Profiles in Character: Hubris and Heroism in the U.S. Senate, 1789-1996

Profiles in Character: Hubris and Heroism in the U.S. Senate, 1789-1996

by Joseph Martin Hernon

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Profiles in Character: Hubris and Heroism in the U.S. Senate, 1789-1996 by Joseph Martin Hernon

Hernon's title is a deliberate take-off of Kennedy's Profiles in Courage. Unlike Kennedy's patriotic portrayal of various Senators, Hernon takes the position that the best-known U.S. Senators throughout history don't deserve their renown as much as some lesser-known (or completely unknown) ones who served at the same time. Each chapter of his book pairs a famous Senator with his lesser-known counterpart.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781563249389
Publisher: Taylor & Francis
Publication date: 10/31/1996
Pages: 320
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.78(d)

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CHAPTER ONE

"Last of the Romans"

Rufus King vs. James Monroe (1789-1820)

When the first U.S. Senate convened in December 1790 in its new quarters in Philadelphia, the two full-length portraits of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette--1784 gifts of the French government to the Confederation Congress--were moved from the Senate's temporary chamber in New York. But because of divisive debates over the changing political conditions in revolutionary France, the portraits were hung with curtains that could be drawn for protection. Though symbols of l'ancien regime could be easily covered, the principles of the French Revolution began to permeate American politics and occasioned the rise of party politics in the United States. In the new Senate, two principal representatives of the emerging factions or parties, the pro-French revolutionary "Republicans" and the antirevolutionary "Federalists," were James Monroe of Virginia and Rufus King of New York.

Especially significant were their differences over slavery, as early as 1785, when they both served in the Confederation Congress. King led the fight to ban slavery after 1800 in the federal lands of the Northwest Territory. Though Thomas Jefferson supported the plan, Monroe dropped it in his Ordinance of 1787; but the Congress approved it, in exchange for concessions to southern planters prohibiting the growth of tobacco and indigo on the northwest side of the Ohio. On the extension of slavery question, Rufus King three decades later challenged the fragile "Era of Good Feelings" that enveloped the presidency of James Monroe.

Born in 1758 into the tidewater aristocracy of Virginia that included George Washington, George Mason, "Light Horse Harry" Lee, and Richard Henry Lee, James Monroe was three years younger than Rufus King. Their lives were closely intertwined, often in opposition, especially during the forty years from 1785 until 1825. Upon taking his seat as senator from New York in July 1789, Rufus King at thirty-four was the youngest senator, but that distinction would soon go to James Monroe at thirty-two, representing Virginia beginning in December 1790. But the Senate at that time, with its secret deliberations, was considered a graveyard for talented men, as James Madison enhanced his reputation in the more democratic House of Representatives, with its public debates. King had the longest career in the Senate in its first thirty years or so, serving from 1789 to 1796 and again from 1813 to 1825, and the two men confronted each other on the Senate floor only during Monroe's four years in the Senate from 1790 to 1794. But their differences during those years signaled the rise of party politics. Most significantly, both men were classic examples of politicians who used the Senate as a stepping-stone to higher office, particularly the presidency. In 1816, Monroe was the first former senator to be elected president, and his opponent was Senator King.

Rufus King was born in 1755 at Dunstan Landing, a part of the Maine frontier village of Scarborough, where his father, Richard, was a wealthy lumber merchant. King's boyhood memories were scarred when he was eleven, as a group of disgruntled debtors , disguised as drunken Indians and calling themselves Sons of Liberty, ransacked the family home and burned his father's papers, including deeds and securities. The family's attorney, John Adams, described the "Terror" and "Distress" of the scene as "enough to move a Statue, to melt an Heart of Stone." Such a scene might explain Rufus King's temperamental conservatism.

King's education strengthened his conservative Federalist views. First in his class at revolution-disrupted Harvard in 1777--with distinctions in math, language, and oratory--he then studied law under the conservative Theophilus Parsons at Newburyport. King developed into a Lockean empiricist, who believed that experience was the best teacher. He later commended the views of Edmund Burke and quoted that great opponent of the French Revolution: "We may not apply unqualified metaphysical principles to Affairs. Experience not abstraction ought to be our Guide in practice and in Conduct."

