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Lincoln On The Verge

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb
The Truth Network Radio
January 31, 2023 3:03 am

Lincoln On The Verge

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb

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January 31, 2023 3:03 am

On this episode of Our American Stories, the story of President Abraham Lincoln's harrowing train trip to Washington, D.C., to be sworn in as the leader of a new—and divided—nation. Joining us to tell the story is Ted Widmer, author of Lincoln on the Verge: Thirteen Days to Washington.

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Our American Stories
Lee Habeeb
Our American Stories
Lee Habeeb

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Learn more about their clean standards and shop clean at Sephora Beauty at This is Lee Habib with Our American Stories, and we tell stories about everything here on this show. And our favorite storytelling involves American history. And always our history stories are brought to us by the great folks at Hillsdale College. And today we're telling the story of Lincoln on the verge 13 days to Washington. The author of this remarkable story is Edward Widmer.

Edward, thanks for joining us. So November 6th, 1860, Lincoln gets elected and you write this. You say in the book, quote, could the news of Lincoln's election be turned back as if it was a piece of mail delivered to the wrong address? Many Southerners thought so. Even many Northerners found that the news was difficult to believe.

Talk about these two reactions around the country. Lincoln's a shock to everybody. He's only ever been a one-term congressman 12 years earlier. So that's not very impressive. He's running against much, much more famous senators.

There's a list of 21 likely Republicans to get the nomination, published at the end of 1859. Lincoln doesn't even crack that list of 21. So that's how obscure he is. But he helps himself. He gives a speech in New York City in February, the Cooper Union address that really impresses people in New York. And then he's lucky that the Republican convention is held in Chicago.

So he has a lot of friends in Chicago who help him. And he gets the nomination. And then he's lucky again, because the Democratic Party, which is a much bigger party than the Republican Party, it splits in half. And that means the Republicans are much more likely to win, which they do.

There are actually four people running by the time it's November. It's just all the chips fall in a way that's perfect for Lincoln to win the election. And the South is shocked that this Northerner, I mean, he's really a Westerner, he has cracked their defenses, their system for almost the entirety of American history since 1789, when George Washington becomes the first president. The South has really controlled national politics. They have had most of the presidents, even the few northern presidents were generally under the control of the South. And Lincoln isn't from their system.

He's an outsider. So they're really upset. And they know that he's anti-slavery, just how anti-slavery is not yet really known. But they worry a lot that he's very anti-slavery. In fact, a lot of people in the North worry the opposite. They worry that he's not anti-slavery enough.

The North is also a little worried because he just doesn't seem presidential. His body shape is sort of wrong. He's tall and skinny and angular. Just looks low born.

That was something people cared about in 1860. Does he look statesman-like? Does he look well educated?

In a word, no, he didn't look refined. He had kind of rough country features. Apparently, his voice was a little bit odd, too. He had a Western twangy accent. And even though he was very tall, he did not have a deep voice.

He had a kind of high-pitched voice. So they're just all these eyes, these millions of eyes on this man coming through the country to become the new president. And everyone is worried about him. Is he made of the right stuff? Will he be strong enough to keep the country together?

So intense curiosity and a kind of immediate celebrity for someone who was absolutely unknown nine months earlier. Let's talk about succession. You write that it became more real just six weeks after Lincoln was elected. December 20, 1860 is when South Carolina left the Union. More states would follow. What a mess Lincoln was walking into. Talk about that. How did Lincoln react?

It was the worst mess any president has ever inherited. As you just said, South Carolina secedes on December 20th. And so there's this weird period of about six weeks between his election and the secession of South Carolina where they begin to act like a country. They're not yet a country, but they called themselves the Palmetto Republic.

The Palmetto is the tree that's on the flag of South Carolina. And it was just a crazy time where nobody knew if the US would hold together or not. It had never happened that a Southern state seceded. It had almost happened in 1832 when John C. Calhoun was a senator and he was upset by some financial policies of Andrew Jackson. And he threatened secession, but it didn't happen.

Andrew Jackson, in a very kind of intimidating way, kept it all together. But with Lincoln coming in, Lincoln is in a much weaker position than Jackson. And Lincoln has very little experience. That one term as a congressman 12 years earlier, he does not have relationships in Washington. So he's just kind of walking into this catastrophe. And he's not getting a lot of help from anybody. The Senate is dysfunctional.

