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Benjamin Ryan Tillman

Benjamin Ryan Tillman

Benjamin Ryan Tillman Jr. (Aug. 11, 1847-July 3, 1918), governor of South Carolina and U.S. senator, was born on August 11, 1847, at Chester, his family's plantation in Edgefield District, South Carolina, the youngest child of Sophia Hancock and Benjamin Ryan Tillman, planters and innkeepers. His parents had 11 children — seven sons and four daughters.

Their children were as follows:

  • Thomas Frederick Tillman, (d. August 20, 1847), killed in the Mexican-American War;
  • George Dionysius Tillman (1826-1901), married Margaret Jones;
  • Martha Annsybil Tillman (1828-1886);
  • Harriet Susan Tillman (1831-1832);
  • John Miller Tillman (1833-1860), killed in a feud;
  • Oliver Hancock Tillman (1835-1860), killed in domestic dispute;
  • Anna Sophia Tillman Swearingen (1837-1909);
  • Frances Tillman Simpson (1840-1923);
  • James Adams Tillman (1842-1866), wounded at battle of Chickamauga;
  • Henry Cumming Tillman (1844-1859), who died of typhoid; and
  • Benjamin Ryan Tillman (1847-1918).

The Tillman family had resided in South Carolina since before the American Revolution. When "Ben" was 2 years old, his father died of typhoid fever, and his mother took over the management of the plantation and inn. Tillman’s mother owned 86 slaves in 1860; 30 of those slaves were African-born and had been smuggled into the interior in 1858 from the ship Wanderer.[1]


The Tillman family’s history reflected the South’s sometimes violent culture. For instance, Tillman's father killed a man, his brother John Tillman died while fighting in a feud in 1860 and his brother Oliver Tillman was killed shortly after that in a domestic dispute. Another brother, George Tillman, dueled regularly, accidentally killing an innocent bystander in a gambling dispute in 1856.

Two other brothers also died young: Thomas Tillman was killed in the Mexican-American War and Henry Tillmann died of typhoid fever at age 15.


The young Ben helped his mother run the inn and manage the family’s plantation and her slaves. He was a bookish child, reading eagerly and widely at a local private school. In 1861, he enrolled in Bethany Academy in the western part of Edgefield, attending until early June 1864, when, just shy of 17 years of age, he withdrew from the academy to enlist in the Confederate army. However, a cranial tumor incapacitated him for two years. Tillman recovered, but he lost his left eye.


In 1865, while convalescing in Elbert County, Ga., Tillman met Sallie Starke, a refugee whose family had fled from Fairfield District, South Carolina, and they wed in 1868. In 1869, the couple settled on 430 acres of Tillman family land given to them by Tillman’s mother. They had seven children:

  • Adeline (January 21, 1876-July 15, 1896);
  • Benjamin Ryan III (March 13, 1878-1950), who married Lucy Frances Dugas;
  • Henry Cummings, (b. August 14, 1884), married Mary Fox, 1906;
  • Margaret Malona, (1886), who married Charles Sumner Moore, 1911;
  • Sophia Oliver, (b. November 26, 1888), who married Henry W. Hughes, 1911;
  • Samuel Starke, (1892-1894); and
  • Sallie Mae, (b. August 26, 1894) who married John Shuler, 1916.

Farming and Agricultural Activities 1869-1881

Tillman’s enthusiasm for experimentation with new crops and his aggressive acquisition of property allowed him to build a successful agricultural business in an era in which most Southern farmers were struggling. In 1878 he acquired 170 acres of land from his mother, and, shortly thereafter, he purchased an additional 650 acres at Ninety Six, South Carolina, about 30 miles north of his other Edgefield land.

Tillman would later write,

the land which I was cultivating was hilly and easily washed, and it became very evident to me that our whole scheme of Agriculture was wrong. The lack of rotation and the constant plowing of the soil leaving it bare to the winter rains, could only result in final and complete impoverishment on hilly land, with resulting pauperism to the land owners.[2]

By the early 1880s, Tillman owned more than a thousand acres of land, and, with the help of his freedman tenant laborers, he operated over 30 plows. Joe Gibson and his wife Kitty were former slaves who later worked for Tillman as tenant farmers. Tillman said of Gibson that, “A more loyal friend no man ever had. Every child that I have would share his last crust with that negro tomorrow ... I do not know whether I belong to Joe or Joe belongs to me ... we have agreed to live together until one or both of us die, and when I go away, if I go first, I know he will shed as sincere tears as anybody. I would die to protect him from injustice and wrong”[3] While Tillman would become well known for his racist views, his relationship with Gibson offers a stark contrast to his incendiary rhetoric against African-Americans.

