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Though I share both his admiration for and his skepticism about different aspects of “Lincoln,” I’m not sure that Patrick Rael is entirely right about the movie’s failure to address the limits of freedom after emancipation. Rather, what Tony Kushner is saying in his screenplay is that, although the issues of abolition and racial equality are necessarily related, they are not the same. As several characters in the film argue, there could be no debate over the meaning of freedom until abolition was achieved. We can agree or disagree with Kushner’s proposition, but it does suggest to me that he is fully aware of the issues Rael raises. Indeed, they are a recurring theme throughout “Lincoln.” The movie opens with two black Union soldiers, one recently enslaved and the other a free man from Boston, discussing the war with the President. They are very different people, these two men. They dress differently, they speak differently, and what they have to say to Lincoln is different. For the Bostonian, the racial discriminations suffered by black soldiers—first the unequal pay and now the lack of promotions—is uppermost in his mind. The recently freed slave is clearly frustrated by these complaints. He was fighting for his freedom, not for promotion. This was no abstract distinction. The ferocity of the battle scene we had just witnessed—of black soldiers in unyielding hand-to-hand combat with white confederates—stemmed from the fact that if they were captured the black soldiers would not be treated as prisoners of war. They would either be executed or re-enslaved. Kushner is already making his point: Racial equality is a legitimate issue, but right here, right now, it is less important than the struggle over slavery. This is the same point Elizabeth Keckley makes to Lincoln late one evening on the White House porch. The President asks her what “your people” will do when the war is over and—in one of the most moving scenes in the film—she answers that African Americans had been focusing so long on simply getting to freedom that they had not yet thought much about what comes next. “Freedom first,” she says, then we can talk about what comes later. Once again, we can dispute whether these are sentiments likely to have been expressed by African Americans at the time, but we can’t really say that Kushner is oblivious to the issue of what comes after abolition. He’s simply saying: Let’s get slavery abolished, then we will worry about the meaning of freedom. The Thaddeus Stevens of “Lincoln” comes to terms with the same fact of political life in January, 1865. Despite his admirable commitment to racial equality, Stevens too must shelve that larger, broader project of racial equality—for the time being—because slavery had to be abolished first. Kushner returns to the theme near the end of the movie. As Stevens listens to the black woman beside him reading the second article of the Thirteenth Amendment aloud—the clause empowering Congress to enforce emancipation by appropriate legislation--the lips on Tommy Lee Jones’s face curl ever so slightly into a smile. Article I secured emancipation; armed with Article II, he would set about to enforce it. In short, Kushner’s screenplay is always aware of and engaged with the very issue that Rael insists is missing from “Lincoln.” The difference—the challenging difference—is that Kushner distinguishes the struggle for racial equality from the struggle to abolish slavery. They were closely related but they were not identical. At issue is a larger dispute over how we understand the Civil War. It was a huge event and there are many different contexts into which it can be placed. It was part of a longer process of industrialization, part of a broader pattern of nation-state building, part of a larger struggle over women’s equality, and part of a still unfinished struggle over racial equality. Each of these “larger” contexts is legitimate, but they all lead inevitably to the conclusion--that the outcome of the war was inconclusive. Did the Civil War advance America’s industrial development? In some ways yes and in some ways no. Did it settle once and for all the relative powers of state versus national government? No, it didn’t; the struggle continues. Did it advance the cause of women’s equality, or was it a step backward for women? Did it fulfill the “promise” of racial equality that Rael alleges was made by “the Union”? Not at all; here, too, the struggle continues. Broader contexts of this sort tend offer valuable insights, but they tend to produce circular arguments: If the war was but a “moment” in a larger struggle, then the outcome was by definition partial and incomplete. But what about slavery? Did the war leave that question of unsettled, unfinished, incomplete? This is crucial because, unlike the broader contexts within which we can readily place the Civil War, slavery itself was the fundamental issue over which the war was actually fought. The South did not secede from the Union because a feminist had been elected President. It did not leave because it objected to industrialization. Nor was the war caused by a disagreement between the North and the South over racial discrimination. State rights certainly entered into this debate, but only insofar as slavery raised the issue of the power of the federal government in relation to the states. The war was caused by slavery, by a deep and ultimately irreconcilable disagreement over the moral, constitutional, and political legitimacy of “property in man.” The conflict between a free labor society in the North, committed to the principle of “self-ownership,” and a slave society based the ownership of one human being by another—that conflict had become irreconcilable. To be sure, the struggle over slavery inescapably raised a number of important issues—federal power, women’s rights, and racial equality—none of which were definitively settled in 1865. But the issue over which the war was actually fought was settled. Slavery—a property right in human beings—did not survive the war, or at least the Thirteenth Amendment. This is the premise of “Lincoln,” and of all the problems I have with the movie, that premise is not one of them. I have plenty of gripes about “Lincoln,”—its narrow conception of politics, its misleading portrayal of the divisions among Republicans, its sancitfication of Lincoln as a political “genius” who alone saw and understood all that was going on. But one of the things I liked best about “Lincoln” was that it repeatedly urged viewers to bear in mind that there was the struggle to abolish slavery raised a vitally important, closely related struggle over racial equality, a struggle destined to take center stage once slavery was destroyed. Jim Oakes CUNY Graduate Center