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The Twelve-Year Sentence: The “Historical Origins” of Compulsory Schooling

“If we ponder the history of compulsory education…it may well seem that the Klan and the ‘liberal’ educational reformers were not so far apart after all.”

William F. Rickenbacker, The Twelve-Year Sentence:  Radical Views of Compulsory Schooling, San Francisco:  Fox & Wilkes, 1974, 5-27.

Historical Origins

By Murray Rothbard

We begin with a comprehensive history of compulsory education, so that we may understand how we arrived at our current status.  Professor Rothbard, a noted libertarian economist and historian, pays particular attention to the dubious rationales used in England and the United States to justify laws compelling parents to send their children to school. [—William F. Rickenbacker]

Compulsory schooling began, in the modern world, with the Protestant Reformation.  Before the Reformation, instruction had been carried out privately—in church schools and universities, in private schools, and in private guild schools for occupational training.  But Martin Luther, in his famous letter to the German rulers in 1524, urged the establishment of public schools, and compulsory attendance, and did so on the basis of a military analogy:

Dear rulers…I maintain that the civil authorities are under obligation to compel the people to send their children to school…If the government can compel such citizens as are fit for military service to bear spear and rifle, to mount ramparts, and perform other material duties in time of war, how much more has it a right to compel the people to send their children to school, because in this case we are warring with the devil, whose object it is secretly to exhaust our cities and principalities of their strong men.

Influenced by Luther, the German state of Gotha founded the first modern public schools in 1524, and Thuringia followed suit in 1527.  Luther himself devised the Saxony School Plan, which was established in Saxony in 1528 through an edict drawn up by Luther’s disciple Melanchthon, and which set up public schools in every town in the region.  The first compulsory attendance system was established, again under Lutheran influence, by the duke of Wurttemberg in 1559; attendance was compulsory, detailed records were kept, and fines were levied on truants.  The Saxon and Wurttemberg systems formed the basis for compulsory public schools in most of the Protestant German states, and later in Prussia.  The major purpose of the school system was theocratic:  to use the power of the government to compel adherence to Lutheranism, and to aid in the suppression of dissent from the established church.  An English admirer of the Prussian school system writes of Luther’s achievement:

The permanent and positive value of Luther’s pronouncement in 1524 lies not so much in its direct effects as in the hallowed associations which it established for Protestant Germany between the national religion and the educational duties of the individual and the state.  Thus, doubtless, was created that healthy pubic opinion which rendered the principle of compulsory school attendance easy of acceptance in Prussia at a much earlier date than in England.

The other leading influence on the establishment of compulsory schooling in the modern world—and one even more relevant to the United States—was that other great reformer, John Calvin.  Once again, the major object for public schools was to inculcate obedience to a Calvinist-run government, and thereby to aid in the suppression of dissent.  As ruler of Geneva in the mid-sixteenth century, Calvin established a number of compulsory public schools in the city, and under his influence Calvinist Holland established compulsory public Schools in the early seventeenth century.

It is hardly a coincidence, then, that compulsory and public schooling appeared first in America under the aegis of the Calvinist Puritans, particularly in the leading Puritan colony of Massachusetts Bay.  While voluntary parental education, and largely private education, prevailed outside of New England, the militant Puritans who founded the Massachusetts Bay Colony were eager to adopt the Calvinist plan for compulsory education in order to ensure the perpetuation of Calvinism and the suppression of possible dissent.  Only a year after passing its first set of laws, the colony, in 1642, enacted a compulsory literacy law for all children; furthermore, the law provided that should state officials judge parents to be unfit or unable to care for their children properly, the government would then seize the children and “apprentice” them to itself to impart the required instruction.  Five years later the colony followed up this law with the establishment of a system of public schools. 

Puritan influence spread swiftly from Massachusetts to the other colonies of New England, and compulsory schooling spread to the same degree.  High Puritan Connecticut soon imposed compulsory schools, and, in 1742, that colony attempted to suppress the dissenting “New Light” movement by prohibiting that sect from operating any schools.  Connecticut gave the reason that, if permitted to operate schools, the New Light sect “may tend to train youth in ill principles and practices, and introduce such disorders as may be of fatal consequence to the public peace and weal of this colony.”  For its part, the more tolerant Pilgrim colony of Plymouth did not establish a compulsory school system until it merged into Massachusetts Bay.  It is no coincidence that the one New England colony that did not establish a public school system was Rhode Island, which was founded and peopled by heretics from Calvinist orthodoxy.

