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Chapter 7

This webpage reproduces a chapter of
The Spanish-American Frontier, 1783‑1795

Arthur Preston Whitaker

as reprinted by
Peter Smith,
Gloucester, MA, 1962

The text is in the public domain.

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Chapter 9
This site is not affiliated with the US Military Academy.

 p108  Chapter VIII
The Union Preserved

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While Floridablanca was considering Wilkinson's memorial and while the resultant order was on its way to New Orleans, events were taking place on the American frontier which seemed to give immediate promise of the revolution that Floridablanca desired but was not willing to pay for. To Wilkinson's protestations of partiality for Spain on behalf of Kentucky were added similar declarations by leading men in Franklin and Cumberland. The Spanish government might be justified in thinking that the Southwest was of one mind, and that its mind was set on secession and on an alliance with Spain. As it turned out, however, there was, so far as Franklin and Cumberland were concerned, only a brief intrigue with Spain, and no conspiracy. There was no plot, and there were no conspirators. Overtures there were, inquiries and offers; but the frontiersmen — and it was they who took the initiative — soon found that their interests and those of Spain were irreconcilable. The intrigue was still-born because Spanish policy could not grant what the frontiersmen desired as the price of allegiance. There was no conspiracy because Spain would not conspire. In Kentucky the situation was different, and the intrigue went further and lasted longer than in the other western settlements.

Intrigue and land speculation: Franklin

Gardoqui's interest in an intrigue with the frontiersmen was revived by the arrival of d'Argès in New York  p109 early in 1788, and he urged James White to visit the Western settlements in the interest of Spain. White, who had just heard of Sevier's defeat in a factional conflict with Colonel John Tipton and thought that it would incline Sevier to form a connection with Spain, consented and set out for the West about May 1, 1788.​1 He found the situation in Franklin even more favorable than he expected. For several years Sevier had been engaged in an undertaking with other land speculators, among them William Blount and Wade Hampton, to establish a colony at Muscle Shoals. As we have seen, this speculation was at first a private enterprise closely connected with the creation of Houston County (1784) under the authority of the state of Georgia. After the establishment of the state of Franklin it became a part of the expansionist programme of that state, and was linked with Georgia's projected campaign against the Creek Indians. Georgia's abandonment of the plan of campaign at the end of 1787 brought about the collapse of Sevier's Franklin government, which was signalized by his defeat in the affray with Tipton in February, 1788. From February until July of that year, he lived among the disorderly squatters of the extreme frontier, harrying the Indians and marking their lands for settlement, his interest in the Muscle Shoals scheme still unabated. According to his own story, White found little difficulty in persuading Sevier and other Franklinites to enter into an intrigue with Spain. In July, Sevier wrote Gardoqui a friendly letter. In September, after his arrest had been ordered by Governor Johnstonº and after North Carolina had failed to ratify the federal constitution, he wrote two more letters to the Spanish envoy. In the briefer of these two letters, which probably gives us Sevier's chief reason for appealing  p110 to Spain, he informed Gardoqui of his Muscle Shoals project and asked that Spain use its influence with the Indians to facilitate the colony's establishment.

That the execution of this scheme was the Franklinites' chief object in their intrigue with Spain appeared still more clearly when James White, returning to New York, was sent by way of Havana to New Orleans to continue the intrigue with Miró. White's own written statement, the report of the governor of Havana, and the letters of Gayoso, then in Havana on his way to Natchez, all show White's eagerness to secure Spanish support for an extension of the state of Franklin down the Tennessee beyond Muscle Shoals, and to persuade Spain to open the Alabama River as well as the Mississippi to the colonists of this frontier state.

Such a scheme was incompatible with the interests and policy of Spain. The Spanish government was opening the Mississippi partially and reluctantly, fearing contraband trade; the opening of the Alabama would greatly increase the risk of smuggling. The Spanish defensive system depended in large measure on Indian alliances, and Spain could not afford to offend her savage allies by countenancing a further intrusion upon their lands. Spain was seeking to break up the autonomous American settlements in the Mississippi valley, and the project of Sevier and White would, if carried into effect, bring the American frontier two hundred miles further down the Tennessee and dangerously close to Mobile and Natchez.

