Benjamin Tillman

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Benjamin Ryan Tillman, Jr.
Tillman in 1905
84th Governor of South Carolina
In office
December 4, 1890 – December 4, 1894
Lieutenant Eugene Gary
W.H. Timmerman
Preceded by John Peter Richardson III
Succeeded by John Gary Evans
United States Senator
from South Carolina
In office
March 4, 1895 – July 3, 1918
Preceded by Matthew Butler
Succeeded by Christie Benet
Personal details
Born (1847-08-11)August 11, 1847
Trenton, South Carolina, U.S.
Died July 3, 1918(1918-07-03) (aged 70)
Washington, D.C., U.S.
Nationality American
Political party Democratic
Spouse(s) Sallie Starke (of Elbert County, Georgia)
Relations George Dionysius Tillman (brother)
Religion Methodist

Benjamin Ryan "Pitchfork Ben" Tillman, Jr. (August 11, 1847 – July 3, 1918), was an American politician who served as the 84th Governor of South Carolina, from 1890 to 1894, and as a United States Senator, from 1895 until his death in office. Although posing as a friend of the yeoman farmer, Tillman owned 400 acres cultivated by tenant farmers; he had grown up as the son of a man with 48 slaves and 2500 acres.[1]

He led a paramilitary group in the Hamburg Massacre of 1876, resulting in the deaths of seven freedmen and one white. His continued outspoken support for white supremacy and lynch law provoked national controversy. As a member of the Democratic Party, Tillman is notable for promoting railroad regulation, and for introducing legislation to restrict funding of political campaigns. The first federal campaign finance law, banning corporate expenditure, is commonly called the Tillman Act.


Early life and education[edit]

He was named Benjamin Ryan Tillman, Jr.' by his parents of English descent: Sofia Ann Hancock and Benjamin Ryan Tillman, Sr. He was born on August 11, 1847 in the Edgefield District, near Trenton, South Carolina.[2] His father owned 48 slaves and 2500 acres, making him a major planter in the Edgefield District.[1]

From an early age, young Ben showed a developed vocabulary and a strong literary interest.[3] Due to the continuation of the Civil War, he left school at the age of seventeen in July 1864 to join the Confederate States Army.[4] Six days later, as he was walking home after a three hour-swim in a mill pond, Tillman felt violent pains in his left eye. He had developed an abscess in the left eye socket caused by bacteria, a condition that eventually required removal of the left eye.[5] He never fought as a Confederate soldier.

Red Shirts[edit]

During Reconstruction, in the mid-1870s Tillman joined the paramilitary group of Red Shirts, organized to overthrow the Republican coalition in the state. He led his group, Edgefield County's Sweetwater Sabre Club, to Hamburg, South Carolina after learning of a dispute between freedmen and whites over dominance on the main street on Independence Day in 1876.[6]

Hamburg Massacre[edit]

Main article: Hamburg Massacre

As the commander of Edgefield County's Sweetwater Sabre Club, Tillman and his Red Shirts participated in the Hamburg Massacre on July 8. A large white mob numbering more than 150 men had gathered after the black militia refused to disarm; they killed a total of six freedmen who were part of the National Guard militia. The National Guard had conducted a celebratory parade through the mostly black town of Hamburg on Independence Day and came into conflict with a couple of white planters, who accused them of blocking a public highway. Tillman later said, "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."[1] Hamburg was their first opportunity; four of the freedmen were murdered outright after having been taken prisoner by the white militia. A Coroner's jury indicted 94 white men in the attack, including "M. C. Butler, Ben R. Tillman, A. P. Butler and others of the most prominent men in Aiken and Edgefield Counties, South Carolina, and Richmond County, Georgia."[7] It appears they were never prosecuted.

Tillman's role in the Hamburg Massacre established him as a leading figure in the white supremacy movement. He frequently boasted in future years of his involvement and built his political career on this event, first as governor of South Carolina and then, for 24 years, as a United States senator.[1]

Tillman parlayed his local popularity into a wider notoriety by attending the 1876 State Democratic Convention, which nominated Wade Hampton III as the Democratic candidate for governor of South Carolina.[8] In November 1876, in an election marked by violence and voter fraud, the Democrats of Edgefield were able to suppress the Republican/African-American majority of several thousand in Edgefield County, producing a 3,134 Democratic/white majority vote from the county in favor of Hampton.[9] Bolstered by this vote from Edgefield, Wade Hampton gained a narrow victory of 1,134 votes state-wide.[9]

In 1876, the Republican Reconstruction government ended when white Democrats regained control of the state government. Despite the "redemption" of South Carolina that restored white supremacy under Bourbon rule, African Americans continued to assert their voting rights and elected numerous candidates to local offices in the following decades.

