Bridget Ford is Assistant Professor of History at California State University East Bay. This interview is based on her new book, Bonds of Union: Religion, Race, and Politics in a Civil War Borderland (The University of North Carolina Press, 2016).
JF: What led you to write Bonds of Union?
BF: In the beginning, a dissertation advisor suggested that I study “social order” in the Ohio River valley. For some reason, that sounded terribly compelling and important to me, a neophyte historian and native Californian. Perhaps I was inclined to take this suggestion seriously because the advisor in question was Alan Taylor, the two-time Pulitzer Prize winner for history.
Over time I wondered if that idea of “social order” didn’t seem a little old-timey. In this rebellious phase, I was a cultural historian, studying “modernity,” among other things that baffled friends, family, and undergraduates. There was also the problem of studying such monumental shifts in the human experience in the tertiary cities of Cincinnati and Louisville. Why not New York, or Los Angeles? Or really, any other generally agreed upon cosmopolitan cities?
Now though, upon reflection, “social order” is precisely what I ended up writing about in this book—it’s just that with time and experience reading original sources, I looked at that concept from the perspective nineteenth-century Americans, using their language for the most part, rather than the shorthand of scholars. This also proved to be cultural history, in its own way. Somehow my inclinations and training all came together in this book.
What ultimately engaged me was this question: How did diverse Americans hold their strained Union together, even while pressing for radical change—that is, the destruction of slavery? The “United” States can often feel so divided (then and now), with so many forces driving this fragile entity to the brink of disunion. This was never more true than in the 1840s and 1850s, and especially in the Ohio River valley, where all manner of religious, racial, and political divisions seemed to be pulling the country apart at its geographical seams. But the people in this unique region preserved the Union and called for stunning social change. I wanted to understand how that happened—not from just a military or political perspective, and not just from Abraham Lincoln’s words and actions. I had also become enthralled by the vivid language and heated emotional tenor of the nineteenth century—using their terms, and not so much ours.
In fact, the very idea of “Union” was something I wanted to understand better, because we just don’t use that word to describe the United States anymore. Something seems quite foreign about that term, and especially a commonly used extension, “bonds of union.” I wanted to understand how nineteenth-century Americans comprehended that phrase, because they used it frequently at moments of great import—in forging political connections, creating religious communities, and protecting family relations. Moreover, these conscious acts, these “bonds of union,” all seemed broadly connected to the persistence of the Union, conceived as a nation, at least in the minds of people at the time.
We have a much better historical sense, I think, of how and why the bonds of slavery produced various forms of secessionism. But the “bonds of union,” something that nineteenth-century Americans appeared to intuitively grasp, is a phrase almost entirely lost on twenty-first-century Americans. It seems worthwhile, in our own moment, to recover the meaning of this phrase, for it encouraged thinking both about freely chosen “bonds” and about undertaking the work of building stronger connections among diverse peoples.
JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of Bonds of Union?
BF: This book argues that Americans of diverse backgrounds, faiths, and personal experiences found means to overcome their differences by imagining their “bonds of union” together. The individuals discussed in this book lived in an especially divided region of the country, but the bonds of connection that they forged across differences of religion, race, and politics helped to end slavery while also preserving the Union.
JF: Why do we need to read Bonds of Union?
BF: For academic historians, the book offers a closer look at cultural negotiations taking place before the Civil War that helped strengthen the Union during the war itself. These negotiations advanced the abolition of slavery in a region that, at first glance, appears to have been especially hostile to immediatism. Moreover, the book deepens our understanding of the meaning of “union” to nineteenth-century Americans.
Building upon other studies of the Ohio River valley, this book also makes a case for expanding our cast of characters who can be viewed as critical to understanding the Civil War era—I think a number of individuals treated in this book could be more widely known for their significance to the politics of antislavery, for example. I hope this book helps adds to this cast of relevant figures. Studies of the Ohio River valley should not be deemed merely “regional” in nature, while books examining Boston or New York are treated as “national” history. This seems unfortunate to me.
For everyone else, I think that this book shows nineteenth-century Americans to be much more culturally malleable or flexible than we typically think. I very often hear students say of racism during the nineteenth century, or of more recent times too: “That is just the way people thought.” But that simply doesn’t make any historical sense, given how far many Americans in the past travelled to imagine a biracial, inclusive society on equal terms. I very much regret that students resort to that phrase, because it locks our past down, and I think makes our path forward seem more difficult. It also seems to excuse people for horrendous actions. We have a longer, deeper history of imagining an inclusive society—and of Americans making moral choices for good or for ill. We should be letting students know that.
Lastly, I’m intrigued by the richness of the term “union,” as it was used in the nineteenth century. If asked, students today have no idea what that word might have meant to Americans in 1861. We also tend to separate “government” and “community” into two mutually exclusive entities. But I think that nineteenth-century Americans generally combined these two mental constructions, towards the end of great social change, the destruction of slavery. This book helps to recover the meaning of “union” in its religious, racial, and political senses.
JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?
BF: Just as I entered by senior year of high school, my mom earned her Ph.D. in US history from the University of California, Davis. Within the next seven years, I was also at UC Davis, trying to earn my doctorate in American history. I was not nearly so rebellious as I had thought in my youth. While earning my bachelor’s degree in history, I also studied with amazing teachers at Barnard College, who reinforced the sense of importance, rigor, and enthusiasm that I attached to studying the past—and the US past in particular. But I think my mom, along with a supportive father, always saw history as endlessly fascinating, with great explanatory power about the human condition. They also appreciated the contingencies of history, too—a concept I grasped, I think, long before I heard that word in graduate school. Family dinners were fun: my mom loved to swiftly correct my father on his superficial (at times) historical knowledge. She always seemed like the smartest person in the room, so I wanted to follow in her footsteps. We have an unusual story. We are like the Arthur M. Schlesinger Sr. and Jr. of UC Davis. I jest, of course.
JF: What is your next project?
BF: I’m considering studying the lives and work of historians who were traditional outsiders to the profession—women, racial and ethnic minorities—who ended up examining the nineteenth century, from their vantage of the second half of the twentieth century. But beyond that, I am interested in public trust in government, for such basic things as schools, transportation, health care, and so on. For the United States, this is always so fraught. I’d like to understand why Americans can be so desirous of such things, and yet then starve or shun the very public entities providing them—even when those entities are doing a demonstrably good job. Can you tell I teach at a public university?
JF: Thanks, Bridget!