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Nikki Haley defends leaving slavery out as cause of Civil War after backlash

Haley criticized for answer to Civil War question
Nikki Haley faces heavy criticism for failing to mention slavery as cause of Civil War 03:28

Berlin, New Hampshire — Republican presidential candidate Nikki Haley on Thursday sought to defend earlier comments that failed to mention slavery as a cause of the Civil War as she received backlash on social media. 

"I mean, of course, the Civil War was about slavery," Haley said on The Pulse of New Hampshire Radio program "Good Morning NH with Jack Heath."

"We know that- that's, that's the easy part of it. What I was saying was, what does it mean to us today? What it means to us today is about freedom. That's what that was all about. It was about individual freedom, it was about economic freedom, it was about individual rights," she said. 

"What was the cause of the United States Civil War?" a male attendee asked Haley during a town hall Wednesday night in Berlin, New Hampshire. 

The former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations appeared to be taken aback by the question and paused before answering. 

"Well, don't come with an easy question," Haley joked. "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. What do you think the cause of the Civil War was?"

The questioner — who later identified himself to reporters off camera as "Patrick" — immediately shot back at Haley, saying he's not the one running for president. 

Haley attempted to further elaborate her response, but still with no mention of slavery.  

"I think it always comes down to the role of government, and what the rights of the people are," Haley said. "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." 

When the voter followed up with Haley on why she wasn't mentioning slavery in her response, she asked, "What do you want me to say about slavery?"

Haley said on Thursday she thought the questioner was "definitely" planted by Democrats to trip her up. 

"The same reason he didn't tell the reporters what his name was, the same reason he went and showed the guy that he was with the tweet that went up after he did it," Haley said. "We see these guys when they come in, we know what they're doing."

Haley's exchange was met with some applause from the town hall's audience. However, the criticism was almost immediate, with many taking to social media to react, including President Biden, who tweeted late Wednesday night: "It was about slavery."

"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," said Jaime Harrison, chairman of the Democratic National Committee, in a statement to CBS News after the town hall. 

The confrontation comes amid Haley's growing momentum in New Hampshire, with the latest polls showing she has been gaining on former President Donald Trump, something no other Republican presidential candidate has been able to do in the Granite State. Earlier this month, she was endorsed by Republican New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu. 

Throughout her campaign, Haley has championed South Carolina's 2015 removal of the Confederate flag on the State House grounds under her tenure as governor. The removal came in the wake of the 2015 mass shooting at Mother Emanuel AME church in Charleston in which a white supremacist killed nine Black people. 

As part of her stump speech, Haley often tells the story of the moments leading up to the flag's removal. 

"50% of South Carolinians saw the Confederate flag as heritage and tradition, the other 50% of South Carolinians saw it as slavery and hate," Haley told voters during a town hall in Spirit Lake, Iowa, earlier this month. 

"My job wasn't to judge either side," Haley said. "My job was to get them to see the best of themselves and go forward."

Haley often pitches to voters that "the tone at the top matters" in bringing the country together across different and sensitive issues.

"We were able to bring that Confederate flag down," she said in Spirit Lake. "We didn't have riots, we had vigils. We didn't have protests, we had hugs. And South Carolinians showed the world what strength and grace look like. That's how you do it."

Jacob Rosen contributed to this report.

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