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Why Morality Matters
e-mail | February 2004 | Steven C. Bonta, Ph.D.

Posted on 07/04/2004 8:49:53 PM PDT by Coleus

Why Morality Matters
by Steven C. Bonta, Ph.D.

t is my conviction that the greatest threat to our free republic is moral decline. It is becoming fashionable nowadays to discount or ignore completely the relationship between morality and political liberty. Perhaps this is because the deteriorating moral culture in the modern United States of America seeks to be its own justification. Freedom, some believe, can flourish independently of moral standards, as long as we allow every man uninhibited license in his so-called “personal lifestyle choices.” This badly flawed notion is going to be the death of our republic, unless Americans wake up to the fact that morality matters.

Fortunately for us, others have followed the path of moral and political decline before. The trail they blazed into oblivion is worth considering, if we wish to avoid repeating their mistakes.  The history of Rome, with all its triumphs and tragedies, has much to teach contemporary America. Rome, the first free constitutional republic, became an important model of limited government for the American Founding Founders. The history of Rome is really a morality play on a grand scale. And it’s no exaggeration to say that two mistreated women were indirectly responsible for the formation of the Roman republic.

From Monarchy to Republic

Rome started as a monarchy about seven centuries before Christ. If ancient
traditions are to be believed, Rome’s first real king, Numa Pompilius, was a very enlightened monarch, who in three decades of rule did much to civilize the Romans and soften their warlike disposition. Succeeding kings, however, were not so benevolent. An Etruscan dynasty known as the Tarquins ruled Rome for several generations, until an incident that took place under Tarquinius Superbus, or Tarquin the Proud, set in motion a chain of events that led to the expulsion of the Tarquins and the establishment in Rome of a new kind of government.

Tarquinius’ son, Tarquinius Sextus, developed an obsession for a certain Lucretia, the wife of a Roman aristocrat. One night Sextus crept into Lucretia’s house when her husband was away and violated her at knifepoint. Immediately afterward, the grieving Lucretia summoned her husband and father and told them what had happened. She extracted from them a promise to avenge her stolen virtue, and then committed suicide on the spot as a further witness against Tarquinius Sextus. Her grieving husband and father and two eminent Romans, Lucius Brutus and Publius Valerius, carried her body to the Forum and raised a hue and cry against the Tarquins. A revolt ensued as thousands of Romans flocked to their standard. The Tarquins were expelled, and the Roman republic was set up.

Publius Valerius, incidentally, became one of Rome’s first consuls and was the man most responsible for framing the original republican government of Rome. This great statesman was the very embodiment of selfless service in the cause of liberty.  When Publius was told, for example, that his large and stately house on the hill overlooking the Roman forum was offensive to the people, who suspected him of having despotic intentions, he immediately ordered the house pulled down, and moved into much humbler living quarters in the lower part of the city. Because of his unimpeachable character and exemplary leadership as founder of the Roman republic, James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and John Jay adopted Publius’ name as a pseudonym when they wrote The Federalist Papers.

Rule by Law

Several generations after the expulsion of the Tarquins, the Romans decided to codify their somewhat haphazard legal system, and appointed 10 men, the so-called decemvirs, to create a true Roman constitution, the famous Twelve Tables of Roman law. The decemvirs, however, refused to step down when the project was completed and turned themselves into a sort of self-appointed ruling tribunal, against the wishes of the Roman people and legislators.  The Roman republic was in danger of succumbing to this palace coup until one of the decemvirs, Appius Claudius, contracted a consuming passion for a certain young woman named Virginia who, as her name suggests, was considered the very embodiment of Roman chastity and virtue. Appius Claudius used his usurped powers to compel Virginia’s father Virginius to surrender her to him as a chattel slave. Her father, knowing what this would entail, stabbed his daughter in the Forum as a final desperate measure to protect her from Appius Claudius. Word of the event quickly circulated through Rome, and the citizenry were so outraged at the conduct of Appius Claudius that a revolt was raised and the decemvirs were ousted from power. Appius Claudius himself was arrested and died in prison.

