Haley acknowledges Civil War ‘about slavery’ after facing backlash
NORTH CONWAY, N.H. — Nikki Haley on Thursday scrambled to quell a firestorm that rocked her ascendant presidential campaign, acknowledging the Civil War was “about slavery” after critics in both parties admonished her for omitting that fact during a recent town hall.
First during a radio interview then again later during a campaign stop, Haley, a former U.N. ambassador and South Carolina governor who has risen in polls of the Republican race, made remarks that departed from what she said a day earlier. When asked about the cause of the war at a Wednesday town hall, she made no mention of slavery, which scholars agree was central to the conflict. That initial exchange attracted widespread attention and criticism in both parties that continued Thursday.
“Of course, the Civil War was about slavery. We know that. That’s unquestioned. Always the case. We know the Civil War was about slavery,” Haley said at a town hall in North Conway. “But it was also more than that. It was about the freedoms of every individual. It was about the role of government. For 80 years, America had the decision and the moral question of whether slavery was a good thing. And whether government economically, culturally, any other reasons, had a role to play in that. By the grace of God, we did the right thing and slavery is no more.”
“I say that as a Southerner. I say that as a Southern governor who removed the Confederate flag off the State House grounds,” she added to applause.
The outcry over her comments and the attempt to clarify them marked a new test for Haley, who until this week had made few unforced errors and rarely veered off script as she pitched herself as the strongest general election candidate in the field. Her remarks came amid a year-end push in New Hampshire, a state that is seen as key to her chances in the GOP race and where she has shot up into a distant second against Donald Trump, the clear polling leader. They presented a fresh opportunity for rival campaigns and critics, who have accused Haley of trying to have it both ways on key issues.
At a presidential campaign event in Iowa on Thursday, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, a rival Republican, said Haley “had some problems with some basic American history,” calling her response to the Civil War question an “incomprehensible word salad.”
“I just think that this shows this is not a candidate that’s ready for prime time,” the governor said, adding that it’s “not that difficult to identify and acknowledge the role slavery played in the Civil War.”
Race has historically been a delicate issue for Haley. After a white supremacist killed nine people attending Bible study at a historically Black church in Charleston in 2015, Haley signed legislation removing the Confederate flag from the State House grounds. In 2010, she had suggested that she would not make such a move and was well equipped to challenge an NAACP boycott of the state over the flag because of her status as a woman of color.
Haley has shown particular strength among centrist and independent voters who play an outsize role in New Hampshire and she has focused heavily on pointing to polls showing her performing well against President Biden. But on Thursday, she was looking to move past a difficult chapter.
“I want to nip it in the bud. Yes, we know the Civil War was about slavery. But more than that, what’s the lesson in all this? That freedom matters,” Haley said on “The Pulse of NH,” a local radio show. “And individual rights and liberties matter for all people. That’s the blessing of America. That was a stain on America when we had slavery. But what we want is [to] never relive it, never let anyone take those freedoms away again.”
The response she offered Wednesday evening did not include slavery.
“What was the cause of the United States Civil War?” a man asked Haley at a town hall in Berlin, N.H.
She replied, “Well, don’t come with an easy question.” Then she proceeded to answer.
“I think the cause of the Civil War was basically how government was going to run, the freedoms and what people could and couldn’t do,” Haley said.
“I think it always comes down to the role of government and what the rights of the people are,” Haley added. “And I will always stand by the fact that I think government was intended to secure the rights and freedoms of the people. It was never meant to be all things to all people. Government doesn’t need to tell you how to live your life. They don’t need to tell you what you can and can’t do. They don’t need to be a part of your life.”
The questioner expressed surprise at Haley’s response, saying, “In the year 2023, it’s astonishing to me that you answer that question without mentioning the word ‘slavery.’”
“What do you want me to say about slavery?” Haley asked.
The man responded, “You’ve answered my question, thank you.”
Haley quickly drew criticism over the Wednesday exchange from all sides — including Biden and some rival Republican presidential campaigns and their allies.
“It was about slavery,” Biden wrote on X, formerly Twitter.
Never Back Down, a super PAC supporting DeSantis, joked about “New Nikki Haley merch,” sharing a spoof image of shirts featuring her response to the town hall attendee: “What do you want me to say about slavery?”
DeSantis has also faced blowback to his approach to race and the history of slavery and discrimination in the United States. His administration barred an Advanced Placement African American Studies course, objecting to some of its content, and was widely criticized for slavery education standards that called for instruction on “how slaves developed skills which, in some instances, could be applied for their personal benefit.” DeSantis defended the moves and said they were misconstrued.
Staff for former New Jersey governor Chris Christie — another Republican candidate who is heavily focused on the New Hampshire moderate and independent voters who have also gravitated toward Haley — ridiculed Haley’s comments as well and said Christie’s blunt criticism of Trump stands in “stark contrast to what we saw last night in New Hampshire.”
MAGA Inc., the super PAC backing Trump, echoed in an email blast that the comment showed Haley is “not ready for prime time” and said the “issue is her response, not the question.” Rep. Byron Donalds (R-Fla.), who is Black and has endorsed Trump, said slavery was the obvious answer and wrote on X, “This really doesn’t matter because Trump is going to be the nominee.” Trump’s campaign did not respond to requests for comment.
Speaking with reporters Thursday afternoon, Haley dismissed her opponents’ assertions that she had flip-flopped on the cause of the Civil War. She said she didn’t mention slavery in her initial response because she thought it was “a given.”
“If it requires clarification of saying, ‘Yes, the Civil War was about slavery,’ I’m happy to do that,” she added.
New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu (R), who recently endorsed Haley and stood behind her during the conversation with reporters, said her response was “spot on.”
After the Wednesday event, some attendees told The Washington Post that they thought Haley answered the question to the best of her ability and they accused the man who asked the question of intending to cause trouble.
Vickie Plourde, who said she was undecided before the event, said she had been persuaded to vote for Haley after the town hall. She said the question was a setup. “We have to move past that,” she said of slavery. “If we continue to look in the past and say ‘Look, look, look, look,’ and we’re not moving forward, we’re going to stay back there.”
Ahead of Haley’s town hall in North Conway on Thursday, Bill Anderson, who plans to vote for Haley and has donated to her campaign, said he didn’t hold it against her that she didn’t mention slavery.
“I don’t expect her to be perfect,” he said.
Haley’s past comments on the Civil War have come under scrutiny. As she was running for governor in 2010, she addressed the Civil War during a private meeting with two leaders of Confederate heritage groups. She called it a fight between “tradition” and “change.”
“You see passions on different sides,” she said at the time, during comments that were captured on video and previously reported by The Post. “I don’t think anyone does anything out of hate.”
Fergus Cullen, the former chair of the New Hampshire Republican Party and a vocal critic of Trump, said Thursday that while Haley’s fumbled answer could spur criticism and negative ads, many voters intent on picking a non-Trump candidate have few viable options and would probably stick with her.
“Where else do the Not Again Trump voters go?” he asked.
Vazquez reported from Washington and Knowles reported from Iowa.