The House is dysfunctional. Washington is falling apart. The president before him, who's still the president, James Buchanan, is useless. He can't make up his mind.

He's falling apart in meetings. Nobody knows what he thinks. And the South is just doing whatever it wants to do. So when Lincoln is on the train in February of 1861, coming in to Washington, a third to a half of the United States of America is no longer in the United States of America, or so they feel. And he's got to respond with what he feels. And that's going to be his first inaugural address. And he's going to tell them, you're still in the United States.

You have not seceded because the union is perpetual. And you've been listening to Edward Widmer. And he has told a fantastic story in his book, Lincoln on the Verge, 13 Days to Washington.

And it chronicles the 13-day train trip that Lincoln can give his first inaugural speech in Washington, DC. And it is a trip filled with treachery, opportunity, and so much more. It is a thriller. If you love reading great stories about this country, this may be one of the best books I've read in the past year. Go to and pick it up. Or go to a bookstore and pick it up. And heck, buy a copy for someone else who loves reading. This book is that good.

When we come back, more with Edward Widmer. Lincoln on the Verge, here on Our American Stories. Folks, if you love the stories we tell about this great country, and especially the stories of America's rich past, know that all of our stories about American history, from war to politics, to innovation, culture, and faith, are brought to us by the great folks at Hillsdale College. A place where students study all the things that are beautiful in life, and all the things that are good in life. And if you can't get to Hillsdale, Hillsdale will come to you with their free and terrific online courses.

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Once again, that's 855-933-5252. And we continue with our American Stories and with historian Edward Widmer. The book, the story, Lincoln on the Verge, 13 Days to Washington. When we last left off, Lincoln, an unknown one-term senator from Illinois, had been elected president and the union was splitting apart. He faced an existential dilemma. Could he even reach Washington, D.C. for his inauguration? Would there even be a D.C. when he arrived? Talk about that. What was the mood like when he left Springfield?

Well, the first day was filled with drama. There were real fears that D.C. would be in the hands of pro-secessionist militias. There's an organized country coming together, the Confederate States of America. But then there are also people walking around Washington in sort of armed vigilante mobs who might take over the Capitol.

They had announced that they wanted the Capitol for themselves or they might take over the whole district. So as he's starting on the trip on that first day, it's not certain that he will be able to make it to Washington. He's getting letters from close friends who are in Washington saying we may not be able to hold it.

It's really a very dicey situation. And the morning of his departure, it's February 11th, 1861. It's the day before his 52nd birthday. And it's kind of an overcast day. Some accounts say it was snowing lightly.

Some say raining. I think it was sort of in between. And he went out to the small depot and he was pleased to see and it was no surprise that a lot of the people of Springfield had come out to say goodbye to him. And, you know, he was a beloved member of the community. It was an emotional scene. And he spontaneously gave a short speech. It's about nine sentences, but profoundly beautiful. And as it turned out, really strategic, too, because it put Lincoln before the country in a new light. I'm not sure at all that he intended that.

It just happened. And in those nine sentences, he just said, you know me, I've lived among you for 25 years. We've been friends and neighbors. My children have grown up among yours. I'm leaving one child buried here. I'm now going with the hardest assignment any president has ever had since Washington. With God's help, I cannot fail. Without God's help, I cannot succeed.

Please pray for me. And the words were transcribed. There were journalists there at the platform. And then one journalist got on the train with him. And only a minute or two after the train left, he got Lincoln to take a pencil and paper and write it out all over again and give it to him. And he was able to telegraph it all around the country. So we think of that as a long time ago, 1861. But in fact, with internet quickness, they were able to get the words of that beautiful short speech with lightning speed.

And then the telegraph was called the lightning. And it really humanized Lincoln. It helped people reading the next day in the newspaper to think this is a human being. This is like a neighbor. I would want him for my neighbor. I know people like this.

My children play with the children of this other family over here. And he's kind of like us. And it was a really brilliant political stroke, even if he didn't mean it to be one.

