The American Revolution and the Right of Peaceful Separation:

The American Principle of Secession/Independence


Michael T. Griffith


@All Right Reserved



Perhaps no fact of history is better documented than the fact that the founding fathers/Patriots/Colonists believed that the British should allow the Colonies to leave in peace, that they did not believe they should have to fight for their independence, and that they regarded the British use of force as immoral, oppressive, and contrary to natural rights (“unnatural”). But few history books on the War of Independence make this clear.


In fact, most books on the American Revolution interpret the Declaration of Independence as merely invoking the “right of revolution,” that is, the “right” to use force to throw off an oppressive government. According to the usual portrayal, the Patriots relied on the “right of revolution” as their justification for using force to achieve independence. However, even a casual reading of period documents refutes this picture.


There is a big difference between saying that you are prepared to fight for independence and saying that you should have to fight for independence. There is a big difference between saying that you know you will risk death if you declare independence and saying that you should have to risk death if you declare independence. Quoting statements where the Patriots said that they were willing to die for independence, that they knew they would have to fight to be free, etc., does not change the fact that they wanted England to let the Colonies leave in peace.


Staten Island Peace Conference


Let us begin with the Staten Island Peace Conference, which was held on September 11, 1776, shortly after the War of Independence had begun. The conference was between Lord Richard Howe and three members of the Second Continental Congress: John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, and Edward Rutledge. King George III sent Howe to America in the hope of reaching a peaceful resolution that would include reunification of the Colonies with England. At the conference, delegates from the Second Continental Congress asked that England recognize America’s independence and offered the prospect of good trade relations between the two countries.


During the conference, Howe explained that King George III wanted the Colonies to repudiate the Declaration of Independence and return to British control, and that in exchange the king would grant pardons to Patriot leaders and the king and Parliament "were very favorably inclined toward redressing the grievances and reforming the administration of the American colonies.” However, Adams, Franklin, and Rutledge said that Congress wanted England to recognize America’s independence, and Rutledge urged Howe to consider the advantages that England would enjoy from forming a trade alliance with America as an independent nation before America made pacts with other nations. Howe said that he was not authorized to even discuss recognition of American independence. With the failure of the peace conference, the war continued.


Continental Army surgeon James Thacher, in his massive “journal” on the American Revolution, wrote about the Staten Island Peace Conference. Notice his point that the Continental Congress sent delegates to the peace conference because it wanted to “establish peace on reasonable terms”—and, again, this was in September 1776, two months after the Declaration of Independence had been issued and after several battles had been fought. Notice also that Thacher reports that the three delegates told Howe that the Colonies had only declared their independence after all their petitions had been rejected, after they had experienced tyranny “and additional injuries,” and after Parliament had declared war on the Colonies:


Major-General Sullivan, who was captured on Long Island, has been permitted to return on his parole; and is charged with a message to Congress from Lord Howe. The purport of the message is, that his lordship, as commissioner, could not treat with Congress, as such; but is desirous of a conference with some of the members, as private gentlemen. Congress could not consider themselves justified in sending any of their members in their private character; but ever desirous of establishing peace on reasonable terms, offered to send a committee to inquire whether his lordship had any authority to treat with persons authorized by Congress for this purpose, and what that authority was, and to hear such propositions as he should think proper to make respecting the same. They accordingly made choice of Dr. Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, Esq. and Edward Rutledge, Esq., who had an interview with Lord Howe on Staten Island.


The first proposition from his lordship was that the colonies should return to their allegiance and obedience to the government of Great Britain. The committee expressed their opinion that a return to the domination of Great Britain was not to be expected. They mentioned the repeated humble petitions of the colonies to the king and parliament, which had been treated with contempt, and answered with additional injuries; the unexampled patience we had shown under their tyrannical government, and that it was not till the last act of Parliament, which denounced [proclaimed/declared] war against us, and put us out of the king's protection, that we declared our independence; and that it is not now in the power of Congress to agree that the people should return to their former dependent state. (James Thacher, The American Revolution: From The Commencement to the Disbanding of the American Army; Given in the Form of a Daily Journal, with the Exact Dates of All the Important Events, New York: American Subscription Publishing House, 1860, p. 56,


We read the following from the minutes of the conference:


Mr. Rutledge mentioned. . . . That he thought it was worth the consideration of Great Britain whether she would not receive greater advantages by an Alliance with the Colonies as independent States, than she had ever hitherto done, that she might still enjoy a great share of the commerce, that she would have their raw materials for her manufactures, that they could protect the West India Islands much more effectually and more easily than she can, that they could assist her in the Newfoundland Trade. That he was glad this conversation had happened, as it would be the occasion of opening to Great Britain the Consideration of the Advantages she might derive from America by an alliance with her as an independent state, before any thing is settled with other foreign powers. (


The Staten Island Peace Conference alone establishes the fact that the Patriots wanted the British to let the Colonies leave in peace and even wanted to establish good trade relations with England. The British refused to recognize the Colonies’ independence and forced them to fight for nationhood, a fact that the Colonists bitterly resented and repeatedly condemned.


The Declaration of Independence


The Declaration of Independence (DOI) was nothing less than a declaration of secession. The Patriots called it "independence" and "separation." These are all different words for the same thing--the natural right of the people of a colony or state to withdraw their colony or state from the control of the national government. ("Secede" and "secession" only entered the vocabulary because the states had "acceded" to the Constitution. So, it was thought logical to use words like "secede" and "secession" to describe the act of rescinding that acession. If one reads Southern secession documents, one finds the terms "independence," "self-determination," and "separation" used repeatedly.)


Far from merely relying on the law-of-the-jungle “right of revolution,” the DOI condemns the coercive actions that the British had taken against the Colonies until that time and says that the Colonies were “of right” free and independent states and that the Colonies’ political connections with England were “and ought to be” dissolved:


That these united Colonies are, and of Right ought to be, Free and Independent States; that they are Absolved from all Allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain, is and ought to be totally dissolved; and that as Free and Independent States, they have full Power to levy War, conclude Peace, contract Alliances, establish Commerce, and to do all other Acts and Things which Independent States may of right do.


The phrases “of right” and “ought to be” referred to the Patriots’ argument that the Colonies had a natural right to separate from England without being forced to fight a war to be independent. The Colonies had the “right” to be independent, and their political ties with England “ought to be” ended. The British refusal to recognize the Colonies’ natural right to peacefully separate led many Patriots to call the British war effort “unnatural.”


