Conservatism in the United States

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Conservatism in the United States comprises several political ideologies including fiscal conservatism, free market or economic liberalism, social conservatism,[1] libertarianism, and religious conservatism,[2] as well as support for a strong military,[3] small government, and states' rights.



Founding Fathers

The Loyalists of the American Revolution were mostly political conservatives, some of whom produced political discourse of a high order, including lawyer Joseph Galloway and governor-historian Thomas Hutchinson. After the war, the great majority remained in the U.S. and became citizens, but some leaders emigrated to other places in the British Empire. Samuel Seabury was a Loyalist who returned and as the first American bishop played a major role in shaping the Episcopal religion, a stronghold of conservative social values.

In his book The Conservative Mind, Russell Kirk identifies John Adams as the first American Conservative. Adams' book A Defence of the Constitution of the Government of the United States of America is considered by Kirk as the first Conservative manifesto in America. Adams' believed in the supremacy of law and that liberty should be subordinate to law. Adams' also distrusted the people as a mass. Adams was the only member of the Federalist Party to become President of the United States. Adams rejected the notions of the French revolution, which Jefferson in part supported. And unlike Jefferson, Adams rejected the idea of agrarian republicanism. Unlike men like Alexander Hamilton, Adams outright rejected the ideas of Monarchy and Aristocracy demanding there be a government of laws and not of men. The Constitution of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts was written by Adams and is the oldest written Constitution in the world.

The Founding Fathers created the single most important set of political ideas in American history, known as republicanism, which all groups, liberal and conservative alike, have drawn from. The Federalist Party, followers of Alexander Hamilton, developed an important variation of republicanism that can be considered conservative. Rejecting monarchy and aristocracy, they emphasized civic virtue as the core American value. The Federalists spoke for the propertied interests and the upper classes of the cities. They envisioned a modernizing land of banks and factories, with a strong army and navy.

On many issues American conservatism also derives from the republicanism of Thomas Jefferson and his followers, especially John Randolph of Roanoke and his "Old Republican" followers. They idealized the yeoman farmer as the epitome of civic virtue, warned that banking and industry led to corruption, that is to the illegitimate use of government power for private ends. Jefferson himself was a vehement opponent of what today is called "judicial activism". [4] The Jeffersonians stressed States' Rights and small government. In the 1830-54 period the Whig Party attracted conservatives such as Daniel Webster of New England.

Antebellum: Calhoun and Webster

Daniel Webster and other leaders of the Whig Party, called it the conservative party in the late 1830s.[5] John C. Calhoun, a Democrat, articulated a sophisticated conservatism in his writings. Richard Hofstadter (1948) called him "The Marx of the Master Class." Calhoun argued that a conservative minority should be able to limit the power of a "majority dictatorship" because tradition represents the wisdom of past generations. (This argument echoes one made by Edmund Burke, the founder of British conservatism, in Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790)). Calhoun is considered the father of the idea of minority rights, a position adopted by liberals in the 1960s in dealing with Civil Rights.

The conservatism of the antebellum period is contested territory; conservatives of the 21st century disagree over what comprises their heritage. Thus William J. Bennett (2006) a prominent conservative leader, tells conservatives to NOT honor Calhoun, Know-Nothings, Copperheads and 20th century isolationists.

Lincoln to Cleveland

Since 1865 the Republican party has identified itself with President Abraham Lincoln, who was the ideological heir of the Whigs and of both Jefferson and Hamilton. As the Gettysburg Address shows, Lincoln cast himself as a second Jefferson bringing a second birth of freedom to the nation that had been born 86 years before in Jefferson's Declaration. The Copperheads of the Civil War reflected a reactionary opposition to modernity of the sort repudiated by modern conservatives. A few libertarians have adopted a neo-Copperhead position, arguing Lincoln was a dictator who created an all-powerful government.

In the late 19th century the Bourbon Democrats, led by President Grover Cleveland, preached against corruption, high taxes (protective tariffs), and imperialism, and supported the gold standard and business interests. They were overthrown by William Jennings Bryan in 1896, who moved the mainstream of the Democratic Party permanently to the left.

The 1896 presidential election was the first with a conservative versus liberal theme approaching the way in which these terms are now understood in the U.S. Republican William McKinley won using the pro-business slogan "sound money and protection," while the anti-bank and populism of the Democratic nominee, William Jennings Bryan, had a lasting effect on his party.

