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Why Did Russia Sell Us Alaska So Cheap? (less than two cents an acre)
American Heritage ^ | 10/18/07 | John Steele Gordon

Posted on 10/18/2007 4:40:53 PM PDT by Libloather

Why Did Russia Sell Us Alaska So Cheap?
By John Steele Gordon


The check, dated August 1, 1868, that was used to pay the purchase price for Alaska to Eduard de Stoeckl on behalf of the emperor of Russia. (National Archives)

A hundred and forty years ago today, sovereignty over Alaska was transferred from the Russian Empire to the United States. The transfer completed the national territory on the North American continent. It was one of the great bargains of all time.

For a price of $7.2 million, this country got 365 million acres of land and another 13 million of water, at slightly less than two cents an acre. Over the last 140 years, we have taken untold riches in gold, oil, and other minerals out of the ground and billions of dollars worth of fish out of the surrounding waters. And yet with a population of only 1.1 people per square mile, Alaska is still in a very real sense the last American frontier, a land rich in wildlife, open spaces, and incomparable natural beauty.

It also gave the United States the most diverse national territory in the world. Today the United States is the only country whose territory encompasses arctic, temperate, and tropical areas.

In 1725, a few weeks before his death, Peter the Great wanted to determine if far eastern Siberia was attached to the North American continent, so he dispatched Vitus Bering, a Danish-born sailor, to find out. In his first expedition, Bering determined that Asia and North America were separated by the strait that now bears his name, but he did not sight Alaska. Not until 1741, on Bering’s second expedition, did he make landfall there. His ship was forced to take refuge on what is now called Bering Island, and there the explorer died of scurvy at the age of 60, along with many of his crewmen. The survivors, however, made it back to Siberia with sea otter pelts, among the most valuable of furs. And it would be the fur trade that would draw the Russians to Alaska.

Russian fur traders and others, including Captain James Cook, repeatedly visited Alaskan waters, but it wasn’t until 1784 that the Russians permanently settled, on Kodiak Island. In 1799 the Russian-American Company was formed, and it established a capital at New Archangel, now Sitka. The Russian-American Company would run Russian Alaska much the way the British East India Company ran India at the time.

But while India was the jewel in the crown of the British Empire, Alaska was a very minor part of the Russian one. At the end of the Russian period, there were only a few hundred Russians living in Alaska, along with about 8,000 natives within reach of Russian authorities. Elsewhere there were perhaps another 50,000 Eskimos and Indians. No one really knew. Moreover, Alaska was very difficult for Russia to defend, and the tsar feared encroachment from British North America.

Russia didn’t want to spend the money necessary to secure Alaska but also didn’t want to strengthen the British by selling it to them. Russia and Britain, after all, had been at war in the Crimea from 1854 to 1856. Therefore in 1857 Tsar Alexander II instructed his minister in Washington, Eduard de Stoeckl, to feel out the American government about a sale. De Stoeckl had been posted to Washington since 1841, and he had many friends in the American government, including Sen. William Seward of New York. He had many more in Washington society. He even married an American woman, Elisa Howard, of Springfield, Massachusetts.

Negotiations began in 1859, but they broke off when the Civil War approached. In February 1867 they began again. By this time Seward was Secretary of State under President Andrew Johnson, and so de Stoeckl negotiated with a friend. After an all-night session, agreement was reached on the morning of March 30.

The deal didn’t necessarily look like such a steal at the time. Some objected, just as earlier some had objected to every other substantial addition to the national territory. Alaska was dubbed “Seward’s Folly” and “Andrew Johnson’s Polar Bear Garden” by opponents of the acquisition. The New York World thought it contained nothing of value except fur-bearing animals and that most of them were on the edge of extinction from over-hunting anyway. Horace Greeley, in the New York Tribune, dismissed Alaska as nothing more than a frozen wilderness.

But many favored the acquisition, especially Sen. Charles Sumner of Massachusetts, who very conveniently was head of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which would have to approve the treaty and send it to the full Senate. Russia had backed the North in the Civil War, while Britain had been at best an unfriendly neutral. Sumner argued that we should help those who had helped us.

Anti-British feeling was very much part of the warp and woof of American politics at the time, for the War of 1812 was still within the living memory of many. So was the idea that we were destined one day to see the whole of the North American continent under the American flag.