Later as a U.S. senator, when he was discussing the systematic removal of African-Americans from politics with the establishment of educational qualifications in 1895, Tillman would declare in 1900 that now an African-American

is not meddling with politics, for he found that the more he meddled with them the worse off he got. As to his “rights”—I will not discuss them now. 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. But I will not pursue the subject further.[4]

Reconstruction and Plans for Redemption from Republican Carpetbag and Scalawag Rule

Like many South Carolinians, Tillman opposed the Republican Reconstruction government of the Palmetto State. He supported two Edgefield lawyers and ex-Confederate generals, Martin W. Gary and Matthew C. Butler, in their plan to "redeem" the state from the Republican Party, which was overwhelmingly supported by African-Americans. Tillman and his allies viewed the Republican Party as an instrument of northerners who had moved to the South who were referred to as “carpetbaggers,” and southern whites, derogatively called “scalawags.” Devised by Gary, the Edgefield Plan, as the policy became known, called for the organization of secret extralegal military societies that would force the defeat of the majority African-American South Carolinians at the ballot box through the use of violence, intimidation and fraud. The redemption was to remove not only freedmen, but also the stereotypical carpetbaggers and scalawags and fellow Republicans.

In 1871, Congress passed civil rights legislation sometimes called the “Ku Klux” laws, designed to stamp out terrorist racial violence in large sections of the South, including South Carolina. In response, many whites organized themselves into paramilitary organizations called “rifle clubs.” Tillman was a member of one of these, the Sweetwater Saber Club, and thereby participated in a small-scale war with the African-American state militia.

During the 1876 gubernatorial campaign, these rifle clubs, often calling themselves Red Shirts, were determined to use violence, intimidation or fraud to ensure the victory of ex-Confederate general Wade Hampton and the Democrats. This strategy was often called the Edgefield Plan and attributed to Gary.

Throughout the summer and autumn of 1876, the Red Shirts harassed and assaulted black voters and murdered African-American politicians. Tillman’s prominent role in the Hamburg and Ellenton massacres that year secured his prominence among Edgefield District’s political elite. For example, he played a leading role in the Hamburg Massacre on July 8, 1876, resulting in the death of one white man, Thomas McKie Meriwether; and six freedmen, James Cook, Allan Attaway, David Rivers, Hampton Stephens, Albert Myniart and Moses Parks.

Reaction to Gov. Wade Hampton and “Bourbon” aristocracy

By the early 1880s, Tillman had become increasingly dissatisfied with the white political leaders he had helped install in office. He believed that former Confederate General Wade Hampton and other conservative politicians formed an aristocratic clique that denied his friend, Martin W. Gary, state office. During the antebellum period, the Hamptons, for example, had been planter and political aristocracy in South Carolina. It is interesting to note that Tillman’s older brother, Harvard-educated Confederate veteran George D. Tillman, was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives and ran twice against U.S. Representative Robert Smalls, who had escaped from slavery during the Civil War and became a federal hero as captain of the steamship, The Planter.[7]

Assuming the Gary mantle and aggressive political style, Tillman accused this clique of ignoring the interests of white farmers and of running the state in the fashion of the antebellum planters. After making small contributions to state politics in 1880 and 1882, Tillman forced his way into statewide prominence through a stirring and vitriolic speech before the State Grange and State Agricultural and Mechanical Society on August 6, 1885. He blamed the current state government for the poor economic fortunes of South Carolina's farmers, calling for reform in the state's agricultural educational system.

Farmers’ Association

In 1886, Tillman followed this speech with the formation of the Farmers Association. Through this organization, a letter-writing campaign to state newspapers and statewide stump-speaking tours, Tillman continued to harass the "Bourbon" Democratic state government, criticizing it for graft, corruption and mismanagement of the agricultural department at South Carolina College in Columbia. He disparaged the need for the state's military academy, the Citadel, and called for the establishment of an agricultural college. His spirited deprecation of Charleston and the Lowcountry and of Columbia politicians won him the adoration of the state's white Upcountry farmers and white mill workers, and his shrewd organizational management helped him capture the governorship in 1890. Tillman’s severe but successful oratory, generally filled with insinuation and profanity, along with his shrewd organizational skills allowed him to become the state's complete political boss for more than 15 years.

