John Danforth reached back into history Tuesday evening to illustrate a point about contemporary politics – and to call for unity among Americans.

“We must be one nation indivisible,” he said.

Danforth, who represented Missouri in the U.S. Senate for three terms and held a variety of other positions in a long public career, was at the Truman Library in Independence. He was given an award named for a key figure in western Missouri in the middle decades just after statehood, Alexander W. Doniphan.

Doniphan did a lot. He was a well-known and successful defense attorney. He helped found William Jewell College in Liberty. He was a state legislator. He led successful expeditions in the War with Mexico and afterward wrote parts of New Mexico’s Constitution that last to this day.

And he played a pivotal role during the Mormon War in northwest Missouri in 1838. He had defended Mormons in court and had seen them driven driven from Independence, followed by clashes with residents north of the river. In the General Assembly, he had worked for a new county – Caldwell County – where Mormons could move.

But trouble continued. Gov. Lilburn Boggs, an Independence native, had ordered Mormons driven from the state or exterminated. Church founder Joseph Smith Jr., his brother Hyrum and other church leaders had been taken into custody. They were tried for treason on the spot – not legal, Doniphan stressed, because martial law was not in effect – and Gen. Samuel Lucas of the State Militia ordered Doniphan, a brigadier general, to execute them.

He refused.

“It is cold-blooded murder,” he is said to have told Lucas, adding that he would see to it that Lucas himself would be hauled into court if any harm came to Smith and the others.

“Doniphan’s actions undoubtedly saved the lives of these men,” said Clinton Patterson of the Alexander W. Doniphan Committee.

It was, Patterson added, a matter of putting right before might.

Patterson and other speakers drew parallels among Doniphan, Danforth and Harry Truman.

Kurt Graham, director of the Truman Library, noted that Truman and Doniphan had military experience and were good leaders – but that’s not really the point, he said.

“It is not a skill set. It is not charisma,” Graham said. “Rather, it is character.”

Danforth, now 82. said the turbulent times of the Mormon War 180 years ago, though bloodier, aren’t so different from today.

“There is a word that’s gained a lot of currency. … The word is tribalism,” he said.

That comes to the surface, he said, when people feel threatened about their religion, their identity, their political security and their wallets.

“That’s what happened in these parts 180 years ago,” he said.

That call to tribalism is “an age-old political tactic” that is back, he said, adding that citizens must reject politicians calls toward division.

“It’s up to us to insist we’re not going to do that, we’re not going to be like that,” he said.