Nikki Haley fumbled an easy chance to explain slavery, her home state and GOP history

Nikki Haley fumbled an easy chance to explain slavery, her home state and GOP history

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This week, Ambassador Nikki Haley, the former South Carolina governor and a rising contender for the Republican presidential nomination, claimed that the cause of the Civil War was about “how the government was going to run…the freedoms and what people could or couldn’t do.” She fumbled, chuckling that the rather undemanding question wasn’t easy. 

Decades ago, my fourth-grade teacher asked a similar softball question and expected from us a more erudite answer than that. 

Perhaps conflating the past and the present, Haley said, “We need to have capitalism, economic freedom…so that individuals have the liberties so that they can have freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom to do or be anything they want to be without government getting in the way.”

Despite the immediate backlash, she was not entirely wrong. She was also very far from being right. After all, whose freedom was at stake? And who could or couldn’t do what? 

Whether from political timidity or ignorance, Haley missed an elementary opportunity to demonstrate that, as a candidate, she not only understands U.S. history but also the history of her home state and her political party.

That slavery was the main issue of the Civil War is not exactly a controversial idea. South Carolina’s Declaration of Secession, published in 1860, explains very clearly that its reason for seceding was “an increasing hostility on the part of the non-slaveholding states to the institution of slavery.”  More than a dozen times, the document references “slaves” or “slavery.”  South Carolina lawmakers thought the northern position, and that of Republican President-Elect Abraham Lincoln, was “hostile to the South, and destructive of its beliefs and safety” in the institution of chattel slavery. 

South Carolina’s secession plan highlighted concerns about northern states refusing to enforce the Fugitive Slave Act, a federal law that permitted bounty hunters to recapture women, men, and children who had escaped slavery and bring them back into its clutches. This law was obviously pernicious because it reinforced slavery, but it also created an excuse for bounty hunters to harass, detain, and seize random Black people in northern states who had never been enslaved in the first place. These hunters would present their chained captives before magistrates, who were paid double if they determined that the so-called fugitive was a runaway slave. By law, Black people could not speak at these hearings.

The South Carolina Declaration of Secession states from the outset that the permissibility and enforcement of slavery, “was so material” to Southern states joining the Union, “that without it the compact would not have been made,” because of the “value” of slavery.

Haley could have spoken with moral authority, as Lincoln had on his campaign trail. These elementary details about the cause of the Civil War are not political — or at least they should not be.  

Haley’s blunder was particularly striking because she wasted a chance to demonstrate rudimentary knowledge about the Republican Party itself, which had quickly risen at that time to become the nation’s main anti-slavery party, and a pivotal institution in the Civil War-era abolitionist movement. Republicans rallied against slavery, and in doing so risked their lives and livelihoods. Pro-slavery terrorism was extreme: printing presses were destroyed by pro-slavery forces, abolitionists were lynched, homes burned, and churches bombed because they dared to oppose slavery.

Charles Sumner, the senator from Massachusetts, was nearly caned to death on the Senate floor by Preston Brooks, a representative from South Carolina, only days after he had spoken in opposition to slavery.

Haley should also know about this because the state she governed played such a crucial role in profiting from, maintaining, and defending slavery until the end of the Civil War. The largest “transatlantic slave trade port of entry” in the U.S. was in Charleston, S.C. According to the Equal Justice Initiative, “over 40 percent of all enslaved Africans trafficked to North America — arrived through Charleston Harbor.”

Sadly, nearly one-third of the Black people who arrived in South Carolina “died within a year.” Slavery fueled South Carolina’s economy, earning the state a long-held moniker, the “Gold Coast.”

Finally, as someone trying to become the first woman U.S. president, Haley should be aware of the particularly savage grip slavery had on women and girls, including in South Carolina.

Advertisements from local newspapers in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries reveal in striking detail slavery’s moral corruption, including rape and forced pregnancy. For example, an advertisement in the Charleston’s City Gazette and Daily Advertiser on March 5, 1794, details a private auction whereby “fine breeding wenches” will be sold.  In that same newspaper, “negro wenches” with “healthy mullatto” children were regularly advertised for sale.   

In other advertisements, South Carolinians offered rewards for the return of Black girls who dared escape the clutches of slavery. For example, in March 1810, in the Charleston City Gazette and Daily Advertiser, Dr. Thomas H. McCall, placed the following: “Five Dollars Reward, Ranaway on Tuesday the 13th…the subscriber’s NEGRO GIRL, named Maria, with her female Mullato Child about nine months old…”

These advertisements convey that, baked into the story of American slavery, abolition, and the Civil War is the story of sexual terrorism inflicted on Black girls and women. This was so horrifically normalized that such descriptors as “breeding wench”and “mullato child” would have simultaneously signified mundane daily language and dire horrors to readers at the time.

Black girls and women suffered under the cruel grasp of American slavery, which conscripted their bodies not only in physical labor, but in the crudest sexual exploitation as well. Their plight was key to the cause of abolition, which ultimately set the stage for the Civil War.

Some have claimed that Haley’s stammering was an appeal to independent voters in New Hampshire. Others surmise that she hopes to siphon loyal, hard-right voters from the Republican frontrunner, Donald Trump.

It is impossible that Haley is unaware of the history. At best, she messed up in the moment and blew a great opportunity. At worst, she is pandering to a crowd that thinks slavery can be written out of the Civil War — an unfortunately growing movement that believes denial of our history is a winning political strategy.

Michele Bratcher Goodwin is the Linda D. and Timothy J. O’Neill Professor of Constitutional Law and Global Health Policy at Georgetown Law School.

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