Interrupting his legal studies, King saw limited military service in Rhode Island as a major in General John Glover's brigade in 1778, but as the fighting shifted from New England to the South, King returned to his legal career. Monroe's military experience--better documented--was more formative for the teenager. He was certainly more interested in glory and advancement in the army than King, as Major Monroe became an aide to Lord Stirling, one of Washington's brigade commanders. Monroe soon became acquainted with two other young aides, Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Hamilton and Colonel Aaron Burr. But his friendship with another eighteen-year-old, Pierre S. DuPonceau, secretary to Baron von Steuben, made a lasting impression.

DuPonceau introduced Monroe to the world of the philosophes and advanced the view that the American Revolution was acting out the theories of the Enlightenment. The young Frenchman encouraged the stoical streak in the naturally reserved young Virginian and also motivated Monroe's philosophical bent of mind, which would be greatly strengthened under the influence of Thomas Jefferson. Floundering in his legal studies at William and Mary after leaving the army, Monroe found a patron in the author of the Declaration of Independence and followed Governor Jefferson to his new capital at Richmond in 1780. Undoubtedly, Monroe's legal education under Jefferson was much broader than King's. The American philosophe advised his young protege to read not only John Locke but Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and Cicero but also Plutarch. Monroe was a creature of Jefferson and worked for the rest of his life to turn the ideals of the American Revolution into a practical model for humanity.

The career of Monroe and that of King were remarkably parallel, each statesman becoming the other's principal political antagonist. Monroe was elected to the Virginia House of Delegates in 1782 and King to the House of Representatives of the Massachusetts General Court in 1783. Both married socially prominent New York women in 1786. Mary Alsop King was far wealthier, with her estimated 50,000 pounds dowry, than Elizabeth Kortright Monroe. At the beginning of his political career, King was handsome, with piercing eyes and haughty demeanor; and with his "high-toned" voice, he became a penetratingly eloquent debater. Monroe was physically impressive in a different way, broad-shouldered and of a massive over-six-foot frame. His plain face, wide-set eyes, and large Roman nose reflected his personality, which a younger contemporary described as "Plain, practical, didactic--a man of action, not words." In later life, he displayed a grave manner not unlike Washington's. King's connections with Adams and Hamilton shaped his career; Jefferson gave form to the career of Monroe.

In 1786, Monroe doubted the political honesty of King as a member of the "most illiberal" delegation to the Confederation Congress, that of Massachusetts. But at the Philadelphia convention in 1787 drafting the Constitution, Monroe, who was not a delegate, would have to be content with reading about King's eloquence, if occasional rudeness, in presenting his views. King privately expressed the hope that the Massachusetts General Court would "check the madness of Democracy" and send to Congress "men of Consequence, not Dunces." But King's "conservatism" and the Virginia delegation's "liberalism" were both bundles of contradictions. King, opposing the "rule of numbers," argued that property as well as population should determine the apportionment of representation in the new national legislature. Counting African American slaves as three-fifths of a person added to his hostility to representation by numbers. Both King and Madison, a Virginia delegate, opposed the "Great Compromise," proposed by Roger Sherman of Connecticut, which gave the states equal representation in the Senate and called for representation in the House according to population. But King and Madison agreed to the compromise since the only alternative was a breakup of the convention.

The outbreak of an antitax rebellion of western Massachusetts farmers under Captain Daniel Shays in 1786 strengthened King's skepticism about popular self-government and his support for a strong national government. He argued at the convention for the nationalist, or Federalist, view, including the need for a strong president and central government with separation of powers and checks and balances. King signed the Constitution in Philadelphia, having served as a member of the Committee of Style. As a delegate to the Massachusetts convention, he forcefully argued for its ratification.

Monroe, however, as a delegate to the Virginia Ratifying Convention, was a leading Anti-Federalist. Not an extreme opponent of ratification, Monroe focused on the controversial Jay-Gardoqui negotiations in 1786 regarding free navigation of the Mississippi. He maintained that under the Constitution, in the absence of a fixed quorum, seven states in the Senate could use their votes to close the Mississippi, in contrast to the nine states required to ratify a treaty under the Articles of Confederation. Madison, one of the principal authors of the Constitution and of twenty-nine of the Federalist papers, countered by arguing that western rights were better protected by the Constitution since treaties would be negotiated by the president and approved by a two-thirds vote of the Senate. Monroe's concern about manipulation of a Senate quorum Madison found to be absurd.

