Republicanism in the United States

Republicanism in the United States

Republicanism is the value system of governance that has been a major part of American civic thought since the American Revolution. It stresses "liberty" and "rights" as central values, makes the people as a whole sovereign, rejects inherited political power, expects citizens to be co-dependent and calls on them to perform civic duties, and is strongly inclined against corruption. American Republicanism was founded and first practiced by the Founding Fathers in the 18th century. This system was based on early Roman and English models and ideas. It formed the basis for the American Revolution and the consequential Declaration of Independence (1776) and the Constitution (1787). It is not the same as democracy, for republicanism asserts that people have inalienable rights that cannot be voted away by a majority of voters. In a government made up as a "constitutional republic," the Rule of Law and clearly defined constitutional principles dictate the actual administration of government.

The American Revolution

Republican virtues

The intellectual and political leaders in the 1760s-1770s closely read history to compare governments and their effectiveness of rule. [Trevor Colbourn, "The Lamp of Experience: Whig History and the Intellectual Origins of the American Revolution" (1965) [ online version] ] They were especially concerned with the history of liberty in England, and were primarily influenced by the party in British politics, which roundly denounced the corruption surrounding the "court" party in London. This approach produced a political ideology called "republicanism", which was widespread in America by 1775. "Republicanism was the distinctive political consciousness of the entire Revolutionary generation." [Robert Kelley, "Ideology and Political Culture from Jefferson toNixon," "American Historical Review," 82 (June 1977), 536 ] Pocock explained the intellectual sources in America: [ Pocock, "The Machiavellian Moment" p 507 ] :"The Whig canon and the neo-Harringtonians, John Milton, James Harrington and Sidney, Trenchard, Gordon and Bolingbroke, together with the Greek, Roman, and Renaissance masters of the tradition as far as Montesquieu, formed the authoritative literature of this culture; and its values and concepts were those with which we have grown familiar: a civic and patriot ideal in which the personality was founded in property, perfected in citizenship but perpetually threatened by corruption; government figuring paradoxically as the principal source of corruption and operating through such means as patronage, faction, standing armies (opposed to the ideal of the militia), established churches (opposed to the Puritan and deist modes of American religion) and the promotion of a monied interest—though the formulation of this last concept was somewhat hindered by the keen desire for readily available paper credit common in colonies of settlement.Thomas Jefferson wanted to minimize the differences between the two parties and to calm the passions that the bitter campaign had aroused. A neoclassical politics provided both the ethos of the elites and the rhetoric of the upwardly mobile, and accounts for the singular cultural and intellectual homogeneity of the Founding Fathers and their generation."

Cause of Revolution

The commitment of most Americans to republican values and to their property rights helped bring about the American Revolution, for Britain was increasingly seen as corrupt and hostile to democracy, and a threat to the established liberties that Americans enjoyed and to American property rights. [ Bailyn, Bernard." The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution" (1967)] The greatest threat to liberty was thought by many to be corruption--not just in London but at home as well. The colonists associated it with luxury and, especially, inherited aristocracy, which they condemned. (A few Americans did gain English titles, but they moved to London.)

The "Founding Fathers" were strong advocates of republican values, especially Samuel Adams, Patrick Henry, George Washington, Thomas Paine, Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and Alexander Hamilton. [Robert E. Shalhope, "Toward a Republican Synthesis," "William and Mary Quarterly", 29 (Jan. 1972), pp 49-80]

Thomas Jefferson defined a republic as:

The Founding Fathers discoursed endlessly on the meaning of "republicanism." John Adams in 1787 defined it as "a government, in which all men, rich and poor, magistrates and subjects, officers and people, masters and servants, the first citizen and the last, are equally subject to the laws." [ [ Republican Government] . Retrieved on 2006-12-14.]

Virtue vs. Commerce

The open question, as Pocock suggested, [ J.G.A. Pocock, "Virtue and Commerce in the Eighteenth Century,” "Journal of Interdisciplinary History" 3#1 (1972), 119–34.] of the conflict between personal economic interest (grounded in Lockean liberalism) and classical republicanism, troubled Americans. Jefferson and Madison roundly denounced the Federalists for creating a national bank as tending to corruption and monarchism; Alexander Hamilton staunchly defended his program, arguing that national economic strength was necessary for the protection of liberty. Jefferson never relented but by 1815 Madison switched and announced in favor of a national bank, which he set up in 1816.