After the founding of the American Republic, Massachusetts, again followed by the remainder of New England, pioneered in establishing public schools and compulsory attendance legislation.  In its constitution of 1780, Massachusetts expressly granted authority to the legislature to enforce compulsory attendance at school.  Accordingly, in 1789, Massachusetts enacted the first general school law in the country, mandating public schools throughout the state, certifying school teachers, specifying curricula, and enforcing compulsory attendance at school.  Vermont, New Hampshire, and Connecticut rapidly followed suit (Maine at that time adopted the system as a district of Massachusetts), with only Rhode Island again refusing to join the rest of New England.

One of the most enthusiastic supports of a public and compulsory school system was the “Essex Junto,” a group of prominent Federalist merchants and lawyers in Boston hailing originally from Essex County, Massachusetts.  The Essexmen were particularly eager for an extensive public school system so as to have the youth “taught proper subordination.”  For, as Essexman Stephen Higginson, a leading Boston merchant, put it, “the people must be taught to confide in an reverence their rulers.”  A particularly important theoretician for the Essex Junto was Jonathan Jackson, also a prominent Boston merchant, who set forth his systematic social views in his Thoughts Upon the Political Situation of the United States (1788).  Jackson yearned for the colonial era, with its “habits of subordination” to a government of the elite, in which Jackson and his colleagues believed that all political power should be lodged.  Jackson and the other Essexmen held that society was “one large family,” in which “father” (the elite) should firmly rule, thus forming a “perfect whole” in which each man should be “learning his proper place and keeping to it.”  Historian David Hackett Fischer justly refers to Jackson and the other Essexmen as “collectivists,” who “had no fear of an enlarged economic role for government, as long as it was administered by the natural leaders of society.  They favored bounties, tariffs, rebates, drawbacks, licenses, subsidies, and also prohibitions, inspections, and all manner of restrictions.”  It is no wonder, then, that Jackson, expressing the Essexmen’s enthusiastic support for public and compulsory schooling, had the courage to pursue the logic to that other important medium of education, the newspaper press.  Jackson denounced the privately-owned press for being necessarily dependent on its readership, and advocated a government-owned newspaper that could be independent of its readers and could therefore inculcate the proper virtues in the citizens.

In the new nation the idea arose early that compulsory schooling was mandatory because the children belonged to the government and not to their parents.  Thus, as early as 1785, the Reverend Jeremy Belknap of New Hampshire advocated equal and compulsory schooling for all, emphasizing that the children belong to the government rather than to their parents.  The doctrine of obedience to the government was also the major theme of the founder of the public school system in North Carolina, the judge and financier Archibald Douglas Murphey.  In 1816 Murphey outlined a system of public schools as follows:

…all the children shall be taught in them…in these schools the precepts of morality and religion should be inculcated, and habits of subordination and obedience be formed…Their parents know not how to instruct them…The state, in the warmth of her affection and solicitude for their welfare must take charge of those children and place them in school where their minds can be enlightened and their hearts can be trained to virtue.

Compulsion can be used to consolidate the rule of a governing class or to impose an unnatural equality and uniformity upon the subjects.  To the socialists and educational reformers Frances Wright and Robert Dale Owen, compulsory uniformity was the goal of their proposals for total governmental control of the schools.  Their scheme was “national, rational, republican education; free for all at the expense of all, conducted under the guardianship of the state, and for the honor, the happiness, the virtue, the salvation of the state.”  But to accomplish this task, and to impose equality on all the children, the public schools must have the children twenty-four hours a day, year-round, from the age of two to sixteen.  Owen summarized the plan:

The system of public education, then, which we consider capable, and only capable, of regenerating this nation, and of establishing practical virtue and republican equality among us, is one which provides for all children at all times; receiving them at the earliest age…feeding, clothing and educating them, until the age of majority.

We propose that all the children so adopted should receive the same food; should be dressed in the same simple clothing; should experience the same kind treatment; should be taught (until their professional education commences) in the same branches; in a word, that nothing savoring of inequality, nothing reminding them of the pride of riches or the contempt of poverty, should be suffered to enter these republican safeguards of a young nation of equals.

