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Abraham Lincoln in Kansas

Abraham Lincoln, 1850s“President Lincoln has been wickedly assassinated” and “a calamity that seems almost unbearable has visited the nation,” lamented Kansas Governor Samuel J. Crawford in a proclamation announcing the April 15, 1865, death of Abraham Lincoln. Although the 16th president of the United States had only visited Kansas once, nearly a year before being elected to that high office, Kansans loved this seemingly quintessential “common man.”

When Lincoln made his one and only Kansas sojourn in 1859, however, he seemed like just another politician, aspiring to the nation’s highest office. His senatorial debates with Stephen A. Douglas the previous year had gained Lincoln a national reputation and a modest following, but most Kansas Republicans favored his better-known rival for the young party’s nomination, William H. Seward. Thus, Lincoln’s trip to Kansas Territory received only slight press coverage and was relatively brief. His message, nevertheless, was one of significance for the territory and nation at a pivotal moment in our country’s history.

Abraham Lincoln crossed the Missouri River at St. Joseph by ferry and arrived in Elwood, Kansas, on November 30. That evening, he delivered his first Kansas speech at the Great Western Hotel. Lincoln condemned the institution of slavery, which the founders had considered an “evil” institution, and blamed the violence in Kansas Territory on the new policy of “popular sovereignty” as applied to the territories.

The next morning—a bitterly cold one by all accounts—Lincoln traveled to Troy where he spoke for nearly two hours in the early afternoon and then went on to Doniphan, some 10 miles away, where he delivered another speech and spent the night. Friday morning, December 2, Lincoln traveled to Atchison, arriving in the afternoon. At 8 p.m. he addressed a large crowd in the auditorium of the Methodist Church for 2 hours and 20 minutes, but, curiously, the speech did not even capture one line in the local newspaper, Freedom's Champion. Editor John A. Martin, a prominent Republican who would end a distinguished political career as governor of Kansas (1885-1889), was in the audience that evening, but he was a Seward man “and could not brook the thought of any encouragement or countenance given by the people of Atchison to a rival candidate.”

The news of John Brown’s execution reached the territory during Lincoln's visit. Lincoln thought Brown had “shown great courage, rare unselfishness.” But, with most Americans of the day, Lincoln believed Brown had gone too far. “Old John Brown has just been executed for treason against the state. We cannot object,” Lincoln reasoned, “even though he agreed with us in thinking slavery wrong. That cannot excuse violence, bloodshed, and treason. It could avail him nothing that he might think himself right.”

Leaving Atchison on Saturday morning, December 3, Lincoln was taken to Leavenworth and there a brass band and local dignitaries escorted him to his lodgings at the Mansion House. Speaking that evening, Lincoln reiterated his position that the “new policy” for dealing with the territories as set forth in the Kansas-Nebraska Act was “based on the idea that slavery is not wrong.” This was a failed policy, he insisted, for contrary to its promise, it had not brought a speedy end to slavery agitation or given the people of the territories more control over their own affairs. “All those who believe slavery is wrong,” proclaimed Lincoln, “should unite on a policy, dealing with it as a wrong.” Their policy should contain no ambiguity or “deceitful contrivances,” but, Lincoln insisted, “we are not trying to destroy it [slavery]. The peace of society, and the structure of our government both require that we should let it alone” in those states where it already existed. It was not, however, to be allowed to spread further; this, Lincoln insisted, was simply and “exactly the policy of the men who made the Union. Nothing more and nothing less.”

Lincoln stayed over on Sunday to spend some time with a distant relative, Mrs. Mark W. Delahay, and spoke again on Monday, December 5. He observed the election for state officers under the Wyandotte Constitution on Tuesday, and left the territory the next day. It was a short visit, and one that Lincoln would not have the opportunity to repeat. But his message and bearing had impressed a good many Kansans, and Kansas had made an impression on him. A few months later, when asked if he would advise someone to “go west,” Lincoln replied: “If I went West, I think I would go to Kansas--to Leavenworth or Atchison. Both of them are, and will continue to be, fine growing places.”

Despite a successful Kansas trip, Lincoln did not improve his standing that much in the territory and had to capture the Republican convention of 1860 without the support of the Kansas delegation. Today we sometimes forget that Lincoln was not universally loved by his own generation. Most Southerners despised him, many Northerners questioned his ability and judgment, and his position on racial issues certainly cannot be judged enlightened by today's standards. Indeed, his thinking in this area was conservative even when compared to contemporaries such as Susan B. Anthony, John Brown, Frederick Douglass, William Lloyd Garrison, and Charles Sumner. But he was well ahead of the vast majority of Americans, showed a great capacity for growth in this and other areas, and earned the laudatory epithet the “Great Emancipator” and reputation as one of America’s great presidents.

Lincoln had connections with Kansans during his life—and even in his death. T.D. Bancroft was at Ford’s Theatre when Lincoln was shot. He dipped a program from the performance in the trail of blood and later donated it to the Kansas Historical Society. Boston Corbett, who shot and killed Lincoln assassin John Wilkes Booth, later moved to Kansas. Vinnie Ream, whose father's work as a surveyor brought the family to Fort Leavenworth in the 1850s, eventually moved to Washington, D.C., to work as a sculptor. She was granted the honor of creating a sculpture of President Lincoln and had him in her studio for a sitting on the day of his assassination. Ream was later commissioned to create a Lincoln statue for the U.S. Capitol.

Entry: Lincoln, Abraham

Author: Kansas Historical Society

Author information: The Kansas Historical Society is a state agency charged with actively safeguarding and sharing the state's history.

Date Created: March 2009

Date Modified: February 2020

The author of this article is solely responsible for its content.