The Whiskey Rebellion: George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, and the Frontier Rebels Who Challenged America's Newfound Sovereignty

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A gripping and provocative tale of violence, alcohol, and taxes, The Whiskey Rebellion pits President George Washington and Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton against angry, armed settlers across the Appalachians. Unearthing a pungent segment of early American history long ignored by historians, William Hogeland brings to startling life the rebellion that decisively contributed to the establishment of federal authority.

In 1791, at the frontier headwaters of the Ohio River, gangs with blackened faces began to attack federal officials, beating and torturing the collectors who plagued them with the first federal tax ever laid on an American product—whiskey. In only a few years, those attacks snowballed into an organized regional movement dedicated to resisting the fledgling government's power and threatening secession, even civil war.

With an unsparing look at both Hamilton and Washington—and at lesser-known, equally determined frontier leaders such as Herman Husband and Hugh Henry Brackenridge—journalist and popular historian William Hogeland offers an insightful, fast-paced account of the remarkable characters who perpetrated this forgotten revolution, and those who suppressed it. To Hamilton, the whiskey tax was key to industrial growth and could not be permitted to fail. To hard-bitten people in what was then the wild West, the tax paralyzed their economies while swelling the coffers of greedy creditors and industrialists. To President Washington, the settlers' resistance catalyzed the first-ever deployment of a huge federal army, led by the president himself, a military strike to suppress citizens who threatened American sovereignty.

Daring, finely crafted, by turns funny and darkly poignant, The Whiskey Rebellion promises a surprising trip for readers unfamiliar with this primal national drama—whose climax is not the issue of mere taxation but the very meaning and purpose of the American Revolution.

With three original maps by Jack Ryan.

RunTime: 11 hrs, 1 CD. * Mp3 CD Format *. A gripping and provocative tale of violence, alcohol, and taxes, "The Whiskey Rebellion" pits President George Washington and Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton against angry, armed settlers across the Appalachians. Unearthing a pungent segment of early American history long ignored by historians, William Hogeland brings to startling life the rebellion that decisively contributed to the establishment of federal authority.Daring, finely crafted, by turns funny and darkly poignant, "The Whiskey Rebellion" promises a surprising trip for readers unfamiliar with this primal national drama --- whose climax is not the issue of mere taxation but the very meaning and purpose of the American Revolution.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"This is the most compelling and dramatically rendered story of the Whiskey Rebellion ever written. It is so riveting that one almost imagines being on the Pennsylvania frontier when the benighted farmers resisted the federal government and tried to cope with the huge army sent west to bludgeon them into submission. Hogeland unravels complex economic issues, shifting political ideologies, and legal maneuverings with uncommon skill, and he has brought to life in beautifully polished prose a cast of characters: insurgent farmers wearing blackface, religious mystics, radical intellectuals, stiff-necked financiers, land speculators, and — of course — Hamilton, Washington, and other iconic figures of the revolutionary era who heaped wrath on the hardscrabble inheritors of revolutionary radicalism. Every American who values the history of how liberty and authority have stood in dynamic tension throughout the last three centuries should read this luminous book."
— Gary B. Nash, Professor of History and Director of the National Center for History in the Schools, UCLA

"A great read — and an intelligent, insightful, and bold look at an overlooked but vital incident in American history."
— Kevin Baker, author of Strivers Row

"Hogeland's judicious, spirited study offers a lucid window into a mostly forgotten episode in American history and a perceptive parable about the pursuit of political plans no matter what the cost to the nation's unity."
Publishers Weekly

