Celebrating 17 years

Alexander Hamilton and Slavery - page 2

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Hamilton's concern for the way Europe viewed the United States and his desire to avoid war led him to support the treaty. His ideas on credit influenced his view; he believed the United States would have trouble securing loans from other countries if it did not respect contracts. Hamilton, in his report on public credit, insisted that it was inevitable that the United States would have to borrow money from another country at some point in time. Therefore, the United States must maintain good credit with lending countries to assure favorable interest rates. He reasoned: "it is easy to conceive how immensely the expences of a nation, in a course of time, will be augmented by an unsound state of the public credit."[37] Hamilton explained that the way to obtain favorable credit terms was "by good faith, by a punctual performance of contracts."[38] He declared that a "breach of the public engagements, whether from choice or necessity, is in different degrees hurtful to public credit."[39] The debt the United States owed because of the Revolutionary War, according to Hamilton, hurt its credit. Hamilton wanted a strong national government to avoid future embarrassments.[40]

Hamilton's position on the peace treaty was motivated by his concern for the reputation of the United States. Hamilton was distressed that the slaveholding states wanted to ignore the 1783 Peace Treaty because the British had taken away some slaves. "In the eye of a foreign nation, if our engagements are broken, it is of no moment whether it is for the want of good intention in the government or for want of power to restrain its subjects."  Hamilton also asked in his letter to Clinton "Do we think national character so light a thing as to be willing to sacrifice the public faith to individual animosity?" [41] Furthermore, Hamilton worried that the U.S. would become a "pawn in Europe's game."[42] Hamilton wanted the U.S. to stand up to Britain but thought the U.S. lacked power. Therefore, he wanted the U.S. to get as much as it could without risking war.

In addition, Hamilton believed the U.S. lacked the strength to go to war against Britain again. David Gellman, in Emancipating New York, points out that Hamilton used the practical reasoning of avoiding war, in addition to appealing to moral sentiment, to persuade readers of the Argus to support the treaty.[43] Hamilton believed that no other country would stand up to Britain, especially France because of its recent financial troubles. Therefore, the United States should try to get what they could through conciliatory efforts by upholding their side of the treaty, regardless of Britain's infractions. Hamilton stressed that his position resulted from his concern for "national honor, safety and advantage."[44]  Hamilton remained diplomatic when he spoke directly with British officials. During a conversation with George Beckwith, Hamilton noted that the British had failed to uphold their side of the treaty with regard to the western forts and blacks. He went on to say "although, as to the latter I always decidedly approved of Lord Dorchester's conduct on that occasion, he could not do otherwiseÖ"[45] Lord Dorchester had refused to return blacks carried off by the British and refused to compensate their former owners; Dorchester claimed that the British promised freedom to slaves if they fought for Britain, so he claimed the British took free men not slaves.[46] Hamilton's comment was not a show of sympathy for slaves, but a diplomatic tactic. George Beckwith had served under Guy Carleton during the American Revolution. (Guy Carleton became Lord Dorchester, when the British government honored him with the title in 1786.) Beckwith continued to work under Lord Dorchester after the war. Therefore, whatever comments Hamilton made to Beckwith, he could be sure Lord Dorchester would hear them. Hamilton's tactic worked; in his next conversation with Beckwith, Beckwith told Hamilton that Dorchester appreciated his "civility."[47] Hamilton cared a great deal about how western European countries viewed the United States, especially Great Britain, and thus would have appreciated Dorchester's comment. 

Hamilton wanted to be diplomatic with the British minister, but he also wanted to assure Washington and other slaveholders that he sympathized with their cause. Hamilton had continued to urge Britain to compensate slaveholders, but he made his pleas indirectly. In 1792, Jefferson sent out his proposed reply to George Hammond (the British minister to the United States) to members of Washington's cabinet for review. Hamilton, then Secretary of the Treasury, responded by writing that the British had ignored the Treaty when they took slaves.[48]  In April, 1794, Hamilton sent Washington his recommendations of points Jay should make to Britain.[49] Hamilton suggested that Jay mention the "indemnification for our Negroes carried away."[50] Even when Hamilton stopped pressing for the return of former slaves, he attempted to gain compensation for their former masters. Perhaps his belief in property rights overruled whatever sympathy he maintained for slaves. He was inclined to uphold the law, even if that law allowed holding people as property. 