He's just saying goodbye to his friends and neighbors. But it made him seem like an everyman. And that was a really smart way to begin the trip. Talk about the role the train and the telegraph, two remarkable innovations. What roles do those two play in Lincoln's plans and to Lincoln's advantage? And is it true that the South sort of rejected that kind of change and innovation? The train comes in the early 1830s. The telegraph is later. It's invented by Samuel F.B.

Morse. And it's one of the great American inventions of the 19th century. And it immediately changes politics and business. And they are perfect for train tracks. The wires want to go straight and train tracks go straight. And it turns out they're good for the railroad, too, because you can wire up ahead when the train is coming. Helps plan the scheduling of the trains. It helps plan the loading of the freight. And so businesses love all of this. If you're a textile mill owner or in any business at all and you've got a load of goods you want to ship from New York to Philadelphia or Philadelphia to Pittsburgh, the telegraph is your friend.

You send it down to your business partner down the line and it just picks up everything. And business accelerates and westward migration accelerates. And Chicago is booming in the 1850s. And Lincoln is deriving some of his lawyer work from the exploding business culture of Chicago. And the big railroad of Illinois is the Illinois Central.

And they hire Lincoln for a lot of cases. So the North is just booming as Lincoln's star is rising. And the South is growing. All of America is growing, but the South is growing in a weird way. It's not growing nearly as fast. It's not growing demographically.

It has a much lower rate of increase from immigration. And wealth is concentrated at the top with families that own a lot of land. It's not not an upwardly mobile society the way the North is. And they're also controlling the spread of information much more than the North. So the North just loves newspapers and telegraphs and railroads. And in the South, they have to bring in railroads.

They can't just reject something that's obviously so good for business. But they build different kinds of railroads and they don't like the telegraph quite as much and they want to control information. And it's just a culture that is not as comfortable with different opinions as you would have in the North or with different kinds of ethnic people. That's a point of tension as the North is growing so fast. The South is looking at it and is beginning to criticize the kind of society it is where anybody can say anything. And there are all these poor white people who are starting businesses for themselves and there's a kind of unattractive word southerners begin to use. They call them mudsills, kind of, you know, lower middle-class whites in the North. They don't like all the immigrants either and they really don't like the free people of color. There are free African Americans in the North and it just seems like a mess up there to an aristocratic southern wealthy family.

And it's not just social snobbery, it's also political fear because so many people are coming into the North that the South is worried that the North is going to have a lot of political power, which is true. And what a time to be alive. But for Lincoln, what a precarious time to be president. Assassination plots were afoot following his election. Lincoln had only won 38% of the popular vote in what was a four-way race.

Talk about Lincoln leaving behind for a relative of his wife papers of a personal nature and the comment he made, a foreboding comment, that his own death was on his mind. Talk about that. No, it's shocking that our most beloved president became president with such a tiny vote. I mean, the second lowest successful vote in our history. Less than 40% is really pretty bad. It's less than Herbert Hoover as the losing candidate won when he lost in a landslide to Franklin Roosevelt in 1932.

So it's really not very impressive. And how Lincoln turned that dismal result into his powerful presidency and winning the Civil War and becoming our greatest president is really an extraordinary conversion of a bad situation into a huge triumph. He understands the seriousness of what he's going into. And he's getting a lot of death threats in the mail. And the political news is bad. And the threats are coming really close to home. There are things like, you know, drawings of him with a noose around his neck. His wife saw that and was very upset. He knows he's not coming back. When we come back, more of this remarkable story, a remarkable piece of American history.

Lincoln on the Verge here on Our American Stories. NBA fans, it's time to bring the hoops action to the palm of your hand with DraftKings Sportsbook, an official sports betting partner of the NBA. This week, new customers can bet $5 and win $200 in free bets instantly.

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Once again, that's 855-933-5252. And we continue with our American stories and with Edward Widmer, his book, Lincoln on the Verge, 13 Days to Washington. When we last left off, Lincoln had left Springfield, Illinois, on a train bound for Washington, D.C. to face the largest crisis in American history. Edward, let's talk about New York City, a big part of this trip. At the time, New York City had a larger population than the entire Confederacy, but Lincoln only won about 30 percent of the city's vote. It's a northern city, but it had a lot of southern influence.