When White arrived in New Orleans (April, 1789), Miró had just received the royal order of December 1, 1788, in answer to Wilkinson's proposals. In conformity with this order he drew up his reply to White, informing him of the partial opening of the Mississippi  p111 to the Western Americans and of Spain's inability to negotiate with the frontier settlements so long as they remained a part of the United States, and urging the frontiersmen to settle as Spanish subjects in Spanish territory. Verbally he tried to persuade White to incite the people of Franklin and Cumberland to declare their independence, but he gave no assurance as to how Spain would aid the revolutionists or what treatment it would accord them when their independence was established. The court's ultimate decision in 1790 was in effect a confirmation of Miró's provisional reply to White. These mountaineers who longed for the plains could get no help from Spain for their experimental project, and so Sevier abandoned the intrigue.

Intrigue and Indian ravages: Cumberland

In Cumberland likewise the intrigue never got beyond the preliminary stage.​2 As soon as each side perceived what the other wanted, the correspondence came to an abrupt end. Unlike the maturer and expanding Holston settlements, Cumberland was still an insecurely established outpost of the Southwestern frontier. Its remoteness and its scanty population scattered in a long thin line of "stations" along the Cumberland River, made it an easy victim to Indian attacks. Its competition in the Southern fur trade brought down upon it the wrath of Panton and McGillivray, and at the same time that the Creek began their war on Georgia in 1786 they assailed Cumberland. For the next three years they harassed it unmercifully. McGillivray boasted at one time that he had broken up the settlement, and Robertson admitted that trade and immigration had been stopped by the Indian ravages and that in a period of six months forty-eight of  p112 the settlers were killed by the Indians. North Carolina gave but little assistance. To their piteous complaints Governor Johnston replied with the hard truth that theirs was the common lot of frontier communities. The Kentuckians would not admit Cumberland's plea for incorporation in their proposed state, and Congress showed no disposition to defend a country that it had often and in vain asked North Carolina to cede to it.

The men of Cumberland cast about desperately for a remedy. In April, 1788, they sent a delegation to McGillivray offering to give him a town lot in Nashville and to put themselves under Spanish protection if only the Indians would cease their murderous attacks. A few months later, having heard no doubt rumors of the landing in East Florida of William Augustus Bowles,​3 reputed enemy of Spain and the representative of British trading interests in the Bahamas, and of McGillivray's momentary alienation from Spain and friendship for Bowles, Robertson wrote McGillivray hinting that Cumberland would gladly join him in the conquest of the neighboring Spanish colonies. McGillivray, however, was soon reconciled to the Spaniards and gave Robertson no encouragement. This was the situation that produced the Spanish intrigue in Cumberland. The intrigue was Cumberland's last resort in securing relief from Indian attacks as it had been Sevier's last resource in securing aid for his Muscle Shoals settlement.

Lack of space forbids us to follow the development of the intrigue in detail. It is enough to say that it had its origin in Gardoqui's letter of April 18, 1788, to Elisha Robertson and in the suggestions of one of Spain's French subjects at the Illinois, the trader André Fagot; that Andrew Jackson, recently arrived in Nashville,  p113 and James Robertson and Daniel Smith, colonel and brigadier general respectively of the militia, were the chief agents in the intrigue; and that their objects in undertaking it were to induce Spain to restrain the Indians, to frighten North Carolina into ceding its western territory to Congress, and incidentally to secure commercial privileges from Spain on the Mississippi.

Understanding and antagonism

Though James White apparently had nothing to do with their writing, his arrival in New Orleans coincided with the delivery of letters to Miró from James Robertson and Daniel Smith. These letters, like Wilkinson's to the commanding officer of St. Louis in 1786, were written in carefully guarded terms; but again as in Wilkinson's case a confidential messenger delivered the letters. Fagot, the bearer of Smith's letter, assured Miró that the frontiersmen were burning with eagerness to rebel and form a connection with Spain.