Drawing a parallel with the ancient Roman senate, which barred kings from within the city’s gates, Sumner declared that “our city can be nothing less than the North American continent.” By purchasing Alaska, he argued, we would “dismiss one more monarch from this continent.” He noted that the French and Spanish kings had already departed from North America and now the tsar was going. The implication was clear that Queen Victoria would be next.

On April 9 the treaty was ratified by the Senate, 27 to 12, barely above the necessary two-thirds majority. (A subsequent ceremonial vote to make the approval unanimous was carried by a vote of 37 to 2.) The House had no constitutional say in whether to approve the treaty, but it had to approve the appropriation of money. Some thought the price was too high. However, in fiscal year 1867 the government had revenues of $491 million and expenses of $347 million. With a huge surplus that year, $7.2 million was not a problem. The House finally approved the money in July 1868, by a vote of 113 to 48. By that time, of course, Alaska was already in American hands.

On October 18, 1867, Capt. Alexis Pestchouroff turned over control to Gen. Lovell Rousseau, saying, “General Rousseau, by authority from His Majesty, the Emperor of Russia, I transfer to the United States the territory of Alaska." (A strange coincidence linked Sumner and Rousseau. In 1856 a southern congressman had attacked Sumner with a cane in a dispute over slavery, while in 1866 Rousseau had attacked a fellow member of the House of Representatives with a cane in a dispute over Reconstruction. In both cases the attacker resigned and was reelected to his seat.) Five months later Gen. Jefferson C. Davis (a Union general and no relation to the Confederate president) became the first commander of the Department of Alaska. Alaska would not become a territory until 1912. By that time the wisdom of buying Alaska had long since been clear, especially after the discovery of gold in the Klondike.

After World War II, Seward’s wisdom in buying Alaska would be even clearer. The great geopolitical struggle between the United States and the Soviet Union dominated the international politics of the second half of the twentieth century. It would have been fought very differently—and would have been much harder to win—had the Soviet Union possessed a major foothold on the North American continent. In 1867 Alaska had been a remote and expensive tidbit of empire that the Russian government was only too glad to get rid of. A hundred years later, the Soviet government must have bitterly regretted its sale for a pittance.

—John Steele Gordon writes “The Business of America” for American Heritage magazine. His most recent book is An Empire of Wealth: The Epic History of American Economic Power (HarperCollins).


TOPICS: Culture/Society; Editorial; Foreign Affairs; Government
KEYWORDS: alaska; alaskapurchase; andrewjohnson; cheap; russia; sell; sewardsfolly
His ship was forced to take refuge on what is now called Bering Island, and there the explorer died of scurvy at the age of 60.

SELL! SELL! SELL!

1 posted on 10/18/2007 4:40:59 PM PDT by Libloather
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To: Kathy in Alaska; tomkow6; monkapotamus; All

Kathy I got question Russians got screw on that deal too bad Tomkow wasn’t around wait a minute he was around he is older than dirt maybe not as old as Helen thomas LOL!


2 posted on 10/18/2007 4:44:16 PM PDT by SevenofNine ("We are Freepers, all your media belong to us, resistence is futile")
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To: Libloather
So, what kind of deals might there be in the future?

Perhaps the US selling California to Mexico? Or... selling New England to Canada?

... or better yet, the US paying Canada to take New England?

{still can't believe this "state" of Mass I'm living in, after Tuesday's election}

3 posted on 10/18/2007 4:50:13 PM PDT by C210N
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To: Libloather
Why Did Russia Sell Us Alaska So Cheap?

Cause back in the 1860s it was just useless tundra. Nobody predicted the importance of oil. Mining for gold and diamonds that far north was impractical. Also, nobody would have guessed the land would be used for missile defense.

4 posted on 10/18/2007 4:53:53 PM PDT by varyouga ("Rove is some mysterious God of politics & mind control" - DU 10-24-06)
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To: C210N

{still can’t believe this “state” of Mass I’m living in, after Tuesday’s election}

Fill the rest of us in.
I really have no idea what happened there other than to assume that wacko dems won big.


5 posted on 10/18/2007 4:55:47 PM PDT by bill1952 (The 10 most important words for change: "If it is to be, it is up to me")
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To: C210N
So, what kind of deals might there be in the future?