James Monroe perhaps convinced twelve of the fourteen delegates from the then Kentucky section of Virginia to vote with the Anti-Federalists. But the pressure increased when word arrived that eight states had already ratified the Constitution. Though not the decisive ninth, Virginia was a very important tenth, but its Anti-Federalists did win approval of a Bill of Rights to be submitted to the new Congress.

Monroe was pressured into running for the House of Representatives against Madison, but the soon-to-be author of the Bill of Rights out maneuvered Monroe in proposing amendments to the Constitution as additional guarantees of individual liberties. With the support of the Baptists because of his advocacy of religious liberty, Madison easily won the House seat where he was to play a major role for the next eight years. But Monroe, at Jefferson's insistence, agreed to represent Virginia in the U.S. Senate, taking his seat in Philadelphia principally to enable his wife to be close to her family in New York. Monroe and Madison would soon become leaders of the "Republican" supporters of Jefferson in Congress.

Largely because of his wife's family connections in New York and the birth of his children there, Rufus King moved to the city. After one month's official residence, he was elected to the New York Assembly; and after serving there for only ten days, backed by the Federalists as a compromise candidate, he was elected by the state legislature as junior U.S. senator. Taking his seat in the "upper chamber" at Federal Hall in New York City, King drew lots with the senior senator, General Philip Schuyler, Alexander Hamilton's father-in-law, and won the six-year term, the general drawing one for two years. King quickly became one of the leading Hamiltonian "Federalists" in the Senate.

The first Senate mustered a quorum on April 6, 1789, and immediately began debating rules and matters of protocol. It was soon to be vigorously, if not ludicrously, presided over by John Adams, inaugurated as vice president on April 21. Arguing that there were "no people in the world so much in favor of titles as the people of America," Adams from April 23 to May 14 led the Senate in a debate over titles for the president and other top officials of the government. He thought the word president was so commonly used that it was undignified by itself, but after several weeks of debate, the only title that stuck, temporarily, was the one bestowed by Senator Ralph Izard of South Carolina upon the stout vice president: "His Rotundity."

The austere propriety of General Washington added dignity no title could bestow to the office of president as he was sworn into office on April 30, 1789, on the balcony outside the Senate chamber in New York. Similarly, the demeanor of the first senators shaped customs and manners in the Senate. Selected by a process of filtration through the state legislatures, the Senate, conscious of its important name derived from Roman history, searched for an identity in those early years. Was it to be aristocratic by nature as many of the Federalists believed? Or was it to have the somewhat more modest but nonetheless weighty presence that Madison at the convention projected for it, a body proceeding "with more coolness, with more system, and with more wisdom than the popular branch" and therefore requiring "greater extent of information and stability of character"?

As a leading Federalist, Rufus King quickly became a target for that acerbic critic of the First Congress and spiritual founding father of the Democratic Party, William Maclay, senator from Pennsylvania from 1789 to 1791. He described King's character as "detestable--a perfect canvas for the devil to paint on; a groundwork void of every virtue." Maclay called King one of the Hamiltonian "gladiators" adept at "smuggling" bills through the Senate at the behest of Secretary of the Treasury Hamilton. It was King's Hamiltonian defense of the business community that especially rankled Democratic-Republicans like Maclay and Monroe.

Shortly after entering the Senate, Monroe espoused Jefferson's opposition to the Bank of the United States, which Hamilton proposed, as based upon "implied powers" in the Constitution, and King strongly supported. The bank was a stabilizing force for the new government, attracting capital from merchants and winning their much-needed confidence. But it also benefited speculators and thereby attracted the opposition of agrarian interests. The bank further delineated differences between King's Federalists and Monroe's Republicans and would reemerge as an issue in the 1830s.

