Benjamin Tillman

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Ben Tillman
Tillman in 1905
United States Senator
from South Carolina
In office
March 4, 1895 – July 3, 1918
Preceded byMatthew Butler
Succeeded byChristie Benet
84th Governor of South Carolina
In office
December 4, 1890 – December 4, 1894
LieutenantEugene B. Gary
W.H. Timmerman
Preceded byJohn Peter Richardson III
Succeeded byJohn Gary Evans
Personal details
BornBenjamin Ryan Tillman, Jr.
(1847-08-11)August 11, 1847
Trenton, South Carolina, U.S.
DiedJuly 3, 1918(1918-07-03) (aged 70)
Washington, D.C., U.S.
Political partyDemocratic
Spouse(s)Sallie Starke
RelationsGeorge Dionysius Tillman (brother)
Nickname(s)"Pitchfork Ben"
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Ben Tillman
Tillman in 1905
United States Senator
from South Carolina
In office
March 4, 1895 – July 3, 1918
Preceded byMatthew Butler
Succeeded byChristie Benet
84th Governor of South Carolina
In office
December 4, 1890 – December 4, 1894
LieutenantEugene B. Gary
W.H. Timmerman
Preceded byJohn Peter Richardson III
Succeeded byJohn Gary Evans
Personal details
BornBenjamin Ryan Tillman, Jr.
(1847-08-11)August 11, 1847
Trenton, South Carolina, U.S.
DiedJuly 3, 1918(1918-07-03) (aged 70)
Washington, D.C., U.S.
Political partyDemocratic
Spouse(s)Sallie Starke
RelationsGeorge Dionysius Tillman (brother)
Nickname(s)"Pitchfork Ben"

Benjamin Ryan Tillman (born Benjamin Ryan Tillman, Jr.; August 11, 1847 – July 3, 1918), was an American politician of the Democratic Party who was Governor of South Carolina from 1890 to 1894, and a United States Senator from 1895 until his death. Known for his wild appearance and oratory, Tillman was a white supremacist who often spoke out against African Americans. Tillman led a paramilitary group of Red Shirts during South Carolina's violent 1876 election campaign; even as a senator he boasted of having participated in the killing of black men.

Tillman was the last born of seven brothers, five of whom died young through violence, war, or disease. He was to join Confederate forces in 1864 at age 16, but was stricken with an ailment which cost him an eye, and did not regain his health until after the South's surrender. Tillman assisted his widowed mother in rebuilding the family plantation. He took a major part in the campaign of 1876, when South Carolina's Democrats used fraud, violence, and suppression of black voters to take back control of the state government.

In the 1880s, Tillman became dissatisfied with the party leadership and led a movement of white farmers calling for reform. He was initially unsuccessful in forcing change, though he was instrumental in the founding of Clemson University as an agricultural school. In 1890, Tillman took control of the state Democratic Party, and was nominated for and elected governor. During Tillman's four years in that office, several African Americans were lynched in South Carolina. Tillman tried to prevent such killings, but spoke in support of the lynchers, stating his own willingness to lead a lynch mob. In 1894, at the end of his second two-year term, Tillman was elected to the U.S. Senate by vote of the state legislature.

Tillman became known as "Pitchfork Ben" both because of his agricultural advocacy and because he threatened to impale President Grover Cleveland on one. Considered a possible candidate for the Democratic nomination for president in 1896, Tillman lost any chance after giving a disastrous speech at the convention. Tillman became known for his virulent speech (especially against African Americans) but also as an effective legislator, guiding railroad regulation to passage. The first federal campaign finance law, banning corporate contributions, is commonly called the Tillman Act. In 1902, during a heated Senate debate, Tillman punched his fellow South Carolinian, John L. McLaurin. Tillman was repeatedly re-elected, serving in the Senate for the rest of his life. One legacy of Tillman was South Carolina's 1895 constitution, which disfranchised most blacks and ensured white rule for more than half a century.

Early life and education[edit]

Benjamin Ryan Tillman was born on August 11, 1847, on the family plantation "Chester", near Trenton, located in upcountry South Carolina, to Benjamin Ryan Tillman, Sr. and the former Sophia Hancock, with Benjamin Jr. the last of seven sons. Trenton was in the Edgefield District (today, in Edgefield County). In addition to being farmers, the Tillmans kept an inn, and had 86 slaves. The family was of English descent.[1][2] Benjamin Tillman, Sr. owned 2,500 acres (1,000 ha), making him a major planter in the Edgefield District.[3]

Edgefield was known as a violent place, even by the standards of antebellum South Carolina,[4] where matters of personal honor might be addressed with a killing or duel. Local whites (the minority) boasted of Congressman Preston Brooks, a son of Edgefield, who caned Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner on the floor of the Senate.[5] Before Tillman Sr.'s death from typhoid fever in 1849, he had killed a man and been convicted of rioting by an Edgefield jury. One of his sons died in a duel; another was killed in a domestic dispute. A third died in the Mexican-American War; a fourth of disease at age 15.[2][6] Of Benjamin Jr.'s two surviving brothers, one died of Civil War wounds after returning home, and the other, George, killed a man who accused him of cheating at gambling. Convicted of manslaughter, George continued to practice law from his jail cell during his two-year sentence, and was elected to the state senate while still incarcerated.[7][8] He later served several terms in Congress.[9]