The suppression of the African-American vote in South Carolina revealed divisions in white voting, based on economic class lines. Starting with the election of Hampton as governor in 1876, South Carolina was ruled primarily by the wealthy "Bourbon" or "aristocratic" 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. The Bourbon class was largely based in the Lowcountry area, or the lowlands along the coast of South Carolina. Lowcountry agriculture was largely dominated by large rice-growing plantations. By 1883, rice prices had fallen to about one-third of what they had been previously.[10] Charleston, the commercial center of the Lowcountry, fell into a relative decline. West of the Lowcountry of South Carolina was the Piedmont area. In earlier times, the inland area of the Piedmont was dominated by large plantations which raised cotton. However, since the Civil War, continuous cotton cropping of the land of the Piedmont and the use of commercial fertilizers had stripped the soil of the Piedmont of all nutrients and cotton yields had fallen dramatically.

To forestall any other Populist-Republican coalitions, in 1895 the Democrat-dominated state legislature rewrote the state constitution, adding provisions that effectively disfranchised most blacks and many poor whites. Over the next few years, the legislature passed segregation and other Jim Crow laws, further eroding African-American rights. The disfranchisement excluded blacks from the political system, and was maintained until after passage of federal civil rights legislation in 1965.

"Tillmanism" in agriculture[edit]

The area west of the Piedmont of South Carolina was known as the "upcountry" section. Composed of rolling hills, the upcountry was composed of small farms operated by individual farm families. These small farmers were the other part of emerging fissure in the white vote during the 1880s. These small farmers saw the Bourbon rule of the state government as being against their own interests. The small farmers of the upcountry blamed the Bourbon planters, as well as merchants, bankers and the railroads for their poor economic condition.[11] Consequently, the term "Bourbon" was applied to the railroads, bankers and merchants from all areas of the state, as well as to planters. These groups were seen as antithetical to the interests of the small farmers of the upcountry.

Presenting himself as the friend of ordinary white farmers, despite his elite upbringing, Tillman became their champion, and the upcountry developed as his strong base of support in the State of South Carolina. Tillman's support for measures to aid yeomen farmers, as opposed to the Bourbons, became the essence of what was to be called "Tillmanism." But Tillman owned a 400-acre plantation that was worked by 31 mostly black, tenant farmers and their families on one-horse farms. As leader of the Farmers Association, Tillman opposed the tenant/sharecropper-based Farmer's Alliance, a populist group that tried to negotiate better terms. Tillman successfully parlayed his populist image into a political career as a Democratic Party office holder beginning with his election as Governor in 1890.

The National Grange of the Patrons of Husbandry was the first organization that tried to aid the farmer in solving his economic problems. The Panic of 1873 caused additional hardship for the small farmers of the upcountry. Between 1872 and 1875, many South Carolina farmers joined the Grange and participated in the co-operative program of buying and selling which it established. These farmers also joined the Grange in agitating for state regulation of the railroads.[12]

Reading about modern ideas in farming, Tillman realized that the farmers of the upcountry needed to break with the agricultural practices of the ante-bellum period, wherein most of "our lands...are going down the river and rapidly deteriorating in intrinsic value by false farming."[13] Tillman realized that there was a great need for education of ordinary farmers in the methods of modern farming. He put his ideas for agricultural reform in articles which he wrote for Southern Cultivator and other agricultural magazines.[14] One of Tillman's ideas for the education of the farmers attracted the attention of some influential people of the state. He proposed that an agricultural college be established in South Carolina, which had only one state university, devoted to classical education.

One of the people interested by the concept of a separate state college dedicated to agricultural research and education of farmers was Thomas G. Clemson. Clemson was the son-in-law of John C. Calhoun and was quite wealthy. When he died on April 2, 1888, Clemson left a cash endowment of $80,000 and the 814-acre Calhoun estate, called Fort Hill, to a board of lifetime trustees for the establishment of the proposed agricultural college. The agricultural school became known as Clemson College (later Clemson University). Clemson's will appointed Tillman as one of the lifetime trustees of the new agricultural school.[15]

Tillman also founded the South Carolina Farmers Association as another way to spread news about modern methods, and he campaigned across the state giving speeches on behalf of it.[16] The network of the Farmers Association was part of Tillman's political power in South Carolina.