"A vigorous, revealing look at a forgotten...chapter in American history, one that invites critical reconsideration of a founding father or two."
Kirkus Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Soon after Americans ousted inequitable British taxation, Secretary of Finance Alexander Hamilton, hatched a plan to put the new nation on steady financial footing by imposing the first American excise tax, on whiskey makers. The tax favored large distillers over small farmers with stills in the mountains of Pennsylvania, Maryland and Virginia, and the farmers fomented their own new revolution-a challenge to the sovereignty of the new government and the power of the wealthy eastern seaboard. In a fast-paced, blow-by-blow account of this "primal national drama," journalist Hogeland energetically chronicles the skirmishes that made the Whiskey Rebellion from 1791 to 1795 a symbol of the conflict between republican ideals and capitalist values. The rebels engaged in civil disobedience, violence against the tax collectors and threatened to secede from the new republic. Eventually Washington led federal troops to quell the rebellion, arresting leaders such as Herman Husband, a hollow-eyed evangelist who believed that the rebellion would usher in the New Jerusalem. Hogeland's judicious, spirited study offers a lucid window into a mostly forgotten episode in American history and a perceptive parable about the pursuit of political plans no matter what the cost to the nation's unity. (Apr.) Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Contrarian account of a contrarian struggle, in some senses America's first civil war. If it's mentioned at all in survey texts, the Whiskey Rebellion is usually seen as an effort on the part of simpleminded frontiersmen to keep Washington revenuers from taxing their corn mash, a sort of postcolonial Snuffy Smith. The rebellion was more complicated, as freelance journalist Hogeland shows; though plenty of roughshod and untutored frontier figures took up arms against the federal government, the movement to resist excise taxes that favored wealthy and large producers of booze over mom-and-pop operations was widely perceived as justifiable opposition to tyranny. Blame it on Alexander Hamilton; the first treasury secretary found it expedient to retire war debts owed to wealthy domestic creditors by levying charges of many kinds on states, communities and consumers. His financier ally, Robert Morris, benefited greatly from the repayment (plus interest, and lots of it) of the war debt; he also "controlled all real power in Congress, as well as the Continental Army" and was, by Hogeland's account, a scammer and a scoundrel. After the revolution, Hamilton labored to bring the independent-minded western frontier-then extending not much further west than Pittsburgh-under the control of tax agents such as John Neville, who lived on a splendid estate staffed by slaves in the abolition-minded, poor Appalachians; a key moment in the rebellion of 1791 was the incineration of that fine estate by a grim army dressed in blackface, Indian garb and even women's clothing. Led by an offbeat evangelist who experienced visions and believed in such strange ideas as profit-sharing and a progressive income tax, therebellion was quickly suppressed by federal troops at George Washington's order-though, as Hogeland notes, Washington himself took to making whiskey soon afterward, even as his successor, Thomas Jefferson, repealed the hated whiskey tax. A vigorous, revealing look at a forgotten-and confusing-chapter in American history, one that invites critical reconsideration of a founding father or two.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780743254908
  • Publisher: Scribner
  • Publication date: 4/11/2006
  • Pages: 320
  • Sales rank: 793,063
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 1.10 (d)

Read an Excerpt

Prologue: The President, the West, and the Rebellion

President Washington was traveling home to Virginia in June of 1794 when he got hurt. He was sixteen months into his second term. He'd hoped to avoid serving it: at sixty-two, he had begun to feel irretrievably old. He kept catching low-grade, lingering fevers. His inflamed gums endured the pressure of tusk and hinged steel. Rifling through papers, he looked for proof of things people claimed he'd said, waving off polite reminders from subordinates who, the president could see, were shaken by pinholes in his memory.

He'd been embodying republican judgment for so long that what might have been oppressive requirements of office — audiences, dinners, dances, teas — seemed to come naturally. In black velvet or purple satin, his huge frame, still magnificently straight, could endow any occasion with serenity and seriousness, with grace. Yet what George Washington really had to do all day was apply his enormous capacity for administrative thoroughness to a pile of awful problems that grew more numerous all the time. They were problems of mere survival. The Royal Navy was seizing U.S. ships. The British Army declined to evacuate forts on U.S. soil. Indian wars brought terrible carnage and no progress. Washington had been harried, throughout his first term, by battles within his own cabinet: Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson and Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton undermined each other and, inevitably, Washington's efforts. Yet both men had been essential to him. Now Jefferson had quit to lead the nation's first opposition party. Hamilton, still in the cabinet, ever more essential, led the party in power. Of all dangers to the new nation, Washington was sure that party politics would be the deadliest.

