Nikki Haley expands on Civil War comment after backlash

Haley did not initially cite slavery as a cause for the war.

December 28, 2023, 12:00 AM

Republican presidential candidate Nikki Haley on Thursday addressed the backlash to her Wednesday night comments about what she thought was the cause of the American Civil War, during which she notably did not cite slavery as a cause, sparking criticism.

“Of course, the Civil War was about slavery," said Haley at a Thursday town hall in New Hampshire. "We know that. That’s unquestioned. Always the case. We know the Civil War was about slavery.”

Haley continued to elaborate, telling the crowd that the war was about more than that.

“It was about the freedoms of every individual," she said. "It was about the role of the 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. By the grace of God, we did the right thing and slavery is no more. But the lessons of what the bigger issue with the Civil War is that let's not forget what came out of that, which is government's role, individual liberties, freedom for every single person, freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom to do and be anything you want to be without anyone in government getting in our way.”

Former UN ambassador and 2024 presidential hopeful Nikki Haley speaks during a Town Hall event in Agency, Iowa, on Dec. 19, 2023.
Christian Monterrosa/AFP via Getty Images, FILE

Haley said that she believes everyone deserves to be a free individual.

Her comments were prompted by an audience question about what Haley thought the war was about.

The Republican candidate first turned the question around on the person who posed it.

"What do you think the cause of the Civil War was?” she asked, to which the questioner responded by saying, "I'm not running for president."

Haley then stated: “I think it always comes down to the role of government and what the rights of the people are. And we will always stand by the fact that I think the government was intended to secure the rights and freedoms of the people,” Haley said. “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. They need to make sure that you have freedom.”

The questioner told Haley it was “astonishing” she gave an answer that did not mention slavery.

"What do you want me to say about slavery?” she responded before pivoting and asking for the next question.

In a radio interview with The Pulse of NH on Thursday, she claimed the questioner was "definitely a Democrat plant."

"That's why I said: 'What does it mean to you?' And if you notice, he didn't answer anything," she said.

Critics accused Haley of refusing to mention slavery, saying her description of the Civil War is whitewashing U.S. history.

“Haley’s refusal to admit that the Civil War was rooted in slavery last night in Berlin is just the latest of her shameful attempts to whitewash our country’s history," said New Hampshire Democratic Party Chair Ray Buckley. "From defending the Confederate flag and leaders to equating Black History Month with Confederate History Month, Haley’s record bowing to the extreme fringes of the MAGA base speaks volumes and is yet another reason why New Hampshire voters will reject her next year.”

President Joe Biden responded to Haley's comments on X, formerly known as Twitter, stating simply: "It was about slavery."

A senior Biden adviser expanded on the comment to ABC News.

"It doesn’t take a PhD to understand that slavery was the central cause of the civil war, but instead of telling it like it is, the entire MAGA field from Donald Trump on down are pandering to the most extreme fringe of their base. Minimize slavery, paraphrase HITLER, punish women and doctors — quite the record heading into the general election that will be the most diverse in history," the adviser said.

As a former South Carolina governor, Haley has long been under scrutiny for her views of the Confederacy's place in American history.

On the campaign trail, she has repeatedly invoked the memory of her 2015 calls for the removal of the Confederate flag from the South Carolina State House grounds. The call followed a racially motivated mass shooting at a Charleston church that left nine Black people dead.

"For many people in our state, the flag stands for traditions that are noble: traditions of history, of heritage, of ancestry," said Haley in a speech calling for its removal. She later continued, "At the same time, for many others in South Carolina, the flag is a deeply offensive symbol of a brutally oppressive past."