None. Any president who doesn't follow Abe Lincoln's lead in preserving the Union isn't worthy of the office.
6 posted on 10/18/2007 4:56:41 PM PDT by AnotherUnixGeek
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To: Libloather
At the time it was known as Seward’s Folly.
7 posted on 10/18/2007 4:57:46 PM PDT by HuntsvilleTxVeteran (Remember the Alamo, Goliad and WACO, It is Time for a new San Jacinto)
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To: Libloather
i've been to anchorage, fairbanks, gnome, etc. alaska is indeed the edge of the earth.

i spent 16 hours driving toward denali (mt. mckinley) after i first saw its peak. amazing.

flying over the arctic circle in a single prop; watching the polar bears try to run away was classic.

watching the whales play around in some non-descript inlet was priceless.

watching japanese tourists set up a tripod and take pictures of grizzlies barely 50 ft. away was a lesson in stupidity.

having a couple of wild horses stick their heads in my parents car (out of a herd of a couple hundred) was beautiful.

i will never forget alaska.

i hope to go back someday!

it changed my perspective on life as a child

8 posted on 10/18/2007 5:01:43 PM PDT by robomatik
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To: Libloather
Great post!
Interesting and a useful historical reference..
Seward's Folly... I just love that phrase. Plus the clarity with which this subject shows us that the "press" is often monumentally wrong. Not that they would ever express regret at pontificating on everything or, heaven forbid, admit that they were wrong!.
9 posted on 10/18/2007 5:03:45 PM PDT by Publius6961 (MSM: Israelis are killed by rockets; Lebanese are killed by Israelis.)
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To: HuntsvilleTxVeteran; Liz
Horace Greeley, in the New York Tribune, dismissed Alaska as nothing more than a frozen wilderness.

The New York Tribune was established by Horace Greeley in 1841 and was long considered one of the leading newspapers in the United States. In 1924 it was merged with the New York Herald to form the New York Herald Tribune, which ceased publication in 1967.

May the New York Times meet the same fate...

10 posted on 10/18/2007 5:08:04 PM PDT by Libloather (That's just what I need - some two-bit, washed up, loser politician giving me weather forecasts...)
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To: varyouga

“No one will ever want a computer in their home”


11 posted on 10/18/2007 5:09:14 PM PDT by ari-freedom (I am for traditional moral values, a strong national defense, and free markets.)
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To: Libloather
It was a Great bargain,but what good is it if the Dummycrats won’t allow us to use the natural resources we find there?
12 posted on 10/18/2007 5:09:41 PM PDT by puppypusher (The world is going to the dogs.)
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To: Libloather
It also bears mentioning that President Polk in -- I believe -- 1848, had pushed hard for the Texas territory and for the Oregon Territory. This was the era of manifest destiny, and the US claim to the Oregon Territory, while principally against Great Britain, took us right up to the border of the land controlled by Russia.

We were expanding rapidly -- the Oregon question was settled, but what would come next? Russia probably thought they had two choices: get money by selling, or lose the "worthless" territory in a war. Getting cash on the barrel head, so to speak, probably looked like the best option.

13 posted on 10/18/2007 5:20:20 PM PDT by ClearCase_guy (The broken wall, the burning roof and tower. And Agamemnon dead.)
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To: Libloather

I remember a lot of this from high school history but a lot I had forgotten too. Very interesting. Thanks for posting it.


14 posted on 10/18/2007 5:24:09 PM PDT by Graybeard58 ( Remember and pray for SSgt. Matt Maupin - MIA/POW- Iraq since 04/09/04)
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To: Graybeard58

What Greybeard58 said...


15 posted on 10/18/2007 5:32:30 PM PDT by Does so
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To: Graybeard58

What Graybeard58 said...


16 posted on 10/18/2007 5:32:56 PM PDT by Does so
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To: Graybeard58

One of the Russian Premieres said that they already had Siberia and they didn’t need Alaska, which is a speck of territory by comparison. In pre-oil times this was probably a sensible idea and the scorn heaped upon Seward seemed to back that logic up.


17 posted on 10/18/2007 5:33:52 PM PDT by Oshkalaboomboom
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To: Libloather

Perhaps the Czar would rather sell Alaska cheap to the US than let the British have it as part of Canada. After all Russia was humiliated by Britain and France in the Crimean war just a little over a decade previously. Alaska was too far away for the Russians to control anyway.


18 posted on 10/18/2007 5:45:20 PM PDT by Paleo Conservative
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To: Libloather

I lived in Alaska for 4 years, spent 8 winters there.

The US got hosed...


19 posted on 10/18/2007 5:52:00 PM PDT by Professional
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To: Libloather

I’m betting that they knew all along that they would stir up sentiment against ANWR drilling.