Hamilton changed his position on the British carrying off Negroes in order to support Jay's Treaty, an agreement between the United States and Great Britain as a means to resolve disputes arising from the Peace Treaty of 1783. In July, 1795, Hamilton sent his "Remarks on the Treaty of Amity Commerce and Navigation lately made between the United States and Britain" to George Washington.[51] Hamilton commented on the carrying away of blacks by the British by saying, "though the restoration of property is a favored thing yet the surrender of persons to slavery is an odious thing speaking in the language of the laws of nations."[52] He was concerned with how other countries viewed the U.S. His comments came not from his own views of slavery, but from his understanding of how the world viewed it. Moreover, his statement concerning the "surrender of persons to slavery" does not refer to those already enslaved but to people who were free and would be placed back in bondage. Hamilton was more comfortable advocating the prevention of re-enslavement rather than abolition of slavery because it did not involve the issue of property rights. Still, regardless of Hamilton's ideals about freedom and slavery, his main objective was securing American power. Hamilton stressed that his position resulted from his concern for "national honor, safety and advantage."[53]

Hamilton went on to explain that the way the U.S. viewed the passage dealing with the British taking blacks with them in the Treaty of 1783 differed from the way other countries viewed the same passage. Hamilton argued that the British could interpret the passage in such a way as to make it legal to carry away blacks who had been freed. The U.S. viewed the passage as meaning "no NegroesÖwhich had been American propertyÖ" while the British interpreted the passage to mean "that no new destruction was to be committed."[54] Since the agreement refers to what the British were to do after that point, Hamilton's position is logical because the slaves freed before that point would have been considered free at the time the treaty was made. Therefore, the British would have already considered them free people and not slaves. Hamilton assured Washington "That I do not mean to advocate this sense in preference to the other."[55] He concluded that the "Compensation for the Negroes, if not a point of doubtful right, is certainly a point of no great moment. It involves no principle of future operations."[56] He conceded to Washington that compensation for slaves may be right, but that the opportunity cost of pressing the point was too high. Slaveholders still continued to pressure Washington and Congress to obtain the return of their former slaves. If that was not possible, they wanted the government to secure compensation for them. Washington and Hamilton, while sympathetic to southerners, refused to grant the slaveholders their wish by dismissing the treaty over the British infraction. Schama explains that Washington was not happy about it, but he accepted that the slaves carried off were not coming back.[57]

Hamilton's shift does not show a change of heart; it shows that Hamilton wanted to avoid war with Britain and to gain the advantages of the other parts of the treaty, which included an article that allowed for increased trade. Moreover, he pointed out that New York, with its large number of forts still under British occupation, should support the idea that the treaty was binding at the time it was created.[58] Hamilton's primary motive for relinquishing his former claim on the British returning former slaves to their owners had more to do with the benefits it would bring to New York than with his concern for freeing slaves. Hamilton wanted to do what was in the interest of the United States; that he had to sacrifice the return of blacks or compensation for slaveholders was a by-product, not his priority. To be sure, his priority was not to uphold slavery either. Hamilton was trying to accommodate the southern slaveholders, but he was also trying to secure what he thought was the best deal for America.

Besides his private correspondence with Washington, Hamilton published a series of Defenses anonymously in newspapers to gain public support for Jay's Treaty. In Defense III, Hamilton wrote, "Nations no more than individuals, ought to persist in error, especially at the sacrifice of their peace and prosperity."[59] Hamilton argued that the rules of war allow one side to confiscate property. Therefore, the British had a right to take Negroes during the war. Hamilton explained that according to the laws of war, any property the enemy acquires during war becomes his property: "Negroes by the laws of the states in which slavery is allowed are personal property."[60] Therefore, Hamilton reasoned that when the British acquired slaves, the slaves became their property and the U.S. ceased to hold claim over them. Hamilton went on to say that when the British freed them it was wrong to re-enslave them.[61]