The DOI tells us that governments derive their just powers “from the consent of the governed,” that a people can “dissolve the political bonds which have connected them with another” and can then assume “the separate and equal status” to which “the laws of nature and nature’s God entitle them,” and that people have a natural right to “alter or abolish” their form of government. Two years before he wrote the declaration, Thomas Jefferson argued that the only bond the Colonies had with England was their voluntary allegiance to the king (“A Summary of the Rights of British America,” 1774).


Those who deny the right of peaceful separation contend that the DOI merely refers to the natural right to revolt against tyranny. They argue there is no natural right of peaceful separation, only a natural right of violent revolution to escape oppression. But what kind of a “right” is this? If you have to fight for it, it is not much of a right. The DOI says we have a natural right to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Does this mean we should have to fight to live, to have liberty, and to pursue happiness? No, of course not. Then why should a group of colonies or states have to fight for their independence?


Moreover, a revolution does not necessarily have to be violent. The Glorious Revolution in England, for example, was peaceful. Furthermore, is independence only to be achieved by violence?  Is independence only for those who can fight their way to it?  Do only the strong get to enjoy self-government?  This is not what Thomas Jefferson had in mind when he wrote the DOI, and it is not what the other founding fathers had in mind when they endorsed the document (Forrest McDonald, States’ Rights and the Union, University Press of Kansas, 2000, pp. 7-11).


Some scholars claim that the DOI’s reference to “abolishing” an existing government (“alter or abolish” their form of government) must refer to violent revolution. But when Jefferson referred to a people’s right to “abolish” a government and form their own, he was not necessarily talking about overthrowing that government. After all, Jefferson did not want to abolish the British government. He merely wanted the British government to allow the Colonies to form their own nation. This would  have “abolished” British governmental authority in America but would have left the British government intact—that government simply would have controlled less territory than before. So, in context, when Jefferson said “abolish,” his intent included a scenario where colonies or states could withdraw from the authority of the national government.


When the DOI was published, there were no British troops in any of the Colonies. There were some British troops on two islands just off the coast, but none in any of the Colonies on the mainland. The Patriots believed that the British should respect the DOI and allow the Colonies to separate in peace. The Patriots hoped that the British would not invade but would recognize the Colonies’ independence. Of course, at that point nearly all Patriots believed the British were going to invade. When the invasion came, the Patriots condemned it as unjust, cruel, and unnatural. James Madison, one of the leading founding fathers, said England’s use of force was “unjust and unwise”:


In the contest with Great Britain, one part of the empire was employed against the other. The more numerous part invaded the rights of the less numerous part. The attempt was unjust and unwise. (Federal Paper Number 46)


Patriot Statements


Below is a very small sampling of statements from Patriot writings that provide additional proof that the Colonists resented being forced to fight for their independence and believed that the British use of force was unjust, immoral, and unnatural. When reading these statements, we should keep that by mid-1774, at the latest, many Colonists believed that the Colonies were in a state of war with England and that the Colonies needed to separate from England. Why? Because by mid-1774, the British had deployed a military force in New England, the Boston Massacre had occurred, the Intolerable Acts had been passed, and the British had stripped Massachusetts of self-government and revoked its colonial charter. After the battles of Lexington and Concord in April 1775, the feeling that America was at war and needed to be independent grew even stronger and more widespread (recall that Thomas Paine began writing Common Sense in 1775 and published it in January 1776).


Most Americans are unaware that the Colonies virtually declared their independence and separation from England in October 1774 with the Declaration of Rights and Grievances (aka the Declaration and Resolves of the First Continental Congress). The British recognized this, but few American history books make this clear. In Article IV of the declaration, the Colonies asserted that they were "entitled to a free and exclusive power of legislation in their several provincial legislatures." Alfred and Ruth Blumrosen note that Article IV essentially abolished the Colonies’ existing relationship with England and that the British saw it as a major step toward independence:


Some historians minimize the significance of the Declaration of Rights and Grievances of 1774 and conclude that other actions taken by the [Continental] Congress were more serious, particularly the boycott and the local associations formed to enforce it. All these actions were ambiguous. They were negotiating tactics similar to those that succeeded in securing repeal of the Stamp Act and the Townshend taxes. . . .


But Article IV was different. For the first time, the colonists stuck at the heart of British rule. This was not a temporary negotiating position. It called for abolition of the existing relations with Britain. . . . The claim in Article IV was--and was seen as--a major step toward independence. (Slave Nation: How Slavery United the Colonies and Sparked the American Revolution, Naperville, IL: Sourcebooks, Inc., 2005, p. 109).


As you read the statements below, notice that there is no trace, no hint, of anything resembling the law-of-the-jungle idea that: “Hey, England, we understand that under the right of revolution, now that we have declared our independence, you have every right to use force to try to keep us under your control, and we have every right to use force to try to leave your national government. Since the right of revolution is the only way the Colonies can leave England, we respect your right to use force, and we will also use force, and may the best side win.” Notice, also, that they did not consider themselves to be “rebels” and that some even declared that they were not acting contrary to the law.


Statements in 1776


When the Second Continental Congress was meeting to approve a declaration of independence, Colonists had already been talking about forming a new government. A Patriot writing as “Columbus” replied to those who were arguing against forming a government and declaring independence. He wrote the day after Jefferson began drafting the DOI. He left open the possibility that the Colonies might reunite with England, but he identified independence as a natural right and said that independence should be adopted if it was “necessary to preserve us from a thousand evils.” He added that if a reunion with England occurred when the Colonies did not have a strong national government, then they would be subject to “absolute subjection and slavery”:


As to the objection against forming a new Government at all, I would request those who make it to consider that, at present, no Government exists here, nor can any legal Government possibly exist upon the old plan, when one of the three branches thereof is withdrawn, and that the main one, too, of which our former Government was composed. . . . Can Congress or Committees be equal to the task? They cannot. If so, then without a new legal Government, universal disorder must ensue. As to the position that this measure is declaring an independency, I would only answer, that if the measure be necessary to preserve us from a thousand evils that are ready to break in upon us without it, it ought instantly to be adopted, though the enemies of our land should stigmatize it with a name which they, and they only, think a term of reproach. If to be independent is not only the aim and glory of every individual upon the face of the earth, but also of every country on the other side of the world — for there is not one among them all which doth not place its chief happiness here — I say, if this be a natural principle in mankind, considered as individuals, and the constant aim and desire of all other countries, in the name of wonder why should this only be excepted from the natural, the necessary, the exalted privilege of being free and independent of every foreign jurisdiction?

