A botched response doubled as a missed campaign opportunity

Samuel Damren

At a New Hampshire town meeting in late December, Republican presidential candidate Nikki Haley was asked to explain the cause of the Civil War.

She replied that it was “basically how the government was going to run” and “the freedoms of what people could and couldn’t do.”

The former governor of South Carolina, the first state to secede from the Union and home to the first battle of the Civil War at Fort Sumter, failed to mention slavery. The New Hampshire voter who asked the question was incredulous.
Haley stuck to her answer.

If, as Haley contended, the cause of the Civil War arose from differences about “how the government was going to run,” the differences must be self-evident in the founding document for the government of the Confederacy: The Constitution of the Confederate States, March 11, 1861.

I suspect very few readers have ever examined that document. Doing so is not  the heavy lift you might expect.

After substituting “Confederate States” for the “United States,” 95 percent of the  Constitution of the Confederate States mirrors the framework for government set  forth in the Constitution of the United States and its amendments through 1861.
There are substantive differences, but other than provisions relating to slavery, they are not significant.  

Examples of these differences include the term of the Confederate president  which was limited to a single six-year term.  

Confederate states were referenced in the preamble as “independent  sovereigns,” and later authorized in the document to act in “compacts,” without regulation by the Confederate federal government, for specified but limited  purposes such as the improvement of waterways and navigation.

The Confederate Constitution permits state taxation of vessels traveling between Confederate states.

None of these or similar differences over the method and rules of governance  caused the Civil War.

As to differences between “the freedoms of what people could and couldn’t do”  which Haley highlighted but did not expand upon at the town meeting, the Confederate Constitution recites verbatim the Bill of Rights contained the first  ten amendments of the Constitution of the United States.

However, there is one “freedom” expressly protected in the Confederate Constitution that is not mentioned in the Constitution of the United States: the freedom to enslave.

As to the practice of slavery as it then existed, the Confederate Constitution  expressly incorporates the terms of the Fugitive Slave Act. Consistent with the  Dred Scott decision, the Confederate Constitution also expressly notes that slaves owned in one Confederate state may be transported to other Confederate states without change in their legal status as property.

Everyone at the time knew that in the immediate aftermath of the Confederacy’s  formation contests between the Union and Confederacy over territories and members would be fierce.  Article I, Section 9, proviso 2, of the Confederate  Constitution anticipates this struggle by authorizing its Congress “to prohibit the introduction of slaves from any State not a member of, or Territory not belonging to, this Confederacy.”  

By so doing, the founders of the Confederacy sought to force states and  territories that might wish to continue the practice of slavery to make a divisive choice – either join the Confederacy or face economic isolation and the loss of viable markets for your slave property by choosing to remain with the Union.

Four states did later join the Confederacy. The tactic partially back-fired in the  northwest counties of Virginia, which split off to remain with the Union as the  new state of West Virginia.

Article IV, Section 3, proviso 3 of the Confederate Constitution also anticipated the future expansion of slavery by the Confederacy into “new territory.” It  mandated that “in all such territory the institution of negro slavery, as it now  exists in the Confederate States and Territories, shall be recognized and protected  by the Congress and by the Territorial government.”  

The formation of a separate Confederate government with these bellicose policies and objectives concerning slavery made Civil War inevitable.

Within a week after making her remarks in New Hampshire, Nikki Haley walked them back and acknowledged that slavery was the cause of the Civil War. But it  was a lost opportunity for her and for the country.

Just think if, when originally asked, she had given the following answer to the  New Hampshire voter:

“What was the cause of the Civil War? Slavery was the cause of the Civil War. It  was a profound failure of our form of government that it came to that, but it did. We struggle to this day with the consequences.

“Slavery was replaced with legalized racial segregation, and that was wrong, too.  Much work remains for us to right those wrongs and fully heal our country. We can only do it together and we must.

“As a person of color and the former governor of a state that was once part of the Confederacy and later practiced Jim Crow and legalized segregation, I am best  positioned to complete that healing. I ask you for your vote that I might do so.”

Thinking that this moment might have ever occurred in today’s polarized times is fanciful.  

We still can only dream.