Miró replied similarly with an unincriminating letter illuminated by the most urgent verbal incitement to rebellion. Both messages, as we have seen, were entrusted to White, and they were in fact the same replies that the governor sent to Franklin, White serving as the messenger to both settlements. In the case of Cumberland, Miró added personal letters to Smith and Robertson that contained little beyond polite phrases, assurances of good will, a vague promise to continue to use his good offices with the Indians for the relief of Cumberland, and a pressing invitation to settle in Louisiana.

Miró's reply showed that the Cumberland settlers had as little incentive as those of Franklin to continue  p114 the intrigue with Spain. Incessant Indian attacks proved that Miró was either insincere or that he was unable to control the Indians. The navigation of the Mississippi was, although under considerable restrictions, open to the settlers at Cumberland in accordance with the royal order of December 1, 1788, whose substance was communicated to them by White. The Spanish immigration policy, as outlined in Miró's reply, showed in the clearest possible manner the conflict of interest between the frontiersmen and Spain. Men like James Robertson were dedicated by years of perilous hardship to the success of their settlements, in which they had material and spiritual interests at stake. Spain was evidently determined that they should either emigrate or rebel. To emigrate was to sacrifice all that they had achieved and all that they hoped for in Cumberland. To rebel against the United States was to put themselves at Spain's mercy; and what terms could they expect from His Catholic Majesty? The answer to this question was indicated by the terms offered immigrants to Spanish territory: a narrow measure of religious toleration, and no privileges of local autonomy. Moreover, Spain was an absolute monarchy, with none of those constitutional guarantees of life, liberty and property consecrated by English and American tradition. Another reason why Smith and Robertson lost interest in the intrigue may be that Miró subordinated them to Wilkinson, informing the latter of their advances and writing them in September, 1789, letters which Wilkinson himself drew up and delivered at Nashville on his return from New Orleans to Kentucky.4

The effect of Spain's policy was apparent even while White was still in New Orleans. He became increasingly  p115 reserved as he perceived the trend of Spanish policy, and Gayoso became correspondingly suspicious of his sincerity and fearful of the Americans' ambitious designs. The alienation of these two men is the clearest proof of the irreconcilable of the interests of Spain the frontiersmen. Both were possessed of a high degree of intelligence and of an accurate knowledge of conditions in their respective countries, and intimate association over a period of several months facilitated an exchange of views and sentiments. Their disagreement arose not from misunderstanding but precisely from mutual comprehension. Upon his return to Cumberland, White abandoned the intrigue and was active in dissuading the frontiersmen from emigrating to Louisiana. Smith and Robertson wrote the governor of North Carolina in such a way as to let him see, without revealing their part in it, that Spanish influence was at work in Cumberland. Protesting against the presence of a Spanish immigration agent there, they urged the cession of North Carolina's western territory to Congress in order to "quiet the minds of the people." In September, 1789, there was held at Nashville a convention which Miró had expected to declare the independence of Cumberland, but which in fact petitioned North Carolina to make the cession to Congress. It was a fortunate coincidence that the new federal government was established just at the time when these frontiersmen discovered how little Spain could do for them.

The Kentucky separatists

In Kentucky, which was justly regarded by Miró and the Spanish ministry as the most important of the Western settlements of the United States, the Spanish  p116 policy of 1788 had a similar effect. It must be remembered, however, that the court's reply to Wilkinson's memorial of 1787 was not received by Miró until March, 1789, when the most favorable moment in Kentucky was long past. The influence of the delay is hard to estimate, for on the one hand the court's silence hampered Wilkinson, who could give the Kentuckians no authoritative assurance of Spanish aid or even of Spanish sympathy; and yet on the other hand the court's reply of December 1, 1788, would not have aided Wilkinson in the least even had it arrived a year earlier. Although the conflict of interest between Kentucky and Spain was not so keen as it was between the North Carolina frontier settlements and that power, yet it was evident from the court's reply that Spanish policy required Kentucky first to commit itself to secession and then to make the best terms with Spain that it could.​5 The order also contained a provision which Wilkinson had warned in his memorial of 1787 would be fatal to the building up of a Spanish party in Kentucky, namely, the opening of the Mississippi to all the Western Americans.

