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Union League - Open Journal Systems

The Union League of Philadelphia and the Civil War By Barbara J. Mitnick The League House, between Broad and 15th Streets, c. 1910 postcard. The Uni...

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Union League of Philadelphia and the Civil War By Barbara J. Mitnick

The League House, between Broad and 15th Streets, c. 1910 postcard. The Union League of Philadelphia.

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DECEMBER 27, 1862, began as an ordinary Saturday in a city located at the crossroads of a war-torn nation. Philadelphians on both sides of the secession and slavery issues were living side by side, walking the same streets, dining in the same clubs, and conducting business in the city’s financial institutions and commercial establishments. Just six weeks earlier, searching for a place “where true men might breathe without having their atmosphere contaminated by treason,” a small group of pro-Union men had established The Union Club of Philadelphia, with articles of association stipulating “unqualified loyalty to the Government of the United States and unwavering support of its measures for the suppression of the Rebellion.”1 By late December, after recognizing a need to encourage even stronger support, they went on to found The Union League of Philadelphia, the first association of its kind in the nation, with the more resolute purpose of using “every proper means in public and private” to aid the Union cause.2 The mission would become a grand success. The Union League of Philadelphia’s proud contributions of determination, intellect, and treasure provided crucial aid to President Abraham Lincoln and the Northern forces. The nation that had declared its independence in the League’s home city 89 years earlier was saved.

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Before the war, a significant number of Philadelphians had strong Southern family, business, and educational affiliations. The city, as described by writer, historian, and Republican politician Alexander McClure, was “a great emporium of Southern commerce”— an important source for goods highly prized by Southern customers. Conversely, the city’s manufacturers relied on the importation of raw materials from Southern vendors—in particular, lumber, turpentine, and cotton.3

state his belief in the “incalculable blessing” of slavery and his hope that if there was to be a division of the Union, the line of separation should “run north of Pennsylvania!”4 The audacious attack on Fort Sumter by Confederate forces on April 12, 1861, quickly raised the level of Union support among Philadelphians, as well as escalated acts of rebellion in the city by Southern sympathizers. While Philadelphia’s pro-Union newspapers kept the public informed, local Copperhead

calling for 75,000 troops, to which loyal Philadelphians, including later founders of the Union League, replied by declaring their “unalterable determination to sustain the Government in its efforts to maintain the honor, the integrity, and the existence of our national Union.”6 Within this context of war, destruction, and local tension, prominent Philadelphians began a process that would fundamentally change the course of local history and that

At the time of President Abraham Lincoln’s election in the fall of 1860, Philadelphia, and, indeed, the whole of Pennsylvania, remained bitterly divided over issues related to slavery and civil rights.

Nevertheless, at the time of President Abraham Lincoln’s election in the fall of 1860, Philadelphia, and, indeed, the whole of Pennsylvania, remained bitterly divided over issues related to slavery and civil rights. When meetings in late 1860 and early January 1861 failed to resolve the national crisis, many Southern sympathizers continued to argue for a settlement that would avoid war while permitting the continuation of slavery. Pennsylvania Supreme Court associate justice George W. Woodward even went so far as to

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publications such as the Palmetto Flag (named for the state flag and symbol of South Carolina), which had debuted in early April, continued to espouse Southern positions.5 On April 15, only three days after the fall of Sumter, angry mobs filled the streets of Philadelphia; some began to attack the Palmetto Flag’s offices. Indeed, local diarist Sidney George Fisher recorded that “several well-known persons, who had openly expressed secession opinions, had been assaulted in the streets.” On the same day, President Lincoln issued a proclamation

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of the nation. For it was in November 1862 that lawyer, poet, playwright, patriot, and (later) diplomat George Henry Boker and Pennsylvania’s eminent jurist Judge John Innes Clark Hare met by chance “in” Seventh Street and began a conversation that would result in the founding of The Union League of Philadelphia.7 After graduating from the College of New Jersey (now Princeton University), George Boker studied law but resolved to focus his attention on poetry, literature, and

Photograph of Abraham Lincoln taken by Mathew Brady, February 27, 1860. Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, 3a09102u.

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On that fateful day, Boker and Hare began their conversation with what Boker would later describe as “a comparison of

Painting of George Henry Boker by Matthew Henry Wilson, oil on canvas, 1882.

their sorrows.”

The Union League of Philadelphia.

(Opposite Page) John Innes Clark Hare. Historical Society of Pennsylvania Portrait Collection.