So he was relieved to be able to get home at all this spring. The trip would be so brief that Mrs. Washington had remained in Philadelphia, and when traveling without her, Washington liked to push the pace, keeping the journey to five days. Yet the weather was hot, the horses out of shape, and presidential travel a production. The president's light, long-distance coach went bouncing over ruts, holes, and rocks. Up top sat the driver and a postilion, both in livery. Riding alongside was a secretary; on the other side a friend might ride as bodyguard. Some ways behind, the baggage wagon lumbered; behind the wagon stepped the president's saddle horse, led by a mounted slave. Overnight stops meant dinners, tours of friends' properties, ride-alongs, and side trips. And there was frequent communication with the office.

Washington didn't want rest. What he wanted, the only reason for taking this quick break, was to be working on Mount Vernon, his five farms on eight thousand acres. He'd been trying for most of his life to make Mount Vernon both a self-sufficient manor in the ancient Roman style and a source of wealth through the sale of produce. Such an estate would normally be ancestral home to a dynasty, but while his wife had borne her first husband four children, George Washington had none. On soil made almost barren by tobacco cultivation before he'd inherited it, he experimented with common crops like wheat and corn and with exotics like treebox, grapes, horse chestnuts, clover, and gourds. He'd planted five kinds of fruit trees. He'd spent years fighting the encroachment of waste by sprinkling plaster on soil, sowing oats and peas, searching in manure for what he called the first transmutation toward gold: fertility. He bred cattle, mules, hogs, sheep, and horses. Support came from smithies, charcoal burners, carpentry shops, mills, looms, cobblers, breweries, creameries, and a fishery. Voluminous accounts were kept separately for each farm, and more than three hundred people managed — most enslaved, many indentured, some free. At the foot of Mount Vernon's lawns, the product of all this hard-won fecundity was loaded from wharves onto boats in the Potomac.

Yet Washington always had great difficulty keeping the place on a paying basis. Each week in Philadelphia he sat at a desk and wrote his farm manager page after page of instructions, caveats, reminders, neatly hand-drawn crop-rotation tables and charts; each week he required an equally detailed report in response. He was sure his managers were incompetent, his workers selling butter on the side, his slaves lazy and poorly managed. Finally he couldn't stand it any longer. With the end of the congressional session, he pushed the cabinet to close executive business, snatched a few weeks from the nation, and started south to give Mount Vernon the personal attention it desperately needed.

After too many days on the road, almost home now, he decided on a quick side trip. He wanted to inspect the construction zone on tidal marshes known as the Great Columbian Federal City; one day it would bear his name. Touring the site, he could see the congressional building and the president's house, separated by bleak woods, still scaffolded, under construction. Those two buildings were all that suggested potential for civilization. Washington had been trying to whip up interest in land sales that were supposed to be funding the venture, but buyers were few, and it wasn't hard to understand why. The mall existed only on paper and included an open sluice for sewage. Most people saw this site as wet, buggy scrub.

What George Washington saw was a city that didn't struggle upward from necessity and convenience. Purpose-built, it would be a neoclassical commercial and political center, surrounded by manorial farms like his own, organizing agrarian bounty and financial savvy, the north and the south, Hamiltonians and Jeffersonians, in the wisdom and strength of central government. The city would serve as an embarkation point for products of the rich, fresh soil of the interior, barely tapped, yet already owned and controlled in massive tracts by George Washington, his fellow tidewater planters, and northern speculators. The western produce would tumble, one day, out of the mountains, ride down the Potomac, and be dispatched into the Chesapeake Bay and across the Atlantic for the markets of Europe. When that happened, both the Federal City and the president's huge landholdings in the west would assume enormous value.

There was an obstacle to realizing this dream, something he needed to look at, again, on this side trip. The Potomac, spreading as an estuary alongside the future capital city, then quietly passing Mount Vernon's lawns, seemed hospitably southern here near the bay. Follow it upstream, though — Washington had done so for the first time more than forty years earlier — and even before leaving civilization you came to white cataracts, sluices, drop-offs, rocky twists and turns; the river narrowed and became unnavigable. Above the fall line it leveled for a shallow stretch, then steepened again, regaining speed and fight. Arriving many days later at the highest springs, a good surveyor would be disappointed to note that in the western mountains the river simply petered out. Moving western produce eastward called for a road to the shore. The Potomac wasn't it.

