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Borderland studies shed light onto the complex workings of communities that have often been difficult to define in stark geographical terms. While labels such as North and South have continued to maintain their geopolitical usefulness in interpreting United States history, works like Bridget Ford’s Bonds of Union: Religion, Race, and Politics in a Civil War Borderland have helped to complicate our understandings of the past, reminding us of how regional allegiances, ideologies, and social relations were often messy affairs at the margins of their societies. Focusing on two sites located on the Ohio River, Cincinnati and Louisville, Ford attempts to reconstruct how these two urban centers, separated by slavery and free labor, came to articulate a unified idea of “a Union without slavery, and without racial separation via colonization” (p. xiii). In an era of salient political strife, Ford argues that the rhetoric of the Union expressed a sincere desire to unite diverse Americans for the good of the nation, and that, ultimately, slavery proved to be the most significant roadblock to this vision. Not limiting herself to sharp definitions of Unionist sentiment, Ford employs numerous cultural sources to tease out how the associative bonds between these two cities were forged in practice, and how the emancipationist narrative of the nation’s future emerged triumphant.
This was not, however, an easy process. Antebellum social relations, in both Kentucky and Ohio, continued to relegate African Americans to a subordinate position. Yet the process of urbanization, with its emphasis on immigration and economic diversification, helped to foster political support for emancipation on both sides of the river. Through the work of Salmon Chase, Cincinnatians were [End Page 411] instrumental in helping to establish the Republican Party, while Louisville served as the epicenter of abolitionist activity within the South. Antislavery Kentuckians tested their resolve by forcing a statewide emancipation debate during the 1840s, only to see their position lose within their newly ratified state constitution. Soon afterward, the state’s Methodist community initiated a broad southern movement toward religious separation, one that starkly sided with the proslavery interpretation of biblical scripture.
Even with Kentucky seemingly devoted to digging in its heels over the protection of slavery, these emancipationist reversals were undermined by the workings of everyday people. African American agency plays an important part in Ford’s book, as positive gains in their education, religious freedom, and economic opportunity invigorated their own self-generated counter-narratives to the era’s prevalent racism, fostering a highly tenuous, but genuinely more inclusive, atmosphere. Fluid ideas about the Union’s perpetuity bolstered this environment as well, as rhetorical transmissions across the Ohio River were not uncommon. On the eve of the Civil War, stalwart Unionists, such as George Prentice, helped to stave off Kentucky secession by making popular appeals to constitutional Unionism and the legacy of Henry Clay. An urban center such as Louisville, with its more diverse constituency, was more receptive to these messages of moderation, and thus it rejected the proslavery demagoguery of the Deep South. While continuously contested within Kentucky, these ideas provided the ideological inroads necessary to encourage black enlistment during the war, as well as to recognize the emancipationist interpretation of reunion.
Consequently, as Ford argues, Kentucky faced a difficult and divisive road toward Unionism, but due to its proximity and association with Cincinnati, overcame its sectional loyalties in favor of a national one. In our current political climate, characterized by deeply divisive rhetoric, it is important to remember that Americans in the past have faced worse. In the transregional case of the Ohio River Valley, Americans of seemingly different value systems crossed the aisle to [End Page 412] articulate a unified vision of the future. It may not have immediately been a perfect one, but it had lasting, positive consequences.
DANIEL W. FARRELL is a doctoral candidate at Kent State University. He is currently working on his dissertation investigating how the United States incorporated civilian prisoners into its prisoner...