Governor of South Carolina – 1890-1894

As governor, he ousted the Bourbon Democrats, installing his own lieutenants in their places, and then removed these appointees if they lost his favor. In addition, he sought to ensure white Democratic control of the state through legislative reapportionment, gerrymandering and other disfranchisement mechanisms. For example, in his second term as governor, Tillman helped abolish elected local governments and provided for county officials to be appointed by the governor upon recommendation of the state senator and representatives. This law effectively eliminated blacks as local officials, even where African-Americans were the overwhelming majority.

During Tillman’s governorship, there was a dramatic rise in the number of lynchings of African-Americans in South Carolina and across the South as a whole. Tillman initially made efforts to control mob rule, and, during his first term as governor, actually spoke out against lynchings. But during his second term he often defended lynching in his public statements, once saying that in certain circumstances he would be willing to lead a lynch mob himself. In 1893, he was widely and justly criticized for his inadequate protection of a black prisoner named John Peterson that probably led to Peterson’s lynching. Perhaps most damaging in the long run was Tillman’s rhetoric over the course of his career that bolstered the idea that white violence was justified and to be expected whenever white supremacy was challenged.

Despite Tillman’s racist record, in many ways he was part of a national reform movement of the 1880s and 1890s. During his two terms as governor, he compiled a list of achievements longer than that of his predecessors, although short of his rhetoric. High among those accomplishments was the Dispensary Law regulating the sale of alcoholic beverages. He also reorganized the state's railroad commission, equalized the state's tax burden, limited the hours of labor in cotton mills and established the primary system of nominating Democratic candidates for office. Additionally, he brought much-needed reforms to the state lunatic asylum and penitentiary, resulting in greater efficiency and a dramatic decrease in the mortality rates in those institutions.

Tillman and Higher Education: Clemson, Winthrop and S.C. State University

Throughout the early 1890s, Tillman helped to establish Clemson College as an agricultural and mechanical college and Winthrop College, originally Winthrop Training School for Teachers, as an industrial school for women. As a young man, he had been accepted to the South Carolina College, but because of illness related to his eye and the events of the Civil War, Tillman never matriculated or received a college education. However, Tillman would later have an opportunity to aid in the establishment of not only Clemson University and Winthrop University, but also S.C. State University. Reluctantly, he ceased attacks on the Citadel, which he had called a “dude factory.”[8]

Tillman opposed using land-grant funds under the Morrill Act to create an agricultural department at the existing University of South Carolina, instead favoring the establishment of a separate land-grant college focusing on agricultural education and the practical sciences. He argued that

fuller investigation and study had taught me that the joining of an Agricultural Annex to an older Literary University had proven a failure in almost every case when where tried in the United States. The Michigan Agricultural College at Lansing and the Mississippi Agricultural College at Starkesville were so far in advance of any of the other hybrid institution.[9]

Probably due to Tillman’s political prominence and his determined advocacy for agricultural education, Thomas Green Clemson shared with Tillman his plans for willing his estate to the state of South Carolina for the purpose of establishing an agricultural college. In a meeting with Tillman, Richard W. Simpson and Daniel K. Norris at Fort Hill shortly before his death, Clemson shared his plans, seeking the advice and support of the other three men, which they eagerly provided. After Clemson’s death, Tillman helped lead the political fight to have the state accept Clemson’s bequest, and he was appointed by Clemson as one of the original seven successor trustees of Clemson Agricultural College. For the remainder of his life, Tillman was a powerful advocate and supporter of the school, and he was very proud of his role in its development.

One of Tillman’s major contributions to the discussion with Clemson, Simpson and Norris had been rooted in his fear of African-Americans being admitted to the college at some point in the future. Clemson’s will did not specify that only white students would be admitted. However, the Board of Trustees was to be structured so that a contingent of successor trustees would be self-perpetuating and thus independent of state government control or influence.