William Graham Sumner, Yale professor (1872-1910) and polymath, vigorously promoted a libertarian conservative ethic. After dallying with Social Darwinism under the influence of Herbert Spencer, he rejected evolution in his later works, and strongly opposed imperialism. He opposed monopoly and paternalism in theory as a threat to equality, democracy and middle class values, but was vague on what to do about it.[6]

Early 20th century

In the Progressive Era (1890s-1932), regulation of industry expanded at a rapid pace. Much of the opposition to this governmental expansion came from the remaining classic liberals in the Democratic Party and the corporatists in the Republican Party.

Because of their corporatist views, it was quite common for the leading Republicans at the time to go back and forth between supporting and opposing progressive measures. For instance, while opposed to many of the progressive reforms, Nelson Aldrich nevertheless supported the proposal for a strong national banking system which came to be known as the Federal Reserve System in 1913. In a similar fashion, Theodore Roosevelt, the dominant personality of the era, took some "conservative" and some "liberal" stances on the major issues of the time. While leading the fight to make the country a major naval power, and demanded entry into World War I to stop what he saw as the German attacks on civilization, he nonetheless supported numerous trust busting actions. His successor, William Howard Taft, was also characterized by the same back and forth between "conservative" and "liberal" views. While in office, he promoted a strong federal judiciary that would overrule excessive legislation. Taft defeated Roosevelt on that issue in 1912, forcing Roosevelt out of the GOP and turning it to the right for decades. As president, Taft remade the Supreme Court with five appointments; he himself presided as chief justice in 1921-30, the only former president ever to do so.

Pro-business Republicans returned to dominance in 1920 with the election of President Warren G. Harding. The presidency of Calvin Coolidge (1923-29) was a high water mark for conservatism, both politically and intellectually. Classic writing of the period includes Democracy and Leadership (1924) by Irving Babbitt and H.L. Mencken's magazine American Mercury (1924-33). The Efficiency Movement attracted many conservatives such as Herbert Hoover with its pro-business, pro-engineer approach to solving social and economic problems. Furthermore, in the 1920s many American conservatives generally maintained antiforeign attitudes and, as usual, were disinclined toward changes to the healthy economic climate of the age.

During the Great Depression, other conservatives participated in the taxpayers' revolt at the local level. From 1930 to 1933, Americans formed as many as 3,000 taxpayers' leagues to protest high property taxes. These groups endorsed measures to limit and rollback taxes, lowered penalties on tax delinquents, and cuts in government spending. A few also called for illegal resistance (or tax strikes). Probably the best known of these was led by the Association of Real Estate Taxpayers in Chicago which, at its height, had 30,000 dues-paying members.

An important intellectual movement, calling itself Southern Agrarians and based in Nashville, brought together like-minded novelists, poets and historians who argued that modern values undermined the traditions of American republicanism and civic virtue.

The Depression brought liberals to power under President Franklin D. Roosevelt (1933). Indeed the term "liberal" now came to mean a supporter of the New Deal. In 1934 Al Smith and pro-business Democrats formed the American Liberty League to fight the new liberalism, but failed. In 1936 the Republicans rejected Hoover and tried the more liberal Alf Landon, who carried only Maine and Vermont. When Roosevelt tried to pack the Supreme Court in 1937 the conservatives finally cooperated across party lines and defeated it with help from Vice President John Nance Garner. Roosevelt unsuccessfully tried to purge the conservative Democrats in the 1938 election. The conservatives in Congress then formed a bipartisan informal Conservative Coalition of Republicans and southern Democrats. It largely controlled Congress from 1937 to 1964. Its most prominent leaders were Senator Robert Taft, a Republican of Ohio, and Senator Richard Russell, Democrat of Georgia.

In the United States, the Old Right, also called the Old Guard, was a group of libertarian, free-market anti-interventionists, originally associated with Midwestern Republicans and Southern Democrats. The Republicans (but not the southern Democrats) were isolationists in 1939-41, (see America First), and later opposed NATO and U.S. military intervention in Korea. According to historian Murray Rothbard, "the libertarian intellectuals were in the minority...[and] theirs was the only thought-out contrasting ideology to the New Deal."

