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. Tillman's outspoken support for white supremacy and lynch law provoked national controversy. He is notable for promoting railroad regulation, and for legislation to restrict funding of political campaigns. The first federal campaign-finance law, banning corporate expenditures in campaigns, is commonly called the Tillman Act.

Tillman was a member of the Democratic Party. Tillman also served on the first Board of Trustees at Clemson University after assisting with its founding.[1]


Early life and education[edit]

Tillman was born Benjamin Ryan Tillman, Jr. to 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] From an early age young Ben showed a developed vocabulary and a strong literary interest.[3] However, the coming of the Civil War caused him to leave school at the age of seventeen in July 1864 to join the Confederate States Army.[4] Six days after leaving school, however, as he was walking home after a three hour-swim in a mill pond, Tillman was attacked by violent pains in his left eye. He had developed an abscess in the left eye socket caused by bacteria and which eventually required removal of the left eye.[5] Thus, he never fought for the Confederacy.

During Reconstruction, he became a paramilitary fighter in the struggle to overthrow the Republican coalition in the state. He was present at the Hamburg Massacre in July 1876, during which a federal militia was overthrown and its arms seized by a group of armed citizens led by Tillman's fellow "Red Shirts".[6]

Hamburg Massacre[edit]

It was at the Hamburg Massacre of 1876 that Ben Tillman came of age. As the commander of Edgefield County's Sweetwater Sabre Club, a paramilitary unit dedicated to terrorizing Republican officeholders in South Carolina, the 29-year-old Tillman, with his red-shirted troopers, participated in the Hamburg Riot on July 8, an occasion marked by the murder of a number of black militiamen who had conducted a celebratory parade through the mostly black town of Hamburg, South Carolina, four days earlier. As Tillman himself would later put it, "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." None of the perpetrators of the Hamburg murders were ever brought to justice.

Tillman's role in the Hamburg Massacre established him as a leading figure in the white supremacist movement. His involvement, about which he boasted constantly in future years, was the cornerstone upon which he would build his political career, first as governor of South Carolina and then, for 24 years, as a United States senator.[7]

The Hamburg Massacre had established Tillman as a leader of the white supremacists of his community. He parlayed this 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 that was fraught with 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 was able to eke out a narrow victory of only 1,134 votes state-wide.[9] Thus, in 1876, the Republican Reconstruction government was ended and white supremacy was established in South Carolina. Despite the "redemption" of South Carolina that restored white supremacy under Bourbon rule, African Americans continued to assert their voting rights until 1895 when the state constitution was rewritten and they were effectively disenfranchised. Over the next few years, restrictive "Jim Crow" laws were passed that eroded African American rights and assured that no further black political officials would be elected to office for over a century. However, as in other former slave states African Americans fought successfully to retain their legal right to vote until 1895, when the state constitution was rewritten.

The suppression of the African American vote in South Carolina allowed a subtle breach in the white vote to become apparent. This split in the white vote was based on economic class lines. Starting with the election of Hampton as governor in 1876, South Carolina fell under the rule of the wealthy "Bourbon" or "aristocratic" classes which had been in control of the state prior to the Civil War. However, in the 1880s, the Bourbon class was neither as strong nor as populous as it had been before the Civil War. 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. However, 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.

"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. Along with the large landowning interests of the Lowcountry, the small farmers of the upcountry blamed the merchants, bankers and the railroads for their poor economic condition.[11] Consequently, the term "Bourbon" came to include the both the railroads and bankers and merchants from all areas of the state. 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, "Pitchfork Ben" Tillman became the champion of these small farmers and the upcountry became his strong base of support in the State of South Carolina. Tillman's support for measures that would aid the small farmer, as opposed to the Bourbons, became the essence of what was to be called "Tillmanism." However, Tillman himself owned a 400 acre plantation that was worked by 31 one-horse tenant farms. As leader of the Farmers Association, Tillman opposed the tenant/sharecropper based Farmer's Alliance. 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 real 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 that the Grange established. These farmers also joined the Grange in agitating for state regulation of the railroads.[12]

