After a voter said he found it “astonishing” that Haley hadn’t used the word “slavery” at any point in her answer, she asked, “What do you want me to say about slavery?”
CNN — Nikki Haley on Thursday sought to clarify her comments about the Civil War one day after a voter in New Hampshire called her out for not mentioning slavery as a cause of the war.
“I mean, of course the Civil War was about slavery,” Haley told radio host Jack Heath Thursday morning.
“But what’s the lesson in all of that?” she continued. “That we need to make sure that every person has freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom to do and be anything they want to be without anyone or government getting in the way. That was the goal of what that was at. Yes, I know it was about slavery. I’m from the South, of course I know it’s about slavery.”
Her comments come amid intense backlash inside and outside the GOP after Haley told a New Hampshire town hall crowd that the Civil War was about government interfering in people’s freedoms.
“I mean, 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 had said Wednesday in a visit to Berlin — the first of five events in the Granite State as she attempts to close the gap with Republican front-runner Donald Trump ahead of next month’s primary.
The former South Carolina governor then asked the voter who had asked her about the Civil War what he thought the cause was, to which the voter responded, “I’m not running for president.”
“I think it always comes down to the role of government and what the rights of the people are,” Haley added. “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,” she added.
The voter criticized her for not mentioning slavery in her answer. “In the year 2023, it’s astonishing to me that you answer that question without mentioning the word slavery,” the voter said.
“What do you want me to say about slavery?” Haley asked.
“You answered my question,” he responded.
“Next question,” Haley said as attendees applauded.
Speaking to reporters after the town hall Wednesday evening, the voter, who only identified himself as Patrick, called his question “pretty fundamental and frankly pretty easy.”
He said a video of Haley being asked “essentially” the same question when she was running for governor of South Carolina had prompted him to ask it again now that she’s running for president.
“The answer that she gave was very similar to the answer that she gave tonight,” he said, adding “I was just curious if she would answer it any different.”
Democrats and President Joe Biden’s campaign quickly seized on the moment on social media. Biden posted on X, “It was about slavery,” along with a video of the exchange shared by one of his campaign accounts.
And criticism didn’t just fall along party lines. A spokesman for Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’ presidential campaign called Haley’s attempts to clarify her remarks “embarrassing.”
“If she can’t handle a question as basic as the cause of the Civil War, what does she think is going to happen to her in a general election,” DeSantis spokesman Andrew Romeo wrote on X Thursday. “The Democrats would eat her lunch.”
As the former governor of South Carolina — the first state to secede during the Civil War — Haley has had a complicated public posture toward the confederacy. As CNN’s KFile has reported, she once defended states’ rights to secede from the United States, South Carolina’s Confederate History Month and the Confederate flag in a 2010 interview with a local activist group when she was running for governor.
Haley also described the Civil War as two sides fighting for different values, one for “tradition” and one for “change.”
The 2015 shooting at a historically Black church in Charleston, South Carolina, spurred Haley, as governor, to call for the removal of the Confederate battle flag from the statehouse grounds where it had been since being removed from the state’s Capitol dome in 2000.
This story has been updated with additional information