In a speech to citizens in Peoria, Illinois, in 1854 Abraham Lincoln criticized the recently passed Kansas-Nebraska Act for its dismantling of the decades-long legal prohibition against the spread of slavery west of Missouri. He said that thenceforth, Americans were to forge “new bonds of Union” based not on sectional compromises over slavery but on the principle of universal freedom (ix). As Ford notes, the phrase “bonds of Union” was primarily a religious one, referring to relations between believers and Christ, or among members of a Christian community. When Lincoln repeated the term “bonds of Union” in his famous 1858 debates with Stephen Douglas, he struck a theological chord in the festering debate about slavery and the nation’s future.

Ford’s latest book explores the substance and texture of these “bonds of Union” in one of the most contested regions of the country, the Ohio River Valley, from the 1820s through...

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