Later 20th century: Goldwater, Buckley, the Dixiecrats

By 1950, American liberalism was so dominant intellectually that author Lionel Trilling could all but completely dismiss contemporary conservatism: "liberalism is not only the dominant but even the sole intellectual tradition... there are no conservative or reactionary ideas in circulation..." [7]

In the 1950s, principles for a conservative political movement were hashed out in books like Russell Kirk's The Conservative Mind (1953) and in the pages of the magazine National Review, founded by William F. Buckley Jr. in 1955. National Review editor Frank Meyer used the pages of the magazine to advocate "fusionism", the combination of traditional conservatives and libertarians into a unique American style of conservatism.

Whereas Taft's Old Right had been isolationist the new conservatism favored American intervention overseas to oppose communism. It looked to the Founding Fathers for historical inspiration as opposed to Calhoun and the antebellum South.

Ironically, as the Democratic Party became identified with the American Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s through 1970s, many former southern Democrats joined the Republican Party, even in the face of greater proportional support for civil rights legislation among Republicans, thereby increasingly cementing the Republicans' alignment as a conservative party. Senator Barry Goldwater, sometimes known as "Mr. Conservative," argued in his 1960 Conscience of a Conservative that conservatives split on the issue of civil rights due to some conservatives advocating ends (integration, even in the face of what they saw as unconstitutional Federal involvement) and some advocating means (constitutionality above all else, even in the face of segregation). Republicans joined northern Democrats to override a filibuster of the Civil Rights Act in 1964. Later that year, Goldwater was resoundingly defeated by President Lyndon B. Johnson. Out of this defeat emerged the New Right, a political movement that coalesced through grassroots organizing in the years preceding Goldwater's 1964 presidential campaign. The American New Right is distinct from and opposed to the more moderate/liberal tradition of the so-called Rockefeller Republicans, and succeeded in building a policy approach and electoral apparatus that propelled Ronald Reagan into the White House in the 1980 presidential election.

Nixon, Reagan, and Bush

The Republican administrations of President Richard Nixon in the 1970s were characterized more by their emphasis on realpolitik, détente, and economic policies such as wage and price controls, than by their adherence to conservative views in foreign and economic policy.

Thus, it was not until the election of 1980 and the subsequent eight years of Ronald Reagan's presidency that the American conservative movement truly achieved ascendancy. In that election, Republicans took control of the Senate for the first time since 1954, and conservative principles dominated Reagan's economic and foreign policies, with supply side economics and strict opposition to Soviet Communism defining the Administration's philosophy.

An icon of the American conservative movement, Reagan is credited by his supporters with transforming the politics of 1980s United States, galvanizing the success of the Republican Party, uniting a coalition of economic conservatives who supported his economic policies, known as "Reaganomics," foreign policy conservatives who favored his staunch opposition to Communism and the Soviet Union over the détente of his predecessors, and social conservatives who identified with Reagan's conservative religious and social ideals. Reagan, in attempting to define conservativism, said: "If you analyze it I believe the very heart and soul of conservatism is libertarianism. I think conservatism is really a misnomer just as liberalism is a misnomer for the liberals -- if we were back in the days of the Revolution, so-called conservatives today would be the Liberals and the liberals would be the Tories. The basis of conservatism is a desire for less government interference or less centralized authority or more individual freedom and this is a pretty general description also of what libertarianism is."[8]

It is hotly debated whether the successive Republican Administrations of Presidents George H. W. Bush and George W. Bush are truly conservative. George W. Bush campaigned in 2000 as a "compassionate conservative," but only adopted part of the conservative agenda. He has cut taxes and is strongly pro-business. He is seen as a strong supporter of God and country. On the other hand, he has greatly increased the size, power, and spending of the federal government, and the size of the national debt, both of which are against general conservatism. Peggy Noonan, in the Wall Street Journal, wrote, "For this we fought the Reagan revolution? A year into his second term, President Bush is redefining what it means to be a Republican and a conservative."

Types of conservatism

Defining "American conservatism" requires a definition of conservatism in general, and the term is applied to a number of ideas and ideologies, some more closely related to core conservative beliefs than others.

1. Classical or institutional conservatism - Opposition to rapid change in governmental and societal institutions. This kind of conservatism is anti-ideological insofar as it emphasizes process (slow change) over product (any particular form of government). To the classical conservative, whether one arrives at a right- or left-leaning government is less important than whether change is effected through rule of law rather than through revolution and sudden innovation.