These two events are indicative of the attitude of the early Romans toward matters of morality. Whatever their other faults, the early Romans were conspicuously jealous of the chastity of their women.  

The early Romans were also noted for their honesty, their courage, and their frugality, among many other virtues. In one famous episode that exemplified Roman integrity, the Roman commander Camillus, who was laying siege to the Faliscians, was offered a group of Faliscian children as hostages. A traitor within the city had led the children out of the city on some pretext, and brought them to Camillus’ camp. Rather than seize the opportunity for an easy but dishonorable victory, Camillus rebuked the traitor, telling him that “there are laws of war as well as of peace; and we have learned to wage them justly not less than bravely.” He had the man stripped naked and bound, and instructed the children to take him back to the city. The Faliscians were so impressed with this noble act that they threw open the gates of their city and made peace with Camillus and the Romans. 

From Republic to Empire

As late as the Second Punic War, when the Roman republic was already far down the path towards empire, the Roman general Scipio could tell an Iberian prince, Allucius, whose lovely young bride-to-be had been treated with complete humanity after having been taken captive by Scipio’s men:

Your mistress, while under my protection, has received as much respect as under the roof of her own parents.... She has been kept in perfect safety for you.... This only reward I bargain for in return for the service I have rendered you, that you would be a friend to the Roman people; and if you believe that I am a true man, … that you would feel assured that in the Roman state there are many like us; and that no nation in the world at the present time can be mentioned … with which you would rather be in friendship.

Conspiracy Against the Republic

Unfortunately for Rome, this state of affairs did not persist forever. Not long after the conclusion of the Second Punic War, in about 185 BC, the Roman republic was severely endangered by a vile conspiracy that sought to corrupt utterly the morals of the Roman people and to take control of the state. This was the infamous Bacchic Cult, a secret religious society of foreign origin dedicated to the god Bacchus, the god of transgression, and described vividly by Livy. In their secret rites or bacchanalia, Livy tells us, “no sort of crime, no kind of immorality, was left unattempted. There were more obscenities between men than between men and women. Anyone refusing to submit to outrage or reluctant to commit crimes was slaughtered as a sacrificial victim. To regard nothing as forbidden was among these people the summit of religious achievement.”  Furthermore, the cult “was also a source of supply of false witnesses, forged documents and wills, and perjured evidence, dealing also in poisons and wholesale murders among the devotees.” 

 Fortunately for Rome, a courageous consul named Spurius Postumius launched an investigation after an interview with a cult inductee. Warning the Roman people of the dangers of the Bacchic cult at an assembly, Postumius said: “Never has there been so much wickedness in this commonwealth, never wickedness affecting so many people, nor manifesting itself in so many ways. Whatever wrongdoing there has been in these years, whether in the form of lust, or fraud, or violent crime, all of it, you may be sure, has its origin in this one shrine. And they have not yet put into practice all the crimes towards which they have conspired. Their impious conspiracy still confines itself to private outrages, because it has not yet strength enough to overthrow the state. But the evil grows with every passing day, and it creeps abroad.... It aims at the supreme power of the state.” After this address, the Roman Senate broke up the Bacchic network, arresting thousands of people. Republican Rome had survived, but the damage inflicted by the Bacchic cult on Roman mores was permanent.

 By the mid-first century BC, little more than a century later, Rome was in complete turmoil. The historian Sallust, who had enjoyed a long and somewhat checkered career as a Roman politician before retiring to write history, paints a stark picture of Roman culture in the tumultuous years between the end of the Punic Wars and the rise of Julius Caesar:

Avarice destroyed honor, integrity, and every other virtue, and instead taught men to be proud and cruel, to neglect religion, and to hold nothing too sacred to sell. Ambition tempted many to be false, to have one thought hidden in their hearts, another ready on their tongues.... Poverty was now looked on as a disgrace and a blameless life as a sign of ill nature.... Honor and modesty, all laws divine and human, were alike disregarded in a spirit of recklessness and intemperance.... Equally strong was their passion for fornication, guzzling, and other forms of sensuality. Men prostituted themselves like women, and women sold their chastity to every comer.