In this way, Wright and Owen hoped that the entire society would be rendered equal, and the nation would be ripe for the final step—the equalization of property and incomes by governmental coercion.

While the Wright-Owen plan was never put into full force, serious attention was paid to the proposal by contemporary educationists.  Many prominent newspapers supported the scheme, and the widely noted report on education by a committee of Philadelphia workingmen in 1829 was studded with citations and theory from the works of Owen and Wright; this report, in turn, was influential in the spread of public and compulsory school during the 1830s.

The earliest opposition to the idea of compulsory equality come from the workingmen’s groups, especially in New York, where the Workingmen’s Party rejected the scheme.  The labor historian Herbert Harris writes despairingly of their attitude:

In short, labor as a whole didn’t want anything basically new or different; it wanted to share more fully in the advantages of existing commercial and industrial arrangements.  It wanted for itself what the “haves” possessed.  It wanted its children to rise in the world.

By the middle of the nineteenth century America had its first group of professional educationists.  The principal figures in this close though informal body of professionals were a group led by Horace Mann of Massachusetts and including Henry Barnard of Connecticut, James G. Carter of Massachusetts, Caleb Mills of Indiana, and Samuel Lewis and Calvin Stowe of Ohio.  The tireless efforts of these few men were instrumental in expanding the public school system, in establishing a compulsory system, and in gaining for themselves positions of power in its structure.  One method used to achieve their goals was to establish a welter of interlocking educational organizations.  One of the first was the American Lyceum, organized in 1826 by Josiah Holbrook to influence and dominate state and local boards of education.  In 1827 the first Society for the Promotion of Public Schools was organized in Pennsylvania to engage in an extensive program of correspondence, pamphleteering, and press releases.  Similar societies were formed in the early 1830s, featuring lectures, meetings, and legislative lobbying.  Hundreds of such associations arose throughout the country, like the American Institute of Instruction, founded in New England in 1830.  The annual meetings and papers of this institute served as a clearing house and discussion center for the educationist movement.

Furthermore, the educationists published journals by the dozens, through which their theories and argument were disseminated to their followers.  The leading publications were the American Journal of Education, and its successor, the American Annals of Education, the Common School Assistant (J. Orville Taylor, editor), the Connecticut Common School Journal (Henry Barnard, editor), and the Common School Journal (Horace Mann, editor).

The most important single channel of educationist influence ran through high positions in the public school systems.  Thus, Horace Mann, editor of the Common School Journal, became the first secretary of the Massachusetts Board of Education, and his annual reports during the 1840s served to promote the educationists’ “line.”  Henry Barnard became secretary of the Connecticut Board of Education, Calvin Wiley became head of the public schools in North Carolina, Caleb Mills in Indiana, Samuel Lewis in Ohio, and so on.

Another institution where the educationists came into positions of power and domination was the teacher training college, from which future teachers would emerge.  As a corollary, educationists came to determine the standards for the certification of teachers.  Thus, through their combined efforts they succeeded in establishing effective control over the nation’s corps of public school teachers.

The educationists generally did not go so far as to advocate compulsory schooling openly, but they did everything up to that point by calling upon everyone to attend public schools and by consistently disparaging private schools.  They were eager for universal public school attendance in order to hasten the equality of children, and, by the bye, to magnify their own power and income.  The influence of Wright-Owen concepts was evident in their stress on equality and uniformity.  Thus, Samuel Lewis emphasized that the common schools were to take a diverse population and mould them into “one people.”  Theodore Edson exulted that in the common schools the good children must learn to mingle with the bad ones, as they supposedly would have to do in later life.  The influential J. Orville Taylor wrote in his Common School Assistant in 1837, echoing the sentiments of Wright and Owen, “let the common school be made fit to educate all, and let all send to it” (italics his).  Taylor then hailed the “spirit of common schools…Where the rich and the poor meet together on equal terms, where high and low are taught in the same house, the same class, and out of the same book, and by the same teacher…this is a republican education.”