As governor, Tillman supported the creation of Clemson College through the establishment of a convict labor camp where a predominantly African-American crew of inmates cleared land, made bricks and constructed many of the original campus buildings. Some convicts as young as 12 years old worked at Clemson during their incarceration. Tillman reviewed several of their cases, and there is documentation that he issued at least 11 pardons for convicts assigned to Clemson.

As for South Carolina State University, in an unlikely twist, Tillman supported in 1895 the separation of the Agricultural and Mechanics Institution from Claflin College. Black leaders resented the domination of Claflin's white administrators and faculty over the A&M Institute. Robert B. Anderson, a black delegate from Georgetown, demanded that the state break the connection with Claflin. According to historian William C. Hine, former Congressmen Robert Smalls and Thomas E. Miller, “succeeded in persuading the state's most formidable political leader and the convention's presiding officer, U.S. Senator Benjamin Tillman, to support the separation of the Agricultural and Mechanics Institute from Claflin.” As Hine wrote on the centennial of South Carolina State University, “Tillman, for one of the few times in his life, eagerly accommodated black leaders, and proposed a measure to effect the separation of Claflin and the A&M institute.”[10]

Constitutional Convention and State Constitution of 1895

While African-American participation in state politics had been kept to a minimum since the state’s “redemption” in 1876, white Democrats such as Tillman sought to challenge other white political leaders by playing on the fear of possible African-American resurgence at the polls. Tillman called a state constitutional convention in 1895 to enact “the sole cause of our being here,” namely to deny African-Americans their voting rights. Tillman's disfranchising techniques included a poll tax, educational and property requirements and a subjective test concerning the Constitution, which allowed registration officials to pass whites and fail blacks.

U.S. Senate 1895-1918

Tillman served as a U.S. senator for some 24 years altogether. In the 1894 election he defeated the incumbent senator, fellow Edgefieldian Matthew Butler. He served on several major committees, including the Committee on Revolutionary Claims, the Committee on Five Civilized Tribes of Indians, and the Committee on Naval Affairs that created the Charleston Naval Shipyard in 1901. Although Tillman continued to dominate state politics, he lost some of his interest and control as he became involved in national affairs. He broadly identified with the plight of farmers in the South and West, although he avoided aligning himself with the more radical elements in the Farmer's Alliance and denied that he was ever a Populist. Indeed, Tillman's farmer's movement rivaled the Farmer's Alliance and effectively muted the political Populist movement in South Carolina. From early on, he supported an agrarian platform that included the free coinage of silver, a federal income tax and railroad regulation. Highlights of Tillman’s U.S. senate career were the passage of the Hepburn Bill in 1906 that regulated railroads and the Tillman Act of 1907 that instituted campaign finance reform.

Tillman suffered strokes in 1908 and 1910 that precluded his acceptance of the chairmanship of the Senate Appropriation Committee in 1913.

Nickname and Moniker of Pitchfork Ben

Having split with Democratic presidential nominee Grover Cleveland in 1896 over the silver issue, Tillman declared that Cleveland “is an old bag of beef and I am going to Washington with a pitchfork and prod him in his old fat ribs.[11] Political cartoonists of the era delighted in drawing illustrations of Tillman with a pitchfork in hand.

Tillman's vociferous denunciation of Cleveland earned him the appellation “Pitchfork Ben,” signaling the public's perception of the rural senator as a hardheaded, severe champion of the common farmer. Through his vigorous denunciation of African-American political activity, his vocal distrust of eastern monied interests, and his moderate agrarian platform, Pitchfork Ben earned a national reputation as a defender of the country’s agricultural interests and as the leading champion of white supremacy and racial segregation.

Speaking in the U.S. Senate on March 23, 1900, Tillman recounted the disfranchisement of African-Americans:

I want the country to get the full view of the Southern side of this question and the justification for anything we did. We were sorry we had the necessity forced upon us, but we could not help it, and as white men we are not sorry for it, and we do not propose to apologize for anything we have done in connection with it. We took the government away from them in 1876. We did take it. If no other Senator has come here previous to this time who would acknowledge it, more is the pity. We have had no fraud in our elections in South Carolina since 1884. There has been no organized Republican party in the State.