From an early age, young Ben showed a developed vocabulary. Beginning in 1860, he was sent to Bethany, a boarding school in Edgefield where he became a star student, and remained there as the American Civil War began. In 1863, he came home for a year to help his mother pay off debts. He returned to Bethany in 1864 for what was planned to be a final year of study prior to entry to the South Carolina College (today, the University of South Carolina). The South's desperate need for soldiers ended this plan, and in June 1864, still not yet seventeen, he withdrew from the academy, making arrangements to join a coastal artillery unit. These plans were also sidetracked when he fell ill at home.[10] A cranial tumor led to the removal of his left eye, and it was not until 1866, months after Confederate forces had disbanded, that Ben Tillman was again healthy. One gain from his convalescence was his meeting, and in January 1868 marrying, Sallie Starke, a refugee from Fairfield District.[2]

Tillman, his mother, and his wounded brother James (who died in 1866), worked to rebuild Chester plantation after the war. They signed the plantation's freemen as workers, and were subjected to the unprecedented circumstance of several men refusing to work and legally leaving the plantation. From 1866 to 1868, Ben Tillman went with several workers from the plantation to Florida, where a new cotton-planting belt had been established, and where the Tillmans purchased land. Tillman was unsuccessful in Florida—after two marginal years, the 1868 crop was destroyed by caterpillars, and he returned to South Carolina with his bride, who had come to Florida after the wedding.[11] The following year, the couple settled on 430 acres (170 ha) of Tillman family land, given to him by his mother.[2]

Tillman proved an adept farmer, who experimented with crop diversification[2] and took his crops to market each Saturday in nearby Augusta, Georgia. In 1878, he inherited 170 acres (69 ha) from Sophia Tillman, and purchased 650 acres (260 ha) at Ninety Six, some 30 miles (48 km) from his Edgefield holdings.[12] Although his workers were no longer slaves, Tillman continued to apply the whip to them. By 1876, Tillman was the largest landowner in Edgefield County. He rode through his fields on horseback like an antebellum overseer, and stated at the time that it was necessary that he do so to "drive the slovenly Negroes to work".[13]

Red Shirt and Reconstruction[edit]

Resistance to Republican rule[edit]

With the Confederacy defeated, South Carolina ratified a new constitution in 1865 that recognized the end of slavery, but basically left the pre-war elites in charge. African-American freedmen, who were a majority of South Carolina's population, were given no vote, and their new freedom was soon restricted by Black Codes, that limited their civil rights, and required black farm laborers to bind themselves with annual labor contracts. Congress was dissatisfied with this minimal change and required a new constitutional convention and elections with universal male suffrage. As African Americans generally favored the Republican Party at the time, that party controlled the state legislature beginning with the 1868 elections, with many black office-holders.[14] The campaign was marked by violence—19 Republican and Union League activists were killed in South Carolina's 3rd congressional district alone.[15]

In 1873, two Edgefield lawyers and former Confederate generals, Martin Gary and Matthew C. Butler, began to advocate what became known as the "Edgefield Plan" or "Straightout Plan". They believed that the previous five years had shown it was not possible to outvote African Americans; Gary and Butler deemed compromises with black leaders to be misguided—white men must be restored to their antebellum position of preeminent political power in the state. They proposed that white men form themselves into clandestine paramilitary organizations—known as "rifle clubs"—and use force and intimidation to drive the African American from power. Tillman was an early and enthusiastic recruit for his local organization, dubbed the Sweetwater Sabre Club,[16][17][18] Tillman became a devoted protégé of Gary.[2]

From 1873 to 1876, Tillman served as a member of the Sweetwater club, members of which assaulted and intimidated black would-be voters, killed black political figures, and carried on a minor war with the African American-dominated state militia.[2] Economic coercion was used as well as physical force: most Edgefield planters would not employ black militiamen or allow them to rent land, and ostracized whites who did. In 1874, a moderate Republican, Daniel Henry Chamberlain, was elected South Carolina's governor, attracting even some Democratic votes. When Chamberlain sought re-election in 1876, Gary recruited Wade Hampton III, a Confederate war hero who had moved out of state, to return and run for governor as a Democrat.[16][19]

Hamburg Massacre; campaign of 1876[edit]

Main article: Hamburg Massacre

The election campaign of 1876 was marked by violence, of which the most notorious occurrence was what became known as the Hamburg Massacre. It occurred in Hamburg, South Carolina, a mostly-black town across the river from Augusta, in Aiken County, bordering Edgefield. The incident grew out of an confrontation on July 4 when a black militia marched in Hamburg and two white youths in a buggy tried to ride through its ranks. Both sides filed criminal charges against the other, and dozens of out-of-uniform Red Shirts, led by Butler, snuck into Hamburg on the day of the hearing. Tillman was present, and the subsequent events were one of the memories of which he was most proud.[20]

The hearing never occurred, as the black militiamen, outnumbered and outgunned, refused to attend court. This upset the white mob, which expected an apology. Butler demanded that the militiamen give one, and as part of the apology, surrender their arms.[21] Those who attempted to mediate found that neither Butler nor the armed men who backed him were interested in compromise. If the militiamen surrendered their arms, they would be helpless before the mob; if they did not, Butler and his men would have the provocation they wanted in order to use force. Butler brought additional men in from Georgia, and the augmented armed mob, including Tillman, went to confront the militiamen, who were barricaded in their drill room, above a local store. Shots were fired, and after one white man was killed, the rest stormed the room, and captured about thirty of the militia. Five were murdered as having white enemies; among the dead was a town constable who had arrested white men. The rest were allowed to flee, with shots fired after them. At least seven black militiamen were killed in the incident. On the way home to Edgefield, Tillman and others had a celebratory meal at the home of the man who had pointed out which African Americans should be shot.[22]