In fact, the Virginia Federalist and educationist Charles Fenton Mercer delivered a speech in 1826 anticipating the Wright-Owen drive for compulsory equality via the public school.  Mercer declared:

…the equality on which our institutions are founded cannot be too intimately interwoven in the habits of thinking among our youth; and it is obvious that it would be greatly promoted by their continuance together, for the longest possible period, in the same schools of juvenile instruction; to sit upon the same forms; engage in the same competitions; partake of the same recreations and amusements, and pursue the same studies, in connection with each other; under the same discipline, and in obedience to the same authority.

Hand in hand with such sentiments went disparagement of the private schools.  This theme appeared almost universally in the educationist writings.  James G. Carter stressed the point in the 1820s; and Orville Taylor attacked private schools in terms reminiscent of Owen, charging that if a rich child is sent to a private school, he will be taught “to look upon certain classes as inferior, and born to fewer privileges.  This is not republican.”


Part of the task of compulsory uniformity that the educationists sought as early as the mid-nineteenth century was to tame, mould, and assimilate the troubling influx of immigrants, at first particularly Irish Catholics, who came pouring into the New World.  Educationist Benjamin Labaree, president of Middlebury College, addressing the influential American Institute of Instruction, in 1849, worried about the “multitude of emigrants from the old world, interfused among our population” who were “rapidly changing the identity of American character.”  The problem was that “these strangers among us, ignorant of our institutions” might well come to “mistake lawless freedom from restraint, for true and rational liberty.”  Whether these immigrants shall “become a part of the body politic” or whether they “will prove to our republic what the Goths and Huns were to the Roman Empire,” depends in large part “upon the wisdom and fidelity of our teachers.”  In short, Labaree saw the task of the schoolteacher as the inculcation of American values into the mass of immigrants, and so “by degrees [to] mould these unprepared and uncongenial elements into the form and character which the peculiar nature of the [American] edifice demands…”

A vital part of this inculcation and moulding, for Labaree and the other educationists, was what they referred to as “Christianizing” the immigrants—in the case of the Irish Catholics, of course, a euphemism for Protestantizing.  George B. Cheever, in 1854, put the thesis more bluntly.  He declared that “we are in great danger from the dark and stolid infidelity and vicious radicalism of a large portion of the foreign immigrating population.”  The remedy was the public school:

…how can we reach the evil at its roots, applying a wise and conservative radicalism to defeat the working of that malignant, social, anti-Christian poison?  How can the children of such a population be reached, except in our free public schools?

And so the educationists of the mid-nineteenth century saw themselves as using an expanded network of free public schools to shape and render uniform all American citizens, to unify the nation, to assimilate the foreigner, to stamp all citizens as Americans, and to impose cohesion and stability on the often unruly and diverse aspirations of the disparate individuals who make up the country.  A part of this compulsory cohesion was the imposing of national values on the sometimes unruly lower classes.  Horace Mann (a paradigm of what would now be called a “corporate liberal”) was anxious to use the public schools to drive out of the lower classes any thought of violence or rebellion, in which he included not only such actual rebellions of the 1840s as the anti-rent war in New York and the Dorr Rebellion in Rhode Island, but also Jacksonian “mobocracy.”  In his annual report for 1848, Mann wrote:

Had the obligations of the future citizens been sedulously inculcated upon all the children of the Republic would the patriot have had to mourn over so many instances where the voter, not being able to accomplish his purpose by voting, has proceeded to accomplish it by violence…?

Great care must be taken, Mann added, to “inform and regulate the will of the people.”

If the ideal of the educationists was to stamp everyone as American, their cherished system was remarkably Prussian.  Calvin Stowe, reporting to the Ohio legislature, hailed the Prussian methods of public education, and urged their adoption in America.  Writing in the late 1830s in almost the same terms as Martin Luther, the inspirer of the Prussian system three centuries earlier, Stowe urged that universal compulsory school duty be placed on the same terms as military duty:

If a regard to the public safety makes it right for a government to compel the citizens to do military duty when the country is invaded, the same reason authorizes the government to compel them to provide for the education of their children—for no foes are so much to be dreaded as ignorance and vice.  A man has no more right to endanger the state by throwing upon it a family or ignorant and vicious children than he has to give admission to the spies of an invading army.  If he is unable to educate his children the state should assist him—if unwilling, it should compel him.  General education is as much more certain, and much less expensive, than military array…

Other principles that Stowe admired in the Prussian system were its enforcement of a uniform language upon the various nationalities and linguistic groups, and the strongly enforced attendance laws and anti-truant laws.  His report on Prussian education was highly influential among the educationists, and the majority followed his lead.  Henry Barnard praised the Prussian educational system and urged that “regular attendance at the school shall be an object of special control and the most active vigilance…It would be very fortunate if parents and children were always willing of themselves.  Unhappily, this is not the case, particularly in great cities.  Although it is lamentable to be forced to us constraint, it is almost always necessary to commence with it.”

