but emancipation and improved conditions, including education and paid labor. 

Meanwhile, however, the seeds of division had manifested even in religious uses of the much-used phrase “pride and prejudice.”  On 23 June 1860, the Rector of St. Peter’s Church in Baltimore had led the Democratic national convention in praying that the convention be saved “from all errors, ignorance, pride, and prejudice,” but without mentioning slavery or abolition (Proceedings of the Conventions 221).  The convention itself did go on, of course, to mention slavery, and voted to support it.  On 29 December that year, the Diocese of Louisiana published a prayer for use by clergy “during the present emergency” (Extracts 8–9).  Again, the plea was to “save us from all ignorance, error, pride, and prejudice,” without referring to slavery, though with clear references to peace and war.  Efforts to keep the nation unified having failed, the Episcopalians were trying to keep the church unified.  The 1861 Confederate Soldier’s Prayer Book, which kept Bishop Potter’s prayer, also sought unity and harmony at the nation’s “borders” rather than secession.  But such efforts were undone or largely reversed after 1861, when it became apparent that the war would not be short.  An 1863 prayer book in South Carolina continued to beseech that “pride and prejudice” be banished “from every heart,” but also, now, that “the hearts of our people” uphold “the sacred rights, honor, and independence of our Confederacy” (Soldier’s Prayer Book 140). 

That same year, north of the Mason-Dixon Line, Bishop Haven exhorted the New England Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church in April:  “Let our words and works agree.  To do this will require the discharge of many duties yet in violent conflict with our pride and prejudice.”  He went on to list the duties, including that “[w]e must expunge the word “colored” from our minutes.  It ought never to have found a place there” (352).  As in Haven’s comments, many religious references to pride and prejudice and slavery contained a reminder that clergy should learn from their own sermons, and some question as to whether they did—exactly the question canvassed by Mary Crawford, Edmund Bertram, and Fanny Price in Mansfield Park, the other novel that Austen titled as a statement against the slave trade (111–12).



1Throughout the essay, for ease of reading, we’ve added the emphasis to the words pride and prejudice

2See for example Tillotson’s Works, 1717 ed. (2: 512) and 1720 ed. (2: 617). 

3This essay comes from research in a longer project on Austen, a book on the expression “pride and prejudice” and its uses, planned for 2021. 

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