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Judge Hare particularly expressed his displeasure with “men, who were almost leagued with the Southern traitors.”

playwriting. By 1860, he had become an ardent opponent of slavery and a supporter of the policies of Abraham Lincoln; he would soon defend the president’s suspension of the writ of habeas corpus. Boker had also begun to use his considerable literary talents to circulate his political philosophy. In “Ad Poetas,” published in the city’s Daily Evening Bulletin in September 1861, he produced a lyrical counterpart to Lincoln’s call to arms as he encouraged “the heroes of our holy cause” to reunite the union of American states. Judge Hare was a prominent Philadelphian who had enjoyed a career as a professor of law and an appointment as associate judge of the District Court of Philadelphia.8 On that fateful day, Boker and Hare began their conversation with what Boker would later describe as “a comparison of their sorrows.” Both men understood that the dire

wartime situation had weakened support for the Union, as clearly demonstrated by the recent defeat of Republican candidates in the 1862 midterm congressional elections. Judge Hare particularly expressed his displeasure with “men, who were almost leagued with the Southern traitors … walking with high heads among our people, openly exulting in our discomfiture, and eagerly waiting for the day of our utter overthrow.” He ruminated about withdrawing from “social relations” with disloyal men and organizing a society of loyalists into a “Union Club” that would “positively” exclude those deemed disloyal “from the meetings of the proposed club by the strongest enactments of the articles of association.” “Warmed with the zeal of fresh conviction,” Boker immediately took the proposal to the nearby office of Morton McMichael, publisher of the North

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American, where he was sure he would find a receptive audience. Widely known for his oratorical and publishing skills, McMichael would later gain fame for his government and civic service, which came to include a term as mayor of Philadelphia from 1866 to 1869 and the presidency of the Union League from 1870 to 1874.9 Invitations, although deliberately unsigned due to the current danger, were sent to a select group of men by attorney Benjamin Gerhard to attend a gathering at his Fourth Street home (reportedly on November 15), which he covertly described as “a meeting of loyal men, for a patriotic purpose.” Although serious issues were on the agenda, little was accomplished until the second meeting, when a standing committee consisting of McMichael, Hare, Boker, Gerhard, and Charles Gibbons submitted four articles of association naming

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The goal was to organize loyalists of every political persuasion who shared one all-important objective: the salvation of the American Union.

the new organization “The Union Club of Philadelphia” and limiting its membership to 50 men who would declare “unqualified loyalty to the Government of the United States and unwavering support of its measures for the suppression of the Rebellion.”10 During the new organization’s next five meetings, members exhibited increasing enthusiasm for the “cause” as well as “hatred and alarm” directed at disloyal men. At the same time, McMichael also kept up the momentum in his North American editorials by praising Lincoln’s preliminary announcement of the Emancipation Proclamation, condemning slavery, and railing against secession.11 Word of the Union Club’s mission quickly spread, as evidenced by the increasing number of attendees at its meetings. Organizers resolved to expand the club’s membership to further popularize their principles, and, as Boker later recalled, the group moved toward including “in one great association all the patriotic citizens of Philadelphia who might choose to participate in our movement.”12

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Finally, on December 27, at the home of Philadelphia physician J. Forsyth Meigs, The Union League of Philadelphia was born (its new designation, “League,” likely related to its common definition as a compact or agreement for promoting mutual protection and common interests). The goal was to organize loyalists of every political persuasion who shared one all-important objective: the salvation of the American Union. Its articles of association, more aggressive than those of the Union Club, called for members to use “every proper means in public and private” for that purpose.13 Political arguments related to other national issues of the day, such as the tariff, popular sovereignty, and the Homestead Act, would be put off to a later time. It is not surprising, therefore, that the initial list of the more than 250 men who signed on to the League’s purpose between December 27, 1862, and January 10, 1863, would include members of both major political parties as well as those of undetermined affiliation. The Union League did not originate as a Republican club, but as one that would begin and continue to serve the dedicated pro-Union positions of members of all parties.14 In early January 1863, as the Union League was digesting the news of Lincoln’s final issue of the Emancipation Proclamation, it began to organize its administrative structure. Unlike the Union Club, which had met in the

(Left) Statue of Morton McMichael by John H. Mahoney, 1882, bronze, Fairmount Park, Philadelphia. The Union League of Philadelphia.

Emancipation Proclamation, 1863, signed by President Lincoln and Secretary of State Seward. This copy is one of 48 autographed printings by Frederick Leypoldt in Philadelphia for Charles Godfrey Leland and George H. Boker for sale as fundraisers at the Great Central Sanitary Fair held in Philadelphia in June 1864. Historical Society of Pennsylvania Treasures Collection.

