Historical records matching Benjamin R. Tillman ("Pitchfork Ben"), Governor, U.S. Senator
About Benjamin R. Tillman ("Pitchfork Ben"), Governor, U.S. Senator
Benjamin Ryan Tillman (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 views were a matter of national controversy.
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.
Tillman, of English descent, was born near Trenton, South Carolina. He left school in 1864 to join the Confederate States Army during the American Civil War, but was disabled by an illness that later caused the removal of his left eye; 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".
It was at the Hamburg Massacre that he came of age in 1876, Stephen Kantrowitz writes in this biography of Tillman. 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 Riot 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.
Governor of South Carolina
Presenting himself as the friend of ordinary white farmers, "Pitchfork Ben" Tillman took over the South Carolina Farmers Alliance, and used the organization to advance his political ambitions. He was elected Governor of South Carolina in 1890, and served from December 1890 to December 1894. He helped establish Clemson College and Winthrop College while in office, and the Tillman Halls on both campuses are named in his honor. When the Alliance founded the Populist Party on the Ocala Demands, Tillman arranged for the South Carolina Democratic Party to adopt the platform, though he refused to endorse the "sub-treasury," the Populists' most ambitious economic proposal, or to countenance any appeal to black voters. The strategy prevented the development of an independent Populist Party and the biracial politics of North Carolina, thus assuring white control through the dominant, white Democratic Party.
He 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.
 U.S. SenateTillman 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 a 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."
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.”
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. 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." He was also barred from the White House.
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 out-maneuvered 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.
Tillman was the younger brother of George Dionysius Tillman (1826–1902), a U.S. Representative from South Carolina, serving from 1879 to 1893 (with one interruption).
Senator Tillman died in office in Washington, D.C. and is buried in Ebenezer Cemetery, Trenton, South Carolina. A statue of him is outside the South Carolina State House. Tillman Hall at Winthrop University and Clemson University is also named in his honor as an early trustee of the university.