We did not disfranchise the negroes until 1895. Then we had a constitutional convention convened which took the matter up calmly, deliberately, and avowedly with the purpose of disfranchising as many of them as we could under the fourteenth and fifteenth amendments. We adopted the educational qualification as the only means left to us, and the negro is as contented and as prosperous and as well protected in South Carolina to-day as in any State of the Union south of the Potomac.[12]

Tillman also aided in the initiation of Jim Crow laws in South Carolina, which would last nearly a century until the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s.

Presidential Race of 1896

As a scheduled speaker at the 1896 Democratic National Convention, Tillman hoped for a presidential bid. He spoke in the same manner that had won him success in South Carolina, cursing and haranguing his enemies, and raising the specter of sectionalism. However, he thoroughly alienated the national audience, lost his chance for a run at the presidency, and paved the way for William Jennings Bryan and his famous oratory in his “Cross of Gold,” speech to capture the Democratic nomination. After 1896 Tillman contented himself with running state politics and leading the Democratic opposition to a series of Republican presidents.

Spanish-American War in 1898

While Tillman favored war with Spain in 1898, he objected strongly to the ensuing colonization because he feared the inclusion of new non-white populations in the union, and he was suspicious of business interests involved in the war. Tillman would later request a plaque made from the U.S.S. Maine for display at Clemson College. The plaque was placed in the Memorial Chapel and is today in the lobby of Tillman Auditorium. Other pieces of the U.S.S. Maine acquired for South Carolina included a 6-pounder gun that now stands on the state house grounds and the capstan place in the Battery Park in Charleston.

Conflict with President Theodore Roosevelt and Booker T. Washington

Tillman developed a strong enmity toward President Theodore Roosevelt when in 1902 the president rescinded a dinner invitation to the White House because Tillman assaulted fellow South Carolina Senator John L. McLaurin on the senate floor. Tillman never forgave Roosevelt for the snub and strongly opposed the president. However, in 1906, Tillman formed a coalition with Roosevelt to aid him win passage of tough new railroad regulations. Tillman also opposed Roosevelt’s invitation of Booker T. Washington to the White House and said, “the action of President Roosevelt in entertaining that n------ will necessitate our killing a thousand n------s in the South before they learn their place again.”[13] President Roosevelt seldom interacted with Senator Tillman on his same level. However, in 1908, Roosevelt complimented Tillman on his work at Chautauqua. Roosevelt went on to say that Senator Tillman and Senator Robert M. La Follette were both “very popular in the Chautauqua where the people listen to them both, sometimes getting ideas that are right, more often getting ideas that are wrong, and on the whole not getting any ideas at all ... and simply feeling the kind of pleasurable excitement that they would at the sight of a two-headed calf, or a trick performed on a spotted circus horse.” [14]

It is ironic that in 1923, only five years after Tillman’s death, Booker T. Washington’s colleague and fellow professor at Tuskegee Institute, George Washington Carver, was the first African-American guest lecturer at Clemson. Carver spoke to a full audience of nearly 1,000 cadets in the chapel in the Main Administration Building, later renamed Tillman Hall in 1946.

Tillman's constructive legacy in the Senate includes partial stewardship of the Republican-proposed Hepburn Rate Bill of 1906 and the establishment of Charleston Naval Base.

In 1908, Tillman suffered his first stroke. His physician recommended a trip to Europe as a means of recuperation. Historian Francis Butler Simpkins said of the trip, “If the South Carolina senator was not able to experience reaction as refined as those of such cosmopolite colleagues as Aldrich or Bacon, he certainly was no Goth recently emerged from the backwoods.” Although with no formal college education, Tillman was self-taught and felt at home in Scotland from his reading of Scott’s novels such as Rob Roy.

Tillman was one of the best-read people of his generation. He had a huge library and was a voracious reader. This is important because it shows that he was in touch with the intellectual trends and scientific racism developing at the time, and much of his horrible racism is the logical extension of some of the scholarship of that day.

In 1910 he suffered another stroke that partly paralyzed him, reducing his energy and influence in the Senate. By the time the Democrat Woodrow Wilson was elected to the White House in 1912, Pitchfork Ben was too old and infirm to assume the chair of the prestigious Appropriations Committee, an honor due him because of his seniority. Instead, Tillman had to be content with the chairmanship of the Committee on Naval Affairs. The once feisty and staunchly rural South Carolina senator became a rubber stamp for the legislation offered by the Wilson administration, only opposing the president on women’s suffrage, but on that very strenuously.