Monroe sharpened the party profiles in 1791 when he introduced a bill to open the Senate debates to the public. In his only Senate speech to be preserved, he called for exposing "the trustees of the publick ... confidence to the publick view" to prevent enacting legislation "dangerous to the publick liberty." "Let the jealous, the prying eye of their constituents uphold their proceedings, mark their conduct, and the tone of the body will be changed," he asserted. With considerable naivete, he argued that under the scrutiny of public debates, a senator "whose heart was devoted and whose mind pursued with unceasing ardor the establishment of arbitrary power" would "change his style and from motives of private interest become the fervent patron of the publick liberty." Though he initially lost the battle, the controversy raged on until 1794, when he succeeded in winning public admission to the debate over the seating of Albert Gallatin as senator from Pennsylvania. The Federalists, led by Rufus King, sought to deny Gallatin his seat on the grounds that he had not been a citizen for the requisite nine years when elected, as required by the Constitution.

A "sparrowlike" man, the French-speaking Swiss aristocrat Gallatin was opposed by some of the Federalists on bigoted, nativist grounds that would lead to their triumph and downfall over the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798. The real motive, however, was the Federalist desire to strengthen a precarious one-vote control of the Senate. Gallatin, who had arrived in America in 1780 and taught French at Harvard, did not take an oath of allegiance until 1785 to the state of Virginia, which then owned the part of western Pennsylvania where he owned land. More important to the Federalists, however, was Gallatin's leadership of the farmers of western Pennsylvania in opposing Hamilton's excise tax on whiskey. And while serving unofficially in the Senate until the vote, Gallatin, who had a keen understanding of finances, launched an attack on Hamilton's fiscal policies in a sharp French accent. A future secretary of the treasury under President Jefferson, Gallatin was a symbol of the French Revolution the Federalists so despised; and by a strict party vote of 14 to 12, the "Democratic" Republican from Pennsylvania was unseated.

Another major controversy that shaped the two-party system and highlighted the differences between King and Monroe was the "Citizen Genet" affair. Edmond Genet, as the French Republic's new minister to the United States, landed at Charleston, South Carolina, in April 1793, shortly after the execution of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette and the French declaration of war against Great Britain, Spain, and Holland. President Washington had already issued a neutrality proclamation, though the word neutrality was not used. As the French minister journeyed toward Philadelphia, he was warmly greeted by Democratic societies and Anti-Federalist newspapers. When Genet arrived in Philadelphia, he received an icy reception from the president. Despite his promise to Secretary of State Jefferson, Genet ordered a captured English ship refitted as a French privateer, to sail in violation of American neutrality. The cabinet then decided to order Genet's official recall but to grant him asylum to escape the guillotine that awaited him in France.

Rufus King and Chief Justice John Jay published a letter in the New York newspaper The Diary, accusing Genet of planning to "Appeal to the People" over the head of the president. The Federalists had personalized the issue as a conflict of Genet against Washington, and Jefferson privately worried that the controversy might "sink the republican interest" and advised Madison and Monroe to abandon the Genet cause. According to Madison, Monroe could "hardly bring himself absolutely and openly" to condemn Genet; but along with other Republicans, the Virginians dissociated themselves from the Frenchman's conduct. Monroe still believed the philosophy he had espoused enthusiastically in essays under the pen name "Aratus" in 1791, linking the American and French revolutions: "Whoever owns the principles of one revolution must cherish those of the other.... As a friend of humanity, I rejoice in the French Revolution, but as a citizen of America, the gratification is greatly increased." Monroe warned that the failure of the Revolution in France would endanger liberty in America a cardinal principle of Jeffersonian republicanism.

The question of the French Revolution continued to shape the policies and attitudes of both King and Monroe through 1815, until the overthrow of Napoleon and the end of potential and actual war with the United Kingdom. Monroe appropriately left the Senate in 1794 to become minister to France and King in 1796 to serve as minister to the Court of St. James. Each man also found his life entangled at times in a conspiratorial web woven by the chief plotter within his party, the Federalist Secretary of State Timothy Pickering and Republican Senator Aaron Burr.