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Cover of the Planter’s Almanac, published by The Union League of Philadelphia, 1864. Historical Society of Pennsylvania.

“The New Union League House,” Philadelphia Daily Evening Bulletin, May 5, 1865. The Union League of Philadelphia.

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In an attempt to gain access behind enemy lines, the Union League ingeniously sponsored the publication of a pamphlet disguised as the Planter’s Almanac for 1864, which actually included information encouraging Southern soldiers to desert.

homes of its members, the new Union League would require a headquarters to contain a reading room and an assembly area. The first “League House” (as the headquarters would eternally be known) was the Hartman Kuhn mansion at 1118 Chestnut Street. Only two years later, after recognizing the need for more space, Philadelphia architect John Fraser was commissioned to design a larger headquarters to be constructed on a newly acquired site on Broad Street. Fraser’s magnificent Second Empire building was completed in May 1865. Although President Lincoln had been expected to attend the dedication, it was not to be, for he had been tragically assassinated just one month earlier.15 The first Union League president was the much-admired attorney general of Pennsylvania William Morris Meredith, who in 1849 had served as President Zachary Taylor’s secretary of the treasury. Also in this early period, George Boker, the new League secretary, understanding that “the first effect” of the League was “to awaken a spirit of imitation” in what he called “faithful offspring,” set about encouraging other groups to form similar organizations. Within

two months, largely on the Philadelphia model, the New York Union League Club was founded, with articles requiring “a profound national devotion” and a desire to “strengthen a love and respect for the Union.” The Boston Union Club was also established that spring with noted orator Edward Everett as its first president. Others were organized elsewhere, but few would survive beyond the Civil War.16 Although just in its infancy, the Union League of Philadelphia quickly financed and provided the manpower for three major undertakings: a Board of Publication to disseminate pro-Union literature to be paid for through voluntary subscriptions; a Military Committee to organize fighting regiments and cavalry; and the accumulation of funds, men, and materiel to defend the city of Philadelphia from Southern invasion.17 No doubt, members of the new Union League Board of Publication understood the value of pamphleteering as a successful means of propaganda in the American Revolution as well as in several foreign wars.18 Thus, during the Civil War, the organization believed it could inspire the pro-Union opinion of loyal Americans as well as the efforts of the

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Northern forces. For safety considerations and to prevent confiscation behind enemy lines, pamphlets were often distributed with no reference to League sponsorship. They praised the Union army and addressed subjects including the impact of slavery on the nation, the employment of African American soldiers by George Washington and Andrew Jackson in previous wars, and the history of American liberty. In an attempt to gain access behind enemy lines, the Union League ingeniously sponsored the publication of a pamphlet disguised as the Planter’s Almanac for 1864, which actually included information encouraging Southern soldiers to desert.19 The board’s most active publication period during the war took place from April to October 1863, when it supported the reelection of Pennsylvania’s Governor Andrew Curtin. The following December, George Boker was able to report that “there is scarcely a posttown, from Maine to California, that has not received a package of our publications.”20 By October 1868, the League had created and distributed about 4.5 million copies of 145 pamphlets and 44 lithographs and posters.21 Other organizations were helpful and active in

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similar enterprises, but none approached the output and scope of the Philadelphia Union League, nor its ultimate impact. In Boker’s first annual report, he noted the creation of a magnificent Union League gold medal that was presented to President Lincoln on August 26. Silver counterparts were additionally awarded to members of the president’s cabinet and to outstanding military and naval commanders.22 The beginning of another significant practice was initiated when

volunteers. At the same time, Mayor Alexander Henry ordered business closures and urged all residents to join the defense effort. The Home Guard was activated, and citizens and clergy alike began to dig protective entrenchments. The leadership of the Union League assembled an emergency fund of $80,000, a sum that originally included money for “a grand national celebration” for the League’s first Fourth of July, which it appropriately curtailed. Boker also reported on a new

additional men and entrenchments for the city would not be necessary, for after a three-day battle, Pennsylvanian George G. Meade and the Union army had repelled Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia at Gettysburg. In November 1863, President Lincoln dedicated a national cemetery at the Gettysburg battlefield in what has come to be remembered as one of the finest speeches in history—one that by 1917 would be inscribed in its entirety on the walls of the Union League’s Lincoln Memorial Room.25

Lincoln praised the Union League in an impromptu speech as “an organization free from political prejudices and prompted in its formation by motives of the highest patriotism.”