Despite these unfavorable circumstances, there can be no doubt that there was a separatist party of considerable strength in Kentucky. The particularistic tendencies common to all the frontier communities of that day were reinforced in Kentucky by the presence of a larger number of men of position and education than the other western communities could boast. Accustomed to command and familiar with the current theoretical justifications of particularism, they found extremely irksome a distant and unintelligent rule and provided capable leader­ship for the separatists. For nearly a decade a group of such men kept up an intermittent  p117 intrigue with Spain. What the strength of their following was we cannot say, but it is unthinkable that men of the intelligence of James Wilkinson, Harry Innes and John Brown would have risked their high standing in Kentucky had they not known that their dangerous intrigue had considerable support and consequently a reasonable chance of success. Mere rascality or greed alone will not account for the persistent intrigue of these men with Spain, although Wilkinson and Innes were ready enough to capitalize their connections at New Orleans. Wilkinson, the best paid of them all, did not receive a penny from any Spanish official until his second visit to New Orleans in 1789. As the court had not yet pensioned him, he was then advanced $7000 as a private loan by Miró and gave security for its repayment.​6 It was not until 1792 that the king finally granted him the pension of $2000 a year recommended by Miró. Moreover, the commercial advantages over the other westerners enjoyed by Wilkinson and his associates were not great, and Wilkinson's first and largest commercial venture in his relations with Spain was not at all successful.7

Altogether it seems highly probable that there was a powerful separatist party in Kentucky in the decade from 1786 to 1796; but to call it a "Spanish" party would be misleading. Even Wilkinson, who over and over protested his own devotion to Spain, warned Miró that the other separatists would not tolerate the idea of subjection to His Catholic Majesty and that Spain could hope for nothing more than an alliance with independent Kentucky.​8 Remembering how leaders in the other frontier communities, Franklin and Cumberland, had tried to exploit the intrigue for their own ends, we may safely conclude that the Kentucky  p118 separatists were seeking to use Spain as a cat's-paw to pull the chestnut of Kentucky independence out of the fire.

The climax of the Spanish conspiracy in its first phase came with the convention of July, 1788, when, according to Wilkinson, Innes and Sebastian openly urged the convention to carry Kentucky out of the Union.​9 We know but little of the proceedings of that convention, or of the considerations that led the convention to reject the proposal. It was obvious, however, that the analogy so often drawn by frontier agitators between their situation and that of the Atlantic colonies in 1775 was far from perfect. Even admitting genuine grievances and a diversity of interest, the numbers, wealth and political experience of the frontiersmen were inadequate for the maintenance of an independent state, and their geographical situation was extremely likely to entail either a conflict with Spain or subjection to it. The time for independence had not yet arrived.

This was the judgment of the convention, it seems, for that body decided to await the result of the new federal experiment; and when the substance of the royal order of December 1, 1788 was communicated to Wilkinson it gave the separatist cause another blow, if we are to believe the arch-conspirator.​10 In the face of this check and of changed conditions, notably the establishment of the new federal government, Wilkinson descended to New Orleans a second time in June, 1789, in order to look after his business affairs and bring the conspiracy up to date.​11 On his return to Kentucky he continued his correspondence with the Spaniards and played a waiting game, hoping for better times. His hope was fulfilled several years later and  p119 under very different conditions, which will be discussed in another place.