Tillman later recalled that "the leading white men of Edgefield" had decided "to seize the first opportunity that the Negroes might offer them to provoke a riot and teach the Negroes a lesson" by "having the whites demonstrate their superiority by killing as many of them as was justifiable".[3] Hamburg was the first opportunity for such murders. A coroner's jury indicted 94 white men in the attack, including Butler and Tillman.[23] However, no one was prosecuted by either the state or federal government for the killings, deaths which Butler blamed on intoxicated factory workers and Irish-Americans who had come across the bridge from Augusta, and over whom he had no control.[24]

Tillman raised his profile in state politics by attending the 1876 state Democratic convention, which nominated Hampton as the party's candidate for governor.[25] While Hampton presented a fatherly image, urging support from South Carolinians, black and white, Tillman led fifty men to Ellenton, where over a thousand rifle club members slaughtered thirty militiamen, with the survivors saved only by the arrival of federal authorities. Although Tillman and his men arrived too late to participate in those killings, two of his men murdered Simon Coker, a black state senator who had come to investigate reports of violence. They shot him as he knelt in final prayer.[26]

On Election Day in November 1876, Tillman served as an election official at a local poll, as did two black Republicans. One arrived late and was scared off by Tillman. As there was as yet no secret ballot in South Carolina, Tillman threatened to remember any votes cast for the Republicans. That precinct gave 211 votes for the Democrats and 2 for the Republicans. Although almost two-thirds of those eligible to vote in Edgefield were African Americans,[27] the Democrats were able to suppress the Republican/African-American vote, reporting a win for Hampton in Edgefield County with over 60% of the vote. Bolstered by this result, Hampton gained a narrow victory statewide, at least according to the official returns.[28]

According to Tillman biographer Stephen Kantrowitz, the violent summer of 1876 "marked a turning point in Ben Tillman's life, establishing him as a member of the political and military leadership".[29] Historian Orville Vernon Burton, in his article on Tillman for American National Biography indicated that "his violence on behalf of the white Democrats in the Hamburg and Ellenton riots in the summer of 1876 secured his prominence among the state's white political elite and proved to be the deathblow to South Carolina's Republican Reconstruction government."[2] The takeover, by fraud and terror, of South Carolina's government became known to whites as the state's "Redemption".[30]

"Agricultural Moses"[edit]

Starting with the election of Hampton as governor in 1876, South Carolina was ruled primarily by the wealthy "Bourbon" or "Conservative" planter class that had controlled the state prior to the Civil War. However, in the 1880s, the Bourbon class was neither as strong nor as populous as before.[31] The agenda of the Conservatives had little to offer the farmer, and in the hard economic times of the early 1880s, there was discontent in South Carolina which gave some electoral success to the short-lived Greenback Party.[32][33]

Having risen to the rank of captain in the rifle club before the end of the 1876 campaign, Tillman spent the next several years managing his plantations. He played a modest role in Edgefield's political and social life, and in 1881 was elected second in command of the Edgefield Hussars, a rifle club that had been made part of the state militia. He supported Gary's unsuccessful candidacy for the Democratic nomination for governor in 1880,[34][35] and after Gary's death in 1881,[16] as a delegate to the 1882 Democratic state convention backed former Confederate general John Bratton for the nomination.[36] By then, Tillman was dissatisfied with the Conservative leaders he had helped to power; he believed they were ignoring the interests of farmers and of poor mill workers, and had been responsible for denying office to Gary[2]—the former Red Shirt leader had twice sought to be senator, and once governor, and was each time denied.[16] Tillman never forgot what he deemed the "betrayal" of Gary.[37]

Struggle for the farmer[edit]

In an attempt to better conditions for the farmer (by which Tillman always meant white males only), in 1884 he founded the Edgefield Agricultural Club. The organization was unsuccessful. Undeterred, Tillman tried again in January 1885, beginning the Edgefield County Agricultural Society. Its membership also dwindled, but Tillman was elected one of three delegates to the August joint meeting of the state Grange and the state Agricultural and Mechanical Society at Bennettsville, and was invited to be one of the speakers.[38][39]

When Tillman spoke at Bennettsville, he was not widely-known except as the brother of Congressman George Tillman. Ben Tillman called for the state government to do more for farmers, and blamed politicians and lawyers in the pay of financial interests for agricultural problems. He assailed his listeners for letting themselves be duped by hostile interests, and told of the farmer who was elected to the legislature, only to be dazzled and seduced by the elite.[40] According to an account the next day in the Columbia Daily Register, Tillman's speech "electrified the assembly and was the sensation of the meeting".[41] Lindsey Perkins, in his journal article on Tillman's oratory wrote that "Tillman's losses in the agricultural depression of 1883–1898 forced him to begin thinking and planning economic reforms. The result was Bennettsville."[37] Tillman later stated that he began his advocacy after a few bad years in the early 1880s forced him to sell some of his land.[42]

Within two months of the Bennettsville speech, Tillman was being talked of as a candidate for governor in 1886.[37] He continued to speak to audiences, and was dubbed the "Agricultural Moses". He made political demands, such as primary elections to determine who would get the Democratic nomination (then tantamount to election) rather than the leaving the decision to the Bourbon-dominated state nominating convention. He principally called, however, for the establishment of a state college for the education of farmers, where young men could learn the latest techniques.[43] Kantrowitz pointed out that the term "farmer" is flexible in meaning, allowing Tillman to overlook distinctions of class and unite most white men in predominately-rural South Carolina under a single banner.[44] During these years, cartoonists began depicting Tillman with pitchfork in hand, symbolizing his agriculture-based roots and tendency to take jabs at opponents. This was a source of his nickname, "Pitchfork Ben".[45]