the League began to acquire paintings and sculpture as well as manuscripts, books, and important relics of the war. These traditions have continued to the present day. By June 1863, along with all Philadelphians, League members feared a possible invasion of Pennsylvania by General Robert E. Lee and the Confederate army. Additional troops were needed; the city council voted a sum of $500,000 to raise enlistments, provide equipment, and pay three-month city

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Supervisory Committee for the Enlistment of Colored Troops begun by League members, a committee that had the moral support of the organization.23 The League also organized a Board of Enlistments, advertising bounties of from $35 to $300, the highest in the city. In little time, it raised more than $100,000 to provide funding for 10,000 men and would ultimately support nine regiments and one of cavalry.24 Fortunately, by July 4, it was clear that

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Despite the growing public discontent with the length and casualties of the war, in January 1864 the Union League unanimously passed a resolution of support for the president, which McMichael published in the North American, and championed Lincoln’s reelection in its newspaper, the Union League Gazette, which had a print run of some 560,000 copies. In June, Lincoln made his only visit to the Union League when he and Mary Todd Lincoln visited the city’s Great Central

Morton McMichael, publisher of the North American, ca. 1876. Historical Society of Pennsylvania Portrait Collection.

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Painting of Abraham Lincoln by Edward Dalton Marchant, oil on canvas, 1863. The Union League of Philadelphia.

Sanitary Fair. At a grand reception, Lincoln praised the Union League in an impromptu speech as “an organization free from political prejudices and prompted in its formation by motives of the highest patriotism.”26 By early 1864, the Union League had begun to receive some well-earned accolades for its support during the war. In February, a notable example came from the pen of Lincoln’s second secretary of war, Edwin Stanton, in a letter to Secretary Boker acknowledging his receipt of a League Silver Medal. Stanton praised the “labors” and the “the unflinching courage of the Union League of Philadelphia” that “contributed no small share” to what was beginning to be seen as an ultimate Northern victory. Years later, Pennsylvanian Simon Cameron, Lincoln’s first secretary of war, stated his belief that “this Union League, under

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God, did more than any civil organization in America to put down the Rebellion.”27 The war ended on April 9, 1865, just over three years and three months after The Union League of Philadelphia’s founding. On April 22, a week after the tragic assassination of Lincoln, League members met and followed his funeral cortege along with some 30,000 Philadelphians. By July, George Boker wrote one of his most significant poems, “Our Heroic Themes,” to eulogize the humble character of the martyred president.28 At the end of the year, in the League annual report, Boker wrote of the end of the war, declaring “the Rebellion is no more. It died hard, it died justly, it died, as all good men desired that it should, by the edge of the sword.” He left his readers with hope for a lasting peace, stating that it “was secured by no terms or compromises with the traitors; by not yielding

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of a single principle of policy or of conscience involved in the contest; by no injudicious permission to the conquered to revive the old abuses of their social system; and thus, in the midst of a mis-called peace, to plant in the land the seeds of another gigantic war.”29 Since the successful completion of this first mission, the sense of civic responsibility inherent in the Union League survives in the continuing patriotism of its members as well as its devotion to pursuing election reform, humanitarian efforts on behalf of city residents and immigrants, financial and manpower aid and assistance for all of the nation’s wars, and educational support for young people and adults. In recent years, these goals have been accomplished primarily through the establishment and outreach of the League’s Abraham Lincoln Foundation, along with other significant League initiatives, most recently The Sir John Templeton Heritage Center. For all of these efforts and more, The Union League of Philadelphia was honored during its sesquicentennial in 2012 as the #1 City Club in the nation.30 Barbara J. Mitnick is chief contributor and general editor to The Union League of Philadelphia: The First 150 Years (2012).

Boker wrote of the end of the war, declaring “the Rebellion is no more. It died hard, it died justly, it died, as all good men desired that it should, by the edge of the sword.”

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George H. Boker, First Annual Report of the Board of Directors of the Union League of Philadelphia (Philadelphia: King & Baird, 1863), 4. For the articles of association of the Union Club of Philadelphia and the subsequent founding of the Union League, see Barbara J. Mitnick, “The Founding,” in The Union League of Philadelphia: The First 150 Years, ed. Barbara J. Mitnick (Philadelphia: Union League of Philadelphia, 2012), 19–47, and esp. 29–30. For the Articles of Association of The Union League of Philadelphia, see Mitnick, The Union League, 33–35 and fig. 2.21. Alexander Kelly McClure, Old Time Notes of Pennsylvania, 2 vols. (Philadelphia: John C. Winston, 1905), 1:467. See also Frank Taylor, Philadelphia in the Civil War: 1861–1865 (Philadelphia: City of Philadelphia, 1913), 9–10, and Mitnick, The Union League, 9. Philadelphia Inquirer, December 14, 1860. See also Oliver H. G. Leigh et al., Chronicle of the Union League of Philadelphia 1862–1902 (Philadelphia: William F. Fell, 1902), 31, and Maxwell Whiteman, Gentlemen in Crisis: The First Century of the Union League of Philadelphia, 1862–1962 (Philadelphia: Union League of Philadelphia, 1975), 8. See Winnifred K. MacKay, “Philadelphia During the Civil War, 1861–1865,” Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography 70 (1946): 6, 8. See also Mitnick, The Union League, 51–52.