Meanwhile the governments on the Atlantic coast had heard reports of the progress of the Spanish intrigue and rumors of a British intrigue in the West. Alarmed at the prospect of disunion, they took measures to placate the Westerners. The legislatures of Virginia and North Carolina, both on their own account and in the interest of the frontiersmen, passed resolutions (1788) asserting the inalienable right of their citizens to the navigation of the Mississippi. Virginia gave encouragement to the movement in Kentucky to form a separate state and secure admission into the Union. North Carolina extended government facilities in its West, creating in November, 1788, a district to which it gave the name "Miro" and erecting new counties. In December, 1789, it pardoned Sevier and restored him to his former office of brigadier general of militia. In November of that year it again ceded its western territory to Congress, as Smith and Robertson had so often requested it to do, and this time the act was not repealed. Congress accepted the cession without delay.

Washington and the West

The United States government also was forced to modify its policy with regard to the West. The proposed treaty with Spain was not negotiated. Even General Washington, whose respect for discipline was offended by frontier turbulence and who at first thought the time had come to "speak decisively" to the frontiersmen, was so alarmed in 1787 by the ferment in the West that he advised that Jay's offensive proposals be quietly dropped.​12 In July, 1788, the Congress  p120 of the Confederation adopted a resolution deferring the Spanish negotiation until the establishment of the new government of the United States, declaring that its citizens had a natural and inalienable right to the navigation of the Mississippi.13

When the new government was organized in 1789, one of its chief problems was to conciliate the outraged West. Washington's diary for the years 1789 and 1790 shows that he was keenly alive to the frontier problems involved in Indian affairs, Spanish relations and land speculation.​14 There was a manifest design in his administration to convince the Western frontiersmen that a new era had begun, that Eastern provincialism was no longer in the ascendant in national councils, and that Western interests would be safe in the hands of the new federal government. The appointment of Jefferson instead of Jay as secretary of state was reassuring to the West,​15 for Jefferson had taken the lead in opposing Jay's recommendation regarding the Mississippi. Even Hamilton, the representative of the commercial interest of the North, let it be known that he regarded the free navigation of the Mississippi as indispensable to national prosperity.16

Conciliation of Western sentiment was also apparent in the federal appointments to office in the West. William Blount, whose connection with land speculation was known far and wide and had been the subject of scandalous gossip in North Carolina in 1786, but who had influence among the frontiersmen and was recommended for the office by Daniel Smith of Cumberland, received the appointment of governor of the Southwest Territory and superintendent of Indian affairs in the South.​17 As brigadier generals under him were appointed John Sevier and James Robertson,  p121 Blount's associates in land speculation. Their connection with the Spanish intrigue seems not to have been suspected. In Kentucky the Spanish conspirators received some of the choicest appointments in the gift of the federal government. Wilkinson's treasonable activities had been reported to Washington in 1789,​18 and yet in October, 1791, he was commissioned lieutenant colonel in the United States Army, and was promoted to the rank of brigadier general the following March.​19 Sebastian was appointed United States attorney-general and Harry Innes judge for the district of Kentucky.​20 The influence of their fellow conspirator, John Brown, member of Congress from Kentucky, doubtless weighed heavily in these appointments, but it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that the federal administration shrewdly turned a blind eye to the delinquencies of such men as Wilkinson and Blount, whose appointment would prove its catholicity and attach to the Union these men of influence in the wavering West.

In Indian affairs also the frontiersmen were conciliated by Washington's government. Preparations were made for a campaign against the Miami and Wabash Indians who had been harrying Kentucky. The obnoxious Cherokee treaty of Hopewell of 1785 was scrapped and, on July 2, 1791, a new treaty with the tribe was negotiated on behalf of the United States by William Blount.​21 In this treaty the Cherokee made a cession of land that carried the boundary a hundred miles farther down the Tennessee. In 1790 a large cession of land, though not so large as the Georgians wished, was secured from McGillivray and the Creek chief in the treaty of New York, which will be discussed again in another  p122 connection. In pursuance of this treaty federal garrisons were established on the Georgia frontier.

