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Every historian has those peculiar archives moments when, while looking for something else entirely, they stumble across some snippet of information that makes one stop and think and reconsider how what they do as a historian relates to the present day. I had one of those moments recently in the Kansas State History Museum, when I came across an article in the Topeka Journal of Feb. 12, 1921. It was a report of the recollections of several elderly people who had met Abraham Lincoln when he made his campaign swing through Kansas in 1859, when he was the dark horse candidate for the Republican nomination.
This was the time of “Bloody Kansas” and only a few months after John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry. The Civil War was a little over a year away. According to one of the elderly men who, as a teenage boy 62 years before, met Lincoln, there was much fear for his safety.
One afternoon, Lincoln disappeared. His entourage were alarmed when they learned that P.T. Abell, who was regarded as the leader of the pro-slavery faction in Kansas, had been seen in town. Lincoln’s supporters, terrified that foul play had befallen him, began a frantic search.
The searchers were startled when they found Lincoln and Abell, who like Lincoln, was a Kentucky native, sitting together in a restaurant sipping coffee and amicably “swapping reminiscences of early Kentucky days.”
Popular myth obscures the fact today, but during his lifetime, Abraham Lincoln was probably the most hated president in American history.
P.T. Abell’s enemies portrayed him as a murderous fiend, the pro-slavery version of John Brown. In fact, neither Lincoln nor Abell was an extremist and each one recognized that the other was not, yet the real extremists on both sides portrayed them as such-and it was the extremists, men who would accept no compromise, indeed would not even acknowledge the legitimacy of the other side, who poisoned political discourse and pushed the country into the Civil War.
There is a lesson in this for us today, a lesson that I fear that we are not heeding.