2. Ideological conservatism or right-wing conservatism -- In contrast to the anti-ideological classical conservatism, right-wing conservatism is, as its name implies, ideological. It is typified by three distinct subideologies: social conservatism, fiscal conservatism, and economic liberalism. Together, these subideologies comprise the conservative ideology, while separately, these subideologies are incorporated into other political positions.

3. Neoconservatism has come to refer to the views of a subclass of conservatives who support a more assertive foreign policy coupled with one or more other facets of social conservatism, in contrast to the typically isolationist views of early- and mid-20th century conservatives. Neoconservatism was first described by a group of disaffected liberals, and thus Irving Kristol, usually credited as its intellectual progenitor, defined a "neoconservative" as "a liberal who was mugged by reality." Although originally regarded as an approach to domestic policy (the founding instrument of the movement, Kristol's The Public Interest periodical, did not even cover foreign affairs), through the influence of figures like Dick Cheney, Robert Kagan, Richard Perle, Ken Adelman and (Irving's son) William Kristol, it has become more famous for its association with the foreign policy of the George W. Bush Administration.

4. Small government conservatism -- Small government conservatives look for a decreased role of the federal government, and as well weaker state governments. Small government conservatives, rather than focusing of the protections given individuals by the Bill of Rights, try to weaken the federal government, thereby following the Founding Fathers who were suspicious of a centralized, unitary state like Britain, from which they had just won their freedom.

5. Paleoconservatism, which arose in the 1980s in reaction to neoconservatism, stresses tradition, civil society, classical federalism and heritage of Christendom. They see social democracy, ideology, and managerial society as malevolent attempts to remake humanity. [3] Supporters say that the dominant forces in Western society no longer support conserving the traditions, institutions, and values that created and formed it. [4] Therefore, they say true conservatives must oppose the status quo. In statecraft, they call for decentralism, local rule, private property and minimal bureaucracy. [5] In society, they are traditionalist, support a Christian moral order and proclaim the nuclear family is a wise system. Some like Samuel P. Huntington argue that multiracial, multiethnic, and egalitarian states are inherently unstable.[9] Paleos are generally noninterventionist, arguing that American entry into foreign wars is unnecessary and unwise.

Conservatism as "ideology," or political philosophy

Classical conservatives tend to be anti-ideological, and some would even say anti-philosophical,[10] promoting rather, as Russell Kirk explains, a steady flow of "prescription and prejudice." Kirk's use of the word "prejudice" here is not intended to carry its contemporary pejorative connotation: a conservative himself, he believes that the inherited wisdom of the ages may be a better guide than apparently rational individual judgment.

In contrast to classical conservatism, social conservatism and fiscal conservatism are concerned with consequences as well as means.

There are two overlapping subgroups of social conservatives—the traditional and the religious. Traditional conservatives strongly support traditional codes of conduct, especially those they feel are threatened by social change. For example, traditional conservatives may oppose the use of female soldiers in combat. Religious conservatives focus on conducting society as prescribed by a religious authority or code. In the United States this translates into taking hard-line stances on moral issues, such as opposition to abortion and homosexuality. Some religious conservatives go so far as to support the use of government institutions to promote religiosity in public life.

Fiscal conservatives support limited government, limited taxation, and a balanced budget. Some admit the necessity of taxes, but hold that taxes should be low. A recent movement against the inheritance tax labels such a tax a death tax. Fiscal conservatives often argue that competition in the free market is more effective than the regulation of industry, with the exception of industries that exhibit market dominance or monopoly powers. For some this is a matter of principle, as it is for the libertarians and others influenced by thinkers such as Ludwig von Mises, who believed that government intervention in the economy is inevitably wasteful and inherently corrupt and immoral. For others, "free market economics" simply represents the most efficient way to promote economic growth: they support it not based on some moral principle, but pragmatically, because it "works".

Most modern American fiscal conservatives accept some social spending programs not specifically delineated in the Constitution. As such, fiscal conservatism today exists somewhere between classical conservatism and contemporary consequentialist political philosophies.