And, some decades later, educationist Newton Bateman, influenced by Prussian thought, wrote of the government’s “right of eminent domain” over the “minds and souls and bodies” of all individuals, including of course the children.  Hence, education “cannot be left to the caprices and contingencies of individuals…”

In addition to the more grandiose aims of compulsion, the educationists were also concerned to increase their personal power and pelf.  As directors of the educational establishment, they drove systematically to extend their power and to induce or force an ever widening circle of pupils into their schools.  As Professor E. G. West points out, the drive of educationists and teachers to make the public schools free succeeded in New York State in 1867.  Before that, the public schools had been supported by tuition, and therefore their customers were limited, as in all areas of the economy, by the need to pay for the cost of the service.  Hence the drive of these educational suppliers to force the taxpayers to pay for, and thereby expand the demand for, their own services.  The argument sued before 1867 was that the lack of universal attendance in the public schools was due to the existence of poverty.  When attendance still fell short of the universal even after 1867, the educationists changed their argument and denounced parents for being willful, ignorant, and indifferent to the benefits of the education being offered free to their children.  Hence the need for the coercive device of compulsory attendance, which the educationists were able to drive through the New York legislature in 1874.

By the end of the nineteenth century, the educationists had built a public school system that came under increasing criticism for its heavy bureaucracy, its system of crippling rules, and its insistence on uniformity, regularity and conformity with these universal rules.  Curricula and teaching methods were increasingly standardized, thus ignoring the enormous differences between groups and individuals.

We now begin to see why it should not be a source of wonder that the poorer people and the working classes were the major opponents of the new public school program.  Michael Katz, writing about the successful struggle in 1860, in Beverly, Massachusetts, to abolish the public high school, points out that the wealthy groups were almost unanimously in favor of keeping the public high school while the working classes and poorer groups—the farmers, shoemakers, mariners, fishermen, and laborers—were almost unanimously in favor of its abolition.

By the turn of the twentieth century, the public school system had achieved its maximum impact throughout the country; compulsory attendance laws, furthermore, had swept through state after state, and by 1918 every state in the recalcitrant South had been conquered by the system of compulsion.  The public school system was ready for its next transformation, for the consolidation of its dominance and for the intensification of its control by a ruling elite.  During the first decades of the century, the Progressive era brought a rapid and fateful shift from a roughly laissez-faire economy and society toward the general structure of a corporate society in America, dominated by an alliance of government, important segments of business, and newly developing labor unions as a junior partner.  In recent years, historians, led by Samuel P. Hays and James Weinstein, have begun to show the corollary impact of the Progressive movement on the workings of municipal government.

The Progressive period was marked by a conscious shift of urban political power from local neighborhoods and wards, representing the mass of lower-income and middle-income citizens, toward a centralized rule by upper-income and business groups.  The shift was cleverly put forward as the ouster of “corrupt” political party bosses and “ward heelers” on behalf of efficient, “nonpartisan” technicians, invariably consisting of upper-income and business groups.  It became important for upper-income groups to control municipal governments as the scope of government intervention and activity accelerated, and as governments increasingly became the coveted source of contracts, franchises, tax assessments, and subsidies.

The city manager and city commission movements were particular examples of the concentration of urban power in the hands of a small upper-class elite.  Part of this shift of power away from a decentralized, warn and neighborhood representation included a shift of control of the local school boards as well.  Each school board had originally been controlled by its urban ward (by its “community”), and the Progressive impact on municipal affairs involved the centralization of urban school systems into single, overall school boards dominated by upper-class citizens.

