NORTH CONWAY, N.H. — Nikki Haley on Thursday acknowledged the Civil War was “about slavery” after facing swift criticism for making no mention of it when asked about the cause of the conflict at a town hall.

“Of course the Civil War was about slavery. We know that. That’s the easy part of it,” the Republican presidential candidate said on “The Pulse of NH,” a local radio show.

The comments came the day after Haley did not bring up slavery under questioning from an attendee at a Wednesday evening town hall event in Berlin, New Hampshire. Scholars agree slavery was the main driver of the Civil War. But Haley, a former U.N. ambassador and South Carolina governor who has risen in the polls recently, did not raise it in a lengthy exchange that garnered widespread attention and criticism.

Election 2024 Haley South Carolina

Republican presidential candidate Nikki Haley speaks during a town hall on Dec. 18, in Nevada, Iowa. Charlie Neibergall/Associated Press

“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?” she added in her radio interview. “That freedom matters. 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 never to relive it. Never let anyone take those freedoms away again.”

At a town hall in North Conway later Thursday, Haley again addressed the issue.

“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,” she said. “By the grace of God, we did the right thing and slavery is no more.”


She continued, “I say that as a Southerner. I say that as a Southern governor who removed the Confederate flag off the State House grounds.”

Haley’s remarks came amid a year-end push in New Hampshire, a state that is seen as key to her chances in the Republican presidential race. Former President Donald Trump holds a wide lead in the Granite State and other key battlegrounds. But Haley has gained some ground on him, climbing into sole possession of a distant second place in New Hampshire, which holds its nominating contest on Jan. 23, eight days after the Iowa caucuses.

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.

The former U.N. ambassador on Thursday also accused the man who asked her the question of being a Democratic plant. The audience member declined to share his name or party affiliation with reporters.

“We see these guys when they come in. We know what they’re doing,” Haley said.

The Wednesday evening exchange started with a direct question from the man.


“What was the cause of the United States Civil War?” the man asked Haley..

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 continued. “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 answered 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 exchange from President Biden and some rival Republican presidential campaigns.

“It was about slavery,” Biden wrote on X, formerly Twitter.

Critics and rivals, who have long argued that Haley could stumble under the heightened scrutiny that has come with her rise in the polls, seized on her comments. Opponents have accused her of ducking hard questions, and she rarely takes queries from the reporters who attend her events.

At a presidential campaign event in Iowa on Thursday afternoon, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis 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.”


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 who asked about the Civil War: “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 Gov. Chris Christie – 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.”

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.

Republican New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu, who recently endorsed Haley and stood behind her during her conversation with reporters, said her response was “spot on.”


Haley’s past comments on the Civil War have come under scrutiny too. 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 Washington Post. “I don’t think anyone does anything out of hate.”

Ahead of Haley’s Thursday town hall, Bill Anderson, who plans to vote for Haley and has donated to her campaign, said he expected to hear more from her about the role slavery played in the start of the Civil War. He read about her answer from the night before and said he didn’t hold it against her that she didn’t mention slavery.

“I don’t expect her to be perfect,” he said.


Vazquez reported from Washington and Knowles reported from Iowa.

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