Throughout much of the 20th century, one of the primary forces uniting the occasionally disparate strands of conservatism, and uniting conservatives with their liberal and socialist opponents, was opposition to communism, which was seen not only as an enemy of the traditional order, but also the enemy of western freedom and democracy. For example, in the 1980s, the United States government spent billions of dollars arming and supporting Islamic terrorists, because these terrorists were fighting communists. [11]

Social conservatism and tradition

Main article: Social conservatism

Social conservatism or "cultural conservatism" is generally dominated by defense of traditional social norms and values, of local customs and of societal evolution, rather than social upheaval, though the distinction is not absolute. Often based upon religion, modern cultural conservatives, in contrast to "small-government" conservatives and "states-rights" advocates, increasingly turn to the federal government to overrule the states in order to preserve educational and moral standards.

Social conservatives emphasize traditional views of social units such as the family, church, or locale. Social conservatives would typically define family in terms of local histories and tastes. To the Protestant or Catholic, social conservatism may entail support for defining marriage as between a man and a woman (thereby banning gay marriage) and laws placing restrictions on abortion.

From this same respect for local traditions comes the correlation between conservatism and patriotism. reference required Conservatives, out of their respect for traditional, established institutions, tend to strongly identify with nationalist movements, existing governments, and its defenders: police, the military, and national poets, authors, and artists. Conservatives hold that military institutions embody admirable values like honor, duty, courage, and loyalty. Military institutions are independent sources of tradition and ritual pageantry that conservatives tend to admire.

Some conservatives want to use federal power to block state actions they disapprove of. Thus in the 21st century came support for the "No Child Left Behind" program, support for a constitutional amendment prohibiting same-sex marriage, support for federal laws overruling states that attempt to legalize marijuana or assisted suicide. The willingness to use federal power to intervene in state affairs is the negation of the old state's rights position.

Anti-intellectualism has sometimes been a component of social conservatism, especially when intellectuals were seen in opposition to religion or as proponents of "progress". [12] In the 1920s, William Jennings Bryan led the battle against Darwinism and evolution, a battle which still goes on in some conservative circles today.

Fiscal conservatism

Main article: Fiscal conservatism

Fiscal conservatism is the economic and political policy that advocates restraint of governmental taxation and expenditures. Fiscal conservatives since the 18th century have argued that debt is a device to corrupt politics; they argue that big spending ruins the morals of the people, and that a national debt creates a dangerous class of speculators. The argument in favor of balanced budgets is often coupled with a belief that government welfare programs should be narrowly tailored and that tax rates should be low, which implies relatively small government institutions.

This belief in small government combines with fiscal conservatism to produce a broader economic liberalism, which wishes to minimize government intervention in the economy. This amounts to support for laissez-faire economics. This economic liberalism borrows from two schools of thought: the classical liberals' pragmatism and the libertarian's notion of "rights." The classical liberal maintains that free markets work best, while the libertarian contends that free markets are the only ethical markets.

Economic liberalism

The economic philosophy of conservatives in the United States tends to be liberalism. Economic liberalism can go well beyond fiscal conservatism's concern for fiscal prudence, to a belief or principle that it is not prudent for governments to intervene in markets. It is also, sometimes, extended to a broader "small government" philosophy. Economic liberalism is associated with free-market, or laissez-faire economics.

Economic liberalism, insofar as it is ideological, owes its creation to the "classical liberal" tradition, in the vein of Adam Smith, Friedrich A. Hayek, Milton Friedman, and Ludwig von Mises.

Classical liberals and libertarians support free markets on moral, ideological grounds: principles of individual liberty morally dictate support for free markets. Supporters of the moral grounds for free markets include Ayn Rand and Ludwig von Mises. The liberal tradition is suspicious of government authority, and prefers individual choice, and hence tends to see capitalist economics as the preferable means of achieving economic ends.

Modern conservatives, on the other hand, derive support for free markets from practical grounds. Free markets, they argue, are the most productive markets. Thus the modern conservative supports free markets not out of necessity, but out of expedience. The support is not moral or ideological, but driven on the Burkean notion of prescription: what works best is what is right.

Another reason why conservatives support a smaller role for the government in the economy is the belief in the importance of the civil society. As noted by Alexis de Tocqueville, a bigger role of the government in the economy will make people feel less responsible for the society. The responsibilities must then be taken over by the government, requiring higher taxes. In his book Democracy in America, De Tocqueville describes this as "soft oppression".

