Why Nikki Haley could not say the word ‘slavery’

A Liberal Dose


As you probably know, a couple of weeks ago, Nikki Haley, at a town hall appearance, was asked this question by someone in the audience: “What was the cause of the Civil War?”

Her initial response: “Well, don’t come with an EASY question!” implying that this was an extraordinarily complex subject. She followed that with a long, rambling answer that, no joke, would take up this entire column if I quoted it verbatim. The gist was, she claimed the Civil War was about government overreach, “the role of the government and what the rights of the people are.” The questioner expressed shock that she could give such a long answer and not once mention slavery. “What do you want me to say about slavery?” she asked. This has proven to be very controversial, because reputable historians almost universally name slavery as the primary cause of that conflict, which is what we all USED to be taught in school, and USED to be considered common knowledge.

Surveys have shown, though, that more than half of Americans do not name slavery as the primary cause of the Civil War - and that number grows larger every year. Interestingly, the age group least likely to name slavery is those under 30, which to me demonstrates the de-emphasizing of accurate history in public school in recent years, which is probably further demonstrated by the fact the age group MOST likely to correctly identify slavery is those over 65. Also interesting: almost an equal percentage of Southerners and non-Southerners identify states’ rights as the primary cause of the war, so it’s not a regional thing.

Still, even given all that… most people I’ve talked to who do not believe slavery was the primary cause of the war will qualify their answer by saying things like “It wasn’t JUST about slavery” or “slavery was a factor, but not the biggest one.” Nikki Haley went on forever naming off (mostly irrelevant) things and never ONCE mentioned slavery at all. By the next day she was explaining herself: of COURSE it was about slavery, everybody knows that, she was just naming off the OTHER things. But that was not the question posed to her. She has also dug her hole deeper by saying (again, no joke) that she had Black friends growing up. And that no one cares except the media. And that the questioner was obviously a Democratic plant - as if only a Democrat would ask such a question or complain about her answer, which is, actually, very telling.

Over the last several years, a certain segment of the Republican electorate - probably much higher among die-hard Trumpists - has embraced the iconography and history of the Confederacy and minimized the role (in the war and in American history) of slavery. The fact that DeSantis criticized Haley’s response is especially rich, given that it’s his state that wants to teach kids slavery was beneficial for Black people because it taught them a trade. I think there are two things going on here: one, conservatives love a good states’ rights, anti-federal-government-intervention argument. Two, if the Civil War was not about slavery, then neither was it about race or racism, and we can therefore declare those things nonexistent.

Nikki Haley is not dumb. She knows that a good percentage of the Trump base that she wants to win over believe fervently that slavery was not the cause of the war, said belief reinforcing or buttressing a lot of their political beliefs (or vice versa). She knew an accurate answer would offend them and cost her their vote. Her (non)answer was purely political.

But the fact so many people are developing such views only emphasizes the need for teaching more accurate history - not less.

Many of you will not agree with my assessment about the basic question. Next time I’ll lay out why slavery is the only correct answer, with evidence.

--Troy D. Smith, a White County native, is a novelist and a history professor at Tennessee Tech and serves on the executive committee of the Tennessee Democratic Party. His words do not necessarily represent TTU.     


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