Commenting on the effect these changes had on the Roman body politic, Sallust wrote, “at first these vices grew slowly and sometimes met with punishment; later on, when the disease had spread like a plague, Rome changed: her government, once so just and admirable, became harsh and unendurable.”

Into this volatile mix of moral depravity and political instability came Lucius Catiline, a man Sallust describes as having “a powerful intellect and great physical strength, but a vicious and depraved nature.... His mind was daring, crafty, and versatile, capable of any pretense and dissimulation. A man of flaming passions, he was as covetous of other men’s possessions as he was prodigal of his own; an eloquent speaker, but lacking in wisdom. His monstrous ambition hankered continually after things extravagant, impossible, beyond his reach.”

Now this Catiline wanted to overthrow the Roman republic, and decided to form a conspiracy to accomplish this design. Because of rampant moral decline, Catiline had no trouble raising recruits for his organization. According to Sallust, “amid the corruption of the great city Catiline could easily surround himself, as with a bodyguard, with gangs of profligates and criminals. Debauchees, adulterers, and gamblers … anyone who had bankrupted himself to buy impunity for his infamous or criminal acts; men convicted anywhere of murder or sacrilege, or living in fear of conviction; cut-throats and perjurers, too, who made a trade of bearing false witness or shedding the blood of fellow citizens; in short, all who were in disgrace or afflicted by poverty or consciousness of guilt, were Catiline’s intimate associates.” Catiline, himself both a murderer and serial adulterer, was expert at bringing youths into his organization and corrupting their morals, afterwards training them in the science of subversion.

Cicero Dared Call it Conspiracy

With his secret army of miscreants, Catiline planned a revolution. He found among members of the Roman Senate many men willing to collude with him, and a larger number who gave him passive support. One of these was Julius Caesar; we do not know for sure whether Caesar was an active participant in the Catilinarian conspiracy (although both Cicero and Cato certainly thought that he was), but he was undeniably a friend and supporter of Catiline, and argued strenuously in his defense after the conspiracy had been unmasked. Luckily for the short-term fortunes of Rome, the conspiracy of Catiline was exposed by Cicero, and after a brief battle with government forces, Catiline was defeated and his forces wiped out. But his friend and defender Julius Caesar survived and overthrew the republic himself only a few years later.

The Rome of the Caesars would not have been recognizable to the upright citizens who expelled the Tarquins and overthrew the decemvirs. Roman society, as Sallust, Juvenal, and others mournfully recorded, was completely given to the pursuit of mindless pleasure and mass entertainment. Sexual mores had deteriorated, with prostitution and sexual perversion rampant ills. Marriage and child bearing, according to Cassius Dio, had all but disappeared among many social classes by the time of Augustus.

Abroad, the face of Rome was one continuous cycle of conquest, spoliation, and slaughter, while at home, a parade of bestial megalomaniacs like Tiberius, Caligula, Messalina, Nero, and Vitellius defaced the body politic. Hundreds of thousands of Romans perished as a result of endless internecine warfare and purges during the dreadful century and a half that approximately bracketed the life of Christ. Jesus himself and countless thousands of his disciples fell victim to the insatiable imperial bloodlust. Rome in the first century AD was without a doubt the most awful tyranny the world had ever seen, and remains one of the darkest periods of human history. Such is the outcome when great republics fall.

We have a fascination with empires. They are the greatest of all the works of the hands of men. Erected to appease man’s seemingly endless quest to deify himself and his works, empires cut mighty swathes through history and leave impressive monuments to inspire future generations.

The Death of Republics

Much has been written about the rise and fall of empires,

from Rome to the British Empire to the Third Reich. But

far less thought is usually given, at least nowadays, to the

death of republics, perhaps because republics represent a principle that many, particularly our home-grown elites, are uncomfortable with: self-restraint. “Our system of government,”

Pericles once told his fellow Athenians, “does not copy the institutions of our neighbors.... [E]veryone is equal before the law.... We are free and tolerant in our private lives; but in public affairs we keep to the law. This is because it commands our deep respect. We give our obedience to those whom we put in positions of authority, and we obey the laws themselves, especially those which are for the protection of the oppressed, and those unwritten laws which it is an acknowledged shame to break.” The Athenians under their short-lived republic managed to grasp the principle of the need for public and private restraint; government must be restrained by man-made laws, and citizens first and foremost by “unwritten laws which it is a shame to break,” that is, by the laws of God.