Political Legacy

Even into the mid-1900s, Tillman exerted influence in South Carolina politics. He engineered elections of his candidates to governor, secured the acquittal of his nephew, Lieutenant Governor James H. Tillman, for murder, and, after the collapse of their friendship, forced the retirement of Senator McLaurin. However, while the South Carolina legislature continued to show gratitude to Tillman by consistently reelecting him, Pitchfork Ben's long years in Washington, his advancing illness and his growing conservatism loosened his once mighty control of the Palmetto State. He occupied his final years battling the spurned Tillmanite Cole L. Blease. While Tillman won reelection to the Senate in 1912, he was unable to prevent Blease from gaining the governorship that year, a sign that Tillman could no longer control local politics.

Tillman died in Washington, D.C., on July 3, 1918. He is buried at Ebenezer Cemetery in Edgefield County, South Carolina. The epitaph on his tombstone states,

Benjamin Ryan Tillman, Born August 11, 1847-Died 3, July 1918
Patriot, Statesman, Governor of South Carolina 1890-1894
United States Senator 1895-1918. In the World War — Chairman Senat
Committee on Naval Affairs. A life of service and achievement.

Loving them he was the friend and leader of the common people. He taught them their political power and made possible for the education of their sons and daughters at Clemson Agricultural College and Winthrop Normal and Industrial College.

In the home loving loyal. To the state steadfast true. For the nation
“The country belongs to us all and we all belong to it. The men of the North, South, East, and West carved it out of the wilderness and made it great—let us share it with each other, then, and conserve it. Giving it the best that is in us of brain and brawn and heart.[15]

The senate colleague who wrote the most interesting appraisal of Ben Tillman for a senate memorial address was the honorable Henry Cabot Lodge of Massachusetts, who Tillman early on in his career characterized derogatorily as a “negro preacher.” Lodge was the author of the Lodge Bill of 1890 which, if passed, would have restricted Jim Crow election maneuvers and actions to disenfranchise of African-Americans. Lodge said in his eulogy of Tillman:

The men who have come here proclaiming their intention of revolutionizing and reforming the Senate have fallen in practice into two classes—those who insisted on continuing to attack the Senate and all its habits and methods and those who sooner or later, generally sooner than later, accepted the Senate traditions and ways of life. The former, very few in number, became bores and found themselves unheard and without influence and have been forgotten. The latter have been successful and often distinguished Senators, influential and effective. It is needless to say that Senator Tillman belonged preeminently to the second class. He never bored anyone. However widely one might disagree with him he was always and unfailingly interesting. He came not only to accept the Senate but to be one of its most ardent defenders, supporting its rules, habits, and traditions, and very proud of its history and of its power and importance.[16]

Lodge claimed that on a personal level they began not only to respect each other, but also to work cooperatively for a common good and he found Tillman more complex:

But Senators found also that the blunt words and the stormy manner when he was roused were far more in evidence in public than in private life. Behind all this was a kindly nature, plenty of humor, a serious outlook on life, and real sincerity of purpose. One at least of those who came in the process of time to know him well discovered that Senator Tillman had knowledge of and genuine fondness for literature and poetry—good literature and good poetry, be it said—and above all that he was a lover of Shakespeare, a phase of his character not generally appreciated. He was a conspicuous and active Senator for many years and worked hard and faithfully until he was stricken by illness some years ago. After his partial recovery he went on with an uncomplaining and unfailing courage which commanded everyone's admiration until the end came.[17]

Lodge referred to Tillman’s final speeches on behalf of the necessity for intervening into World War I as an example when he wrote: “Never did he appear better than in his attitude toward the war. He never had any doubts. He recognized what Germany meant, and he was for the right and for the war with all his strength.”

Tillman's influence on South Carolina political leaders has long survived him. While a young congressman, James F. Byrnes, who would become U.S. senator, Supreme Court justice, secretary of state and governor of South Carolina, became a protégé of Senator Tillman. The elder statesman Byrnes returned to South Carolina to fight integration and to perpetuate segregation in the early 1950s, during the time of the argument of the Brown v Board of Education case. William Thurmond, South Carolina Senator J. Strom Thurmond's father, was Tillman's attorney in Edgefield. Strom Thurmond as a boy was inspired by Tillman's personalized style of political involvement, campaigning and stance on segregation.