But should peace, reconciliation, or union with Britain, ever again take place, will it not be more easily effected when the people of these Colonies are under a regular form of Government, than when matters were suffered to run into confusion? Most certainly it will. For when the most ambitious man, or set of men, heading a lawless multitude, shall direct our councils by his or their mere will and pleasure; when tyranny, anarchy, and confusion, shall pervade this once peaceful land; when, for want of Government, the strong shall lord it over the weak, and refuse to resign their power; or when, from the very nature of such proceedings, a disunion in all or most of the now United Colonies must ensue, a reunion then will be impossible upon any other terms than that of absolute subjection and slavery. It is but too shrewdly suspected that many of our late Governors had this ignoble end in view when they withdrew themselves from their respective Governments. . . . (“Address of Columbus to the Electors of the City and County of New-York, on the necessity of forming a new mode of Government,” June 12, 1776,


In September 1776, the “Delaware State” published “A Declaration of Rights and Fundamental Rules of the Delaware State, formerly styled the Government of the Counties of New-Castle, Kent, and Sussex, upon Delaware.” This declaration said that “all government” is founded “in compact only.” Southern secessionists did not invent the idea that the Union was a compact; rather, this was the original understanding of the Union. The declaration also stated that the people “may” and “of right ought to” establish a new government or reform the old one:


1. That all government of right originates from the people, is founded in compact only, and instituted solely for the good of the whole. . . .


5. That persons entrusted with the Legislative and Executive powers are the trustees and servants of the public, and as such accountable for their conduct; wherefore, whenever the ends of Government are perverted and public liberty manifestly endangered by the Legislative singly, or a treacherous combination of both, the people may, and of right ought to, establish a new or reform the old Government. (“A Declaration of Rights and Fundamental Rules of the Delaware State, formerly styled the Government of the Counties of New-Castle, Kent, and Sussex, upon Delaware,” September 11, 1776,


Notice the phrase “of right” again. One of the main concepts among the Patriots was that no one should have to fight for something that was a right. If you are forced to fight for it, it is not much of a right. That is why they so often said “and of right ought to” or “of right should be” after they said “may” or “are,” etc. The whole idea was that “rights” should be respected and allowed to be exercised.


The Pennsylvania Council of Safety said in December 1776 that America was only fighting because she was attacked:


Shall we, with Heaven and justice on our side, (unless we could impiously suppose that the Almighty has devoted mankind to slavery) shall we hesitate to meet our enemies in the hostile field? The sons of America have not drawn their swords to invade the rights of others, nor to reduce populous countries to a state of desolation. It was not to plunder the wealthy, nor to wrest from the laborious farmer or industrious mechanic his hard-earned blessings, that America had recourse to arms. No! Whilst our most humble petitions and pathetic expostulations yet rung in the ears of our enemies, they wantonly attacked us on our own peaceable shores. (Pennsylvania Council of Safety, “Address to the Inhabitants of Pennsylvania,” December 23, 1776,


A Patriot writing in Philadelphia under the name of “A Religious Politician” in February 1776 said the Colonies had sought a peaceful settlement with England but were “reduced to the necessity” of “entering into a war” to gain independence:


And for more than twelve years we have labored by prayers, entreaties, non-importations, and every other peaceable mode of opposition to prevent her enslaving us; but all to no purpose. Our petitions from Assemblies and Congresses, from Towns and Provinces, and from separate and united bodies of men, were all of no avail. The King despised and rejected them; the Parliament treated them with contempt, and the [British] people, disregarding the justice of them, moved not in our behalf. Thus after affectionately assisting Great Britain through a very bloody, dangerous, and expensive war, and after a twelve years unsuccessful endear to remain reconciled to her on principles of right, equity, liberty, and consanguinity, we are at last reduced to the necessity of becoming independent, and entering into a war with her to preserve our privileges. (“To the People in General,” February 7, 1776,


The next quote comes from June 14, 1776, when the Second Continental Congress was meeting in Philadelphia to vote for a formal declaration of independence. This was three days after Jefferson had begun drafting the DOI. The statement contains instructions from the Buckingham County committee given to the county’s two delegates to the Second Continental Congress, The statement constitutes more proof that the Patriots did not think they should have to fight for independence, that they had tried to reach a peaceful settlement with England, and that the British were leaving the Colonies no choice but to fight because they were violating the colonial charters, the British constitution, and the Colonies’ “natural rights.” Interestingly, they also said they had found no law that was inconsistent with the Colonies’ use of force to maintain their “rights”:


When the British Parliament assumed an absolute power over us, and attempted to exercise that power, an opposition was formed in the United Colonies, the most pacific [peaceful] which could be adopted with any probability of success, in the last resort, should our enemies persist in their measures, and endear to drive us into submission by force. This opposition became a great offence in their eyes; our petitions were treated with contempt, our actions termed rebellious, and arms used to subdue us. As the Colonies seemed determined, from the first, to maintain their rights, and the rights of a free people, they were obliged to oppose force with force; and, for the effectual purpose thereof, as occasions required, to take into their own hands the legislative, executive, and judicial powers of Government. This was a necessary consequence, and no settled and permanent opposition could be made without it. They [the British] violated the faith of charters, the principles of the Constitution, and attempted to destroy our legal as well as natural rights. . . .


In the struggle, the lives of hundreds have been destroyed; flourishing towns burnt down and demolished; property seized and taken, secretly and openly; thousands reduced from easy and affluent circumstances to poverty and distress; and all the horrors of an expensive and dreadful war experienced. We have opposed with arms, and persevered in our measures, with a resolution to maintain our rights, and regarded no law heretofore made but as it was found consistent with such a laudable design. (“Address and Instructions of the Freeholders of Buckingham County,” June 14, 1776,


The town council of Waterton, Massachusetts, met with local Indian leaders about joining the Patriot war effort. The council reported on what they had told the Indians, which was, among other things, that the British had forced the Colonies to fight or surrender, that the British treatment of the Colonies was “unjust” and “cruel,” and that the Colonies were fighting in self-defense: 


With respect to the war, we told you yesterday how it began, and mentioned to you some of the cruelties our enemies committed on our people. We shall now mention some more of those cruelties. . . . [they detailed some of the British actions in and around Boston]


Some time before this, they burnt the large town of Charlestown, consisting of several hundred houses, taking away everything valuable they could find there; and several of their ships-of-war went and destroyed a great part of the town of Falmouth, in Casco Bay, burning near two hundred houses there, with many things of value in them. Much other damage they have done, and many other cruelties they have committed. This unjust, inhuman, and cruel treatment has compelled us to take up arms in our defense, and in earnest to engage in a war with them; and all the Colonies on the Continent, through fifteen hundred miles in extent, have joined with us in the war, and are determined to carry it on till we can obtain a peace on just and honorable terms.