The ancient Romans grasped this principle far better than the Athenians. The republic created by Publius and the decemvirs endured for centuries because of the superiority of its constitution, and because of the moral rectitude of its citizens. We find morality intimately intertwined with every phase in the rise and fall of the Roman republic, both buoying its ascent and hastening its decline. When the Romans at last became unable to govern themselves, despots arose who transformed their free republic into an imperial prison.

As it was with ancient Rome, so it is now with us. The United States of America, in its original form, was a magnificent improvement over the ancient republics. Our federal Constitution more carefully defined and limited the powers of each branch of government, while achieving the most exquisitely tuned balance among them ever devised. It has proven a resilient document.

But the Constitution itself cannot forever resist the general deterioration of moral standards. This is a problem that no legal document can solve. And it is an uncomfortable fact that the government usually mirrors the moral temperament of the citizenry; or, as Joseph de Maistre put it a couple of centuries ago, “Every country has the government it deserves.” For example, in the modern United States, millions of Americans have abandoned personal fiscal restraint and have become addicted to luxury, consumption, and easy credit, living far beyond their means.

Should we then be surprised at a Congress that does the same? Since the social revolution of the ’60s, huge numbers of Americans have embraced immoral lifestyles that were once frowned upon. Why should we be  surprised when our elected leaders refuse to hold an American president accountable for such behavior? As increasing numbers of American families break up, why are we shocked when our government seeks to divide children from parents and enacts punitive tax codes that discourage cohabiting couples from marrying? As Americans lose interest in our history and heritage, is it any wonder we permit our elected leaders to invite millions of illegal immigrants into the United States, and to devise incentives for American companies to send domestic jobs and capital overseas?

All of these, and many other, political and economic problems threaten to utterly overwhelm our republic, as more and more citizens demand that government rescue us from the consequences of our own lack of moral restraint.  Politicians will pay little heed to a Constitution setting limits on their authority when they face a deafening clamor from constituents who expect their retirements, their mortgages, their educations, their medical costs, and their business ventures to be subsidized at the public’s expense.  Citizens who depend on the state to provide what they ought to provide for themselves aren’t going to object too strenuously to the burdensome controls and regulations that always accompany government subsidies, let alone question the constitutional legitimacy of such programs. 

The only controls such people object to are those that
interfere with their pursuit of self-gratification. If you want to see the future, you need look no farther than Western Europe, where, in countries like the Netherlands and France, prostitution is not only legal but also subsidized by the state, and where many destructive drugs are cheap, plentiful and legal. At the same time, the captive peoples of Europe endure rates of taxation and control many times greater than we have here, and are very close to erecting a continent-wide government that will curtail their freedoms still further. And it’s no coincidence that Western Europe is widely regarded as a “post-Christian” civilization. All across the continent one can see the mournful artifacts of a vibrant past, a civilization that once gave the world Bach, Handel, Shakespeare, Milton, and Michelangelo.

Morality: Indispensable to Liberty

We must understand how crucial morality is to the survival of American liberty. We must not suppose that liberty can be sustained merely by tinkering with the formula for government, until we achieve some idealistic libertarian minimum. There are those who object to what used to be called “sumptuary laws,” that is, laws restricting vice. We are sometimes told that private acts between consenting adults have no bearing on the common weal, and should not be the objects of legislation. While the Constitution does not authorize the federal government to “legislate morality,” so to speak, there is certainly broad legal latitude, and a compelling interest, for state and local governments to do so.