The president knew the Potomac, and he knew the west. Near the crest of the Appalachians, where other streams rise, Washington the redhead colonial had panted his way up the most forbidding passes in the country. Among ice chunks in the raging Allegheny he'd swum for his life. He'd hauled chains and tripods; he'd led snooty superiors to places where, of white men, only he and his rough scouts had been before. He'd followed the streams that flowed down the other way and converged at the headwaters of the Ohio River, which cut southwest and poured at last into the Mississippi; he'd floated the Ohio looking for good land. What Washington had been puzzling over since his teens was how to make the tricky, east-flowing Potomac somehow navigable, then connect it — and thus connect Mount Vernon, and now his Federal City — by a high, wide road across the mountains, to the west-flowing Ohio, thence with the Mississippi, at last with the gulf. He was weaving a mental network that might pull divergent watersheds together, gathering up a continent's opposing forces, tilting the American west toward the eastern shore.

Yet lately he'd grown discouraged. After a lifetime of purchasing western tracts and attempting development, he found his far-off property still squatted on, his rents uncollected. Law in the west was disastrously incompetent. Mills needed constant repair yet never produced enough to make expenditures worthwhile. His land agents were passive. He'd started exploring the possibility of selling off his western lands.

It was a dream that would die hard. After taking a look at his Federal City-in-progress, the president, mounted now, turned not downstream toward home but upstream for a quick inspection of his most exciting east-west project, the canal works at the Potomac's lower falls. The young man's imaginings had long since been put busily into practice: he'd been made president of the Potomac Company long before becoming president of the United States. Here at the fall line, engineers were taking a standard approach. They diverted flow into trenches dug beside the river; wood-gated, stone-walled locks would float boats up steps. It was above the falls, in the second phase, where the great vision was projected. Washington and his business partners planned to avoid cutting waterways beside the river. They'd dig out the banks instead, take the fight out of the currents by widening the river, dispense with locks; they'd make a new Potomac, an interstate highway, level and calm, pursuing it into the mountains till defeated by the river's narrowing. Then phase three: the overland mountain road, which they imagined congested, someday, with wagons portaging goods eastward from the Ohio River.

The president's horse lurched. It lurched again. From the rocks above the lower falls, he'd been viewing the construction; the horse's feet were tender, the ground was hard, and suddenly the horse couldn't stop running and bucking. Washington was giving all he had to staying in the saddle and keeping himself and the horse from hurtling down the rocks into rushing water. When he succeeded at last in pulling the horse to a panting halt, his back was in such excruciating pain that he couldn't stay mounted.

He got down with difficulty, joined by his anxious party. Virginia gentry saw themselves as horse-tamers out of Homer. Washington was deemed the greatest rider of his age. Now he couldn't hoist himself into the saddle. With help, he did at last mount up, but the pain was paralyzing and getting worse. At Mount Vernon at last, but unable to stand, he lay around the house. Hands-on management required day-long gallops over miles of country. He was used to dismounting, taking off his coat, joining in the work. In battle, flying lead had torn holes in his clothes while men fell screaming around him, and when dysentery swept through the ranks, it had killed dozens while making him temporarily miserable. An often-told story placed him in the sights of a crack British rifleman, overwhelmed by the nobility of the target, who couldn't bring himself to shoot. It was amazing but true: never before, in a long and persistently dangerous career, had George Washington been injured. This damage to his back, he was told, would be with him the rest of his life.

Furious, he left Mount Vernon, having done nothing, riding back toward Philadelphia in a coach on what he'd been advised was the smoothest road. The road wasn't smooth. He sat rigid with pain, day after day, as the carriage bounced and swayed. Rain started falling, then pouring. The entourage slowed in the mud. He caught a bad cold. After seven days of misery he arrived at Philadelphia, planning to go straight to bed, but a party of Chickasaws, he was told, had arrived days earlier and patiently awaited a meeting with the president.

Washington went to dinner. He had world-famous posture; in the presence of Indians there was no question of reclining or even slouching. He sat up straight, smoking the peace pipe and exchanging polite remarks. He badly wanted to make another trip to Mount Vernon, somehow, as soon as possible.

