Last night I saw Steven Spielberg’s excellent new film “Lincoln,” an excellent and largely authentic portrayal of Abraham Lincoln’s final months. Daniel Day Lewis is fantastic as Lincoln, alternately morose and joking, and Tommy Lee Jones heads up a fantastic supporting cast in a scene-stealing role as Radical Republican leader Thaddeus Stevens.
I wanted to focus, though, on a sub-theme in the movie, which is focused around the battle in the House of Representatives to pass the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution, banning slavery. Lincoln makes a particular push on his fellow members of the Republican Party to pass the amendment, despite advice from some that it’s better to wait.
To do so requires him to corral three groups in Congress:
- the Radical Republicans, abolitionists who believe ending slavery is just the first step to more reforms guaranteeing blacks equal protection under the law and the right to vote
- conservative Republicans, who aren’t opposed to abolition but believe it shouldn’t be put ahead of ending the war, and are willing to sacrifice the Thirteenth Amendment if it will induce the South to surrender faster
- at least 20 Democrats, to reach the supermajority threshold required to amend the Constitution
The chief argument opponents make on the floor of Congress against the Thirteenth Amendment is not that slavery is good, but that ending slavery would start a slippery slope toward giving more rights to blacks — and maybe, one speechmaker warns, one day even the suffrage to women.
Lincoln’s response is twofold. First, he encourages Stevens and the other Radicals to tone down their rhetoric — or even lie, and claim they have no designs on promoting full equality for blacks. To admit this, to tie those issues together, would scare off the moderates who dislike slavery but also dislike black people.
Second, he encourages wavering votes to stay in the moment. He may ask in the future for votes on full black equality, he says — but he is not asking for them now. All he wants is their votes to end slavery.
It works. Several Democrats switch their votes, the amendment passes (it probably would have passed eventually, though dwelling on that would have robbed the film of its drama).
And Lincoln’s advice is powerful — to not get so caught up in the implications of a vote that you lose sight of what you’re actually supporting.
But while the critics may have been wrong about the Thirteenth Amendment, they were completely right about the slippery slope. Radical Republicans DID intend to pursue broader black equality than simply ending slavery, the Thirteenth Amendment was the first, necessary step toward the rest of this program, and those Democrats who voted for abolition while opposing the concepts that would become the Fourteenth and Fifteenth amendments were enabling exactly what they opposed.
The debate over the slippery slope continues today, with people regularly castigating moderate proposals of their opponents as simply the first step toward a far more radical agenda. To take one step down a political path is to go all the way down that path. That’s of course absurd, but it is true that sometimes a step in one direction does grease the skids to enable further steps. It’s possible to understand that without losing perspective.
Do people give too much credence to slippery slope arguments these days, or not enough? My instinct is that people are perhaps too concerned about secondary effects of prospective bills compared to their direct impact, but I don’t have a strong feeling on this.