According to historian E. Culpepper Clark in his journal article on Tillman,

Tillman constantly baffled his enemies. Every move he made seemed sure to be counterproductive; yet his popularity only grew ... he abused his followers, calling them ignorant, imbecilic, backward, apathetic, and foolish. He assailed his enemies with a tongue so outrageous that many believed only the demise of the code duello kept him alive ..Despite all this, his movement grew and multiplied, thriving best when the issues appeared contrived, contradictory or without foundation.[46]

Tillman spoke widely in the state in 1885 and after, and soon attracted allies, including a number of Red Shirt comrades, such as Martin Gary's nephews Eugene B. Gary and John Gary Evans. He sought to mold local farmer's groups into a statewide organization to be a voice for agriculturalists. In April 1886, a convention called by Tillman met in Columbia, the state capital. The goal of what became known as the Farmer's Association or Farmer's Movement was to control the state Democratic Party from within, and to gain reforms such as the college. He initially was unsuccessful,[47] though he came within thirty votes of controlling the 1886 state Democratic convention.[37] The lack of success caused Tillman, in late 1887, to announce his retirement from politics, though there was widespread speculation he would soon be back.[47][48]

Tillman had met, in 1886, with Thomas G. Clemson, son in law of the late John C. Calhoun, to discuss a bequest to underwrite the cost of the new agricultural school. Clemson died in 1888, and his will not only left money and land for the college, but made Tillman one of seven trustees for life, who had the power to appoint their successors. Tillman stated that this provision, which made the lifetime trustees a majority of the board, was intended to forestall any attempt by a future Republican government to admit African Americans.[49] Clemson College (today Clemson University) was authorized by the legislature in December 1888, though it took a series of tie-breaking votes in the state Senate by Lieutenant Governor William L. Mauldin to accomplish it.[50]

The Clemson bequest helped revitalize Tillman's movement.[51] The targets of Tillman's oratory were again politicians in Columbia and the Conservative elements based in Charleston and elsewhere in the lowcountry of South Carolina. Through letters to newspapers and stump speeches, he decried the state government as a pit of graft and corruption,[2] stating that officials displayed "ignorance, extravagance and laziness" and that Charleston's cherished The Citadel was a "military dude factory" that might profitably be repurposed as a school for women.[52] Instead, the legislature expanded the Bourbon-controlled South Carolina College into the University of South Carolina, adding a small agricultural department.[53]

Governor John P. Richardson had been elected in 1886; in 1888 he sought re-nomination, to be met with opposition from Tillman's farmers. As had been done to Republican rallies in 1876, Tillman and his followers would attend campaign events and then demand that he be allowed equal time to speak. Tillman was a highly talented stump speaker, and when given the opportunity to debate, accused Richardson of being irreligious, a gambler and a drunkard. Even so, Richardson was easily re-nominated by the state Democratic convention, which turned down Tillman's demand for a primary election. Tillman proposed the customary gracious motion that Richardson's nomination be made unanimous.[54]

1890 gubernatorial campaign[edit]

One factor that helped Tillman and his movement in the 1890 campaign was the organization of many South Carolina farmers under the auspices of the Farmers' Alliance. The Alliance, which had spread through much of the agricultural South and West since its origin in Texas, sought to get farmers to work together cooperatively and seek reform. From that organization would come the People's Party (better known as the Populists). Although the Populist Party played a significant role in the politics of the 1890s, it did not do so in South Carolina, where Tillman had already channeled agricultural discontent into an attempt to take over the Democratic Party.[55] The Alliance in South Carolina generally backed Tillman, and its many local farmer's organizations gave Tillman new venues for his speeches.[56]

In January 1890, Tillmanite leader G. W. Shell published what came to be known as the "Shell Manifesto" in a Charleston newspaper, setting forth the woes of farmers under the Conservative government, and calling for farmers to meet in convention in March to recommend a candidate for governor to the Democratic convention. Both Tillman supporters and Conservatives realized the purpose was to pre-empt the Democratic convention's choice, and fresh, acrimonious debate over the merits of Tillman and his methods began. Tillman and his supporters were often attacked in the newspapers by the Conservatives, but such invective by the hated elites only tended to endear Tillman the more to his supporters. Conservatives were certain that once Tillman's voters understood how wealthy he was while speaking for debt-ridden farmers, they would abandon him; they did not.[57]

At the "Shell Convention", John L. M. Irby nominated Tillman, stating "shame on the [Democratic] party for stabbing Gary, a man who had saved in [sic] us in '76 ... we could now make the amends honorable and choose B. R. Tillman".[58] Tillman gained a narrow victory for the convention's recommendation; many delegates preferred the convention to make no endorsement. Despite the slimness of his triumph, Tillman spent the summer of 1890 making speeches and debating two rivals (former general Bratton and Joseph H. Earle) for the nomination, as the Democratic leadership watched with increasing consternation. Given Tillman's strength at the grassroots level, he was likely to be the choice of the Democratic convention in September. Accordingly, the party's Bourbon-controlled state executive committee tried to use the brief August convention (called to set the rules for the September one) to change the nomination method to a primary, in which the anti-Tillman forces would unite behind a single candidate. When the August convention was held, the Tillmanites had a large majority, which they used to oust the executive committee and install one loyal to Tillman. The convention also passed a new party constitution calling for a primary, beginning in 1892. Tillman was duly nominated in September as the Democratic candidate for governor, with Eugene Gary as his running mate for lieutenant governor.[59][60]

After the convention many Conservative Democrats, though not happy at Tillman's victory, acknowledged him as head of the state party. Those who submitted to Tillman's rule included Hampton and Butler, the state's two U.S. senators.[61] In his campaign, Tillman promoted support for Clemson College, establishment of a state women's college, reapportionment of the state legislature (then dominated by the lowcountry counties), and ending the influence of corporation lawyers in that body.[62]