John Adams often pondered the issue of civic virtue. Writing Mercy Otis Warren in 1776, he agreed with the Greeks and the Romans, that, "Public Virtue cannot exist without private, and public Virtue is the only Foundation of Republics." Adams insisted, "There must be a positive Passion for the public good, the public Interest, Honour, Power, and Glory, established in the Minds of the People, or there can be no Republican Government, nor any real Liberty. And this public Passion must be Superior to all private Passions. Men must be ready, they must pride themselves, and be happy to sacrifice their private Pleasures, Passions, and Interests, nay their private Friendships and dearest connections, when they Stand in Competition with the Rights of society." [ Adams quoted in Paul A. Rahe, "Republics Ancient and Modern: Classical Republicanism and the American Revolution. Volume: 2" (1994) P. 23.]

Adams worried that a businessman might have financial interests that conflicted with republican duty; indeed, he was especially suspicious of banks. He decided that history taught that "the Spirit of Commerce . . . is incompatible with that purity of Heart, and Greatness of soul which is necessary for a happy Republic." But so much of that spirit of commerce had infected America. In New England, Adams noted, "even the Farmers and Tradesmen are addicted to Commerce." As a result, there was "a great Danger that a Republican Government would be very factious and turbulent there." [ Adams 1776 quoted in Rahe, "Republics Ancient and Modern 2:23.]

Other influences

A second stream of thought growing in significance was the classical liberalism of John Locke, including his theory of the "social contract". This had a great influence on the revolution as it implied the inborn right of the people to overthrow their leaders should those leaders betray the agreements implicit in the sovereign-follower relationship. Historians find little trace of Jean-Jacques Rousseau's influence in America. [ "Rousseau, whose romantic and egalitarian tenets had practically no influence on the course of Jefferson's, or indeed any American, thought." Nathan Schachner, "Thomas Jefferson: A Biography." (1957). p. 47. ] In terms of writing state and national constitutions, the Americans used Montesquieu's analysis of the ideally "balanced" British Constitution. But first and last came a commitment to republicanism, as shown by many historians such as Bernard Bailyn and Gordon S. Wood.


For a century, historians have debated how important republicanism was to the Founding Fathers. The interpretation before 1960, following Progressive School historians such as Charles Beard, Vernon L. Parrington and Arthur M. Schlesinger, Sr., downplayed rhetoric as superficial and looked for economic motivations. Louis Hartz refined the position in the 1950s, arguing John Locke was the most important source because his property-oriented liberalism supported the materialistic goals of Americans.

In the 1960s and 1970s, two new schools emerged that emphasized the primacy of ideas as motivating forces in history (rather than material self interest). Bernard Bailyn, Gordon Wood and the "Cambridge School" led by J.G.A. Pocock emphasized slightly different approaches to republicanism. [ Rodgers (1992)] However, some scholars, especially Isaac Kramnick, continue to emphasize Locke, arguing that Americans are fundamentally individualistic and not devoted to civic virtue. The relative importance of republicanism and liberalism remains a topic of strong debate among historians, as well as the politically active of present day.

New Nation: The Constitution

The Founding Fathers wanted republicanism because its principles guaranteed liberty, with opposing, limited powers offsetting one another. They thought change should occur slowly, as many were afraid that a "democracy"- by which they meant a direct democracy- would allow a majority of voters at any time to trample rights and liberties in the "heat of a moment". They believed the most formidable of these potential majorities was that of the poor against the rich. They thought democracy could take the form of mob rule that could be shaped on the spot by a demagogue. Therefore they devised a written Constitution which could only be amended by a super majority, preserved competing sovereignties in the constituent states, [When Alexander Hamilton proposed at the Constitutional Convention to drastically reduce the power of the states, he won no support and dropped the idea.] gave the control of the upper house (Senate) to the states, and created an Electoral College, comprising a small number of elites, to select the president. They set up a House of Representative to represent the people. In practice the electoral college soon gave way to control by political parties. In 1776 most states required property ownership to vote, but most citizens owned farms in the 90% rural nation, so it was not a severe restriction. As the country urbanized and people took on different work, the property ownership requirement was gradually dropped by many states. [ Alexander Keyssar, "The Right to Vote: The Contested History of Democracy in the United States" (2001)] Property requirements were gradually dismantled in state after state, so that all had been eliminated by 1850. By 1855, the tax-paying requirements had also been abandoned, so that few if any economic barriers remained to prevent white adult males from voting.