It must be noted that while classical liberals and modern conservatives reached free markets through different means historically, to-date the lines have blurred. Rarely will a politician claim that free markets are "simply more productive" or "simply the right thing to do" but a combination of both. This blurring is very much a product of the merging of the classical liberal and modern conservative positions under the "umbrella" of the conservative movement.

The archetypal free-market conservative administrations of the late 20th century -- the Margaret Thatcher government in the UK and the Ronald Reagan government in the U.S. -- both held the unfettered operation of the market to be the cornerstone of contemporary modern conservatism (this philosophy is sometimes called neoliberalism). To that end, Thatcher privatized industries and Reagan cut the maximum capital gains tax from 28% to 20%, though in his second term he raised it back up to 28%. Contrary to the neoliberal ideal, Reagan increased government spending from about 700 billion in his first year in office to about 900 billion in his last year. [13]

The interests of capitalism, fiscal and economic liberalism, and free-market economy do not necessarily coincide with those of social conservatism. At times, aspects of capitalism and free markets have been profoundly subversive of the existing social order, as in economic modernization, or of traditional attitudes toward the proper position of sex in society, as in the now near-universal availability of pornography. To that end, on issues at the intersection of economic and social policy, conservatives of one school or another are often at odds.

Conservatism in the United States electoral politics

See also: Dixiecrats, Southern strategy, Solid South, Contract with America

In the United States, the Republican Party is generally considered to be the party of conservatism. This has been the case since the 1960s, when the conservative wing of that party consolidated its hold, causing it to shift permanently to the right of the Democratic Party. The most dramatic realignment was the white South, which moved from 3-1 Democratic to 3-1 Republican between 1960 and 2000.

Map of results by state of the 2004 U.S. presidential election representing states won by the Republicans with red, and states won by the Democrats with blue.

In addition, many United States libertarians, in the Libertarian Party and even some in the Republican Party, see themselves as conservative, even though they advocate significant economic and social changes – for instance, further dismantling the welfare system or liberalizing drug policy. They see these as conservative policies because they conform to the spirit of individual liberty that they consider to be a traditional American value. It should be noted that although libertarians have had closer ties with conservatives, they do not typically believe themselves to be conservative.

On the other end of the scale, some Americans see themselves as conservative while not being supporters of free market policies. These people generally favor protectionist trade policies and government intervention in the market to preserve American jobs. Many of these conservatives were originally supporters of neoliberalism who changed their stance after perceiving that countries such as China were benefiting from that system at the expense of American production. However, despite their support for protectionism, they still tend to favor other elements of free market philosophy, such as low taxes, limited government and balanced budgets.

Conservative geography, "Red States"

Today in the U.S., geographically the South, the Midwest, the non-coastal West, and Alaska are conservative strongholds. However, the division of the United States into conservative red states and liberal blue states is artificial and does not reflect the actual distribution of voters of either stripe. Most college towns are generally liberal and vote Democratic. A light majority of people who live in rural areas and a smaller majority of those living in the "exurbs" or suburbs of a metropolitan area, tend to be conservative (socially, culturally, and/or fiscally) and vote Republican. People who live in the urban cores of large metropolitan areas tend to be liberal and vote Democratic. Thus, within each state, there is a division between city and county, between town and gown. [6] [7]


  1. The Conservative Philosophy
  2. About atheism
  3. The American Conservative Union
  4. [1]
  5. The word was originally used in the French Revolution. The British used it after 1839 to describe a major party. The first American usage is by Whigs who called themselves "Conservatives" in the late 1830s. Hans Sperber and Travis Trittschuh, American Political terms: An Historical Dictionary (1962) 94-97.
  6. Curtis, Bruce. "William Graham Sumner 'On the Concentration of Wealth.'" Journal of American History 1969 55(4): 823-832.
  7. Lapham 2004
  8. Reason Magazine, 1975-07-01
  9. Samuel P. Huntington, "The Clash of Civilizations," Foreign Affairs Summer 1993, v72, n3, p22-50, online version.
  10. [2]
  11. National Geographic, September 2007.
  12. Richard Hofstadter, Anti-Intellectualism in American Life (1963)
  13. The World Almanac and Book of Facts, ISBN 0-88687-910-8
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