20 posted on 10/18/2007 5:57:19 PM PDT by GingisK
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To: All

We bought Alaska for 7.2 million, we can’t even build a bathroom in a state park for that amount anymore.


21 posted on 10/18/2007 5:57:19 PM PDT by escapefromboston (manny ortez: mvp)
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To: Libloather
When I was stationed in Egypt in the late 80's we had about 15 Soviet officers and their families stationed with us. We had a lot of conversations during that year ans several times they said that we should give them Alaska back, since it is Russian territory.

We Americans always laughed - but those Sovs were serious!

22 posted on 10/18/2007 5:57:59 PM PDT by USMCVet
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To: Libloather
I know someone still waiting to cash in his deeds for their Quaker Oats Klondike Big Inch.


23 posted on 10/18/2007 6:10:44 PM PDT by Daffynition (The quieter you become, the more you are able to hear.)
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To: bill1952
I really have no idea what happened there other than to assume that wacko dems won big. Niki Tsongas won by only 5% over Jim Ogonowski. Both are 1st time candidates; Jim's bro was pilot of a/c that hit the WTC on 9/11. Her first vote today in DC was to override Bush's health insurance veto.
24 posted on 10/18/2007 6:33:48 PM PDT by C210N
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To: Daffynition
Ironically, there are reports that-Baker’s late-night brainstorm, those 7-by-5-inch deeds that were 35 times larger than the piece of land they represented, are bringing upwards of $40 in some antique shops.

Better hold on to yours. It maybe worth something someday...

25 posted on 10/18/2007 6:38:27 PM PDT by Libloather (That's just what I need - some two-bit, washed up, loser politician giving me weather forecasts...)
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To: Libloather

Russia probable could look into the future and could tell there would be a crooked GOP Senator.


26 posted on 10/18/2007 6:41:17 PM PDT by Wheee The People (Go FRed)
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To: Libloather

Maybe ... I’m grateful that the marketing people at Quaker Oats didn’t have any sway over state department in 1868! ;-D


27 posted on 10/18/2007 6:42:19 PM PDT by Daffynition (The quieter you become, the more you are able to hear.)
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To: USMCVet
When I was stationed in Egypt in the late 80's we had about 15 Soviet officers and their families stationed with us. We had a lot of conversations during that year ans several times they said that we should give them Alaska back, since it is Russian territory.
We Americans always laughed - but those Sovs were serious!

Did you ever mention to them that their Siberia is at least as rich in mineral resources as Alaska? The only development of Siberian riches came from Stalin's convict gold-mining camps such as the infamous Kolyma, and those essentially slave-labor camps have been almost completely shut down since the late 1950s.

The Russians can't develop their own Siberia, and they aren't handicapped at all by any environmental concerns. What do they want with Alaska?

28 posted on 10/18/2007 6:54:14 PM PDT by xJones
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To: Wheee The People; MurryMom
Russia probable could look into the future and could tell there would be a crooked GOP Senator.

If they were that smart, they would be able to forecast the corrupt, impeached *Crintons. On the other hand, the brilliant Chicoms did see it coming - eh?

29 posted on 10/18/2007 7:06:51 PM PDT by Libloather (That's just what I need - some two-bit, washed up, loser politician giving me weather forecasts...)
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To: Libloather
Back in the late 1950’s, there was an alternate history that was written for “Look Magazine” or “Colliers Magazine” (IIRC) where the South won the Civil War and remained a sovereign nation after it. As time went on, tensions between the USA and CSA eased to the point where they were allies in World Wars I and II. The consequence of the USA losing the South was that we rejected the purchase of Alaska since the US needed the money for reconstruction. Well, after the wars, we had the Cold War much like in our history but you had Soviet troops stationed in “Russian America” where in the Yukon, you had to have many Canadian, USA, and CSA troops garrisoned there to offset the Soviets. There was also talk of the CSA and USA reuniting because of the Cold War. Of course, perhaps a CSA victory in the Civil war could have unleashed “butterflies” that would change things enough to where the world might not have followed our history, but it is an interesting thought to say the least.
30 posted on 10/18/2007 7:17:35 PM PDT by Nowhere Man (RIP, Corky, I miss you, little princess!!! (Corky b. 5-12-1989 - d. 9-21-2007))
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To: USMCVet

Some truth to the fact that Russia sold the trading rights / economic rights to alaska for a period of a 100 years; why the feds wanted statehood so badly in 50’s. Most Alaskans at the time were against statehood, they wanted to remain like Peurto Rico because they knew there wasn’t a strong economy that would produce enough taxes to fund state govt. Feds shipped in 30-40 thousand military people, quickly changed voting law and thru election. That’s how my 95 year old neighbor who homesteaded his place in 1942 and is a super conservative repub; tells it. Also remember during civil war, the czar sent western russian fleet into san fran harbor for a few years to help ole Lincoln out. More to everything I do think.