We know our cause to be just: we can therefore place our confidence in that Being who is the great Dispenser of Justice, and who will not suffer such inhumanity and breach of faith to go unpunished. We trust that, by His favor, we shall be able to defend ourselves. . . . (“A Conference Held at Watertown, in the Colony of Massachusetts-Bay,” July 13, 1776,


A Patriot writer using the name Philo Alethias published an article titled “On the Present State of America” in October 1776. Among other things, he said that the Colonies’ “cruel enemies” had boasted that the “conquest of America” would be easy because the Americas were “cowards,” and that the Loyalists (pro-British people) among them were trying to terrify the Patriots into “a tame submission to tyranny”:


Our cruel enemies boasted an easy conquest of America, because, they alleged, we were cowards: they are convinced to their cost of their mistake in this. But when they shall find the black spots in our constitutions, and the wretched, numbers of American traitors, who sell their country for a mess of pottage, they may be more encouraged. These wretches are in almost every State, striving, by the little arts of policy, to delude, divide, weaken, and subvert every rational and manly measure, to alarm and terrify us into a tame submission to tyranny. But I am confident there is still so much virtue in America, that these cringing candidates for court favor, these sycophants, dissemblers, and false friends, will be detected, displaced, and forever despised. (Philo Alethias, “On the Present State of America,” October 10, 1776,


After some early setbacks, such as the Battle of Long Island in August 1776, some Patriot newspapers published an appeal for perseverance and courage titled “A Soldier to the Independent Sons of America.” The appeal said that the Colonies were fighting “in defense of their freedom” and to “maintain their independence” and that the Colonies were “free and independent states”:


Our difficulties and sufferings in supporting the great cause of liberty have been little, if compared with what other nations have suffered in defense of their freedom. . . .


The tyrants of Britain, and the villainous slaves whom they can hire, are all the enemies we have to encounter; the rest of the world will be our friends. As we wish to injure no people, other nations will naturally be our friends, some from interest, and others (whose interest is no ways concerned) from motives of humanity.


As America is so very extensive, capable of supporting so many millions of inhabitants more than she has at present, and as the virtuous part of mankind love freedom, they will transplant themselves from the slavish dominions of Europe to this land of liberty, whereby the industry, the virtue, and the wisdom of the world will centre in these free and independent States. Such being our field of hope, such our prospect of happiness, not only for ourselves but for millions of others, by what name shall we call that folly which would abate your ardour and discourage your efforts to maintain the entire independence of America? (“A Soldier to the Independent Sons of America,” November 14, 1776,


In his famous book Common Sense, Thomas Paine spoke of the Colonies’ natural right to separate from England and to form a government of their own:


Every thing that is right or natural pleads for separation. . . . A government of our own is our natural right. (Common Sense, Philadelphia: W. & T. Bradford, 1776, III:19, 50, emphasis added) 


Statements in 1775


The next statement comes from a pamphlet written by an anonymous Patriot titled “An Address of a British American to the Inhabitants of the United Colonies,” written on December 28, 1775, in which, among other things, the author said that the British use of force was an “unjust, cruel, and unnatural war”; that the label of “rebels” was “undeserved”; and that the Americans had been “compelled” to engage in an honorable defensive war. The author also had some choice criticisms of the quality of some of the men hired by the British to assist the British army:


But alas! Britons thirst for American blood! Regiments after regiments have been sent over to shed it; more we are threatened with, and all the horrors of an unjust, cruel, and unnatural war, are denounced against their fellow-subjects in America, whom they brand with the odious and undeserved epithet of rebels, only because they retain too much of their honored British ancestors' spirit to submit to be slaves. . . .


To defray the expenses of this just, necessary, and honorable defensive war, which the Americans have been compelled to engage in, they have been obliged to emit large sums in paper bills of credit. . . .


Let us now take a view of the present state of North-America. Her ports blocked up, her towns burnt, her coasts watched by ships of war, her rivers and creeks infested with their tenders, commissioned to exercise the honorable employment of stealing sheep, hogs, cattle, and whatever else their vile commanders direct them, or they can force from the unguarded inhabitants. Add to this, the inhabitants of some towns of the first note in our country are drove from their habitations to make room for a vile, mercenary army, consisting of slaves for soldiers, and abandoned Ministerial [British] tools for officers, whose deeds proclaim them incapable of further degeneracy. Let it not pass unnoticed, that the savage Indians, the Negro slaves and the refuse of English jails, the convict servants, have all been applied to, to assist them in carrying fire and sword to the peaceful abodes of the honest, industrious inhabitants of these once happy Colonies, thereby to compel them to submit to slavery and oppression. (“An Address of a British American to the Inhabitant of the United Colonies,” December 28, 1775,


In an “Address from the General Officers to the Soldiery of the Grand Continental Army,” the senior officers of the army made it clear that they certainly did not believe that the British use of force was either justified or moral. Needless to say, the “Ministerial Army” was the British army and “ministerial hatred and vengeance” and “ministerial villainy” referred to British hatred, vengeance, and villainy:


The Ministerial Army, with three of their most esteemed Generals at their head, have been able to effect nothing. Instead of overrunning and ravaging the Continent, from north to south, as they boasted they would do, they find themselves ignominiously cooped up within the walls of a single town, (and even that they possessed themselves of by treachery) suffering all the distresses of a siege. Instead of the defection of any of the Provinces, which the Ministry pledged themselves to the deluded people of England would be the case, the union grows stronger every day. . . .


The cause of liberty is undoubtedly the cause of all; but if any distinction is to be made, the four New-England Provinces are more immediately concerned than the rest. You are the chief object of ministerial hatred and vengeance; you, therefore, are more nearly interested to stand forth.


