- Bonds of Union: Religion, Race, and Politics in a Civil War Borderland by Bridget Ford
Bridget Ford’s compelling, well-researched book places the Ohio River Valley, especially Cincinnati and Louisville, at the center of the history of the Civil War Era. In her study from the 1830s to 1865, Ford uncovers diverse “bonds of union,” a phrase penned by Abraham Lincoln in 1854. As black and white, Protestant and Catholic residents in Kentucky and Ohio interacted in social, commercial, and religious settings, they created persistent bonds along and across fissures of [End Page 91] religion, race, and politics. Taken in total, these bonds maintained the Union loyalties of this divided region, hastened emancipation, and kindled hope of equal citizenship. Through Ford’s vivid portraits and elegant prose, her arguments about this chaotic, tenuously loyal region become a persuasive call to reconsider the impact of social order on political history on a local, regional, and national scale.
Ford’s book is organized thematically and chronologically in three parts, each with three chapters. The first part, “Protestant and Catholic,” places religion at the heart of the social order that developed in Ohio and Kentucky. Moving beyond the well-known collisions between Protestants and Catholics as typified by Lyman Beecher’s Plea for the West, Ford illumines shared goals and mutual appropriation. Catholic priests came to value strong, compelling preaching as they competed with Protestant revivalists, and Protestants built beautiful Gothic churches with stained glass in response to Catholic cathedrals. Both Catholics and Protestants craved devotional practices, whether Ignatius of Loyola’s Exercises or the prolific devotional poetry that filled Protestant periodicals.
In Part II, “Black and White,” Ford makes her most compelling case that Ohio Valley history profoundly shaped America’s racial ideologies, especially the challenges of free white and black people living together. Ohio, a free state, nearly enfranchised all men regardless of race, before backtracking with numerous racist laws. Kentucky was the slave state with the strongest antislavery movement, centered in Louisville. Here, colonization schemes abounded but were ultimately undone by the reliance of affluent whites on the proximate personal services of free black barbers, tailors, and dress makers. Ford resists dismissals of Ohio Valley antislavery as a conservative movement, and shows how black residents successfully demanded that Ohio develop public schools for their children.
The final part, “Section and Nation,” reveals the “bonds of union” in action before and during the Civil War. Schisms within Protestant denominations, especially Methodists, brought religious arguments [End Page 92] over slavery to the fore. Black churches’ independence gave the lie to southern denominations’ claims that missions to slaves lay at the center of white southern piety, thus disrupting ties between borderland churches and the proslavery visions of co-religionists in deep South states. The outbreak of war tested the bonds of Union, yet relief work for Union soldiers and black enlistment strengthened emancipationist goals. The Great Western Sanitary Fair in Cincinnati raised funds for relief work with the aid of Protestant and Catholic presenters and black and white artists and orators in a program that highlighted emancipation’s historical significance. Through such efforts, many came to embrace the end of slavery as the path to peace.
The story of Ohio’s Salmon Chase, a central figure in Ford’s large cast of characters, is exemplary of the bonds that this book illumines. Before he became a U.S. Senator, Governor, Treasury Secretary, or Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, Chase was an earnest lawyer in Cincinnati whom the city’s largest African American church, Union Baptist, honored in an elaborate ceremony for his defense of fugitive slaves. The congregation’s evident refinement led Chase to exclaim over “our common manhood, and our common Christianity, and our common destiny” (140). Such vital bonds, forged through religious and communal life, motivated Chase to abandon colonization schemes, battle racial prejudice, and advocate for full male suffrage as a member of Lincoln’s cabinet years later.
Bonds of Union will appeal to readers inside...