Hamilton did not give up on the return of or compensation for Negroes carried away by the British because he wanted blacks to be free, he did so because he did not think the issue was important enough to risk war with Britain. Furthermore, Hamilton thought the issue was of minor consequence to the U.S. as a nation: "affecting in no respect, the honor or security of the nation, and incapable of having a sensible influence upon its prosperity."[62] Hamilton explained, "The pecuniary value of the object is in national scale trifling" and showed that the "evidence for a claim of compensation was short of 3000 persons." When Hamilton calculated the monetary worth of the slaves taken, he came up with less than $600,000 that the British would owe U.S. slaveholders. Nonetheless, Hamilton went on to assure the reader that Jay had argued America's position to the British, but had decided not to press the issue because it was futile.[63]

Hamilton's arguments met resistance, particularly from Brockholst Livingston, who published his replies anonymously under the penname Cinna.  Livingston wrote:

the reasoning of Camillus [Hamilton's penname] is constrained and contradictory; that in one breath he likens Negroes to horses, cattle, and other movables, and as such, liable to become booty; in the next, considers them as rational beings, and as such intitled to liberty under British Proclamations.[64]

Although Livingston had a point, Hamilton dismissed his reasoning because he saw no contradiction; instead, he believed his position was the natural result of varying laws. In states where slavery is legal, Negro slaves are property and bound by the rules of war. Hamilton explained that "by the laws of God and nature, they [black slaves] were capable of acquiring liberty." Therefore, when Britain granted them freedom "the gift was not only valid, but irrevocable." Hamilton argued that if the Negro remained property, then the previous owner would have a claim to the return of said property; but, if the slave was granted freedom, then "no legal or moral power" existed to make such a claim. While Hamilton argued in support of Jay's Treaty and therefore against compensation for loss of slaves, he still found the British arming slaves against their masters to be an "odious" and "immoral" act.[65]

To defend himself, more than to defend the treaty, Hamilton wrote under the name of Philo-Camillus. Livingston had accused Hamilton of changing his position because of a motion Hamilton made to Congress in 1783. Hamilton, who had requested that the U.S. demand compensation for Negroes carried off during the war, argued that his motion differed from Jefferson's statement where he "formally and explicitly" stated that the carrying away of Negroes constituted the first breach of the peace treaty.  Hamilton pointed out that he never officially accused the British of the first breach of the treaty. Hamilton avoided making statements or claims that could be offensive to Great Britain to avoid confrontation. Hamilton believed that he was not being contradictory because he never said, at least not publicly, that the British made the first breach. Moreover, Hamilton wrote that Camillus neglected stating his own opinion on the matter and points to what he said in Congress as "no evidence that he did not then consider it in the same light with Camillus -- that is, as a very doubtful point."[66] After these essays were published in the newspapers, Hamilton sent a letter to George Washington explaining that "the affair of the Negroes to give satisfaction may be retouched but with caution & delicacy." Although the U.S. Congress had ratified the Treaty prior to this point, the British government had not and the final enactment of Jay Treaty was not until February 29, 1796.[67] Hamilton gave in slightly to his opposition in his letter to Washington, but he still maintained his desire to avoid conflict with Britain.

Hamilton's response to the Haitian Revolution further demonstrates that Hamilton supported property rights over supporting blacks' right to liberty. On August 23, 1791, slaves on the island of Saint Dominique rose up against their masters and started, what would later become known as, the Haitian Revolution. It began with the large-scale massacre of slave owners and the widespread destruction of property. The French government lacked the funds to aid its colonists. Consequently, French minister Jean Baptist de Ternant requested that the United States pay back at least part of their debt to France.[68]  Hamilton replied to Ternant's request assuring him that the United States would pay part of the debt immediately, "[r]egretting most sincerely the calamitous event," which had occurred in Saint Dominique.[69] 

Hamilton wanted to help the French, but he hesitated in repaying the U.S. debt. Beyond his doubt of the United States' financial ability, he thought it was unwise to pay the French government under the current political situation. At the time of the slave uprising in Saint Dominique, King Louis XVI and Queen Marie-Antoinette still retained their titles and their lives but they were stripped of all real power.[70] Hamilton worried that if the King regained control, the money paid to the revolutionary government would not count towards the debt, which the United States had incurred during the American Revolution when the King still ruled France.[71]