To conclude, soldiers, concerns of the last importance to you depend on the post you now take. Your reputation and property, your safety, your very existence, is at stake. If you withdraw yourselves from the service, those instruments of ministerial villainy will be at liberty to stalk at large, to satiate and glut their brutality, avarice, and cruelty, and the name of a New-England man, now so respectable in the world, become equally contemptible and odious, who, with the certain means of defense in their hands, rather than undergo a few fatigues of war, could patiently see themselves robbed of every thing that men hold most dear; but if you firmly adhere to the righteous standard under which you are arranged, not only your characters will have the highest rank amongst the nations of the earth, but your rights and liberties will be secured against the attempts of tyranny, to the latest posterity. (“Address from the General Officers to the Soldiery of the Grand Continental Army,” Cambridge, November 24, 1775)


Here is a statement from a Patriot pamphlet addressed “To the American Soldiery” in 1775 in which the author said that the British forced the Colonies to fight (“pass the Rubicon”), that the British were launching “assaults of tyranny,” and that the Colonies would not wish for absolute independence if their “inexorable oppressors” would listen to the Colonies’ valid complaints:


Our cruel enemies have forced us to pass the Rubicon; we have begun the noble work, and there is no retreating. The King of Britain has proclaimed us Rebels. The sword is drawn, and the scabbard must be thrown away. There is no medium between a glorious defense and the most abject slavery. If we fail in our endeavors to repel the assaults of tyranny, we are to expect no mercy. The brave but miserable Corsicans may serve for an example of the unrestrained ravages of enraged despotism. On the other hand, the States of Holland supply an instance of happiness and glory, procured by a noble stand against absolute power. We would not wish for the absolute independence of the latter, would our inexorable oppressors but listen to our just complaints; but, at all events, we are determined not to submit to a system of tyranny little inferior to that slavish thraldom in which the subjects of the Turkish Sultan are held. (“To the American Soldiery: Worthy Fellow-Soldiers,” November 14, 1775,


While criticizing Loyalists, a Patriot writing under the name of Lucius provided an excellent look at the Patriot concept of natural rights and the British rejection of those rights:


It is astonishing to observe how alienated these men [Loyalists] are from the interest of the community in which they were born and educated, and still live; how inflexibly opposed to its prevailing sentiments and principles; and with what scorn and detestation they regard the united exertions of all America to defend itself from the attempts of a corrupt Administration to enslave it. In their account, the love of liberty is sedition; a claim of the rights of Englishmen, which are no more than the rights of human nature, is treason; and a deliberate united determination to defend them, is rebellion. If the people, the fountain of all civil honor and authority, and of whom the first rulers are indeed servants; if the people, I say, assemble and consult for the preservation of their rights, these men immediately cry out in a rage, a mob! and seem to wish, like Nero, that the whole Province had but one neck that they might divide it at a stroke. (“’Lucius’ on the Treatment of the Colonies,” March 17, 1775,


In its report on the British army’s destruction of Charlestown, Massachusetts, in June 1775, the Patriot Committee of Safety stated that even with the British action against Charlestown, the committee hoped that the “freedom and peace of America” could be secured without “further effusion of blood,” but that “if it must be otherwise,” they were “determined to struggle.” The members closed with a direct appeal to the British that included a request that they “put an end to this unrighteous and unnatural war.” So clearly the Committee of Safety preferred to secure “freedom and peace” for America via peaceful means, but they were willing to fight if they had to fight:


The Town of Charlestown, the buildings of which were in general large and elegant, and which contained effects belonging to the unhappy sufferers in Boston to a very great amount, was entirely destroyed; and its chimneys and cellars now present a prospect to the Americans, exciting an indignation in their bosoms which nothing can appease but the sacrifice of those miscreants who have introduced desolation and havoc into these once happy abodes of liberty, peace, and plenty.


Though the officers and soldiers of the Ministerial Army meanly exult in having gained this ground, yet they cannot but attest to the bravery of our troops, and acknowledge that the battles of Fontenoy and Minden, according to the numbers engaged, and the time the engagements continued, were not to be compared with this; and, indeed, the laurels of Minden were totally blasted in the battle of Charlestown. The ground purchased, thus dearly purchased by the British Troops, affords them no advantage against the American Army, now strongly intrenched on a neighboring eminence. The Continental Troops, nobly animated from the justice of their cause, sternly urge to decide the contest by the sword; but we wish for no further effusion of blood, if the freedom and peace of America can be secured without it. But if it must be otherwise, we are determined to struggle. We disdain life without liberty.


Oh, Britons! Be wise for yourselves before it is too late, and secure a commercial intercourse, with the American Colonies before it is forever lost; disarm your Ministerial assassins; put an end to this unrighteous and unnatural war, and suffer not any rapacious despots to amuse you with the unprofitable ideas of your right to tax and officer the Colonies, till the most profitable and advantageous trade you have is irrecoverably lost. Be wise for yourselves, and the Americans will contribute to and rejoice in your prosperity. (The Committee of Safety, “Account of the Late Battle of Charlestown,” July 25, 1775,


Writing in April 1775 in an address titled “To the Inhabitants of New York,” a Patriot warned his fellow Colonists that the British were being ruthless and oppressive, that Parliament’s claims were “unrighteous and tyrannical,” that seeking compromise was a waste of time, and that the British were forcing the Colonies to choose between submission to their control and war for independence—and he clearly did not appreciate the British claim that those resisting British authority were “rebels”:


Is this the bravery of British Troops? Is this the part of a truly great commander? Is this the native courage and intrepidity of English soldiers, so much boasted of? Is it not rather the ferocity of a mad wild beast, from whom they cannot be supposed to differ only in shape? Let every American hear and abhor; let every inhabitant consider what he is likely to suffer if he falls into the hands of such cruel and merciless wretches; what miseries and calamities shall we not be subjected to, if we submit to the unrighteous and tyrannical claims of the Parliament, of taking what we call our own, when and in what manner they please, without our consent; don't this teach us that a body of men, as well as a particular person, may tyrannically oppress?