"Republican" as party name

In 1792-93 Jefferson and Madison created a new "republican party" in order to promote their version of the doctrine. They wanted to suggest that Hamilton's version was illegitimate. According to Federalist Noah Webster, an opposing Federalist political activist bitter at the defeat of the Federalist party in the White House and Congress, the choice of the name "Republican" was "a powerful instrument in the process of making proselytes to the party.... The influence of names on the mass of mankind, was never more distinctly exhibited, than in the increase of the democratic party in the United States. The popularity of the denomination of the Republican Party, was more than a match for the popularity of Washington's character and services, and contributed to overthrow his administration." [quoted in John C. Miller, "Alexander Hamilton: Portrait in Paradox" (1959) p. 320] The party, which is also known as the Democratic-Republican Party, split into separate factions in the 1820s, one of which became the Democratic Party. The Democrats (or American Democracy) were opposed by a party that chose a name, derived from the Patriots of the 1770s who started the American Revolution, the Whigs. Both of these parties proclaimed their devotion to republicanism.

Under the new government after the Revolution, "republican motherhood" became an ideal, as exemplified by Abigail Adams and Mercy Otis Warren. The first duty of the republican woman was to instill republican values in her children, and to avoid luxury and ostentation. [ Kerber 1997]

As late as 1800, the word "democrat", as then used, was mostly used to attack an opponent. Thus George Washington in 1798 complained, "that you could as soon scrub the blackamoor white, as to change the principles of a profest Democrat; and that he will leave nothing unattempted to overturn the Government of this Country." [cite web |title = George Washington to James McHenry, September 30, 1798 |url = |accessdate = 2007-01-08 [ Transcript] .] The Federalist Papers are pervaded by the idea that pure democracy is actually quite dangerous, because it allows a majority to infringe upon the rights of a minority. Thus in encouraging the states to participate in a strong centralized government under a new constitution and replace the relatively weak Articles of Confederation, Madison argued in Federalist #10 that a special interest may take control of a small area, e.g. a state, but it could not easily take over a large nation. Therefore, the larger the nation, the safer is republicanism.

Military Service

Civic virtue required men to put civic goals ahead of their personal desires, and to volunteer to fight for their country. As John Randolph of Roanoke put it, "When citizen and soldier shall be synonymous terms, then you will be safe." [ Randolph quoted in Banning (1978) p. 262. See Lawrence D. Cress, "Republican Liberty and National Security: American Military Policy as an Ideological Problem, 1783 to 1789." "William and Mary Quarterly" (1981) 38(1): 73-96. ISSN 0043-5597 Fulltext at Jstor] Scott (1984) notes that in both the American and French revolutions, distrust of foreign mercenaries led to the concept of a national, citizen army, and the definition of military service was changed from a choice of careers to a civic duty. [Samuel F. Scott, "Foreign Mercenaries, Revolutionary War, and Citizen-soldiers in the Late Eighteenth Century." "War & Society" 1984 2(2): 41-58. ISSN 0729-2473 ] Herrera (2001) explains that an appreciation of self-governance is essential to any understanding of the American military character before the Civil War. Military service was considered an important demonstration of patriotism and an essential component of citizenship. To soldiers, military service was a voluntary, negotiated, and temporary abeyance of self-governance by which they signaled their responsibility as citizens. In practice self-governance in military affairs came to include personal independence, enlistment negotiations, petitions to superior officials, militia constitutions, and negotiations regarding discipline. Together these impacted on all aspects of military order, discipline, and life. [Ricardo A. Herrera, "Self-governance and the American Citizen as Soldier, 1775-1861." "Journal of Military History 2001" 65(1): 21-52. ISSN 0899-3718 Fulltext in SwetsWise and Jstor]

