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Does anyone know exactly where the basic \footnote command is defined?
texmf/tex/plain/base/plain.tex towards the end.
Section "G ltfloat.dtx" of the LaTeX2e source description file (look for source2e.pdf on CTAN) hat a subsection "Footnotes" that describes the LaTeX footnote commands. It's actually not easy to define what is the basic \footnote command in LaTeX as the \footnote command itself calls a number of macros that use global as well as local settings.