Tillman's legacy for South Carolina and the nation is complex and often disturbing. African-Americans and white Americans often interpret Tillman's accomplishments in contradictory ways. While bringing several progressive reforms to the state, he also was at the forefront of the movement to marginalize and disfranchise black Southerners further in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Similarly, while he energized the mass of rural white voters to challenge the aristocratic rule of the state by the Bourbon Democrats, he did so at the expense of the state’s disenfranchised African-Americans. Even at the national level, Tillman successfully pioneered the use of race by a Southern demagogue to mobilize white voters.

As historian I. A. Newby explained:

Tillmanism is the nearest thing to a genuine mass movement in the history of white Carolina, and whites in the state paid homage to it for over a generation. To students of black history and racial equality its most striking features are the extent to which it expressed the desire of white Carolinians to dominate blacks and the fact that much of its unity and force derived from its antiblack racial policies.[18]

Meanwhile, through his support of Clemson and Winthrop College, Tillman positioned himself as a leader of the land-grant college movement and the democratization of higher education among whites, aiding in the founding and growth of two important southern universities; he also provided crucial support for the institution now known as South Carolina State at a critical point in its early history. Arguably, however, Tillman's efforts at disfranchising African-Americans through the state legislature and the 1895 constitution have had a greater impact on the state and nation. Historian Richard Maxwell Brown described Tillman as “the best-known and most vitriolic Negrophobe in America.

W.E.B. DuBois’ Editorial about Benjamin Ryan Tillman

Perhaps one of the most remarkable appraisals of the life of Benjamin Tillman was an editorial written by African-American civil rights activist and intellectual W.E.B. DuBois shortly after Tillman’s death and published in The Crisis, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) journal for which he served as editor:

It can hardly be expected that any Negro would regret the death of Benjamin Tillman. His attacks on our race have been too unbridled and outrageous for that. And yet it is our duty to understand this man in relation to his time. He represented the rebound of the unlettered white proletariat of the South from the oppression of slavery to new industrial and political freedom. The visible sign of their former degradation was the Negro. They kicked him because he was kickable and stood for what they hated; but they must as they grow in knowledge and power come to realize that the Negro far from being the cause of their former suffering was their co-sufferer with them.

Someday a greater than Tillman Blease and Vardaman, will rise in the South to lead the white laborers and small farmer, and he will greet the Negro as a friend and helper and build with him and not on him. This leader is not yet come, but the death of Tillman foretells his coming and the real enfranchisement of the Negro will herald his birth.[19]

Benjamin Ryan Tillman Bibliography

Tillman's papers are at the South Caroliniana Library, University of South Carolina, and in the Special Collections Department of the Robert Muldrow Cooper Library, Clemson University. His papers as governor are at the South Carolina Department of Archives and History, Columbia, S.C. Other family papers are in the J. E. Swearingen and Swearingen Family Papers at the South Caroliniana Library.

The definitive biography of Tillman is Francis Butler Simkins, Pitchfork Ben Tillman: South Carolinian (1944). This should be read with Simkins's earlier The Tillman Movement in South Carolina (1926; repr. 1963). Two important articles are Simkins, "South Carolina Dispensary," South Atlantic Quarterly 25 (Jan. 1926): 13-24, and "Ben Tillman's View of the Negro," Journal of Southern History 3, no. 2 (May 1937): 161-74. A newer study especially sensitive to the creation of racial rhetoric and Tillman's contribution to white supremacy is Stephen David Kantrowitz, "The Reconstruction of White Supremacy: Reaction and Reform in Ben Tillman's World, 1847-1918" (Ph.D. diss., Princeton Univ., 1995). See also Clark E. Culpepper, "Pitchfork Ben Tillman and the Emergence of Southern Demagoguery," Quarterly Journal of Speech 69 (1983): 423-33; and Howard Dorgan, " 'Pitchfork Ben' Tillman and 'The Race Problem from a Southern Point of View'," in The Oratory of Southern Demagogues, ed. Cal M. Logue and Howard Dorgan (1981).