Burr connived to become minister to France in 1794 to succeed Gouverneur Morris, recalled at the request of the French government. But Washington, at that precarious moment in Franco-American relations, after the Genet affair and the Reign of Terror, was not about to appoint Burr; and Monroe served for the next two years. He was most successful in rescuing Tom Paine and Madame Lafayette from prison and the guillotine but alienated Secretary Pickering and even President Washington for excessive admiration of the French government. Yet he was unable to calm French anger over the treaty with Great Britain negotiated by Chief Justice John Jay in November 1794. His Republican friends at home were equally angry at granting Britain most-favored-nation status, with no provision for settling the question of the impressment of American sailors, among other issues. When Timothy Pickering replaced the pro-French Edmund Randolph as secretary of state because Washington believed Randolph had intrigued to block ratification of Jay's Treaty, Monroe's ministerial days were numbered. The president recalled him in 1796 during the growing controversy over Jay's Treaty.

While stationed in Thermidorian France, Monroe's chief flaw was his eagerness to see broad principles, rather than private ambitions, shaping political motives. He shared this trait with many other Jeffersonians and their heirs. He even sympathized with the negative French reaction to Washington's "Farewell Address" against "entangling alliances," including the long-standing one with France. Upon leaving his post, Monroe in a formal address praised the principles common to the American and French revolutions. Pickering found his comments "unpardonable."

King had an easier time as minister in England. More tactful but less witty than Monroe, King served ably and cultivated many friendships, including that of the abolitionist William Wilberforce. But the Federalist minister was also more strongly supported at home by the ruling Federalists in John Adams's administration. He was even kept on by Jefferson, until, on the advice of Hamilton, King resigned in 1802 to return home to aid the dwindling fortunes of the Federalists.

King's years in London coincided with the temporary triumph of the Federalists from 1796 through 1798. The Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798 spelled the beginning of their downfall and extinction. Silly ideology proved even more harmful to King and the Federalists than to Monroe and the Republicans. In 1790, the virtuous King was among those who defeated in the Senate a motion to wear mourning upon the death of that, in his words, "Old Rogue" Benjamin Franklin. But it was less for being a libertine that the homespun philosopher had lost the favor of Federalist senators, than for being a Francophile.

So extreme in his opposition to the French Revolution was King that he personally prevented many of the Irish revolutionaries of 1798, sentenced to be exiled, from seeking asylum in the United States. Back home, his Federalist allies, during the threat of war with France, were pushing through Congress the Alien and Sedition Acts, which raised the period of residency for full citizenship from five to fourteen years and led to the arrest of twenty-five people for sedition, most of them editors or printers. Former Senator George Cabot of Massachusetts praised King for "the great service you have rendered the Country in shutting its doors against Irish Desperadoes." King boasted that his intervention had won him the "honor" of the "cordial and distinguished Hatred" of Irish leaders.

That "hatred" would be repaid a hundredfold as the new immigrants flocked to the Democratic-Republican Party and helped to elect Jefferson president in 1800. From there, it was a slow death for the Federalists over the next twenty years, while Rufus King, their last leader, was bitterly opposed by Irish immigrants, who aligned themselves with the slaveholding Democrats.

Monroe was like King in one respect: whether from virtue or shrewdness, he kept at arm's length the principal conspirator of his party. Aaron Burr--the charismatic, womanizing grandson of New England's fiery evangelist Jonathan Edwards--served as senator from New York from 1791 to 1797 and eventually was elected vice president in 1801. But he had his eye on the highest office as early as his contest for vice president in 1792. A leading Democratic-Republican, Burr had prevented a duel between Alexander Hamilton and James Monroe in 1791, only to become notorious by killing Hamilton himself in a duel in 1804.

King, meanwhile, was keeping his independence from Timothy Pickering, who served as secretary of state under Washington and for more than three years under Adams, until that president fired him for extreme hostility to France. Pickering was elected by the decrepit Federalists as senator from Massachusetts and served from 1803 to 1811. With scarcely a good word in later life for any of the Founding Fathers, except Hamilton, Pickering was especially critical of Washington's incompetence. While in the Senate, he fanned secessionist flames in New England in 1804 and, as part of the secession plot, even urged Federalists to back Republican Vice President Burr for governor of New York.

Pickering continued to plot the secession of the northeastern states up to the Hartford Convention of 1814, pitifully maintaining a rather pro-British attitude even after the burning of Washington. Burr--rumored to be involved in various conspiracies, including one that would make him king of Mexico--was hounded by President Jefferson and his allies. The president had only to remember the way his running mate of 1800 had tried to "steal" the election, replace Jefferson as president, and frustrate the intentions of the electors--all of which necessitated the passage of the Twelfth Amendment, providing for separate balloting for president and vice president. In 1807, Jefferson succeeded in getting Burr indicted for treason. At his trial in Richmond, Virginia, with Chief Justice John Marshall presiding, Burr was found not guilty; but he went into exile in Europe.