What the president didn't know, as he forced himself upright for one more diplomatic dinner: attempts at federal law enforcement, over the mountains in his old Ohio River stomping grounds, had run into a kind of trouble the United States hadn't yet faced. He wouldn't return to Mount Vernon soon. The old general, with his wrenched and faulty back, would be leading troops again, making his last trip west.

The national crisis that came to be known as the Whiskey Rebellion, a scene of climactic moments in the lives of famous founders like George Washington and Alexander Hamilton, and in those of equally determined and idiosyncratic Americans whose names have been forgotten, began in the fall of 1791, when gangs on the western frontier started attacking collectors of the first federal tax on an American product, hard liquor. The attacks took lurid and, to contemporaries, familiar form. The attackers' faces were blackened; the victims were tortured and humiliated. Sometimes the gangs dressed as their own worst nightmare. Stripped to deerskin breeches, they streaked their chests and faces with herb-dyed clay and stuck feathers in their hair, imitating a native raiding party. Or they borrowed their wives' dresses. Black faces framed by white caps, they kicked the awkward skirts while confronting human prey.

Those attacks would develop, over the course of more than two years, into something far more frightening to eastern authorities than freakish rioting: a regional movement, centered at the headwaters of the Ohio in western Pennsylvania, dedicated to resisting federal authority west of the Alleghenies. In the fall of 1794, the rebellion would climax when President Washington raised thirteen thousand federal troops — more than had beaten the British at Yorktown — and led them over the Appalachians, where armed Americans were no longer petitioning for redress, or carrying out grotesque attacks on officers, but leading a secessionist insurgency against the United States of America.

The perpetrators were the toughest and hardest of westerners: farmers, laborers, hunters, and Indian fighters; most were disillusioned war veterans. Expert woodsmen and marksmen, adept not only in musket drill but also in rifle sharpshooting, they were organized in disciplined militias and comfortable with danger. The president's decision to suppress the rebellion, in which he deployed the first federal force of any significant size — and led it as commander in chief — became a test of the fragile new nation's viability, the biggest news of the day. Triggered by the tax on domestic whiskey, with which the prodigiously energetic Alexander Hamilton was realizing his visions of high finance and commercial empire, the rebellion brought to a climax an ongoing struggle not over taxation but over the meaning and purpose of the American Revolution itself.

That struggle had financial, political, and spiritual aspects. In the most literal sense it was about paying the revolution's debt. The whiskey rebels weren't against taxes. They were against what they called unequal taxation, which redistributed wealth to a few holders of federal bonds and kept small farms and businesses commercially paralyzed. Farmers and artisans, facing daily anxiety over debt foreclosure and tax imprisonment, feared becoming landless laborers, their businesses bought cheaply by the very men in whose mills and factories they would then be forced to toil. They saw resisting the whiskey tax as a last, desperate hope for justice in a decades-long fight over economic inequality. Alexander Hamilton and his allies, meanwhile, whose dreams had long been obstructed by ordinary people's tactics — crude, violent, sometimes effective — for influencing public finance policy, saw enforcing the whiskey tax as a way of resolving that fight in favor of a moneyed class with the power to spur industrial progress.

Problems facing rural people everywhere were amplified west of the Appalachians, and the whiskey tax, wreaking a special kind of havoc on westerners' lives, helped shape the national concept of the American west. Some of the whiskey rebels envisioned stranding the seaboard cities, vile pits of unrestrained greed, on the far side of the Appalachian ridge and leaving the coast a vestige. Some imagined a new west, spiritually redeemed, with perfect democratic and economic justice: small farmers, artisans, and laborers would thrive, while bankers, big landowners, and lawyers would be closely regulated, even suppressed. Believing they could wrest their country back from frontier merchants and creditors, their own neighbors, some rebels wanted to banish big businessmen as traitors to the region even while fending off the distant federal government in all its growing might.

