Bonds of Union: Religion, Race, and Politics in a Civil War Borderland

Bonds of Union: Religion, Race, and Politics in a Civil War Borderland

Bonds of Union: Religion, Race, and Politics in a Civil War Borderland

Bonds of Union: Religion, Race, and Politics in a Civil War Borderland


This vivid history of the Civil War era reveals how unexpected bonds of union forged among diverse peoples in the Ohio-Kentucky borderlands furthered emancipation through a period of spiraling chaos between 1830 and 1865. Moving beyond familiar arguments about Lincoln's deft politics or regional commercial ties, Bridget Ford recovers the potent religious, racial, and political attachments holding the country together at one of its most likely breaking points, the Ohio River.

Living in a bitterly contested region, the Americans examined here--Protestant and Catholic, black and white, northerner and southerner--made zealous efforts to understand the daily lives and struggles of those on the opposite side of vexing human and ideological divides. In their common pursuits of religious devotionalism, universal public education regardless of race, and relief from suffering during wartime, Ford discovers a surprisingly capacious and inclusive sense of political union in the Civil War era. While accounting for the era's many disintegrative forces, Ford reveals the imaginative work that went into bridging stark differences in lived experience, and she posits that work as a precondition for slavery's end and the Union's persistence.


Abraham Lincoln spoke of “bonds of union” before audiences uneasy about the survival of the United States during tense moments in the 1850s. In the spring of 1854, adoption of the Kansas-Nebraska Act outraged Lincoln, for the new federal law would allow slavery’s broad dispersion across new western states, despite long-standing political consensus that it should not. Although not an elected representative at the time, he took action, hoping to convince Illinois voters of the folly and injustice contained in Stephen Douglas’s Nebraska legislation. A regular visitor to the state library in Springfield over a number of weeks, Lincoln studied “the general question of domestic slavery” from the time of America’s founding. In the late summer and fall of 1854, Lincoln shared his conclusions in a public address that ran to some seventeen thousand words, judging from a published copy of the Peoria speech. None of Lincoln’s other speeches rivaled it in length.

Delivered to Illinois audiences, this passionate address represented new thinking for Lincoln. With congressional limits on slavery’s extension legally in place before 1854, “the nation was looking to the forming of new bonds of Union,” Lincoln asserted, “and a long course of peace and prosperity seemed to lie before us.” But now, with slavery’s perpetuity seemingly guaranteed by Douglas’s retrograde legislation, Lincoln predicted “shocks, throes, and convulsions,” or, in less metaphorical phrasing, “collision and violence.” This was because an “eternal antagonism” existed between the “selfishness” inherent to mastery over other human beings and the “love of justice” propelling opponents of slavery to act. This irreconcilability, combined with Douglas’s flawed “popular sovereignty” policy, meant that proslavery and antislavery partisans would bitterly contest every inch of new American territory. Lincoln recoiled at this future. In a year of dramatic shifts in voters’ political allegiances as a consequence of the Kansas-Nebraska Act, the 1854 Peoria speech gave evidence of a kind of antislavery conversion for Lincoln personally. Determined to extricate Americans from the curse of slavery, he injected new “eloquence and moral power” into his speeches. Evoking “bonds of union” untarnished by slavery’s inherent violence was of a piece with that purposefulness.

The phrase “bonds of union” can sound stilted, if not archaic, to the modern ear. Today, elected leaders might draw on similar wording to add . . .

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