Gubernatorial campaign[edit]

Benjamin Tillman's campaign on behalf of the South Carolina Farmers Association advanced his political power and influence in South Carolina. A quarrel between Wade Hampton and one of his lieutenants—Johnson Hagood—led to the election of Hagood and the defeat of Tillman.[17] The change in the governor's office, however, did not signify a change in the Bourbon rule of South Carolina.

Ben Tillman's skills as a rabble rousing orator had become apparent during a speech he made at the ninth annual joint session of the State Grange and the State Agricultural and Mechanical Society held at the courthouse in Bennettsville, South Carolina on August 5, 1885.[18] Tillman's speech along with the resolutions in favor of aid to the small farmers "electrified" the convention.[19] According to the Columbia Daily Register the speech "was the sensation of the meeting. Almost every sentence was responded to with prolonged applause."[19]

In January 1886, Tillman wrote a letter of address to the farmers of South Carolina, who Tillman said comprised 76% of the state's population.[20] The letter invited farmers to attend a convention in Columbia on April 29, 1886 which would address the problems of farmers in the state and attempt to solve their problems. In response, county conventions were held on April 5, 1886 to elect delegates to the state convention. On April 29, the state-wide "Farmers Convention," as it became known, was attended by some 300 delegates from across the state.[21] It was the first state-wide meeting of the Farmers Association. Once again Tillman's speeches provided most of the excitement. Tillman was dubbed the "Agricultural Moses." It was said that, like Moses of old, Tillman was willing to die before he reached the "Promised Land."

The Farmers' Convention was the first move in the political campaign of 1886. Tillmanites did not yet have the control over the Democratic Party of South Carolina that they later obtained. Consequently, Tillman was unable to obtain the Democratic Party nomination for governor himself through the convention nominating system in 1886. Thus, he sought merely to influence whom the party chose for the gubernatorial nomination.[22]

Hugh S. Thompson had been elected governor in 1882, succeeding Johnson Hagood. Elected as lieutenant governor with Thompson in 1882 was John C. Sheppard.[23] In 1886, Thompson resigned, making Sheppard governor. Sheppard ran for a full term as governor in the election of 1886. Running against Sheppard was John P. Richardson, whose family had supplied South Carolina with four governors in its history. Richardson was not expected to be an agent of the change that Tillman was seeking. Thus, Tillman supported Sheppard in 1886; however, Sheppard lost the nomination to Richardson.

Tillman as Governor[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,[24] 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,"[25] 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.[1]

U.S. Senate[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.[26]

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."[27]

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.”[28]

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.[29] 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."[30][page needed] He was also barred from the White House.[31][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.[32]

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.[33]

Tillman was the younger brother of George Dionysius Tillman (1826–1902), a U.S. Representative from South Carolina, who served from 1879 to 1893 (with one interruption).

In 1962, Main Building on the campus of Winthrop College was renamed Tillman Hall in his honor.[34] It was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1977.[35]