Civil War and Reconstruction

Historian Frank Lawrence Owsley depicted antebellum Southern society as a broad class of yeoman farmers who stood and worked between the slaves and poor whites at one end and the large planters at the opposite end of the economic spectrum, Owsley asserted that the real South was liberal, American, and Jeffersonian, not radical or reactionary. It reflected the best of republican principles (though Owsley did not use the word "republicanism.") Agrarianism in the 20th century was a response to the industrialism and modernism that had infiltrated the South. According to Owsley, the position of the South vis-à-vis the North was created not by slavery, cotton, or states' rights, but by the two regions' misunderstanding of each other. [Wood 1995] J. Mills Thornton argues that in the antebellum South the drive to preserve republican values was the most powerful force, and led Southerners to interpret Northern policies as a threat to their republican values. [ Thornton, "Politics and Power in a Slave Society: Alabama, 1800-1860" (1981)]

In reaction to the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, antislavery forces in the North formed a new party. The party officially designated itself "Republican" because the name resonated with the struggle of 1776. "In view of the necessity of battling for the first principles of republican government," resolved the Michigan state convention, "and against the schemes of aristocracy the most revolting and oppressive with which the earth was ever cursed, or man debased, we will co-operate and be known as Republicans." [McPherson, "Battle Cry of Freedom" (1988) p 126; Lewis L. Gould, "Grand Old Party" (2003) p 14]

Progressive Era

A central theme of the Progressive era was fear of corruption, one of the core ideas of republicanism since the 1770s. The Progressives restructured the political system to defeat corrupt bosses (for example, by the direct election of Senators), to remove corrupt influence like saloons (through prohibition) and bringing in new, purer voters (woman suffrage).). [ Richard Jensen, "Democracy, Republicanism and Efficiency: The Values of American Politics, 1885-1930," in Byron Shafer and Anthony Badger, eds, "Contesting Democracy: Substance and Structure in American Political History, 1775-2000" (U of Kansas Press, 2001) pp 149-180. [ online version] ] Debate erupted in 1917 over Woodrow Wilson's proposal to draft men for the U.S. Army. Many said it violated the republican notion of freely given civic duty to force people to serve. The solution was to set it up so that each draftee voluntarily "stepped forward" to perform his civic duty. [ John Whiteclay II Chambers,"To Raise An Army: The Draft Comes to Modern America" (1987) ]

New Deal Era to 2006

"Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country!" cried out President John F. Kennedy in a dramatic call for the American people to honor the core republican value of civic duty. [Gary Hart, "Restoration of the Republic: The Jeffersonian Ideal in 21st-Century America" (2002) p. 7; Michael Tomasky, "Party in Search of a Notion," "The American Prospect" (May 2006) online at [] . James Patterson, "Modern Era" in Byron Shafer and Anthony Badger, eds, "Contesting Democracy: Substance and Structure in American Political History, 1775-2000" (U of Kansas Press, 2001) ]

In the presidential election of 2004, one of the chief topics of discussion was whether the candidates John Kerry and George W. Bush had properly fulfilled their civic duty of fighting for their country, part of the republican duties. Opponents charged that Bush had shirked his National Guard duties, or conversely that Kerry did not earn the medals he was awarded in Vietnam. [D. Michael Shafer, "The Vietnam-Era Draft" in Shafer, ed. "The Legacy: The Vietnam War in the American Imagination" (1990), 57-79. ] A similar debate over performance of civic duty took place in the presidential election of 1888, when Republicans emphasized that Democrat Grover Cleveland had purchased a substitute to fight for him in the Civil War, while his opponent Benjamin Harrison was in combat.

Legal terminology

The term "republic" does not appear in the Declaration of Independence, but does appear in Article IV of the Constitution which "guarantee [s] to every State in this Union a Republican form of Government." What exactly the writers of the constitution felt this should mean is uncertain. The Supreme Court, in "Luther v. Borden" (1849), declared that the definition of "republic" was a "political question" in which it would not intervene. In two later cases, it did establish a basic definition. In "United States v. Cruikshank" (1875), the court ruled that the "equal rights of citizens" were inherent to the idea of republic. The opinion of the court from "In re Duncan" [139 U.S. 449, (1891)] held that the "right of the people to choose their government" is also part of the definition. It is also generally assumed that the clause prevents any state from being a monarchy — or a dictatorship.


