Republican presidential candidate Nikki Haley declined to mention slavery when asked by a voter on Wednesday evening what caused the Civil War, arguing instead that it came down to “the role of government.”
“I mean, I think it always comes down to the role of government and what the rights of the people are,” Haley said during a campaign stop in Berlin, N.H., emphasizing her belief that the government should not dictate individuals’ lives. “I will always stand by the fact that I think government was intended to secure the rights and freedoms of the people.”
Haley notably did not mention slavery, which historians agree was the main driver of the U.S. Civil War. The voter who posed the question to Haley criticized her in response. “In the year 2023, it’s astonishing to me that you answer that question without mentioning the word slavery,” the voter said.
Haley then asked the voter, “What do you want me to say about slavery?” to which the voter replied, “You’ve answered my question. Thank you.”
Haley’s comments on the Civil War drew instant backlash from her political rivals, with President Joe Biden’s re-election campaign sharing video footage of the exchange on social media with the caption: “It was about slavery.”
After facing criticism for her response, Haley on Thursday backtracked on her stance regarding the causes of the Civil War. “Of course, the Civil War was about slavery. We know that. That’s the easy part of it,” she clarified on “The Pulse of NH,” a local radio show.
“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. “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 relive it. Never let anyone take those freedoms away again.”
She also suggested that the person who asked her the question was a “Democratic plant.”
Haley has steadily risen in polls in recent weeks, with her platform often resonating with more moderate and independent factions within the Republican party. But her failing to acknowledge that slavery was a key factor in the Civil War may impact her standing in the coming weeks as she aims to present herself as the top Republican alternative to former President Donald Trump, who continues to hold an overwhelming lead in the GOP primary.
In a statement, Democratic National Committee Chairman Jaime Harrison said, “I am disgusted but I’m not surprised.”
“This is what Black South Carolinians have come to expect from Nikki Haley, and now the rest of the country is getting to see her for who she is,” he added. “This isn’t hard: condemning slavery is the baseline for anyone who wants to be president of the United States, but Nikki Haley and the rest of the MAGA GOP are choking on their words trying to rewrite history.”
The campaign of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who is also running in the GOP primary, also reposted the video of the interaction on social media, adding the comment, “Yikes.”
Read more: The Role Nikki Haley’s 2015 Decision to Remove the Confederate Flag Could Play in Her Presidential Run
Haley, who served six years as Governor of South Carolina, has long grappled with how to navigate issues of race, slavery and the Confederacy in her political career, and she has faced scrutiny on the topic in the past. During her 2010 gubernatorial campaign, she discussed the Civil War in a private meeting with two leaders of Confederate heritage groups, characterizing it as a clash between “tradition” and “change.”
“You see passions on different sides,” she said at the time. “I don’t think anyone does anything out of hate.”
That same year, Haley also said that she would not remove a Confederate flag from the State House grounds despite opposition from civil rights groups. Five years later, in the aftermath of a 2015 mass shooting in which a white gunman killed eight Black church members during a Bible study at a historically Black church in Charleston, Haley approved legislation that removed the Confederate flag from its seat of government.