Nonetheless, Hamilton believed it was necessary to help the French government aid colonists in Saint Dominique. In a letter to George Washington, Hamilton explained his belief that the U.S. should pay enough to the French so the colonists in Saint Dominique would not starve. He went on to characterize the insurrection as a "misfortune" that "has for some time distressed" the French government.[72] Hamilton's reaction was not the reaction of an abolitionist wishing to see blacks free. Instead of sympathizing with the black slaves on the island, Hamilton sympathized with their owners. What is more, a number of Hamilton's friends resided in the West Indies, including a friend of his who lived in Saint Dominique.[73]

Hamilton worried that an uprising like the one in Saint Dominique would occur in the U.S. if the strength of the government was compromised. Hamilton thought that in a war with France blacks would join the side of the French. He wanted to avoid war with France, but if war was unavoidable, then certain measures should be taken including raising "additional Artillery and Two thousand additional cavalry" to put down "the insurrection of the Southern Negroes...."[74]

Hamilton pondered how the U.S. should respond to Pierre-Dominique Toussaint L'Ouverture's declaration of Saint Dominique's independence. Toussaint was in control of a large portion of Saint-Dominique and was preparing to make his rule official. Hamilton wrote to Timothy Pickering: "The United States must not be committed on the Independence of St. Domingo [Saint Dominique]."[75] He told Pickering that a verbal assurance to Toussaint should be sufficient to carry on trade with Saint Dominique. When Toussaint declared independence, Hamilton wanted trade to continue as long as Toussaint could assure the safety of U.S. property.[76] Hamilton's priority was to ensure the protection of U.S. property and trade.       

Daniel G. Lang considers Hamilton's response to the Haitian Revolution as an example of him indirectly supporting "[h]uman rights – the antislavery cause...."[77] He believes Hamilton supported the Haitian Revolution as a means of the U.S. "vindicating human nature" and points to Federalist number 11 as proof that Hamilton supported free and color-blind governments. Lang's conclusion is the result of his view of Hamilton's views toward slavery. He believes that "Hamilton's opposition to slavery was unequivocal and long standing; his commitment to the eventual abolition of slavery was clear."[78] Lang presents a more complex picture than his claim suggests. For example, he explains that

whatever force a nation's general obligations to humanity might haveÖthey are superseded by specific, contractual obligations. The French loan had to be repaid, even though doing so might benefit white planters seeking to restore a slave-based plantation economy.[79]

Moreover, Lang points to Federalist no. 11 to show that Hamilton "attached American foreign policy to the antislavery cause." Federalist 11 does not make such a claim; Hamilton's point was that the American states should unite to prevent European economic domination of America and American trade. Lang's reference to Hamilton's call "to vindicate the honor of the human race" should be taken in the same light as Jefferson's "all me are created equal" rather than assuming that Hamilton "supported the idea that people of any race or continent possessed the capacity to develop free, race-blind governments."[80]

Hamilton would have been one of the exceptions to his generation if he had pushed for the abolition of racial slavery. He had supported America's break from Britain, but remained uneasy about riots and revolutions. He favored stability, which was essential for the growth of America. While he maintained ideas about the natural equality of blacks and whites, his actions did not coincide with his ideas. He supported the property rights of slaveholders, which he did to benefit himself or America economically. When he went against individual property rights, it was to secure the reputation of his country or to avoid war, which Hamilton viewed as a hindrance to trade. Besides his beliefs on the right to property and his desire for American prosperity, Hamilton maintained social ambitions. Hamilton chose secure relationships to benefit his station rather than taking a strong stance against slavery. If Hamilton had not secured these relationships, it is doubtful whether he could have accomplished as much as he did. While not a plantation owner, nor an abolitionist, Hamilton attempted to stay on good terms with people who were either one or the other. His goal was to help create a prosperous and powerful America.



[1]John C. Miller, Alexander Hamilton: Portrait in Paradox (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1957), 122. Miller also claimed that Hamilton owned slaves throughout his life and did not suggest that there was a contradiction between being an abolitionist and owning slaves.

[2] Forest McDonald, Alexander Hamilton: a Biography (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1979), 34. For examples of Hamilton biographers' who claim he was an abolitionist see Richard Brookhiser, Alexander Hamilton: American (New York: The Free Press, 1999); Ron Chernow, Alexander Hamilton (New York: Penguin Press, 2004);Henry Cabot Lodge, Alexander Hamilton (Edinburgh: David Douglas, 1886) ; Broadus Mitchell, Alexander Hamilton: Youth to Maturity (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1957); Broadus Mitchell, Alexander Hamilton: The National Adventurer (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1962); Nathan Schachner, Alexander Hamilton (New York: D. Appleton-Century Company, 1946).