April 15, 1861, entry, “The Diary of Sidney George Fisher, 1861,” Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography 88 (1964): 80. For the response to President Lincoln’s proclamation, see Philadelphia Inquirer, April 15, 1861.

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See George Boker, A Memorial of the Union Club of Philadelphia: Proceedings of a Meeting of the Union Club of Philadelphia Held at the League House, December 27, 1870 (Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott, 1871), 13–15.

For George Boker, see Edward Sculley Bradley, George Henry Boker: Poet and Patriot (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1927), and Oliver H. Evans, George Henry Boker (Boston: G.K. Hall, 1984). For “Ad Poetas,” see Philadelphia Daily Evening Bulletin, September 19, 1861. The poem was later published in George H. Boker, Poems of the War (Boston: Ticknor and Fields, 1864), 133–35. For Judge John Innes Clark Hare, see William Draper Lewis, American Law Register (1898–1907) 54 (1906): 711–717.

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Boker, Memorial, 13–15. For McMichael, see Robert L. Bloom, “Morton McMichael’s North American,” Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography 77 (1953): 164–180. Boker, Memorial, 16–17, 19–20.

10

See Mitnick, “The Union League and the War to Preserve the Union,” in The Union League, 49–75.

17

Frank Freidel, ed., Union Pamphlets of the Civil War, 1861–1865, 2 vols. (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1967), 1:1.

18

 The Planter’s Almanac for 1864 (Philadelphia: Ling and Baird, 1864). The pamphlet also included Lincoln’s Amnesty Proclamation, stating conditions for receiving rebel deserters.

19

Boker, Annual Report (1863), 7.

20 21

 or a discussion of the number and significance of F the Union League pamphlets, see Mitnick, The Union League, 61–67.

Boker, Annual Report (1863), 12.

22

See MacKay, “Philadelphia During the Civil War,” 32–33, and Boker, Annual Report (1863), 8–9.

23

Boker, Memorial, 20–21. See also McMichael’s North American editorials published on September 19, October 4, November 6, and November 18, 1862.

11

See Mitnick, The Union League, 67–71.

24

For a discussion of the Union League’s Lincoln Memorial Room, see Robert Wilson Torchia, The Collections of the Union League of Philadelphia: Portraits of the Presidents of the United States, vol. 1 (Philadelphia: Abraham Lincoln Foundation of the Union League of Philadelphia, 2005), 44–48, and Mitnick, The Union League, 151–153.

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Boker, Memorial, 23.

12

See Mitnick, The Union League, 33.

13

See Edward S. Mawson broadside of original members of the Union League in the archives of The Union League of Philadelphia. Subsequent to the printing of the broadside, identification of the political party of each was noted by hand, but its accuracy is in question.

14

George Parsons Lathrop, History of the Union League of Philadelphia, from its Origin and Foundation to the Year 1882 (Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott, 1884), 38. For the architectural history of the League House, see “The League House from the Second Empire to the Beaux-Arts,” in Mitnick, The Union League, 77–111.

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Boker, Annual Report (1863), 5. For the New York Union League, see Union League Club of New York, Report of Executive Committee, Constitution, By-Laws, and Roll of Members (New York: Union League Club of New York, 1864). For the Boston Union Club, see the diary of Edward Everett, February 4, 1863, in the Edward Everett Papers, Massachusetts Historical Society.

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North American, January 12, 1864. For Lincoln’s remarks, see Roy P. Basler, The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, 8 vols. (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1953), 7:397.

26

For the Cameron and Stanton correspondence, see the Archives of The Union League of Philadelphia.

27

Boker delivered “Our Heroic Themes” to the Phi Beta Kappa Society of Harvard University on July 20, 1865. See also Boker, Our Heroic Themes: A Poem (Boston: Ticknor and Fields, 1865).

28

George H. Boker, Third Annual Report of the Board of Directors of the Union League, of Philadelphia (Philadelphia: Henry B. Ashmead, 1865), 3.

29

This designation was awarded by the Platinum Clubs of America.

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