Those Democrats who could not abide Tillman's candidacy held an October meeting with 20 of South Carolina's 35 counties represented, and nominated Alexander Haskell for governor. The announcement of Haskell's candidacy caused a closing of the Democratic ranks against him, lest white unity be sundered.[63] Stated the Charleston News and Courier, not always a friend to Tillman, "stand by the ticket, not for the ticket's sake, but for the party and the State".[64] Even most Conservatives would not support a bolt from the party, and Kantrowitz suggested that Haskell and his supporters hated Tillman so much that his nomination caused them to commit political suicide. The Haskell campaign reached out to black voters, pledging that he would not disturb the limited political role played by African Americans in the state, a promise Tillman was unlikely to make.[65]

During Tillman's five years of agricultural advocacy, he had rarely discussed the question of the African American. With the race given control of one of South Carolina's seven congressional districts, the question of black influence in state politics seemed settled and did not play a significant role in the race for the Democratic nomination for governor.[66] Haskell's appeals for support, added to speculation that Tillman was trying to form a biracial coalition through the Farmers' Alliance (which though segregated had a parallel organization for black farmers) made race an issue. Although Tillman boasted of his deeds at Hamburg and Ellenton, it was Gary who made race the focus of his campaign. Urging segregation of railroad cars, Gary asked, "what white man wants his wife or sister sandwiched between a big bully buck and a saucy wench"?[65]

Although Tillman fully expected to win, he warned that should he be defeated by ballot-box stuffing, there would be war.[67] On Election Day in November 1890, Tillman was elected governor with 59,159 votes to 14,828 for Haskell.[68] Black leaders had been divided as to whether to support Haskell; in the end the only two counties won by him were in the lowcountry and heavily African American[65] As Haskell did gain the support of the state Republican party, to which few whites belonged, and ran best in heavily-black areas, historian William J. Cooper, Jr. concluded that most Haskell voters were African American.[69] Francis Simkins, in his 1944 biography of Tillman, suggested that Haskell received a third of his vote from African Americans.[70] The losing candidate and his white supporters were quickly consigned to political oblivion, with some mocking them as "white Negroes".[71]

Governor (1890–1894)[edit]

Inauguration and legislative control[edit]

Benjamin Tillman was sworn in as governor of South Carolina in Columbia on December 4, 1890, before a crowd of jubilant supporters, the largest to see South Carolina's governor inaugurated since Hampton's swearing-in. In his address, Tillman celebrated his victory, "the citizens of this great commonwealth have for the first time in its history demanded and obtained for themselves the right to choose her Governor; and I, as the exponent and leader of the revolution which brought about the change, am here to take the solemn oath of office ... the triumph of democracy and white supremacy over mongrelism and anarchy, of civilization over barbarism, has been most complete."[72] He called for the retention of the University of South Carolina as a liberal arts college, stripped of the agricultural department that had been recently added to it. That department was to be transferred to Clemson College, and Tillman urged support for the new school.[73]

Tillman, in his first speech as governor, made it clear he was not content that African Americans were allowed even a limited role in the political life of South Carolina:

The whites have absolute control of the State government, and we intend at any and all hazards to retain it. The intelligent exercise of the right of suffrage ... is as yet beyond the capacity of the vast majority of colored men. We deny, without regard to color, that "all men are created equal"; it is not true now, and was not true when Jefferson wrote it.[74]

The legislature, at Tillman's recommendation, reapportioned itself, costing Charleston County four of its twelve seats, and other lowcountry counties one seat each, with the seats going to the upcountry.[75] Although Tillman sought to reduce public expenditures, he was not successful in doing so as his reform program required spending, and the legislature could find few savings to make. Construction of Clemson College was slowed, and subsidies for fairs were cut.[76]

Among the matters before the new, Tillman-controlled legislature was who should fill the Senate seat held by Hampton, whose term expired in March 1891—until 1913, state legislatures elected senators. There was a call from many in the South Carolina Democratic Party to re-elect Hampton, who had played a major role in the state in the past thirty years, in war and peace. Tillman was embittered against Hampton for a number of slights, including the senator's neutrality in the race against Haskell. The legislature retired Hampton, who received only 43 of 157 votes, and sent Irby to Washington in his place. The ouster of Hampton was controversial, and remained so for decades afterwards; according to Simkins (writing in 1944), "to future generations of South Carolinians, Tillman's act was a ruthless violation of cherished traditions of which Hampton was a living symbol".[77]

Policies and events as governor[edit]

Lynching and race[edit]

Despite being a white supremacist, Tillman as governor initially took a strong stand against lynching. The Shell Manifesto, in reciting the ills of Conservative government, had blamed the Bourbons for encouraging lynching through bad laws and poor administration. Although Governor Richardson, Tillman's predecessor, had taken action to prevent such murders, they had still occurred, with no one being prosecuted for them. In about half of the lynchings in South Carolina between 1881 and 1895, there were claims that the black victim had raped or tried to rape a white woman. More lynchings took place in South Carolina in the 1890s than in any other decade, and in Edgefield and several other counties, such killings outnumbered legal executions. With Tillman as governor, "the former Red-shirt faced the mob as head of state."[78]

Tillman's first year in office saw no lynchings, compared with 12 in Richardson's last year, which Simkins attributed to Tillman's "vigorous attitude towards law enforcement".[79] The governor pressed for the segregation of railroad cars; opposed by railroad companies and the few black legislators, this bill passed the state House of Representatives but failed in the Senate. Tillman's calls to redistrict away the one congressional district dominated by African Americans, and for a constitutional convention to disenfranchise them also fell in the Senate, where the constitutional convention failed to attract the necessary two-thirds majority. The only enactment that struck at the African American in Tillman's first term imposed a prohibitive tax on labor agents, who recruited local farm hands to move out of state.[80]