[3] James Oliver Horton "Alexander Hamilton: Slavery and Race in a Revolutionary Generations," New York: The New York Journal of American History 3 (2004), 16-17, http://www.alexanderhamiltonexhibition.org/about/Horton%20-%20Hamiltsvery_Race.pdf.

[4]  Papers of Alexander Hamilton, eds. Harold C. Syrett, Jacob E. Cooke, and Barbara Chernow, vol. 1 (New York: Columbia Univ., 1961-1987), 4.

[5]  Papers of Alexander Hamilton, 2:34-38.

[6]  Papers of Alexander Hamilton, 1:283-284.

[7]  Papers of Alexander Hamilton, 3:585

[8]  Law Practice of Alexander Hamilton, eds. Julius Goebel Jr. and  Joseph H. Smith, vol. 5 (New York: Columbia Univ., 1964), 494. Scholars disagree on whether Hamilton owned slaves or not. Hamilton's grandson, Allan McLane Hamilton, asserted that Hamilton owned slaves and used Hamilton's expense-book as evidence: "Cash to N. Low 2 Negro servants purchased by him for me, $250." If he did it would strengthen the argument that Hamilton had other priorities than freeing slaves. Still, even if he did not, his involvement in slave transactions shows he accepted the reality that slavery existed in America.

[9] Papers of Alexander Hamilton, 2:18.

[10] Papers of Alexander Hamilton, 2:18.

[11] Chernow, 121. Daniel G. Lang "Hamilton and Haiti" in The Many Faces of Alexander Hamilton: The Life and Legacy of America's Most Elusive Founding Father (New York: New York University Press, 2006), 235. Lang also uses Hamilton's support of Laurens' plan as proof of his support of abolition.

[12] Papers of Alexander Hamilton, 4:30.

[13] Brookhiser, 175-176.

[14] New York Manumission Society Records, 1785-1849, 11 vols., New York Historical Society.

[15] "An Act for the gradual abolition of Slavery," March 29, 1799, Laws of the State of New York 22(Albany, 1799), 721-23. The law for gradual abolition of slavery was finally passed during the governorship of John Jay who was a founding and influential member of the New York Manumissions Society. Although Jay owned slaves, he was a well know advocate for gradual abolition in New York State and his position may have hurt him politically at times. Political Correspondence and Public Papers of Aaron Burr, eds. Mary-Jo Kline and Joanne Wood Ryan (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1983), 104-6. The New York Evening Post, founded by Hamilton, still contained advertisements for the renting out of slaves as of December 9, 1801. If Hamilton was strongly opposed to slavery and pushed for a law against it, it is reasonable to assume he could have prevented the printing of advertisements in his newspaper two years after the law was passed.

[16] Papers of Alexander Hamilton, 3:597.

[17] Papers of Alexander Hamilton, 3:604.

[18] Benjamin Franklin, An Address to the Public, from the Pennsylvania Society for Promoting the

abolition of slavery, and the relief of free Negroes unlawfully held in Bondage, November 9, 1789. Library of Congress, American Memory, http://lcweb2.loc.gov/cgibin/query/r?ammem/rbpe:@field(DOCID +@lit9rbpe 14701000))

[19] Papers of Alexander Hamilton, 4:30.

[20] Papers of Alexander Hamilton, 4:43.

[21] Papers of Alexander Hamilton, 2:408.

[22] The Records of the Federal Convention of 1787, Max Ferrand, ed., revised edition, 4 vols. (New Haven:

Yale Univ., 1937) http://press-pubs.uchicago.edu/founder/print_documents/v1ch8s10.html

[23] Papers of Alexander Hamilton, 2:24.

[24] The Records of the Federal Convention of 1787, 5-6.

[25] The Records of the Federal Convention of 1787, 5-6.

[26] New York Evening Post. 1801.