Talk about that. New York City is so much bigger than any other city that it's almost like it's already a 20th century city, 40 years before the 20th century has actually arrived and no other city comes close. I think Philadelphia might be the second largest and it's not that close to New York's size. And New York is interesting.

These different reasons don't all make sense together, but they're all part of the picture of New York. It's very northern feeling in some ways. It's teeming with immigrants, primarily German and Irish at that point.

A lot of immigrants are living in immigrant neighborhoods in New York City. That feels pretty pretty northern. And it's also filled with media culture, with newspapers and magazines. And it's also southern in powerful ways. And there are business interests primarily around Wall Street that love investing in southern plantations and in slavery itself.

And it's also a place where southern ships come. One of the ways in which slavery made a lot of money for the south was cotton was turned into clothing. And a lot of textile mills are in Europe.

I mean, they're in the north, too, but huge numbers are in places like Birmingham, Manchester in the north of England. France has textile mills. And so the south is shipping its cotton from its ports like New Orleans and Savannah. And they would stop in New York for a rest.

And then the ship would either offload its cotton or just keep going to Europe. And so New York shipping is very involved in slavery. But then also New York finance. Wall Street is investing and giving loans, helping northern investors to make money by investing in southern slavery. So it's really important for everyone to understand that the south wasn't the only evil actor as far as slavery was concerned, that a lot of northern business investors, concentrated then as now around Wall Street, were propping up the whole system of slavery.

And they paid off politicians. New York's mayor at the time Lincoln came through was a pretty pro-slavery guy named Fernando Wood. And Lincoln had to deal with him as he came through. So it wasn't just people throwing flowers in his path. There was a lot of aggressive behavior toward Lincoln as he's coming toward Washington.

And talk about the way Lincoln worked New York, because my goodness, he went everywhere from Wall Street to a night at the opera. How did he swing that when he knew that the elites in that city were probably looking at him as if he were some kind of Western hick? I mean, he and his wife were a little bit uncomfortable in New York.

I think she was more uncomfortable than he was. He did awkward things. He wore the wrong color gloves when he went to the opera.

You're supposed to wear white gloves. And he wore black gloves. And people laughed at him.

I wouldn't have known that. And he didn't know that. So he had to endure a little bit of snickering at his expense. But he could handle that a little more easily than Mary Todd Lincoln could. But he had advisors who were helping him. One of his advisors was the man he beat for the nomination, William Seward, who's a New York senator. He's actually from upstate New York. But he knows New York City too. And he's got his friends helping Lincoln.

And they are helping to plan the train trip too. So I think Lincoln had friends as well as enemies everywhere along the route. And he always had friends among the people.

The people came out everywhere he was to look at him. And my book benefited a lot from some descriptions. Walt Whitman, who is a kind of working class carpenter and poet, wrote a beautiful description of seeing Lincoln going into his hotel.

So I was grateful for some of the people who kept diaries or just wrote about it in in their journals or later after the fact. And New York had, you know, it had a great working class population in addition to all of the financial types on Wall Street. And those people were behind Lincoln. Lincoln then goes to Philadelphia, where he gives an important speech at Independence Hall, the place where, of course, the Declaration of Independence was written. The Declaration of Independence states, quote, that all men are created equal. Talk about that word all, because it's an important word to Lincoln.

What did it mean to him? All men are created equal. So the word all is right there. And it strongly implies all human beings.

So it's a pretty loaded word, all. And so Lincoln is holding this truth against the South and saying, you are violating the spirit of of our country. And it was a very effective argument. And it was a form of soft abolitionism that really worked for him at one over middle America. And yet he could keep running with it up to and including the Emancipation Proclamation and then the tremendous amendments to the Constitution, the first of which was done in his lifetime, but following the Civil War that made real freedom, civil rights, the freedom to participate in our politics and our society available to all people in the United States of America. All of that came out of his reading of the Declaration of Independence. And he gave a beautiful speech to that effect in Philadelphia.

He leads up to it at Trenton. And then the next morning, he goes into Independence Hall and it achieves a liftoff and says, every feeling I've ever had politically has come to me from the Declaration of Independence. And it's a powerful moment.

And people in the room knew it. They knew that it meant something emotionally to him, not just politically. And that becomes the Lincoln message at Gettysburg two years later.