Reading about the modern ideas in farming, Ben Tillman came to recognise 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 that he wrote for Southern Cultivator and other agricultureal magazines.[14] One of Tillman's ideas for the education of the farmers attracted the attention of some influential people of the state. One of his ideas was for an agricultural college to be established in South Carolina. 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) and Thomas Clemson's will appointed Tillman as one of the lifetime trustees of the new agricultural school.[15]

Another attempt by Tillman to educate farmers was his founding of the South Carolina Farmers Association and he campaigned across the state giving speeches on behalf of the Farmers Association.[16] The Farmers Association also became the major vehicle by which Tillman became a 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 "electified" 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" was attended by some 300 delegates from across the state.[21] The "Farmers Convention," as it became known, 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 by supporting the least objectionable candidate.[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 had resigned, making Sheppard governor. Now Sheppard was running 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. Accordingly, 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] However, the Farmers' Alliance established itself in South Carolina in 1888, where it became a rival of Tillman's Farmers Association organization. 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. All of these measures were solid progressive measures that placed Tillman among the "progressives" of his time. However, Tillman refused to endorse government ownership of the railroads or the "Sub-treasury Plan." The Sub-treasury Plan was the Populist Party's most ambitious economic proposal.[25] A form of the sub-Treasury Plan would eventually be enacted in the form of the Federal Reserve Act of 1913. Of course, Tillman refused to countenance any appeal to black voters. The strategy prevented the development of an independent Populist Party in South Carolina and prevented any attempt at the biracial politics like that of North Carolina. Thus, white control of South Carolina was assured via the dominant, white Democratic Party.

Tillman was largely responsible for calling the State constitutional convention in 1895 that disfranchised most of South Carolina's black men and required Jim Crow laws. As Tillman proudly proclaimed 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." His "lynching pledge", as this promise became known, was never personally carried out, but it reveals a great deal about Tillman's rhetorical and political strategy. 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.[7]

U.S. Senate[edit]

Tillman was elected to the United States Senate in 1894, succeeding Senator Matthew Butler, who had also been directly involved in the Hamburg Massacre. Tillman would be re-elected three more times, and would hold office from 1895 to his death in 1918. A hotheaded and intemperate debater, Tillman became known as "Pitchfork Ben" after an 1896 Senate speech in which he "won the voters' hearts by announcing his determination to go to Washington and plunge a pitchfork into the rump of President Grover Cleveland."[26]

Tillman was an unabashed advocate of white supremacy backed by physical violence in the Senate. In one March 1900 speech, Tillman 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] He was also barred from the White House.[31]

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 sits 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.[32]

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.[33] It was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1977.[34]


  1. ^ History : Clemson University
  2. ^ Francis Butler Simkins, Pitchfork Ben Tillman (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1944) p. 23.
  3. ^ Francis Butler Simpkins, Pitchfork Ben Tillman, p. 42.
  4. ^ Francis Butler Simpkins, Pitchfork Ben Tillman, p. 44.
  5. ^ Francis Butler Simpkins, Pitchfork Ben Tillman, p. 45
  6. ^ Francis Butler Simpkins, Pitchfork Ben Tillman, pp. 62–64.
  7. ^ a b [Kantrowitz, Stephen. "Book Review of Ben Tillman and the Reconstruction of White Supremacy"] New York Times May 21, 2000.
  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. ^
  31. ^,M1
  32. ^ Herbert, Bob (2008-01-22). "The Blight That Is Still With Us". The New York Times. Retrieved 2008-01-22. 
  33. ^ "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. 
  34. ^ "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
  • 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. 
  • Stephen Kantrowitz. "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.
  • 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," Journal of Negro History (1926) 11#3 pp. 538–539 in JSTOR
  • 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