[27] The Definitive Treaty of Peace 1783. Treaties and Other International Acts of the United States of America, ed. Hunter Miller, Vol. 2: 1776-1818 (Washington : Government Printing Office, 1931), Avalon Project of Yale University. http://www.yale.edu/lawweb/avalon/diplomacy/britain/paris.htm

[28] Schama, Simon, Rough Crossings: Britain, the Slaves, and the American Revolution (New York: HarpersCollins, 2006), 138.

[29] Schama, 146. Guy Carleton was commander of the British troops in America during the initial peace between Britain and America. He was responsible for the evacuation. Carleton became known as Lord Dorchester in 1786 after being honored by Britain.

[30] Schama, 148.

[31] Papers of Alexander Hamilton, 3:365.

[32] Papers of Alexander Hamilton, 3:369.

[33] Papers of Alexander Hamilton, 3:371. James Monroe and Thomas Jefferson were the most famous who disagreed with Hamilton on this issue. Jefferson, Thomas, Autobiography, Avalon Project of Yale University http://www.yale.edu/lawweb/avalon /jeffauto.htm# treatydebate

[34] Papers of Alexander Hamilton, 3:540.

[35] Papers of Alexander Hamilton, 3:540.

[36] Papers of Alexander Hamilton, 3:367-372.

[37] Papers of Alexander Hamilton, 6:67-68.

[38] Papers of Alexander Hamilton, 6:68.

[39] Papers of Alexander Hamilton, 6:68.

[40] Papers of Alexander Hamilton, 6:68.

[41] Papers of Alexander Hamilton, 3:369, 370.

[42] Papers of Alexander Hamilton, 3:304.

[43] David N. Gellman, Emancipating New York: The Politics of Slavery and Freedom, 1777-1827 (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2006), 137.

[44] Papers of Alexander Hamilton, 3:371.

[45] Papers of Alexander Hamilton, 5:487.

[46] Papers of Alexander Hamilton, 5:487.

[47] Papers of Alexander Hamilton, 26:526.

[48] Papers of Alexander Hamilton, 11:408-409.

[49] John Jay, then Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, was sent as special envoy to Great Britain.

[50] Papers of Alexander Hamilton, 16:319-321.

[51] The Treaty of Amity Commerce and Navigation was the preliminary version of the Jay's Treaty. An additional article was added to it before it was officially signed by the U.S. and Britain.

[52] Papers of Alexander Hamilton, 18:404, 415.

[53] Papers of Alexander Hamilton, 3:371.

[54] Papers of Alexander Hamilton, 17:517.

[55] Papers of Alexander Hamilton, 17:417.

[56] Papers of Alexander Hamilton, 17:431.

[57] Schama, 138, 149.

[58] Papers of Alexander Hamilton, 3:367-372.

[59] Papers of Alexander Hamilton, 3:513-516.

[60] Papers of Alexander Hamilton, 3:518.

[61] Papers of Alexander Hamilton, 3:519.

[62] Papers of Alexander Hamilton, 19:92-93.

[63] Papers of Alexander Hamilton, 19:93.

[64] Papers of Alexander Hamilton, 19:101-102.

[65] Papers of Alexander Hamilton, 19:101-102.

[66] Papers of Alexander Hamilton, 19:160-162.

[67] Papers of Alexander Hamilton, 19:236.

[68] Ternant was minister plenipotentiary to the United States from 1790-1793.

[69] Papers of Alexander Hamilton, 9:220.

[70] Papers of Alexander Hamilton, 16:738-741.

[71] Papers of Alexander Hamilton, 13:169.

[72] Papers of Alexander Hamilton, 13:170.

[73] Papers of Alexander Hamilton, 26:89-91, 117.

[74] Papers of Alexander Hamilton, 21:33, 38-39.

[75] Papers of Alexander Hamilton, 22:475. Hamilton often referred to Saint-Dominique as Santo Domingo, which was a separate country.

[76] Papers of Alexander Hamilton, 22:475.

[77] Daniel Lang, "Hamilton and Haiti," in The Many Faces of Alexander Hamilton: The Life and Legacy of America's Most Elusive Founding Father (New York: New York University Press, 2006), 243.

[78] Lang, 234.

[79] Lang, 242.

[80] Lang, 242. Alexander Hamilton, "The Utility of the Union in respect to Commerce and a Navy," in The Federalist, ed. George Stade (New York: Barnes and Noble Classic, 2006), 65.