It's basically the same thing. I mean, yes, he uses exquisite language at Gettysburg. He takes liftoff even higher, but he's gone a long way towards that message, even with what he says in Independence Hall in Philadelphia in February 1861. Lincoln would go on to add at the very end of this speech, the following words, quote, I have said nothing, but what I am willing to live by.

And if it be the pleasure of Almighty God, if it be the pleasure of Almighty God, die by. He meant those words, didn't he, Edward? I think everyone listening to this speech believed he believed those words.

Talk about that. There was a feeling in the room of something very powerful had just happened after he talked about what the Declaration meant to him. And then I'm glad you reminded me that he added that incredible closing thought about assassination would not stop him from loving his country and wanting to serve his country. And what made it so powerful was, in fact, he had just been told that there was a huge assassination conspiracy trying to take his life the next day as he went through Baltimore. And already he was trying to figure out how to get around Baltimore or through it without getting killed.

Even with that heavy pressure on him, he still was able to speak beautifully. And then he's beginning to plan a secret railroad journey that will take him through Baltimore in the middle of the night by a different route than the one that has been announced. So there are all these converging lines in his head at that moment.

And it's just, it's like a thriller at that moment. And when we return, those lines will converge in Baltimore, Maryland. The book is Lincoln on the Verge, 13 Days to Washington. The author is Edward Widmer.

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Once again, that's 855-933-5252. And we return to our American stories and the final part of the story of Lincoln's train trip to Washington from Springfield, Illinois in 1861. The book is Lincoln on the Verge, 13 days to Washington.

And the storyteller, the author, the historian is Edward Widmer. When we last left off, Lincoln had given an all-important speech at Independence Hall in Philadelphia talking about the word all in the Declaration of Independence and what it meant to him. Now he was on his way to Baltimore, Maryland, the biggest slave city in the country. And there it was just a few miles from D.C. There is also something afoot in Baltimore that caused Lincoln to have to change up dates.

Talk about that. Well, his destination of Washington, D.C. is a very southern city. And I argue at the beginning of the book that there was a bit of a mistake made in 1790 when Alexander Hamilton and James Madison and Thomas Jefferson probably made a secret deal to move the capital to the Potomac River in return for some legislation that Hamilton really wanted in 1790.

It was just too southern. Baltimore, to the north, is the biggest city in the slave holding part of the country. So Washington is south of other slave places. And it's just really hard for Lincoln to get there as an anti-slavery politician.

So in the winter, following his election, there are all these rumors flying around the country that there may be people trying to kill him. But no one really knows when and where until a remarkable woman named Dorothea Dix finds out all of the details of the plot. She's a mental health advocate.

She's actually from the north, but she's accepted in southern circles. But while traveling through the south in the fall of 1860, she picks up the intelligence that a huge plot to kill Lincoln is focusing on Baltimore and on railroad tracks and bridges coming into Baltimore. They might blow up a bomb under the train as it comes through, or they might try to shoot Lincoln or stab him as he's transferring from one station to another. That's how you got through Baltimore.

You got off at one station and did a transfer in a horse and carriage to another station and then kept going. So she goes to the head of the railroad and tells him about this plot. The head of the railroad hires this detective, Alan Pinkerton, to come from Chicago east to infiltrate the plot. And he brings a very strong woman as one of his agents.

And she's a genius of disguise and impersonation. And they get all the intelligence up to Lincoln's entourage. And Lincoln understands he doesn't want to do it, but he understands he has to go in the middle of the night because that's safer than trying to force his way through.

He doesn't have a lot of security with him and he makes it. And he goes through all night and arrives at Washington at six in the morning. Lincoln finally does make it to DC.

And you paint this picture of DC at the time. You talk about the throngs of people who were there to see him, including African-Americans, people who hate Lincoln, and sharpshooters trying to keep Lincoln safe. This is a remarkable display of American diversity, not only in the people, but what's on everybody's minds.

Talk about this final part of the trip and this great triumph. In Washington, the day of the first inaugural speech, there was a lot of fear in the air that the danger was still there. A paper I read only a few days ago, I reread it describing a fear that someone would try to shoot him as he was giving his inaugural address. And you think about it, when you're a president, you have to give that inaugural and you want as many people to see you as possible. It's a democratic ritual.

