Slavery's Borderland: Freedom and Bondage along the Ohio River

By Matthew Salafia | Go to book overview

CHAPTER EIGHT
The Borderland and the Civil War

At midcentury borderlanders debated the meaning and the future of the Ohio River border. These local debates reflected the growing national crisis over slavery. The years 1848–1852 were a period of intense political debate in Congress as representatives faced the deepening sectional rift. The debates over what to do with the territory acquired from the Mexican War led to the Compromise of 1850 and also revealed the possibility of southern secession. In Indiana, Ohio, and Kentucky midcentury debates led to a political configuration that held the region together against the pull of sectionalism that split the country into warring nations. Deep divisions characterized this configuration, but those divisions limited the appeal of disunion.

In contrast to the national narrative of America’s descent into civil war, the story of the Ohio River borderland in the 1850s is a narrative of noncausation. Historians have spilled much ink debating the multiple causes of the bloody conflict that resulted in the deaths of over 660,000 Americans. While they differ in emphasis, historians agree that both political and social factors contributed to the sectional rift. But the Civil War failed to split the Ohio River borderland at the seam. Explaining the absence of war requires a slightly different approach than arguing for causation. In an effort to explain the area’s resilience, this chapter explores what factors mitigated the appeal of disunion in the borderland.1

As the country careened toward civil war in the 1850s, residents along the border developed a regional counternarrative that emphasized a tradition of compromise and accommodation. Residents denounced radical sectionalism and understood their region as a borderland set apart from the uncompromising North or South. Theirs was not a third in-between, as is

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