GOP presidential candidate Nikki Haley’s silence on slavery when asked about the cause of the Civil War should surprise absolutely no one.
If someone asked you what caused the Civil War, what would you say? Most people — even some who won’t say it out loud — know the answer. Yet there continues to be a silence on slavery.
Republican presidential candidate Nikki Haley stood as the most recent example. At a town hall, a voter asked that very simple question.
She paused for several seconds before joking, “Well, don’t come with an easy question.” The fact that she thinks it’s a difficult question told many of us what she would and wouldn’t say next.
“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,” she then said before turning the question back on the voter. “What do you think the cause of the Civil War was?”
The voter said he wasn’t the one running for president.
She said the government “doesn’t need to tell you how to live your life.” Haley, however, favors the government telling women they can’t have abortions.
The voter then said this: “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. After a few seconds of very telling silence, she asked for the next question.
A funny thing happened the next day
Apparently realizing the blunder, she appeared on a radio program the day after that New Hampshire town hall. On the air, she had a very different answer.
“Of course the Civil War was about slavery,” she said. She even called slavery “a stain on America.”
If it was so obvious then, why wasn’t it that obvious the day before? Three days after the town hall, she acknowledged the obvious:
“The first thing I should have said was slavery,” Haley said on Fox News‘ Cavuto Live. “I completely agree with that. When you grow up in the South, slavery is a given. Like when you think of the Civil War, you know it was about slavery. That’s never been in question.”
Slavery is a given…but it wasn’t enough of a given that it was the first thing that came to mind? If it was the obvious cause, why did she employ this silence on slavery?
I hated history in school
When I was a student, I dreaded history. It wasn’t that I didn’t care about the past. Instead, my problem was I knew exactly how it was going to play out. We’d learn about the days of the discovery of America. We would quickly gloss over the treatment of Native Americans. The valiant effort to escape the tyranny of our British oppressors would inspire us. Then, inevitably, we’d come to the Civil War.
We might even hear its traditional southern name: “The War of Northern Aggression.” That still makes me chuckle.
We’d learn about slavery, but somehow we never really got the real picture of what it was like for enslaved people. Teachers gave us stories of figures like Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass, Dred Scott and others who fought slavery.
And we ended the school year just making it toward the turn of the century. The next year, we started over again. Back to the quest for the New World. Plymouth Rock. Thirteen Colonies.
It wasn’t until college that I had a history class that actually covered anything post-World War II.
In can understand the fascination with the Civil War…to an extent
I grew up in South Carolina. The Palmetto State was, after all, the first state to leave the Union. There’s still a large degree of pride in that in this state. There people who wave giant Confederate flags at every opportunity.
Many of them will insist they’re not racist: they only want to honor their ancestors who fought in the Civil War.
I had at least one ancestor on my father’s side who was a Confederate soldier. He died long before my dad was born. I think he died before my father’s father was born.
I don’t need to wave a Confederate flag to honor him. Frankly, having no way to ask him, I can’t even know that he wanted to fight. I don’t know what he thought about slavery.
But I have members of my extended family who, over the years, have certainly expressed racist views. The generations before mine grew up in very different times. Back then, blatant racism was expressed as if it were supposed to be the norm.
Today, most instances of racism are much more subtle.
Also today, many people don’t like to acknowledge the fact that the Old South benefitted from slavery. They also hate the idea that slavery prompted that same Old South to break away from the Union. So they embrace a silence on slavery, hoping that by not mentioning it, it’ll just go away.
Silence on slavery doesn’t diminish its role in the Civil War
You can wish to your heart’s content that the war wasn’t about slavery. But that’s a pipe dream.
Those “history buffs” who insist slavery had nothing to do with the war clearly aren’t history buffs. If they were, they’d know, for example, that South Carolina’s declaration of its intention to leave the Union was almost all about slavery.
In fact, that very document cited “an increasing hostility” from non-slaveholding states towards slavery. It also claimed that the Northern states breached their constitutional obligation to enforce federal laws like the Fugitive Slave Act. That law required that slaves be returned to their owners, even if they were in a free state. It also claimed the Northern states elected a man (Abraham Lincoln) who would “inaugurate a new policy” (presumably ending slavery) that would be “hostile to the South.”
But don’t take just South Carolina’s word for it. Other states shared similar views when listing their reasons for joining the Confederacy.
In March 1861, Alexander Stephens, the vice president of the Confederate States of America, said slavery caused the war. Offensive by today’s standards as it is, this quote, part of a passage that criticized the North for its anti-slavery views, was attributed to him:
Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its corner–stone rests upon the great truth, that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery — subordination to the superior race — is his natural and normal condition.Confederate States of America Vice President Alexander Stephens
‘Of course it was about slavery’
Haley is clearly correct: The Civil War was definitely about slavery. Frankly, I was impressed with Haley when she was governor of South Carolina. She even got the Confederate flag removed from the Statehouse grounds, ending decades of dispute on that symbol. Of course, it only came down after a white supremacist who used it as a symbol of hate entered a historically Black church in Charleston and gunned down its pastor and eight other members after a Bible study.
In the time of the Civil War, white Southerners believed slavery was crucial if the South were to survive. The Confederacy felt it was justified to fight.
There’s no question at least some Confederate soldiers fought out of a sense of duty to their “country.” In fact, former Confederate officer John Mosby wrote this in 1907 about why he fought:
Now while I think as badly of slavery as Horace Greeley did I am not ashamed that my family were slaveholders. It was our inheritance – Neither am I ashamed that my ancestors were pirates & cattle thieves. People must be judged by the standard of their own age. If it was right to own slaves as property it was right to fight for it. The South went to war on account of Slavery. South Carolina went to war – as she said in her Secession proclamation – because slavery wd. not be secure under Lincoln. South Carolina ought to know what was the cause for her seceding. . . . I am not ashamed of having fought on the side of slavery – a soldier fights for his country – right or wrong – he is not responsible for the political merits of the cause he fights in. The South was my country.John Mosby
Think about that. He was a Confederate officer who hated slavery but still fought for it. Why? The South was “his country.” He didn’t feel the need to display silence on slavery like so many since have.
At this distance from the actual conflict, it’s easier to spin it into something broader. It’s easier to sweep that particular issue, that dark period in our history, under the rug.
But back then, it wasn’t about something broader. Back then, it wasn’t some conflict on widespread government authority. The abolishment of slavery — by itself — represented what came as such a threat to the lifestyle and success to which white Southerners had grown accustomed that it alone was worth fighting a war over.
You can deny slavery’s role in it all you wish. Mosby, who took part in the war, is certainly better qualified than anyone alive today to speak to slavery’s role.
But being silent on it doesn’t diminish its role. In fact, that silence makes the glaring omission of the truth that much more obvious.