Burr became a legendary rogue in American history. A popular toast of 1807 runs, "Aaron Burr--may his treachery to his country exalt him to the scaffold, and hemp be his escort to the republic of Dust and ashes." But Burr also leaves the legacy of delivering one of the most memorable speeches in Senate history. He had stoically presided over the Senate during the counting of electoral votes from the 1804 election in which George Clinton replaced him as Jefferson's vice president. And in leaving his office of presiding officer, the diminutive Burr moved many senators to tears in his tribute to their chamber as a forum for good or evil. The Senate, he declared, was "a sanctuary; a citadel of law, of order, of liberty: and it is here it is here, in this exalted refuge; here, if anywhere, will resistance be made to the storms of political phrensy and the silent arts of corruption; and if the constitution be destined to perish by the sacrilegious hands of the demagogue or the usurper, which God avert, its expiring agonies will be witnessed on this floor."

Also using the Senate as a stepping-stone while representing Massachusetts from 1803 to 1808 was John Quincy Adams, the first "profile in courage" in John F. Kennedy's study. Portrayed as a hero by Kennedy, Adams voted for Jefferson's embargo, despite the opposition of home-state Federalists, and resigned his Senate seat afterward. But J.Q. Adams's heroism had the reinforcement of his father's approval: the ex-president distrusted extreme Federalists like Pickering. Quincy Adams also attended the Republican caucus that nominated Madison for president and soon was appointed minister to Russia by Jefferson. A political realist and careerist, Adams abandoned the moribund Federalists and eventually became President Monroe's secretary of state and presidential successor--the third secretary in a row to step into the presidency.

While Adams was in the Senate, Monroe replaced King at the Court of St. James. The Virginian enhanced his public reputation by his role in negotiating the purchase of the full Louisiana Territory. But as minister to the United Kingdom, he suffered the humiliation of having the Monroe-Pinckney Treaty of 1806 not even submitted for ratification by Jefferson. In the view of the president and Secretary of State Madison, Monroe had ignored his instructions in negotiating a treaty with Britain that did not deal with impressment and indemnity payments for the British seizure of American ships. When Monroe resigned and returned to America in December 1807, he received a rather chilly reception from Jefferson and Madison and no promise of political preferment. In 1808, Jefferson witnessed the calamity of having the "two principal pillars of my happiness," Madison and Monroe, compete for the presidency. Madison easily defeated Monroe among Virginia electors and then won nationally, heading the Republican ticket with George Clinton against the Federalist ticket of Charles Cotesworth Pinckney and Rufus King. Monroe declined an informal offer of the governorship of Louisiana as beneath his status or, in Jefferson's words, paying "close attention to his honor and grade," and had to wait until 1811, when conditions were right, for Madison to appoint him secretary of state, whereupon he resigned as Virginia governor.

Rufus King twice served as Federalist vice presidential nominee, in 1804 and 1808. After an antiwar coalition of Federalists and northern Republicans carried most of New England and the Middle Atlantic States, King was returned to the Senate from New York, where he served from 1813 to 1825. President Madison even considered appointing King secretary of state during the desperate days of 1814, when the invading British burned the nation's capital. Such an appointment of a moderate Federalist would, it was argued, deflate support for the Hartford Convention and unite the country behind Madison's administration. But Monroe opposed the appointment of his lifelong antagonist, who as secretary of state would be in a stronger position to succeed Madison as president. Instead, Monroe, while serving as secretary of war in 1814, remained as acting secretary of state.

Monroe returned to his position at the State Department in 1815, now clearly heir apparent to Madison. In the presidential election of 1816, Monroe easily defeated King, the Federalist standard-bearer: the Federalists entered electors in only three states, and Monroe drubbed King by an electoral vote of 183 to 34. With anti-British feeling sweeping New York after the War of 1812, King, though still in the Senate, was defeated in the 1816 gubernatorial race as a symbol of "British thralldom," amid a rumored assassination plot involving Irish immigrants.

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