The rebellion thus became a primal national drama that pitted President Washington and other eastern founders, along with their well-heeled frontier protégés and allies — all recent revolutionaries themselves — against western laborers with a radical vision of the American future. The rebellion also troubled the inner circle of the president's administration. Alexander Hamilton and George Washington brought to suppressing the rebellion a long-standing tension and a peculiar closeness, whose background was in the ambiguous wartime politics of the revolution. Edmund Randolph, the new secretary of state, urged the president to avoid the drastic, irreversible step of bringing military force against American citizens; he became the isolated cabinet moderate. Within the insurgency were moderates too, accused by the government of leading insurrection, yet in fact dissenting from their neighbors' extreme radicalism. Committed to peaceful petitioning, yet unable to control or direct the fury of their neighbors, western moderates faced danger from all sides as the rebellion and its suppression turned into outright conflict. By the time federal forces marched west, the Whiskey Rebellion was bathing all of its actors — founders and terrorists, extremists and moderates — in the stark light, not of an argument between genteel parties in Congress, but of a guerrilla war on the country's ragged margin, our first war for the American soul.

Copyright © 2006 by William Hogeland

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Table of Contents


Prologue: The President, the West, and the Rebellion

1. Over the Mountains

2. The Curse of Pulp

3. Spirits Distilled Within the United States

4. Herman Husband

5. The Neville Connection

6. Tom the Tinker

7. The Hills Give Light to the Vales

8. A New Sodom

9. Talking

10. The General Goes West

11. That So-Called Whiskey Rebellion





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Sort by: Showing all of 4 Customer Reviews
  • Posted September 29, 2010

    more from this reviewer

    Living on the Mingo

    This book was a must read for me because I live within five minutes of Mingo Creek, Mingo Church, and lots of other sites related to the rebellion. You can't grow up in this area without knowing about it. It's part of the local flavor. So I feel that I am very qualified to review this book based on geographical location and the fact that I've read just about everything out there on The Whiskey Rebellion. Here's the pros and cons of the book

    1. Good story telling
    2. Easy to read
    3. Good starting point for those who want to read about this forgotten part of American history.
    4. I like the focus on Brackenridge (a very entertaining character in our history).
    5. If you hate Hamilton and/or Robert Morris you'll dig this book.

    1. I found a very obvious error in his run through of the French and Indian War. The author states that the British were at Fort Pitt when the French attacked and took control. It wasn't Fort Pitt it was Fort Prince George. Actually it was a half built fort that was seized from an understaffed and undermanned group of poor souls that stood no chance against the overwhelming number of French from Canada.

    2. Some of his Western Pennsylvania geography is a bit off in his description, especially his description of the Mingo area. I guess it wouldn't really matter to those just interested in the story and live outside of the area but for me its just a matter of pride being from here.

    3. From new research Tom the Tinker may have been more than one man (some say three). Holfcroft was most likely one of them but there is evidence pointing to others also.

    4. This book definitely has a bias. It should be apparent to anyone who reads more than 10 pages in. It didn't bother me but some might get annoyed.

    5. If you really like Hamilton and/or Robert Morris be prepared to hate this book.

    I've read tons of books and articles on Alexander Hamilton (I even wrote a 50 page paper on him for an advanced history course dealing due history as a have and have not). Hamilton might be the hardest Founding Father to write a non-biased book/article about. There is just so much conflicting stories, primary source documents, and what have you, that it is really hard to really known Hamilton. When someone invents a time machine and goes back to interview the man and watch him in action then and only then will we get an accurate reading of this mans mind and heart. Villain or hero, it's hard to say.

    But like I said this is a good starting point and it does offer some good, solid facts that will be apparent if one reads other works about The Whiskey Rebellion. I say pick it up and enjoy.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted July 14, 2014

    This book was a required book for my Westward Expansion History

    This book was a required book for my Westward Expansion History Course in college.  

    Perhaps I missed it in the introduction, but the first several chapters follow specific people.  Not the actual events of the Whiskey Rebellion, but instead the events that lead to its inception.  After I figured that out around chapter five or six, the story started to make sense.

    It concludes with the bringing of everything together that was spoken about in the previous chapters.  It was an eye opening book for sure, and something I am glad to have in my library now.

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    Posted September 1, 2010

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    Posted January 1, 2013

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