The point that those who object to sumptuary laws never seem to comprehend is that people consumed by vice — whether drugs, pornography, or what have you — are the enemies of freedom whether they realize it or not. In the first place, vice seldom confines itself to the purely personal and private, as anyone who has been victimized by a drunken driver or an abusive relative can attest. And because private vice generally encourages public criminality, it also creates a demand for more and more government controls. Paradoxical though it may seem, legally discouraging vice actually enhances freedom in the long run, rather than suppresses it. As Edmund Burke famously observed, “Men are qualified for civil liberty in exact proportion to their disposition to put moral chains on their own appetites. Society cannot exist unless a controlling power upon will and appetite be placed somewhere, and the less of it there is within, the more there is without.

 It is ordained in the eternal constitution of things that men of intemperate minds cannot be free. Their passions forge their fetters.” What’s more, as the Romans discovered, a morally depraved populace is a spawning ground for subversives, revolutionaries, and conspirators, who will eventually wrest from the citizens the destiny of their state.

The primary responsibility for maintaining our moral standards rests not in the public but in the private domain — in our homes, in our churches, in our civic organizations, and, perhaps most critically, in our own hearts.

I believe that “with God’s help ” we cannot succeed in saving our country without the sustaining support and direction of Providence. And we cannot expect Him to help us if we ourselves flout His ways. It ill befits any one of us to allow ourselves to be dragged down to the level of the society in which we now live. I hope that all of us will fill our lives with only the very best that this world has to offer — that we will seek out the best books, music, movies, and other forms of recreation and entertainment, and not be distracted by the tawdry, the shallow, and the obscene. We cannot both be free and also in bondage to unseemly appetites and passions. I hope that we will be above reproach in our public and private conduct. I hope that we will set an example for our children, our grandchildren, our friends, co-workers and co-parishioners,  for only in this way do people learn the value of moral behavior.

Lastly, I hope that each of us makes a regular business of praying to God according to our separate customs, to the effect that He will give us the strength to persevere, and that He will change the hearts and minds of the people in this still-great land to hanker once again after the liberty and the moral rectitude of our forefathers. With God’s help, it is not too late to save our beloved republic. May all of you continue to be an example and an influence for good and decency in all that you do.

TOPICS: Culture/Society; Editorial; Government
KEYWORDS: academialist; bonta; educationnews; historylist; homeschoollist; homosexualagenda; homosexuallist; jbs; latins; morality; moralitymatters; phd; publius; romanempire; romans; stevenbonta; stevencbonta; whymoralitymatters
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1 posted on 07/04/2004 8:49:53 PM PDT by Coleus
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To: Coleus

history bump.

2 posted on 07/04/2004 8:51:03 PM PDT by stylin_geek (Koffi: 0, G.W. Bush: (I lost count))
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To: 2ndMostConservativeBrdMember; afraidfortherepublic; Alas; al_c; american colleen; annalex; ...

3 posted on 07/04/2004 8:52:07 PM PDT by Coleus (Roe v. Wade and Endangered Species Act both passed in 1973, Murder Babies/save trees, birds, algae)
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To: Coleus
"The Athenians under their short-lived republic managed to grasp the principle of the need for public and private restraint; government must be restrained by man-made laws, and citizens first and foremost by “unwritten laws which it is a shame to break,” that is, by the laws of God.'

Rights Without Right

Wherever the exercise of self-restraint begins, it has the inestimable value of forcing the recognition that we live within an order of limits. Our rights are not a poisonous brew destined to subvert any sense of difference between good and evil. We may not be able to define to our satisfaction where the line is to be drawn. But we can discern clearly its outer limits. The unambiguous recognition of such boundaries is an indispensable element in preserving the awareness of a moral order beyond our construction. Without that awareness we would eventually cease to regard respect for an order of mutual rights as itself something right.

An order of rights without right is simply that. Only if we recognize this do we have any chance of retaining contact with an order of right beyond rights. What we have a right to do may not in fact be right to do. The difference is crucial and it must be embedded in the law itself, because only then can we prevent the collapse of the morally right into the legally right.