In December 1891, soon after the first anniversary of Tillman's taking office, a black Edgefield man named Dick Lundy was charged with murdering the sheriff's son, and was taken from the jail and lynched. Tillman sent the state solicitor to Edgefield to investigate the matter, and ridiculed the coroner's jury verdict, that as usual in cases of lynching stated the deceased had been killed by persons unknown. Tillman stated, "the law received a wound for every bullet shot into Dick Lundy's body."[81] The News and Courier, however, opined that had he been present "with true Edgefield instinct, [Tillman] would probably have been hanging around on the edge of the mob".[81]

Tillman had to walk a narrow line in the lynching discussions, since most of his supporters believed in the collective right of white men in a community to dispense mob justice, especially in cases of alleged rape, attempted or completed. Yet as governor he was sworn to uphold the rule of law. He attempted to finesse the matter by seeking to appeal to both sides of the issue, demanding that the law be followed, but that he would, as he stated in 1892, "willingly lead a mob in lynching a Negro who had committed an assault on a white woman", a pledge he amended under criticism to the lynching of "a man of any color who assaults a virtuous woman of any color"—the adjective "virtuous" limiting the commitment, in Tillman's eyes, to assaults on white women only.[82]

In September 1893, South Carolina was hit by storms. Tillman discouraged Northern aid to African Americans, fearing it would result in "lazy, idle crowds [wanting to] draw rations, as in the days of the Freedman's Bureau ... They cannot be treated as we would white people."[83]

Alcohol and the dispensary[edit]

Agriculture and higher education[edit]

Elected with support from the Farmers' Alliance and as a result of agricultural protest, Tillman was thought likely to join the Populists in their challenge to the established parties. Tillman, however, refused, and generally opposed Populist positions that went beyond his program of increasing access to higher education and reform of the Democratic Party. The Alliance (and Populists) demanded a system of subtreasuries under the federal government, that could accept farmer's crops and advance them 80% of the value interest-free. Tillman, not wanting more federal officeholders in the state (that in Republican administrations might be filled by African Americans), initially opposed the proposal. Many farmers felt strongly about this issue, and in 1891, Tillman was censured by the state Alliance for his opposition. Attuned to political necessities, Tillman gradually came to support the subtreasuries in time for his re-election campaign in 1892, though he was never an active proponent.[84]

Tillman fulfilled his campaign promise to start a women's college. In 1891, the legislature passed a bill creating the South Carolina Industrial and Winthrop Normal College (today Winthrop College). He took a personal interest in the bidding by various towns around the state for the new school, and supported the successful candidate, the progressive town of Rock Hill, on the state's northern border. Rock Hill officials had offered land, cash, and building materials. The school, then admitting only white women, opened in October 1895, after Tillman had become a senator.[85]

Re-election in 1892[edit]

Further information: information on the silver question and its background and Cross of Gold speech

Tillman sought election to a second two-year term in 1892, presenting himself as a reforming alternative to the Conservatives. In the campaign, Tillman was a strong supporter of free silver or bimetallism, making silver legal tender at the historic ratio to gold of 16:1. Such a policy would inflate the currency, and Tillman felt that would make it easier for the farmer to repay debts. The rhetoric of free silver suited Tillman as well, as he could make himself appear the champion of the farmer against the powerful interests that had committed the Crime of '73—ending bimetallism in the United States.[2][86]

Announcing that a primary for 1892, as had been adopted two years previously, was anti-reform, Tillman put off the first Democratic gubernatorial primary in the state until 1894.[87] Thus, the nominee would be chosen by a convention, and the summer of 1892 saw a lengthy series of debates between Tillman and his challenger, former governor John C. Sheppard. The bitter campaign was marked by violence, often set off by provocative language from the candidates. According to Kantrowitz, Tillman "sought to prolong the confrontation, to take the crowd up to the edge of violence, demonstrating his identification with his farmers without quite prooking them to murder".[88] When former senator Hampton attempted to speak on Sheppard's behalf, he was shouted down by Tillman partisans; opponents complained that Tillman's supporters had formed a mob, and that the governor was a true son of violent Edgefield.[89]

As the likely Democratic presidential candidate for 1892, former president Grover Cleveland, was a staunch opponent of free silver, Tillman attacked Cleveland. Most of the South Carolina delegation, including Tillman, voted against Cleveland at the convention, but when the former president was nominated, the governor worked to deliver South Carolina for Cleveland by an overwhelming margin. Cleveland was elected, but the new president was offended by Tillman's earlier attacks, and denied the governor any role in patronage, entrusting it to Senator Butler and other remaining Conservatives. Tillman's inability to provide federal jobs for supporters made it more difficult for him to hold his coalition together. Tillman continued his verbal assaults on President Cleveland, stating that the former president "is an old bag of beef and I am going to Washington with a pitchfork and prod him in his old fat ribs"—thus popularizing Tillman as "Pitchfork Ben".[2][86]

During the campaign, he called for the defeat of most of his supporters in the legislature, urging the election of more loyal men. The voters duly voted out their representatives as Tillman requested.[37] Although no primary for governor was permitted, the delegates to the nominating convention were elected by the Democratic voters, and Tillman won an overwhelming victory over Sheppard, who took only four of 35 counties. The convention was mostly Tillmanite, and gave the governor an easy triumph. The Conservatives had agreed not to bolt the party, and Tillman was easily re-elected.[90]

Senate election of 1894[edit]

Tillman was elected Governor of South Carolina in 1890, and served from December 1890 to December 1894. As governor, Tillman finished establishing Clemson College and also created Winthrop College. The Tillman Halls on both campuses are named in his honor.