Ya know, none of that really matters anyway, because all Alaskans are becoming more like Americans everyday and Alaska is ethnically a part of america.

We do have lots of russkies here anyway, proximity to Siberia and economic freedom. Most are ok; they want a better life just like we do. I had several russian friends tell me some things are better here some worse. You have more opportunity but also in russia, everyone had 2 week paid vacation at govt cabin on the blk sea; they hadn’t had a vacation since coming to alaska, ha. Also they didn’t like paying 10 gran to have a baby when med care was free for everyone in russia. They use to say Russia not all bad;;; but they weren’t going back either, ha.


31 posted on 10/18/2007 7:28:27 PM PDT by Eska
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To: Nowhere Man
If CSA won the Civil War, then I don't think we would had gotten involved in both World Wars. Germany would have been the dominant power in Europe and the colonies in Africa would still exist today.

However, the Soviet Union is still likely to exist since USA would never have been strong enough to challenge the Communists.

32 posted on 10/18/2007 8:13:10 PM PDT by MinorityRepublican
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To: Nowhere Man
If CSA won the Civil War, then I don't think we would had gotten involved in both World Wars. Germany would have been the dominant power in Europe and the colonies in Africa would still exist today.

However, the Soviet Union is still likely to exist since USA would never have been strong enough to challenge the Communists.

33 posted on 10/18/2007 8:13:23 PM PDT by MinorityRepublican
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To: Nowhere Man
If CSA won the Civil War, then I don't think we would had gotten involved in both World Wars. Germany would have been the dominant power in Europe and the colonies in Africa would still exist today.

However, the Soviet Union is still likely to exist since USA would never have been strong enough to challenge the Communists.

34 posted on 10/18/2007 8:13:58 PM PDT by MinorityRepublican
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To: Libloather
Inspiring bit of history. Our government did something right back then. Hard to imagine such a sale occurring today.
35 posted on 10/18/2007 8:15:56 PM PDT by Ciexyz
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To: MinorityRepublican

Historical what-ifs are more complicated. For instance, Harry Turtledove, the novelist, who makes his living with historical what-ifs, in a CSA victory what-if, has the USA entering WW I on the Central Powers side, with the CSA on the Allied side. This is less implausible than it sounds, since the USA would have been sandwiched in between Canada, still very British, and the CSA, which would have been aligned with Britain as its major trading partner, had its war of independence succeeded.

A Central Power victory, or Germany not so desparate as to use Lenin to disrupt Russia’s war efforts, and there might not have been a Soviet Union at all. (And the Caliph might still sit on the throne of the Sultan in Constantinople so that the Muslims wouldn’t the all out of sorts these days.)


36 posted on 10/18/2007 8:40:33 PM PDT by The_Reader_David (And when they behead your own people in the wars which are to come, then you will know. . .)
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To: Libloather
Alaska wasn't considered a useless piece of tundra even at the time of sale. It was rich hunting grounds (fur and sea animals also). The price was based on possible hunting revenues. Gold hadn't been discovered yet.

The Russian government badly needed money for reforming it's military after the Crimean war. That was the reason.

37 posted on 10/19/2007 1:55:48 AM PDT by Freelance Warrior (The barbarian)
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To: USMCVet

“several times they said that we should give them Alaska back, since it is Russian territory.” ............. Not suprising, they wanted the whole world too. Its not like they don’t have more than they need now. I’ll give them about 25 more years and see what they will have left.


38 posted on 10/19/2007 5:09:17 AM PDT by Bringbackthedraft (Staying home or voting 3rd Party, Elects Hillary!)
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To: Libloather
Why Did Russia Sell Us Alaska So Cheap? In a nutshell: They needed the money. And they wanted to be certain the British didn't get it and make it part of Canada.
39 posted on 10/19/2007 8:05:47 PM PDT by El Gato ("The Second Amendment is the RESET button of the United States Constitution." -- Doug McKay)
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