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  • Bonds of Union: Religion, Race, and Politics in a Civil War Borderland by Bridget Ford
  • Jeffrey Thomas Perry (bio)
Bonds of Union: Religion, Race, and Politics in a Civil War Borderland by Bridget Ford. (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2016. Pp. 424. Cloth, $45.00.)

Examining the Ohio–Kentucky borderland from 1830 to 1865, Bridget Ford describes Americans' attempts to conceptualize and realize the "bonds of union" holding them together. But more specifically than "union," Ford is interested in the "imagined connections" that linked the disparate population of the Ohio Valley amidst sectional fervor and fracture (xviii). In three parts, she brings to life how Americans' lived experience in matters of faith, race, and politics checked divisive tendencies and helped secure the Union. [End Page 189]

Ford begins with a survey of the Ohio Valley's booming religious landscape during the antebellum era. As Cincinnati and Louisville emerged as important economic and cultural hubs, Protestant churches flourished, establishing a range of missionary and educational associations. Their Catholic counterparts also witnessed institutional growth in the 1840s and 1850s alongside increased immigration of Germans and Irish. Protestants feared the influx of Catholics and warned of Papist designs to undermine republican institutions. In other instances, they turned to violence, setting city blocks ablaze or firing cannons into immigrant neighborhoods. Despite this friction, Ford asserts that especially in urban areas Protestants and Catholics grew to look quite similar. Seeking to retain or gain adherents, Catholics adopted the more personal, even revivalist speaking style that evangelists had perfected, while Protestants embraced medieval architectural styles virtually synonymous with Catholicism. Taking the edge off of doctrinal disputes, Ford concludes that these new rhetorical and architectural "styles of persuasion" "encouraged residents to lower their defenses" and "imagine bonds between unlike persons and things" (63).

In Part II, Ford directs her attention to race relations, asserting that the racial ideas nurtured, if not realized, in antebellum Ohio and Kentucky "might well be considered harbingers of national trends for the nineteenth century" (91). Though many in Louisville called for the colonization of free blacks, and despite the fact that a steady influx of free blacks and escaped slaves to Cincinnati had led to a series of race riots, violence, and a revival of Ohio's dormant Black Codes, Ford contends that blacks and whites in both cities "found it impossible to live without the assistance of the other in the competitive market economy of antebellum urban America" (121). The white bourgeoisie needed black menial labor: domestics, barbers, dressmakers—occupations housing some of the cities' top black wage earners. Free blacks, moreover, depended upon their white patrons for the protection of their property and other civil rights. Prominent black churches did not hesitate to form key connections with whites in their fight against colonization. North and south of the Ohio River, antislavery reformers—even more so than their eastern counterparts—praised the benefits of education and literacy for civic equality. By highlighting blacks' intellectual capacities and personal subjectivity, antislavery fiction writers allowed whites to grapple with the potential of a biracial society. Reformers' educational focus also [End Page 190] expanded public schooling opportunities for black children in Ohio and forged a closer connection between African Americans and the state. This focus on literacy, reading, and universal common schooling, Ford concludes, "helped to make enlightenment a bond of union at a pivotal moment" (200).

Part III looks to the Ohio Valley's role in the sectional controversy and Civil War. Although Cincinnati and Louisville served as important entrepôts for the Ohio and Mississippi Valleys, "blunting the force of northerners' and southerners' divergent interests through the mysterious workings of commerce," in the 1840s the cities' Protestant churches were at the forefront of the sectionalization of the religious landscape (203). While church-goers in Cincinnati were adopting a radical anti-slavery stance, their Kentucky counterparts spearheaded the formation of the Methodist Episcopal Church–South. Baptists and Presbyterians also flocked to sectionally based denominations. Careful to illuminate the role of black church-goers in shaping the views and actions of whites, Ford argues that evangelicals in Ohio and Kentucky, by steering their "congregations into separate denominations and toward radically...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1553-0620
Print ISSN
0275-1275
Pages
pp. 189-192
Launched on MUSE
2018-03-03
Open Access
No
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