The Southern Farmers' Alliance began as a national organization in the early 1880s,[91] and established itself in South Carolina in 1888, where it became a rival of Tillman's Farmers Association. When the Alliance founded the Populist Party based on the Ocala Demands, Tillman arranged for the South Carolina Democratic Party to adopt parts of the platform which dealt with the free coinage of silver, a Federal income tax, and a repeal of the tax on the circulations of state banks. These measures placed Tillman among the "progressives" of his time. However, Tillman refused to endorse government ownership of the railroads, or the Populist Party's most ambitious economic proposal, the "Sub-treasury Plan,"[92] a form of which would eventually be enacted in the form of the Federal Reserve Act of 1913. Tillman refused to countenance any appeal to black voters. This strategy prevented the development of an independent Populist Party in South Carolina and forestalled any development of biracial politics as had happened in North Carolina.

Tillman was largely responsible for calling the State constitutional convention in 1895 that disfranchised most of South Carolina's black population. As Tillman boasted in 1900, "We have done our level best [to prevent blacks from voting] ... we have scratched our heads to find out how we could eliminate the last one of them. We stuffed ballot boxes. We shot them. We are not ashamed of it." (Logan, p. 91)

In 1892, a group of Tillman's supporters in Abbeville, South Carolina, prepared a banner anointing the governor the "Champion of White Men's Rule and Woman's Virtue". Earlier that year, Tillman had coupled a statement opposing lynching with a declaration that he would "willingly lead a mob in lynching a Negro who had committed an assault upon a white woman", which became known as his "lynching pledge." The black man, in Tillman's words, "must remain subordinate or be exterminated". An epidemic of mob killings broke out in South Carolina in the 1890s, and in the upcountry counties of Abbeville, Edgefield, Laurens and Newberry, lynchings outnumbered legal executions during that decade.[3]

Senator (1895–1918)[edit]

Chicago Tribune cartoon, 27 November 1906, during the debate on railroad regulation, highlighting Tillman's alternating political style

Tillman was elected to the United States Senate in 1894 by the state legislature; he succeeded Senator Matthew Butler, who also had participated in the Hamburg Massacre. Tillman was re-elected three more times, holding office from 1895 to his death in 1918. A hotheaded and intemperate debater, Tillman became known as "Pitchfork Ben" after a popular 1896 Senate speech in which he threatened to go to Washington with a pitchfork and impale the rump of President Grover Cleveland.[93]

In the Senate, Tillman was an unabashed and enthusiastic advocate of white supremacy backed by physical violence. In one March 1900 speech, he declared:

"We of the South have never recognized the right of the negro to govern white men, and we never will. We have never believed him to be equal to the white man, and we will not submit to his gratifying his lust on our wives and daughters without lynching him. I would to God the last one of them was in Africa and that none of them had ever been brought to our shores."[94]

In 1901, after President Theodore Roosevelt dined in the White house with Booker T. Washington, Senator Tillman said, “The action of President Roosevelt in entertaining that nigger will necessitate our killing a thousand niggers in the South before they learn their place again.”[95]

During his Senate career, he was censured by the Senate in 1902 after assaulting John L. McLaurin, another Senator and his counterpart from South Carolina.[96] As a result, the Senate added to its rules the provision that "No senator in debate shall, directly or indirectly, by any form of words impute to another Senator or to other Senators any conduct or motive unworthy or unbecoming a Senator."[97][page needed] He was also barred from the White House.[98][page needed]

Leadership roles[edit]

Tillman oscillated back and forth in his public roles between a wild man with outrageous claims, and a patient legislator and committee chairman. He was the Democratic leader in negotiations over the major railroad and naval legislation of the Progressive Era. He also took the lead in campaign finance reform.[99]

He became the chairman of the Committee on Revolutionary Claims (57th through 59th Congresses); served on the Committee on Five Civilized Tribes of Indians (61st and 62nd Congresses); and the Committee on Naval Affairs (63rd through 65th Congresses). During World War I, impatient with the Navy's requests for larger battleships every year, he ordered the United States Navy to design "maximum battleships," the largest battleships that they could use.

Tillman took the lead in railroad regulation, though his foe, Republican President Theodore Roosevelt outmaneuvered him in passage of the Hepburn Act of 1906. Tillman was the primary sponsor of the Tillman Act, the first federal campaign finance reform law, which was passed in 1907 and banned corporate contributions in federal political campaigns.

A statue of Tillman, pictured in July 2012, was unveiled in 1940, and erected on the state capitol grounds in Columbia, South Carolina.

Death and legacy[edit]

Tillman died in office in Washington, D.C. on July 3, 1918, and is buried in Ebenezer Cemetery, Trenton, South Carolina. A statue of Tillman was erected in 1940 outside the South Carolina State House.[100]

In 1962, Main Building on the campus of Winthrop College was renamed Tillman Hall in his honor.[101] It was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1977.[102]