Let every American consider what interest have we in George the Third, or what inheritance have we in the Parliament of Great Britain. Have they not declared that all the New England Colonies are rebels, and have ordered and commanded their blood-thirsty soldiers to cut the throats of men, women, and children, and are they not at this instant endeavoring to carry their bloody decrees into execution? And how long (be sure not a great while) before the rest of the Americans will meet with the same, unless they tamely give up their all into their hands, to be taken by them as they please, without the Colonies' consent; but God be thanked, the soldiery have met with a check. And for what is all this rage and fury? For no other cause but that we are slow to believe the power of Parliament is omnipotent, and that they have a right to dispose of us and all we have as they please, without our consent. Surely no man in his senses, or that hath any notion of preserving his person or property, but what will, without hesitancy, resolve and determine to sell his life as dear as he can, rather than submit to such a slavish, and abject condition. Therefore, my countrymen, think, and by thinking you will necessarily be led to determine that now or never you may be free; if once you lose this opportunity and submit, it is not probable you will ever have another.


If any should say we had better try conciliatory measures, and again petition for relief from the King and Parliament, I ask, to what purpose can it be? Have not particular Colonies tried petitioning by themselves, and have riot all the Colonies united in a petition for relief? And to what effect? Have they not been disdainfully and contemptuously trampled, upon, and treated with scorn, and called nothing but factious complaints? Doth it not plainly appear, that both the King and the Ministry are so fixed and determined at all hazards to destroy American liberty, as that it is to as little purpose to complain, or reason with them, as it is to reason with irrational creatures? Therefore it seems there is nothing for us to do, but to appeal unto God in the use of what force and strength we have in defense of our liberties and properties, and rely on his Almighty aid for help to repel the tyrant's rage. (“To the Inhabitants of New York,” April 25, 1775,


Patrick Henry said the Colonies had tried repeatedly to reach a peaceful settlement with England and that the British had left them no choice but to fight or surrender:


Our petitions have been slighted; our remonstrances have produced additional violence and insult; our supplications have been disregarded; and we have been spurned, with contempt, from the foot of the throne. In vain, after these things, may we indulge the fond hope of peace and reconciliation. There is no longer any room for hope. If we wish to be free if we mean to preserve inviolate those inestimable privileges for which we have been so long contending if we mean not basely to abandon the noble struggle in which we have been so long engaged, and which we have pledged ourselves never to abandon until the glorious object of our contest shall be obtained, we must fight! I repeat it, sir, we must fight! An appeal to arms and to the God of Hosts is all that is left us! (Patrick Henry, “Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death,” March 23, 1775,


Statements in 1774


In June 1774, the Boston Committee of Correspondence urged all the Colonies to boycott British goods as a means to compel the England to “withdraw her oppressive hand” and thus avoid “a rupture” between England and the Colonies. The committee said that such a rupture would be followed by “horrors” or by “subjection to absolute slavery.” The committee hoped that the boycott of British goods would discourage “they who are in expectation of overthrowing our liberties” from carrying out “their wicked designs,” and that this was “the last and only method of preserving our land from slavery without drenching it with blood.” Why? Because they could see that the British were going to force them to choose between oppression and war:


There is but one way that we can conceive of to prevent what is to be deprecated by all good men, and ought by all possible means to be prevented, viz: the horrors that must follow an open rupture between Great Britain and her Colonies; or on our part, a subjection to absolute slavery; and that is by affecting the trade and interest of Great Britain so deeply as shall induce her to withdraw her oppressive hand. There can be no doubt of our succeeding to the utmost of our wishes, if we universally come into a solemn league not to import goods from Great Britain, and not to buy any goods that shall hereafter be imported from thence, until our grievances shall be redressed. To these, or even to the least of these shameful impositions, we trust in God our countrymen never will submit.


We have received such assurances from our brethren in every part of the Province, of their readiness to adopt such measures as may be likely to save our country, and that we have not the least doubt of an almost universal agreement for tills purpose; in confidence of this, we have drawn up a form of a covenant to be subscribed by all adult persons, of both sexes; which we have sent to every town in the Province, and that we might not give our enemies time to counteract us, we have endeavored that every town should be furnished with such a copy on or before the fourteenth day of this month, and we earnestly desire that you would use your utmost endeavors that the subscription paper may be filled up as soon as possible, so that they who are in expectation of overthrowing our liberties, may be discouraged from prosecuting their wicked designs; as we look upon this, the last and only method of preserving our land from slavery without drenching it with blood; may God prosper every undertaking which tends to the salvation of this people. (“Address of the Boston Committee Sent to the People,” June 8, 1774,


The next statement comes from a letter written in October 1774 by the “Convention of Committees” for the county of Worcester in Massachusetts to British Governor/General Thomas Gage. It shows that the Colonists were alarmed at British coercive actions and regarded them as unwarranted and wrong. This convention of citizens professed their desire for peace and complained about unjust coercive measures, including violence, and they said that these actions justified the people in “providing for their own defense”:


The people of the County of Worcester being earnestly solicitous for the peace and welfare of the Province in general, cannot view the measures now pursuing by your Excellency but with increasing jealousy, as they apprehend there has not, nor does at present exist, any just occasion for the formidable hostile preparations making on the Neck, leading to our distressed capital.


It is a matter of such notoriety, that your Excellency must be sensible there was not the least opposition made to obstruct the introduction of the King' s Troops at their first landing, nor have the people since that time discovered any intention to disturb them, till your Excellency was pleased to order the seizure of the Powder in the Arsenal at Charlestown, in a private manner, which occasioned the report that a skirmish had happened between a party of the King' s Troops and the people at Cambridge, in which several of the latter fell; this caused the people to arm and march from divers parts of the country; but no sooner was that report proved false than they returned peaceably to their respective homes.


The inhabitants of the Province in general, and Town of Boston, have never given cause for those cruel and arbitrary Acts for blockading their Harbor and subverting the Charter, by altering the Civil Government of the Province, which, however, this people are determined, by the Divine favor, never to submit to but with their lives, notwithstanding they are aggrieved at the King' s displeasure against them, through the instigation of artful and designing men.


This County finds it difficult to comprehend the motives for the present hostile parade, unless it be in consequence of some pre-concerted plan to subject the already greatly distressed Town of Boston to mean compliances or military contributions. They are equally at a loss to account for your Excellency' s conduct towards the County of Suffolk, as in your Answer to their Address, remonstrating against fortifying the only avenue to the Town, which by that means may, in some future time, be improved to cut off the communication between town and country, and thereby reduce the miserable inhabitants to the greatest straits, your Excellency is pleased, in answer, to observe, that you had not made it easier to effect this, than what nature has made it; if so, the country cannot conceive why this expense and damage of the Town to no purpose.