An example is the city of Pittsburgh.  In pre-reform Pittsburgh, in 1910, of the 387 members of local ward-elected school boards and the city council, one-quarter were upper-class managers, professionals, bankers, and big businessmen; while two-thirds were small businessmen and white-collar workers and laborers.  The two leading reform organizations were the Civic Club and the Voters’ League, two-thirds of whom were upperclass members, and all of whom were professionals or big businessmen and their wives.  The Voters’ League stated explicitly that a major aim of reform was to replace lower-class people on the school boards by “men prominent throughout the city…”  The reformers did not succeed within the city; but they won by making an end run around the city itself.  In 1911, the Pennsylvania legislature went over the heads of the city an imposed a new city charter and a new school board system upon Pittsburgh.  To make sure that all would be well, the governor appointed all the members of the new, small centralized city council, and the judges of the state court of common pleas appointed all the members of the new city-wide school board.  Of the new nine-man city council (replacing the 36-man council in the old system), six were upper-class big businessmen and two were upper-class physicians (the ninth man was a union official); of the new fifteen-man city school board, none was a small businessman or worker; instead, ten were big businessmen, three were upper-class wives, one an upper-class physician, and one a union official.  The upper-class centralizers had won in Pittsburgh, much to the chagrin of the lower and middle classes in the city.

The educationist and educational historian Elwood P. Cubberley put the case for urban school centralization in a forthright manner:

One of the important results of the change from ward representation to election from the city at large…is that the inevitable representation from these “poor wards” is eliminated, and the board comes to partake of the best characteristics of the city as a whole.

Otherwise, he warned, the “less intelligent and progressive element would wear out the better elements and come to rule the board.”  Who were these “better elements?”  Cubberly answers clearly:

Men who are successful in the handling or large business undertakings—manufacturers, merchants, bankers, contractors, and professional men or large practice—would perhaps come first. …

Once again, one of the leading reasons for tightening central control of the public schools was the troublesome wave of immigration in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries; more than ever it was important to the educationists to direct, assimilate, and control the new immigrants, and to mould them into the older and more homogeneous system.  Immigrants were expected to abandon their previous language, as well as their often constrasting and diverse values and cultures.  In some cases, evening schools were compulsory for non-English-speaking immigrants; but of course the public school undertook the major part of the work.  It was not an easy task; immigrants often clung to their own culture, and the pesky Catholics often insisted on establishing their own parochial schools.

Quantitatively, the educationists have achieved a success in the twentieth century beyond their fondest expectations.  An increasingly large proportion of Americans have been induced or dragooned into grammar school, high school, college, and now even graduate school.  This development has been aided by steady rises in the minimum school-leaving age, as well as by massive governmental grants and subsidies to higher education, much of which is now government-operated.  Qualitatively, the success story of the educationists is open to question.  But one quantitative attempt—the final and logical culmination of the educationists’ dream of universal and compulsory public schooling—was to prove abortive.  On November 7, 1922, the state of Oregon, unhappy with allowing the existence of private schools even when government-certified, passed a law prohibiting all private schools and compelling all children to attend public school.  It was indeed the fulfillment of the dreams of the educationists; at last all private schools were to be stamped out, and all children were to be subjected to the universal “democratizing,” the great cohesion, of the public school.

It is instructive to note who the major forces were in the drive to outlaw the private school.  It was not led, at least directly, by the Progressive educators, by the local reincarnations of Henry Barnard or Horace Mann.  On the contrary, the spearhead of the drive for the law was the Ku Klux Klan, then strong in the northern states; for the Klan was eager to crush the Catholic parochial school system, and to force all Catholic and immigrant children into the neo-Protestantizing and “Americanizing” force of the public school.  The Klan, it is interesting to note, declared that such a law was necessary for the “preservation of free institutions.”  And if we ponder the history of compulsory education in America, it may well seem that the Klan and the “liberal” educational reformers were not so far apart after all.

Fortunately, the Oregon law was struck down by the Supreme Court in 1925 (Pierce v. Society of Sisters, June 1, 1925).  The court declared that “the child is not the mere creature of the state,” and vigorously asserted that the Oregon law clashed with “the fundamental theory of liberty upon which all governments in this Union repose.”  Whether all governments in this Union do indeed repose on libertarian theory is another issue; but the Pierce decision points the way to a fundamental choice that must eventually be made with respect to public and compulsory schooling in America: either Pierce and liberty or Horace Mann and the Ku Klux Klan.


Note:  This selection has been republished with the permission of Agora Publishing and Laissez-Faire Books.  To purchase a copy, please visit the book’s page here.

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