  1. ^ Simkins 1944, p. 23.
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l Burton, Orville Vernon. "Benjamin Ryan Tillman". American National Biography Online. Retrieved December 22, 2014. (subscription required)
  3. ^ a b c "Book Review of Ben Tillman and the Reconstruction of White Supremacy". The New York Times. May 21, 2000. 
  4. ^ Ford, pp. 328–329.
  5. ^ Kantrowitz 2000b, pp. 22–23.
  6. ^ Simkins 1944 s, pp. 31–36.
  7. ^ Simkins 1944, pp. 31–36.
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  17. ^ Simkins 1944, p. 58.
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  19. ^ Kantrowitz 2000b, pp. 61–64.
  20. ^ Kantrowitz 2000b, pp. 65–68.
  21. ^ Miller, pp. 16–17.
  22. ^ Kantrowitz 2000b, pp. 67–69.
  23. ^ Gasper Loren Toole II. "Ninety Years of Aiken County Memoirs of Aiken County and Its People, Chapter IV: The Red Shirts and Reconstruction". Retrieved October 27, 2014. 
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  25. ^ Simkins 1944, pp. 65–66.
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  28. ^ Simkins 1944, p. 67.
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  35. ^ Kantrowitz 2000b, p. 102.
  36. ^ Simkins 1944, p. 68.
  37. ^ a b c d e Perkins, p. 2.
  38. ^ Simkins 1944, pp. 90–91.
  39. ^ Kantrowitz 2000b, p. 110.
  40. ^ Clark, pp. 426–427.
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  44. ^ Kantrowitz 2000a, p. 510.
  45. ^ JBHE, p. 49.
  46. ^ Clark, p. 427.
  47. ^ a b Kantrowitz 2000b, pp. 125–127.
  48. ^ Clark, p. 430.
  49. ^ Kantrowitz 2000b, pp. 127–128.
  50. ^ Begley, p. 123 n.17.
  51. ^ Kantrowitz 2000a, p. 514.
  52. ^ Kantrowitz 2000a, p. 513.
  53. ^ Perkins, p. 5.
  54. ^ Begley, p. 121.
  55. ^ Kantrowitz 2000a, pp. 514–516.
  56. ^ Kantrowitz 2000b, pp. 128–129.
  57. ^ Kantrowitz 2000b, pp. 129–132.
  58. ^ Kantrowitz 2000b, pp. 137–138.
  59. ^ Kantrowitz 2000b, pp. 137–143.
  60. ^ Simkins 1944, pp. 149, 162.
  61. ^ Cooper, p. 209.
  62. ^ Simkins 1944, p. 153.
  63. ^ Simkins 1944, pp. 163–166.
  64. ^ Cooper, p. 219.
  65. ^ a b c Kantrowitz 2000b, pp. 142–146.
  66. ^ Cooper, pp. 210–211.
  67. ^ Kantrowitz 2000b, p. 145.
  68. ^ Cooper, p. 211.
  69. ^ Cooper, p. 218.
  70. ^ Simkins 1944, p. 168 n.46.
  71. ^ Kantrowitz 2000b, p. 146.
  72. ^ Simkins 1944, pp. 169–171.
  73. ^ Simkins 1944, pp. 171–172.
  74. ^ Simkins 1944, p. 171.
  75. ^ Simkins 1944, p. 182.
  76. ^ Simkins 1944, p. 184.
  77. ^ Simkins 1944, pp. 185–187.
  78. ^ Kantrowitz 2000b, pp. 164–165.
  79. ^ Simkins 1944, p. 174.
  80. ^ Simkins 1944, pp. 174–175.
  81. ^ a b Kantrowitz 2000b, pp. 167–168.
  82. ^ Kantrowitz 2000b, pp. 168–169.
  83. ^ Simkins 1944, p. 218.
  84. ^ Kantrowitz 2000b, pp. 147–150.
  85. ^ Simkins 1944, pp. 179–181.
  86. ^ a b Kantrowitz 2000b, pp. 151, 185.
  87. ^ Kantrowitz 2000b, pp. 204–205.
  88. ^ Kantrowitz 2000b, pp. 158–160.
  89. ^ Kantrowitz 2000b, pp. 159–161.
  90. ^ Simkins 1944, p. 216.
  91. ^ Michael Schwartz, Radical Protest and social Structure: The Southern Farmers' Alliance and cotton Tenancy, 1880–1890, 14.
  92. ^ Francis Butler Simpkins, Pitchfork Ben Tillman, p. 265.
  93. ^ "The Authentic Voice". Time. March 26, 1956. 
  94. ^ "'Their Own Hotheadedness': Senator Benjamin R.'Pitchfork Ben' Tillman Justifies Violence Against Southern Blacks," Richard Purday (ed.), Document Sets for the South in U. S. History. Lexington, MA: D.C. Heath and Company, 1991; pg. 147. First published as "Speech of Senator Benjamin R. Tillman, March 23, 1900," Congressional Record, 56th Congress, 1st Session, pp. 3223–3224.
  95. ^ Theodore Rex, Edmund Morris, 2002 Random House, Kindle Edition, location 21341
  96. ^ "FIGHTS IN CONGRESS; How Pistols, Rifles, and Fisticuffs Have Enlivened Legislative Sessions". The New York Times. March 2, 1902. 
  97. ^ Simkins (1944), Pitchfork Ben Tillman
  98. ^ Lewis L. Gould, The Most Exclusive Club: A History of the Modern United States Senate, New York: Basic Books, 2005
  99. ^ Stephen Kantrowitz, Ben Tillman and the Reconstruction of White Supremacy (2000) pp 270-72
  100. ^ Herbert, Bob (January 22, 2008). "The Blight That Is Still With Us". The New York Times. Retrieved January 22, 2009. 
  101. ^ "Tillman Hall, York County (Winthrop University, Rock Hill)". National Register Properties in South Carolina. South Carolina Department of Archives and History. Retrieved 2014-07-01. 
  102. ^ "National Register Information System". National Register of Historic Places. National Park Service. 2010-07-09. 


Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]

Political offices
Preceded by
John Peter Richardson III
Governor of South Carolina
Succeeded by
John Gary Evans
United States Senate
Preceded by
Matthew Butler
United States Senator from South Carolina
Succeeded by
Christie Benet