Your Excellency is likewise pleased to take notice of the general good behavior of the Soldiers, but at the same time pass over that part, complaining of the detention of private property, and proceed to answer by way of quere, to which you would not permit a reply. This County are constrained to observe, they apprehend the people justifiable in providing for their own defense, while they understood there was no passing the Neck without examination, the Cannon at the North Battery spiked up, and many places searched, where Ammunition was suspected to be, and if found, seized; yet as the people have never acted offensively, nor discovered any disposition so to do, till as above related, the County apprehend this can never justify the seizure of private property.


It is with great anxiety this County observes the wanton exercise of power in the Officers of the Customs at Salem, and on board the King' s ships, respecting the article of Fuel destined for the use of the inhabitants of Boston, who are obliged to have it with the additional charge of landing and reloading at Salem, before it can proceed; when your Excellency must be sensible the Act, which is the professed rule of conduct, expressly excepts Fuel and Victuals, which may be brought to Boston by taking on board one or more Officers at Salem, (without the aforesaid charge) while that destined for the Troops proceeds direct, free from the same. There are many other things which bear extremely hard on the inhabitants, while they are prohibited from transporting the smallest article from one part of the Town to another, water-borne, without danger of a seizure, or to get hay, cattle, &c˙, from any of the islands, notwithstanding there is no other way of transportation.


Your Excellency, we apprehend, must have been greatly misinformed of the character of this people to suppose such severities tend either to a submission to the Acts, or reconciliation with the Troops; and the County are sorry to find the execution of the Acts attempted with an higher hand than was intended, unless the Acts themselves should be thought too lenient.


Bringing into the Town a number of Cannon from Castle William, sending for a further reinforcement of Troops, with other concurring circumstances, strongly indicating some dangerous design, has justly excited in the minds of the people apprehensions of the most alarming nature, and the authors must be held accountable for all the blood and carnage made in consequence thereof. Therefore this County, in duty to God,, their country, themselves, and posterity, do remonstrate to, and earnestly desire your Excellency, as you regard the service of the King, and the peace and welfare of the Province, to desist from any further hostile preparations, and give the people assurances thereof by levelling the Intrenchments and dismantling the Fortifications, which will have a tendency to satisfy their doubts, and restore that confidence so essential to their quiet and his Majesty' s service. (“Address from the County of Worcester, in Massachusetts, to Governor Gage,” October 14, 1774,


The Civil War Republicans Repeat the British Arguments Against the Natural Right of Peaceful Separation


Most Republican leaders in 1861 had the same attitude toward the South’s desire to be independent that the British had toward the Colonies’ desire to be independent. Senator Benjamin Wade of Ohio, a leading Radical Republican, said that the only right of separation was the right of revolution, that the Southern states could only be independent if they could defeat the North in a war. Abraham Lincoln claimed that no state could leave the Union without the consent of all the other states. When the Deep South states began to secede, most Republican leaders accused them of “treason,” “rebellion,” and “insurrection.”


Below is a segment from an address published by the Loyalist leadership of Oxford University to King George III in October 1775 that mirrors the arguments that most Republicans made against Southern independence. Indeed, if you changed a few of the nouns so that the parties were the South and Southerners vs. the federal government and the president, this address could easily pass for having been written by Republicans in early 1861:


We have observed, with deep concern, the pernicious tendency of that profligate licentiousness, by which every part of the legislative power has of late been insulted and reviled. We have lamented that the liberty of the press, the distinguished privilege of British subjects, has been prostituted to sedition, and most grossly abused by a faction which has openly countenanced rebellion, unawed and unrestrained by the wholesome severity of those laws, which alone can protect and give vigor to a free Constitution.


We have lamented that the illegal associations of men, whose hopes are founded in the calamities of their Country, should prevail to give confidence to disobedience and sanction to rebellion.


We now deplore the miseries into which our deluded fellow-subjects in America have been by these seducing arts betrayed; plunged, as they are, in all the honors of a civil war, unnaturally commenced against the State which gave them birth and protection.


The magnanimity and lenity of your Majesty' s disposition, already so eminently conspicuous, give us just confidence to hope, that when by the vigor of your Majesty' s counsels, and the valor of your arms, aided by the favor and protection of Divine Providence, your rebellious subjects shall be reduced under the power they have thus wantonly provoked, the royal mercy will be displayed in the pardon of a people who have forfeited their lives and fortunes to the justice of the State; and that the protection of the British Legislature, under such form and restrictions, as the wisdom of Parliament shall think fit to prescribe, will again be extended to the Colonies, when they shall have learned to revere it. (“Address of the University of Oxford,” October 26, 1775,


A Loyalist group of clergy on the Isle of Man expressed similar views:


We profess the same passion for freedom, the same steady adherence to our just and legal rights, which is pretended to be the object in pursuit by the advocates for nominal liberty and real licentiousness; but we know not, nor expect any true liberty except under the guardianship of the laws; and we know not, and hope never to know, any other guardians of the laws than our Sovereign and his two Houses of Parliament.


That the deluded and unthinking many are (as is usual in such cases) misled and deceived by the designing and ambitious few, we are fully persuaded; and that the former may have their eyes opened, their errors removed, and (then) their faults forgiven, and the latter be brought to speedy repentance, or to their deserved punishment, we earnestly pray. (“Address of the Bishop and Clergy of the Isle of Man,” October 23, 1775,


If anything, the British, sad to say, were not as bad as the Republicans were. At least King George III was willing to allow his representatives to talk directly with Patriot leaders, on the minor condition that his representatives would not address the Patriot leaders by their claimed titles and would not recognize them as delegates of any valid government. At the Staten Island Peace Conference in September 1776, Lord Howe made it a point to address Franklin, Adams, and Rutledge merely as private individuals. Adams replied that he did not care how Lord Howe addressed him. With that mere formality out of the way, Howe and the Patriot leaders talked for three hours. In contrast, when the Confederate government, shortly after Lincoln took office, sent a peace delegation to Washington to meet with him to establish peaceful relations and good trade relations between the U.S. and the Confederacy, he would not even meet with them and would not allow anyone in his administration to meet with them either.