  1. ^ a b c d e Kantrowitz, Stephen. "Book Review of Ben Tillman and the Reconstruction of White Supremacy", New York Times, 21 May 2000, includes Chapter One online of the book.
  2. ^ Francis Butler Simkins, Pitchfork Ben Tillman (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1944) p. 23.
  3. ^ Simpkins (1944), Pitchfork Ben Tillman, p. 42.
  4. ^ Simpkins (1944), Pitchfork Ben Tillman, p. 44.
  5. ^ Simpkins (1944), Pitchfork Ben Tillman, p. 45
  6. ^ Francis Butler Simpkins, Pitchfork Ben Tillman, pp. 62–64.
  7. ^ Gasper Loren Toole II, Ninety Years of Aiken County Memoirs of Aiken County and Its People, Chapter IV: The Red Shirts and Reconstruction", 1958, hosted at Geneaology Trails, accessed 27 October 2014
  8. ^ Francis Butler Simpkins, Pitchfork Ben Tillman, pp. 65–66.
  9. ^ a b Francis Butler Simpkins, Pitchfork Ben Tillman, p. 67.
  10. ^ Francis Butler Simpkins, Pitchfork Ben Tillman, p. 73.
  11. ^ Francis Butler Simpkins, Pitchfork Ben Tillman, p. 78
  12. ^ Francis Butler Simpkins, Pitchfork Ben Tillman, p. 77.
  13. ^ Francis Butler Simpkins, Pitchfork Ben Tillman, p. 90.
  14. ^ Francis Butler Simpkins, Pitchfork Ben Tillman, p. 82.
  15. ^ Francis Butler Simpkins, Pitchfork Ben Tillman, p. 120.
  16. ^ Michael Schwartz, Radical Protest and Social Structure: The Southern Farmers' Alliance and Cotton Tenancy, 1880–1890 (Chicago.: University of Chicago Press, 1976) p. 99.
  17. ^ Francis Butler Simpkins, Pitchfork Ben Tillman, p. 86.
  18. ^ Francis Butler Simpkins, Pitchfork Ben Tillman, p. 92.
  19. ^ a b Francis Butler Simpkins, Pitchfork Ben Tillman, p. 94.
  20. ^ Francis Butler Simpkins, Pitchfork Ben Tillman, p. 100.
  21. ^ Francis Butler Simpkin, Pitchfork Ben Tillman, p. 101.
  22. ^ Francis Butler Simpkins, Pitchfork Ben Tillman, p. 132.
  23. ^ Francis Butler Simpkins, Pitchfork Ben Tillman, p. 106.
  24. ^ Michael Schwartz, Radical Protest and social Structure: The Southern Farmers' Alliance and cotton Tenancy, 1880–1890, 14.
  25. ^ Francis Butler Simpkins, Pitchfork Ben Tillman, p. 265.
  26. ^ "The Authentic Voice". Time. March 26, 1956. 
  27. ^ "'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.
  28. ^ Theodore Rex, Edmund Morris, 2002 Random House, Kindle Edition, location 21341
  29. ^ "FIGHTS IN CONGRESS; How Pistols, Rifles, and Fisticuffs Have Enlivened Legislative Sessions". The New York Times. March 2, 1902. 
  30. ^ Simkins (1944), Pitchfork Ben Tillman
  31. ^ Lewis L. Gould, The Most Exclusive Club: A History of the Modern United States Senate, New York: Basic Books, 2005
  32. ^ Stephen Kantrowitz, Ben Tillman and the Reconstruction of White Supremacy (2000) pp 270-72
  33. ^ Herbert, Bob (2008-01-22). "The Blight That Is Still With Us". The New York Times. Retrieved 2008-01-22. 
  34. ^ "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. 
  35. ^ "National Register Information System". National Register of Historic Places. National Park Service. 2010-07-09. 

Further reading[edit]

  • Burton, Orville Vernon (1985). In My Father's House Are Many Mansions: Family and Community in Edgefield, South Carolina. Chapel Hill, N.C.: University of North Carolina Press. ISBN 0-8078-1619-1.  New social history; online edition
  • Clark, E. Culpepper. "Pitchfork Ben Tillman and the emergence of southern demagoguery." Quarterly Journal of Speech (1983) 69#4 pp: 423-433. online
  • Kantrowitz, Stephen (2000). Ben Tillman and the Reconstruction of White Supremacy. Chapel Hill, N.C.: University of North Carolina Press. ISBN 0-8078-2530-1. 
  • Kantrowitz, Stephen. "Ben Tillman and Hendrix McLane, Agrarian Rebels: White Manhood, 'The Farmers,' and the Limits of Southern Populism." Journal of Southern History. 66#3 (2000) pp 497+. in JSTOR; online edition
  • Logan, Rayford W. (1997) [1965]. The Betrayal of the Negro, from Rutherford B. Hayes to Woodrow Wilson. New York: Da Capo Press. ISBN 0-306-80758-0.  This is an expanded edition of Logan's 1954 book The Negro in American Life and Thought: The Nadir, 1877–1901.
  • Perkins, Lindsey S. "The oratory of Benjamin Ryan Tillman." Communications Monographs (1948) 15#1 pp: 1-18. DOI:10.1080/03637754809374940
  • Robison, Daniel M. "From Tillman to Long: Some Striking Leaders of the Rural South." Journal of Southern History (1937) 3#3 pp: 289-310. in JSTOR
  • Simkins, Francis Butler (1926). The Tillman Movement in South Carolina. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.  online edition
  • Simkins, Francis Butler (2002) [1944]. Pitchfork Ben Tillman, South Carolinian. Columbia, S.C.: University of South Carolina Press. ISBN 1-57003-477-X. 
  • Simkins, Francis Butler. The Tillman Movement in South Carolina Duke U.P., 1926)
  • Simkins, Francis Butler. "Ben Tillman's View of the Negro," Journal of Southern History (1937) 3#2 pp. 161–174 in JSTOR
  • Simon, Bryant (1998). A Fabric of Defeat: The Politics of South Carolina Millhands, 1910–1948. Chapel Hill, N.C.: University of North Carolina Press. ISBN 0-8078-2401-1.  online edition

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