Over time, the pejorative connotations of "democracy" faded. By the 1830s, democracy was seen as an unmitigated positive and the term "Democratic" was assumed by the Democratic Party and the term "Democrat" was adopted by its members. A common term for the party in the later 19th century was "The Democracy." In debates on Reconstruction, Senator Charles Sumner argued that the republican "guarantee clause" in Article IV supported the introduction by force of law of democratic suffrage in the defeated South.Confusing|not forcing people to vote, surely|date=December 2007

As the limitations on democracy were slowly removed, property qualifications for state voters were eliminated (1820s); initiative, referendum, recall and other devices of direct democracy became widely accepted at the state and local level (1910s); and senators were made directly electable by the people (1913). Thus, most people now refer to the United States and its system of government as a democracy. [Today, the only known opponents to the term democracy are a small band of Objectivists, who say: "If we are going to try to replace tyrannies, we must stop confusing democracy with freedom" (Schwartz 2006).]

ee also

*First Party System
*Second Party System
*Third Party System
*Sic semper tyrannis


* Joyce Appleby, "Liberalism and Republicanism in the Historical Imagination" (1992)
* Joyce Appleby, “Commercial Farming and the ‘Agrarian Myth’ in the Early Republic,” "Journal of American History" 68 (1982), pp 833-849 in JSTOR
* Joyce Appleby, “Republicanism in Old and New Contexts,” in "William & Mary Quarterly", 43 (January, 1986), pp 3-34 in JSTOR
* Joyce Appleby, ed., "Republicanism in the History and Historiography of the United States," special issue of "American Quarterly", Vol. 37, No. 4, (1985) with these articles:
** Joyce Appleby, "Republicanism and Ideology," pp. 461-473 [ in JSTOR]
** Linda K. Kerber, "The Republican Ideology of the Revolutionary Generation," pp. 474-495 [ in JSTOR]
** Cathy Matson and Peter Onuf, "Toward a Republican Empire: Interest and Ideology in Revolutionary America," pp. 496-531 [ in JSTOR]
** Jean Baker, "From Belief into Culture: Republicanism in the Antebellum North," pp. 532-550 [ in JSTOR]
**James Oakes. "From Republicanism to Liberalism: Ideological Change and the Crisis of the Old South," pp. 551-571 [ in JSTOR]
** John Patrick Diggins, "Republicanism and Progressivism," pp. 572-598 [ in JSTOR]
* Joyce Appleby, "Capitalism and a New Social Order: The Republican Vision of the 1790s", 1984, her reprinted essays
* Ashworth, John, "The Jeffersonians: Classical Republicans or Liberal Capitalists?" "Journal of American Studies" 18 (1984), p 428-430
*Bailyn, Bernard. "The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution." Harvard University Press, 1967. ISBN 0-674-44301-2
* Bailyn, Bernard. "The Origins of American Politics" (1966)
* Banning, Lance. "The Jeffersonian Persuasion: Evolution of a Party Ideology" (1978)
* Becker, Peter, JÜrgen Heideking and James A. Henretta, eds. "Republicanism and Liberalism in America and the German States, 1750-1850." Cambridge University Press. 2002.
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* Brown; Stuart Gerry. "The First Republicans: Political Philosophy and Public Policy in the Party of Jefferson and Madison" Syracuse University Press. [ (1954)] .
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* J. C. D. Clark. "The Language of Liberty 1660-1832: Political Discourse and Social Dynamics in the Anglo-American World, 1660-1832"
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* Currie, James T., "The Constitution in Congress: The Federalist Period, 1789-1801," (1997); "The Constitution in Congress: The Jeffersonians, 1801-1829," U. of Chicago Press, 2001
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* Everdell, William R. "The End of Kings: A History of Republics and Republicans," 2nd ed. University of Chicago Press, 2000