Other specialized studies include William Alexander Mabry, "Ben Tillman Disfranchised the Negro," South Atlantic Quarterly 37 (1938): 170-83; George Brown Tindall, "The Campaign for the Disfranchisement of the Negroes in South Carolina," Journal of Southern History 15 (1949): 212-34; Gustavus G. Williamson, Jr., "South Carolina Cotton Mills and the Tillman Movement," Proceedings of the South Carolina Historical Association (1949): 36-49. For more general coverage of Tillman see William J. Cooper, Jr., The Conservative Regime: South Carolina, 1877-1890 (1968); Orville Vernon Burton, In My Father's House Are Many Mansions: Family and Community in Edgefield, South Carolina (1985); Burton, "The Effects of the Civil War and Reconstruction on the Coming of Age of Southern Males, Edgefield County, South Carolina," in The Web of Southern Social Relations: Women, Family, and Education, ed. Walter J. Fraser et al. (1985); and I. A. Newby; Black Carolinians: A History of Blacks in South Carolina from 1895 to 1968 (1973).

Burton, Orville Vernon. In My Father's House Are Many Mansions: Family and Community in Edgefield, South Carolina. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1985.

Burton, Orville Vernon. “Tillman, Benjamin Ryan.” American National Biography. Online: Oxford University Press, 2000.

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[1] Francis Butler Simkins, Pitchfork Ben Tillman, South Carolinian, (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1944), 30. Stephen Kantrowitz, Ben Tillman and the Reconstruction of White Supremacy. University of North Carolina Press.2000), 16. The Wanderer smuggled Africans to the Georgia coast landing on Jekyll Island with some 409 persons. Rohrer, Katherine E. "Wanderer." New Georgia Encyclopedia. 27 June 2016. Web. 21 July 2016.

[2] Benjamin Ryan Tillman, The Origin of Clemson College; with introduction and reminiscences of the first class and the opening of the college by his son, B. R. Tillman, who was a member of the first class (Class of 1896), (Winston Salem, 1941), 3.

[3] Simkins, 403-404.

[4] "Speech of Senator Benjamin R. Tillman, March 23, 1900," Congressional Record, 56th Congress, 1st Session, 3223–3224. Reprinted in Richard Purday, ed.,Document Sets for the South in U. S. History (Lexington, MA.: D.C. Heath and Company, 1991), 147.

[5] Simkins, 66.

[6] Benjamin R. Tillman, (1909). “Struggles of 1876 : How South Carolina was delivered from carpet-bag and negro rule,” : Speech at the Red-Shirt Re-union at Anderson [August 25, 1909] : personal reminiscences and incidents. The Struggles of '76

[7] Gullah Statesman: Robert Smalls from Slavery to Congress, 1839-1915, by Jr. Edward A Miller (Author), Publisher: University of South Carolina Press (February 27, 2008)

[8] “military dude factory,” Kantrowitz, Ben Tillman, 119.

[9] Benjamin Ryan Tillman, The Origin of Clemson College; with introduction and reminiscences of the first class and the opening of the college by his son, B. R. Tillman, who was a member of the first class (Class of 1896), (Winston Salem, 1941), 4.

[10] William C. Hine, "South Carolina State College: A Legacy of Education and Public Service." Agricultural History 65, no. 2 (1991): 149-67.

[11] “bag of beef . . .” Simkins, p. 315.

[12] "Speech of Senator Benjamin R. Tillman, March 23, 1900," Congressional Record, 56th Congress, 1st Session, 3223–3224. Reprinted in Richard Purday, ed.,Document Sets for the South in U. S. History (Lexington, MA.: D.C. Heath and Company, 1991), 147.

[13] Stephen Kantrowitz, Ben Tillman and the Reconstruction of White Supremacy. (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2000), 259.

[14] Simpkins, 446.

[15] Benjamin R. Tillman tombstone at Find A Grave, Inc., Find A Grave, digital image ( accessed 5 October 2015), photograph, “gravestone for Benjamin R. Tillman (1881-1974),Memorial No. 8063298, Records of the Ebenezer Baptist Church Cemetery, Trenton, Edgefield County, South Carolina;” .

[18] I. A. Newby, Black Carolinians: A History of Blacks in South Carolina from 1895 to 1968, (Columbia, S.C.: University of South Carolina Press, 1973), 12.

[19] W.E.B. DuBois, Tillman Editorial, The Crisis, Vol. 16, No. 4, August 1918, 165.