Furthermore, the British were much slower to resort to force than were the Republicans. If the South had burned a U.S. Navy ship as the Patriots burned the HMS Gaspee in 1772, most Republican leaders would have been calling for war. If federal tax and custom officials in the South had been tarred and feathered by secessionists as numerous British tax and customs officials were by Patriots, most Republicans would have been calling for war. The British were very slow to resort to invasion, but Lincoln, in response to the bloodless attack on Fort Sumter (which he provoked), announced his intention to invade the seceded states and issued a call-up for 75,000 troops on his own presumed authority. (Calling up 75,000 troops in 1861 would be like calling up over 750,000 troops today. Can you imagine a modern American president assuming the authority to call up 750,000 soldiers and to announce an invasion without Congressional approval?)


Moreover, and this is a part of American history that few Americans know, after numerous battles had been fought and many British troops killed, in early 1778 the British (1) offered the Colonies representation in Parliament, (2) offered to repeal all of the punitive acts of Parliament against the Colonies, and (3) offered the Colonies a form of self-rule that would include exemption from British taxation (Manifesto and Proclamation of the Carlisle Peace Commission,; Norman Gelb, Less Than Glory, New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1984, p. 233--Gelb is a British author). And this offer, unlike Lord Howe's offer, was made to the Second Continental Congress directly.

Can anyone who knows the history of the Republicans during the war imagine the Republicans making a comparable offer in mid-1862? A comparable offer would have been something like an offer to restore the Missouri Compromise line and to repeal the Morrill Tariff.


In noting the parallels between the Republican and British positions toward independence, I am not endorsing the Southern states’ decision to secede in 1860 and 1861. Although I believe the Southern states had the right to leave the Union, I do not believe they had sufficient cause for separation at that time. Nevertheless, I believe the Republicans should have allowed the South to leave in peace, but I also believe the South should not have seceded in the first place. I think Southern leaders should have given Lincoln a chance. If they had done so, they most likely would have discovered that Lincoln was actually a friend to the South and that he had no intention of oppressing or mistreating the Southern states. Yet, it must also be said that Lincoln’s attitude toward Southern independence was virtually identical to the British attitude toward American independence, although it is also fair to say that if the Confederate government had behaved less combatively and confrontationally over Fort Sumter and diplomatic recognition, there is a reasonable possibility that Lincoln would have allowed the status quo to continue and that war might have been avoided.


In any case, this article is not about the Civil War or the Republicans in Lincoln’s day. It is about the natural right of peaceful separation/secession/independence as a core principle of the American Revolution. The Patriots resented being forced to fight the War of Independence. They wanted England to let the Colonies leave in peace. The fact that peaceful separation was an important principle of the American Revolution was understood by Timothy Pickering of Massachusetts, who served as Adjutant General and Quartermaster General of the Continental Army during the War of Independence and then as Secretary of State under George Washington and John Adams.


Pickering rightly said that one of the founding principles of America was the principle of “separation,” and he made it clear that he was talking about peaceful separation. In fact, at one point, Pickering called for the Northern states to secede from the Union, and he envisioned a Northern “confederacy” that would maintain good relations with the Southern states. Said Pickering,


The Federalists are dissatisfied, because they see the public morals debased by the corrupt and corrupting system of our rulers. Men are tempted to become apostates, not to Federalism merely, but to virtue and to religion and to good government. . . . The principles of our revolution point to the remedy--a separation. That this can be accomplished, and without spilling one drop of blood, I have little doubt. . . . The people of the East cannot reconcile their habits, views, and interests with those of the South and West. The latter are beginning to rule with a rod of iron. . . .


A Northern confederacy would unite congenial characters, and present a fairer prospect of public happiness; while the Southern States, having a similarity of habits, might be left "to manage their own affairs in their own way." If a separation were to take place, our mutual wants would render a friendly and commercial intercourse inevitable. . . . (Letter from Timothy Pickering to George Cabot, January 29, 1804, emphasis added; see also McDonald, States’ Rights and the Union, p. 61)


In a speech to the U.S. Senate on January 10, 1861, Senator Jefferson Davis of Mississippi, who would soon become the president of the Confederacy, beautifully captured the essence of the original American principle of the right of peaceful separation, as opposed to the law-of-the-jungle concept of the “right” to achieve independence only by force:


Now, sir, we are confusing language very much. Men speak of revolution; and when they say revolution they mean blood. Our fathers meant nothing of the sort. When they spoke of revolution they meant an unalienable right. When they declared as an unalienable right the power of the people to abrogate and modify their form of government whenever it did not answer the ends for which it was established, they did not mean that they were to sustain that by brute force. They meant that it was a right; and force could only be invoked when that right was wrongfully denied. Great Britain denied the right in the case of the colonies, and therefore our revolution for independence was bloody. If Great Britain had admitted the great American doctrine, there would have been no blood shed.


And does it become the descendants of those who proclaimed this as the great principle on which they took their place among the nations of the earth, now to proclaim, if that is a right, it is one which you can only get as the subjects of the emperor of Austria may get their rights, by force overcoming force? Are we, in this age of civilization and political progress, to roll back the whole current of human thought and again return to the mere brute force which prevails between beasts of prey, as the only method of settling questions between men?


If the Declaration of Independence be true (and who here gainsays it?), every community may dissolve its connection with any other community previously made, and have no other obligation than that which results from the breach of an alliance between States. Could any man come to the conclusion that the men who fought the battles of the Revolution for community independence . . . terminated their great efforts by transmitting posterity to a condition in which they could only gain those rights by force?  If so, the blood of the Revolution was shed in vain; no great principles were established, for force was the law of nature before the battles of the Revolution were fought. (Speech in the U.S. Senate, January 10, 1861; see also The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government, Volume 1, New York: De Capo Press, 1990, reprint of original edition, pp. 530-533)




ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Michael T. Griffith holds a Master’s degree in Theology from The Catholic Distance University, a Bachelor’s degree in Liberal Arts from Excelsior College, two Associate in Applied Science degrees from the Community College of the Air Force, and an Advanced Certificate of Civil War Studies and a Certificate of Civil War Studies from Carroll College in Wisconsin. He is a two-time graduate of the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, California, in Arabic and Hebrew, and of the U.S. Air Force Technical Training School in San Angelo, Texas, and has completed advanced Hebrew programs at Haifa University in Israel and at the Spiro Institute in London, England. He is also the author of five books on Mormonism and ancient texts and one book on the John F. Kennedy assassination.


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