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Written by Timothy Sexton
The Inevitability of the Civil War
The title of the poem and its content establish the poem’s predominant theme that the Civil War was inevitable as long as the United States continued to commit its original sin of slavery with addressing and redressing the issue. John Brown—the man whose body is swaying back and forth as it hangs from the gallows—is an actual historical figure; the country’s most famous and infamous abolitionist. His death is here presented as the omen informing the country—both North and South—that time is running out as the inevitable showdown with America’s inescapable disgrace can no longer be delayed.
Slavery and Property
The exclamatory repetition of “Shenandoah!” is a thematic reminder of the inseparable connection between property and slavery. The divide between those countries allowing slavering and those not was primarily a geographical divide between land in the north of the United States and land in the South. The future of the union rested upon which land—new territories to be established and established territories desiring statehood—allowed slavery and which did not. The beautiful green Shenandoah Valley of Virginia is also a reminder of how land become property and property endows law while at the same time acting as a shameful reminder that slaves—human beings—were also considered property and how the law establishing that abomination grew directly out of the authority of land ownership.
An Endorsement of Radicalism
The unspoken theme of the poem is one that endorses radical political activism in the name of a greater good. The poem is entirely unambiguous in its appreciation and admiration of John Brown. In fact, the poem rejects the widespread implication among slaveholding states that John Brown was a wild-eyed lunatic and instead situates him almost as some sort of spiritual seer capable of foretelling the coming of an American where slavery no longer exists. Since the real John Brown notoriously engaged in radical acts of violence to bring about this vision, the poem effectively communicates the idea that John Brown’s tactics are to be admired as a last resort in a battle of political will against an untenable circumstance which remains resistant to change through political mediation.
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