* Ferling, John E. "A Leap in the Dark: The Struggle to Create the American Republic] ." (2003) [ online edition]
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* Gould, Philip. "Virtue, Ideology, and the American Revolution: The Legacy of the Republican Synthesis," "American Literary History," Vol. 5, No. 3, Eighteenth-Century American Cultural Studies (Autumn, 1993) , pp. 564-577
*Greene, Jack P. and J. R. Pole, eds. "The Blackwell Encyclopedia of the American Revolution" (1991), 845pp; emphasis on political ideas and republicanism; revised edition (2004) titled "A Companion to the American Revolution"
* Hartz, Louis. "The Liberal Tradition in America" (1952)
* Hart, Gary. "Restoration of the Republic: The Jeffersonian Ideal in 21St-Century America" (2002)
* Jacobs, Meg, ed. "The Democratic Experiment: New Directions in American Political History"
* Kerber, Linda K. "Intellectual History of Women: Essays by Linda K. Kerber" 1997
* Kerber, Linda K. " Women of the Republic: Intellect and Ideology in Revolutionary America" (1997)
* Keyssar, Alexander. "The Right to Vote: The Contested History of Democracy in the United States" (2001)
* Klein, Milton, "et al.", eds., "The Republican Synthesis Revisited" (1992).
* James T Kloopenberg. "The Virtues of Liberalism" (1998)
* Kramnick, Isaac. "Republicanism and Bourgeois Radicalism: Political Ideology in Late Eighteenth-Century England and America" (1990)
* Kramnick, Isaac and Theodore Lowi. " American Political Thought" (2006), textbook
* McCoy, Drew R. "The Elusive Republic: Political Economy in Jeffersonian America" (1980) on economic theories
* McCoy, Drew R. "The Last of the Fathers: James Madison and the Republican Legacy" (1989). Madison after
* Morgan. Edmund. "Inventing the People" (1989)
* Mushkat, Jerome, and Joseph G. Rayback, "Martin Van Buren: Law, Politics, and the Shaping of Republican Ideology" (1997)
* Norton, Mary Beth. "Liberty's Daughters: The Revolutionary Experience of American Women, 1750-1800" (1980)
* Pangle, Thomas L. "The Spirit of Modern Republicanism: The Moral Vision of the American Founders and the Philosophy of Locke"
* J. G. A. Pocock. "The Machiavellian Moment: Florentine Political Thought and the Atlantic Republican Tradition" (1975).
* Rakove, Jack N. "Original Meanings: Politics and Ideas in the Making of the Constitution" (1997)
* Rodgers,Daniel T. "Republicanism: the Career of a Concept," "Journal of American History," Vol. 79, No. 1 (Jun., 1992), pp. 11-38 [ online in JSTOR]
* Ross, Steven J. "The Transformation of Republican Ideology," "Journal of the Early Republic," Vol. 10, No. 3 (Autumn, 1990) , pp. 323-330 in JSTOR
* Schwartz, Peter ( July 18, 2006). Freedom vs. Unlimited Majority Rule. The Ayn Rand Institute. [ online]
* Shalhope, Robert E. "Toward a Republican Synthesis: The Emergence of an Understanding of Republicanism in American Historiography," "William and Mary Quarterly", 29 (Jan. 1972), 49-80 [ in JSTOR]
* Shalhope, Robert E. "Republicanism and Early American Historiography," "William and Mary Quarterly", 39 (Apr. 1982), 334-356 [ in JSTOR]
* Watson, Harry L. "Liberty and Power: The Politics of Jacksonian America" (1990) (ISBN 0-374-52196-4)
* Wood, Gordon S. "The Radicalism of the American Revolution: How a Revolution Transformed a Monarchical Society into a Democratic One Unlike Any That Had Ever Existed". (1992). ISBN 0-679-40493-7
* Wood, Gordon S. "The Creation of the American Republic 1776-1787" (1969), one of the most influential studies
*Wilentz, Sean. "Chants Democratic: New York City and the Rise of the American Working Class, 1788-1850" (Oxford, 1984)
* Wilentz, Sean. "The Rise of American Democracy: Jefferson to Lincoln." (2005).
* Wiltse, Charles Maurice. "The Jeffersonian Tradition in American Democracy" (1935)
* Wood, Walter Kirk. "Before Republicanism: Frank Lawrence Owsley and the Search for Southern Identity, 1865-1965." "Southern Studies" (1995) 6(4): 65-77. ISSN 0735-8342


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