It's our main democratic ritual, but that also makes you incredibly exposed. You stand out on the east portico of the Capitol and people can see you for a half a mile around, you know? And so they did their best to protect him.

There were army sharpshooters on the roof nearby and there were plainclothes police in the crowd, but still people could get close to Lincoln. And so there was a great fear that day, but he made it. And, you know, he consistently made brave decisions. He was picked up by the outgoing president, James Buchanan, in a horse and carriage, and he was offered the choice.

We could have a closed top or an open top. And he said, absolutely, open it up. So he was a brave person on the way to the Capitol and always standing straight up as he gave the speech. And he always wanted to fortify the larger, not just the country, the United States, but what democracy meant to people everywhere. And because of his courage in propping up American democracy, other friends of democracy in other countries really took heart. And even though he was assassinated, as we all know, he was assassinated after saving American democracy. And in France, people like Victor Hugo were inspired by America's success at keeping the democratic system going.

And in the late 19th century, you see real progress in France and in Western Europe. And then when World War I breaks out, I mean, many decades after Lincoln, Woodrow Wilson calls it a war to save democracy and the triumph of democracy in the 20th century, especially in World War II, I really think can be linked to Lincoln's courage in these dark days in 1861. You write as you close out, quote, nearly 800,000 brave young men gave their lives and service to their conflicting ideas of the nation. No American was untouched by it. It touches us still. Yet the republic survives, sustained by the same perseverance Lincoln showed on this trip. From the moment he arrived, things improved. Democracy refused to die. It deepened. Talk about that.

Well, thank you for reading that. I remember working hard on that language because I wanted to include the South. I wanted to include southerners, even those who fought against Lincoln and the United States of America. I wanted to include them the way he did. And he was very clear in his second inaugural address that they were included in his idea of America. There were two truths that he fought the war over. One is that all men are created equal, really important truth about human beings and their capacities. And the other is that the United States of America is a permanent union of its states, that they cannot secede unless all of them agree to it.

And that was a kind of legal fiction of sorts. You could argue that not everyone agreed with that when he said it at the beginning of the civil war, but he made it true by winning. And now it really is true.

I mean, now we are inseparable. And I wanted the South to feel included in this story. It's, it's their victory too, because we made a great country together before the civil war and after the civil war. And that's why it's such a hard war to talk about because some people would like to say it was pure treason to fire on the flag of the United States and the cause was not good. They did fight with incredible bravery and skill. But I think the overall population, you know, think of the women enduring so much suffering and the African-Americans who were suffering in, you know, unbelievable ways, as they were asked to do more and more to support the economy of the South while not having any rights.

And finally at the end, they were asked to fight, but again, not with any rights. And yet I share with Lincoln, a feeling that we wanted them to feel like Americans, as soon as the war was over to be repatriated and to be included in our history, to be included in a meaningful and affectionate way. It's strongly tainted by racism, by the, I don't think you can separate it from slavery and the terrible injustices that were done to black people under the flag of the Confederacy. But I think we can appreciate Southern courage and ways in which Southerners themselves worked out some of these things, which they did. I mean, Northerners helped sometimes and Southerners did it on their own sometimes too. And Northerners, like I tried to say, had plenty of problems on their, of their own as well. So I do love Lincoln and I think his vision of history was correct and democracy is beautiful and immigration has been a good thing. And being colorblind has been a great thing in America. And when we finally included women in who gets to be a part of this great democracy, that was a good thing too. But in the spirit of inclusivity, I like to include the South also.

We can just learn from all of their mistakes, Northern and Southern. And Lincoln wanted us all to be together in his final speeches. And so I wanted to end the book in that spirit. And you've been listening to Edward Widmer and his book is Lincoln on the Verge, 13 Days to Washington. And it's a terrific read. Go to Pick it up for yourself. Pick up a copy for a friend. Anyone who's interested in this nation's history, Lincoln on the Verge, the story of his 13 day trip to Washington, DC. That story here on Our American Story.
Whisper: medium.en / 2023-01-31 04:34:58 / 2023-01-31 04:51:31 / 17

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