Acknowledging the limits of the law is indispensable to preserving the recognition of a moral order beyond it. Conversely, relieving legality of the burden of moral rightness is also indispensable to its preservation. The legal and the moral must remain distinct if they are to perform their roles of supporting and facilitating one another

"The inescapability of an order of good and evil, which is not ours to command but by which we will eventually be measured, is a steady pressure on our individual consciences, and it is made manifest by the elaborateness of attempts to deny it."

4 posted on 07/04/2004 9:13:05 PM PDT by KDD
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To: Coleus; little jeremiah; scripter; Grampa Dave; lentulusgracchus; ArGee


5 posted on 07/04/2004 9:53:44 PM PDT by EdReform (Support Free Republic - All donations are greatly appreciated. Thank you for your support!)
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To: Coleus

There is a devil, there is no doubt...but is he trying to get in us or trying to get out?

6 posted on 07/04/2004 10:03:51 PM PDT by nofatum
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To: Coleus
Recommended reading -- Lying: Moral Choice in Public and Private Life by Sissela Bok © 1978, 1989, & 1999
7 posted on 07/04/2004 11:09:16 PM PDT by AlienCrossfirePlayer (proud of our brave warriors)
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To: Coleus

read later!!

8 posted on 07/04/2004 11:33:14 PM PDT by LiteKeeper (Secularization of America)
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To: Coleus

Great article. I never heard of the author before, but I love him. He really gets it, 100%.

I just have to repeat these statements:

“Men are qualified for civil liberty in exact proportion to their disposition to put moral chains on their own appetites. Society cannot exist unless a controlling power upon will and appetite be placed somewhere, and the less of it there is within, the more there is without.

It is ordained in the eternal constitution of things that men of intemperate minds cannot be free. Their passions forge their fetters.”


"Lastly, I hope that each of us makes a regular business of praying to God according to our separate customs, to the effect that He will give us the strength to persevere, and that He will change the hearts and minds of the people in this still-great land to hanker once again after the liberty and the moral rectitude of our forefathers. With God’s help, it is not too late to save our beloved republic."

9 posted on 07/04/2004 11:47:30 PM PDT by little jeremiah ( - a REAL conservative running for Congress!)
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To: Coleus

Bump for later.

10 posted on 07/05/2004 12:00:57 AM PDT by hedgetrimmer
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To: Tax-chick


11 posted on 07/05/2004 6:39:45 AM PDT by Tax-chick (Tautologies are the only horses I bet on. -- Old Professer)
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To: Coleus

Morality DOES matter!

12 posted on 07/05/2004 7:35:48 AM PDT by Salvation (†With God all things are possible.†)
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To: Coleus
“Men are qualified for civil liberty in exact proportion to their disposition to put moral chains on their own appetites. "
Edmund Burke

We have given over our Republic to a Cabal of Tyrannic Judges who make rulings for vice and evil despite the protestations of the people.

13 posted on 07/05/2004 11:16:09 AM PDT by happygrl
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To: Van Jenerette; kjenerette

...for class.

14 posted on 07/05/2004 11:58:11 AM PDT by Van Jenerette (Our Republic - If we can Keep it!)
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To: Coleus

Excellent piece. Worthy of reading every day in the quiet of the morning before starting one's duties.


15 posted on 07/05/2004 5:28:32 PM PDT by CGVet58 (God has granted us Liberty, and we owe Him Courage in return)
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To: Coleus; Maeve; Dajjal; Alamo-Girl; Askel5; Romulus; eastsider

Brilliant, Coleus. Brilliant.

16 posted on 07/16/2004 9:07:00 PM PDT by Siobhan (+Pray the Divine Mercy Chaplet+)
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To: Siobhan

Thanks for the ping!

17 posted on 07/17/2004 9:38:43 AM PDT by Alamo-Girl
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To: AlienCrossfirePlayer

Thanks, I'll check it out.

18 posted on 07/17/2004 6:11:46 PM PDT by Coleus (Abraham Lincoln was a trial lawyer.)
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To: Coleus

later read

19 posted on 07/18/2004 10:59:44 AM PDT by Boxsford
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To: Coleus

Thanks!!! BTTT

20 posted on 07/18/2004 11:02:31 AM PDT by bazbo
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