Another frontier grievance was remedied when Kentucky was admitted to the Union in 1792. Cumberland and the people of the defunct state of Franklin were within the bounds of the Southwest Territory whose government, organized in conformity with the system established in the Northwest Ordinance of 1787, contained a promise of statehood when the population of the territory should warrant it.

We have now seen how disaster very nearly overtook the United States in its frontier conflict with Spain, how it was averted by the force of cultural antagonism and by a conflict of interest between Spain and the American frontiersmen, and how the new federal government under Washington cultivated the friendship of the frontiersmen with studied care. In the next phase of the Spanish-American conflict, which will be discussed in the remaining chapters, there were two factors of great importance that had not existed in the first phase of the struggle: the new government of the United States, and the French Revolution with the attendant mutation of alliances and ideas.

The Author's Notes:

 p233  1 This subject is discussed in detail, with references, in my article, "The Muscle Shoals Speculation," in MVHR, XIII, 365.

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2 This subject is discussed in detail, with references, in my article, "The Spanish Intrigue in the Old Southwest: An Episode," in ib.XII, 155.

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3 A bibliographical note on Bowles will be found in C. M. Brevard, A History of Florida, I, 23, note 21.

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 p234  4 AI, PC, l. 2373, Wilkinson to Gayoso, Nashville, Nov. 10 (16?), 1789, and Lexington, Jan. 26, 1790; and drafts of (Miró) to Daniel Smith, Sept. 15, 1789, and to James Robertson, Sept. 16, 1789.

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5 Cf. Letter from Harry Innes to Gayoso, cited in note 16, ch. XIII.

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6 AI, 86‑6‑17, Miró to Valdés, Dec. 31, 1789, No. 46 res.

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7 Ib., 86‑6‑8, Miró to Valdés, June 15, 1788, No. 20 res.; ib., PC l. 2373, (Miró) to Wilkinson, Aug. 6, 1788, draft.

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8 Ib., Wilkinson to Miró, Feb. 12, 1789. Wilkinson added that after Kentucky had seceded from the union the king of Spain could "dictate his own terms."

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9 Ib., Wilkinson to Miró, Feb. 12, 1789; cf. Green, op. cit., 186‑97, and Bodley, xlvii‑liv.

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10 AI, 86‑6‑17, Wilkinson's second memorial, undated, but written on Sept. 17, 1789, and enclosed in Spanish translation in Miró to Valdés, No. 46 res.; AHR, IX, 751‑64.

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11 Ib.; Wilkinson, Memoirs, II, 237 and Appendix, No. 1, deposition of Oliver Pollock, June 8, 1808.

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12 Washington, Writings, XI, 43, note; ib., 163‑64.

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13 AHN, E, l. 3894, Gardoqui to Floridablanca, Oct. 24, 1788, No. 298.

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14 J. J. Fitzpatrick, ed., The Diaries of George Washington, IV, 54, 74‑77, 87, 90, 95‑96, 127, 132‑33, 157, 196.

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15 Innes Papers (MSS., LC), vol. XIX, fol. 3, John Brown to Harry Innes, Sept. 28, 1789.

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16 Hamilton Papers (MSS., LC), vol. IX, fols. 1138‑55, cabinet opinion, Sept. 15, 1790.

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17 Draper MSS., 4 XX 18a, Caswell to Sevier, July 12, 1786; A. S. P., I. A., I, 203‑06; Pickering MSS. (Mass. Hist. Soc.), Western Indians, 1786‑1793, fol. 16, Information of Captain Wellbank; "The Papers of General Daniel Smith," in American Hist. Mag., VI.218‑19. Anthony Wayne made a vigorous effort to secure this appointment: Wayne MSS. (Hist. Soc. Pennsylvania), vol. XIX, passim.

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18 Green, op. cit., note to pp250‑53; cf. 239 and note.

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19 Heitman, Historical Register of the United States Army, I, 1037.

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20 Bodley, lxix.

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21 A. S. P., I. A., I, 124‑25.

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