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Reviewed by:
  • Bonds of Union: Religion, Race, and Politics in a Civil War Borderland By Bridget Ford
  • Luke E. Harlow (bio)
Bonds of Union: Religion, Race, and Politics in a Civil War Borderland. By Bridget Ford. ( Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2016. Pp. 421. Cloth, $45.00.)

In this perceptive and nuanced volume, Bridget Ford sets out to explain how Americans from oppositional backgrounds came to see each other as participants in the same national project. Building on recent work that has drawn attention to the depth of meaning the idea of "union" held for nineteenth-century Americans, Ford skillfully expands the implications of this work by focusing on the early republic's "Western Country": the Ohio River valley, and especially its largest and most important cities, Cincinnati and Louisville (3). In these river communities that shared so much in common, Ford shows how actors forged "bonds of union" that established connections across the slave–free divide, kept Kentucky in the Union during the Civil War, and ultimately built the framework for a United States without slavery.

Ford grounds this argument in fresh research in a number of areas of nineteenth-century cultural history, especially analyzing Protestant-Catholic relations, the work of autonomous African American churches before the Civil War, and the role of sentimental literature in forging antislavery perspectives. Historians are closely attuned to the ways in which each of these categories was marked by conflict. Ford does discuss the general hostility that white Protestants directed toward religious and racial minorities in the region. A series of laws on the books ensured the rights of slaveholders in Kentucky and codified antiblack prejudice in Ohio. Infamously, these two states gave rise to well-known episodes of nativist and racist violence—including riots against Catholics in Louisville (1855) and against Catholics (1853, 1855) and African Americans (1829, 1836, 1841) in Cincinnati. [End Page 476]

Yet, as Ford shows, these better-known antagonisms pull our gaze from profound points of commonality that also emerged. Despite the religious contest for the soul of the West that began in the 1820s, Protestants and Catholics drew much from each other. Catholics came to adopt vernacular preaching and an emphasis on emotion and piety in religious experience characteristic of evangelical Protestants. Protestants, in turn, drew inspiration from Catholic physical space and sought beauty in their own houses of worship; once-spartan Protestant churches gave way to an increasing number of Gothic structures by the 1840s. The parallels in religious expression were most pronounced in devotional culture, where Catholics and Protestants alike "valorized human feelings as the means to knowledge of God" (84–85). In short, these antagonistic Christian faiths recognized certain advantages in each other's religious approaches and appropriated them. In so doing, Ford contends, believers from both traditions "produced a strikingly similar spiritual economy" that, if not free from hostility, shaped the possibility of a pluralistic religious landscape (85).

African American believers similarly worked the religious culture of Cincinnati and Louisville to their advantage. In spite of the ever-present threat of violence—and the threat of sale for enslaved Louisvillians—a small but significant class of free black professional workers cultivated resources to expand the possibilities for African Americans in the region. Barbers and hairdressers in particular became the bedrock of an emerging black middle class in both cities, and their modest wealth funded a network of autonomous churches and schools before the Civil War. These institutions would become central in the struggle to end slavery and build a multiracial republic. Because their financial resources came from jobs that required close contact with whites, blacks were adept at understanding how to make their claims to white power brokers. Churches and religious leaders that led the way in demonstrating black "enlightenment" and respectability ultimately influenced Louisville's white emancipationist movement and Cincinnati's rising cohort of abolitionists by the early 1850s.

In both cities, African American believers rejected white supremacy, which came in proslavery assertions that called for white oversight and control of black religious practice, or colonizationist propositions that claimed an end to slavery must come with black removal. Black believers underscored their points by wresting their own churches from white...


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