This is the grave of Ben Tillman.
One of the most genuinely odious figures in American history and yet one who represented the beliefs of his terrible electorate, Tillman was born in 1847 outside of Trenton, South Carolina, the upcountry area that has been the home for South Carolina right-wingers from John C. Calhoun to Strom Thurmond. His parents were big time planters and owned 86 slaves. This was also a culture that loved violence. The antebellum Southern elite were all about honor and defending it with a gun. Nowhere was this stronger than South Carolina. This is what Tillman grew up in. His father was convicted of killing a guy, though he dropped dead of typhoid in 1849 before serving time. That left Tillman fatherless, but soon he would lose brothers too. One was killed in a duel. Another was killed stealing half of Mexico to expand slavery in the most unjust war in American history to that point. Another brother died in some sort of domestic violence issues. Later, another brother would die in the Civil War. And yet another would kill a guy who accused him of cheating of gambling. He would later be elected to Congress. In other words, of all of Tillman’s brothers, the only one who didn’t either kill someone or was killed by someone was a brother who died at the age of 15 of disease. It’s hard to find how a background would explain someone’s life more than Tillman. It didn’t teach empathy. It taught him the glory of violence.
Tillman was certainly old enough to fight in the later years of the Civil War himself and the family was all about treason in defense of slavery. He was in schools, but had to drop out for a bit as the family’s debts were overwhelming the estate (common enough with this elites). He went back to what became the University of South Carolina for a year and then dropped out to join a Confederate artillery unit. He never served though as a brain tumor cost him one eye. Somehow he survived this. Too bad.
After the war, Tillman ran the family plantation. Like the rest of the southern elite, he was intent on reinstating slavery in all but name. That included locking labor down on the plantation and using the whip against them, which he evidently enjoyed a good bit. The family fortune grew again and by the end of Reconstruction, he was the largest landowner in the county, still using that whip. Tillman was also involved in the white militias that formed to crush Black voting. The KKK was only one of these. In South Carolina, it was the Sweetwater Club, part of a larger organization called the Red Shirts. Tillman was an active member. These were night riding terrorists, murdering, raping, and beating Black voters to take back political power.
Tillman was then a proud leader of the Hamburg Massacre, when he rallied whites to massacre Black voters in the 1876 election that saw violence used to get Wade Hampton into office. They took on Black National Guard members at the local armory, killing six, some through torture. This was perhaps Tillman’s proudest moment of his long, horrible life. He build on it to to build a political career of his own. That took a few years–he went back to his land and beating of Black workers. But by the 1880s, with the southern elite not treating white farmers they way Tillman thought they should be treated, he started to step up as a populist representative for them. Central to this was that South Carolina should work for the white man. There were lots of Black farmers too, but of course he and his followers saw them as the enemy. He became a popular public speaker in the Grange movement and started a political platform of white populism based on the white primary, which was better than the no primary at all strategy of South Carolina leaders, if you were white anyway. He became known as the “Agricultural Moses” for articulating the desires of white farmers. He started getting his “Pitchfork Ben” nickname during these years as well, for representing the poor white farmer. He then started a farm school, along with other reformer racist whites. This became Clemson University. You can see the flag there. I’m sort of amazed Clemson still claims Tillman, but hey, it is Clemson! I too am shocked that they love Dabo Swinney so much there!!! He probably put that flag on the grave. Also, that land is the former plantation of John C. Calhoun. Talk about a puzzle through time fitting neatly together.
The Farmers Alliance spread through South Carolina in the 1880s and by 1890, they managed to wrest control over the Conservative faction of the Democrats and get Tillman to the gubernatorial nomination. Two things here. One, the South Carolina Democratic Party was so horrible that Tillman was the reform candidate. Two, there’s little more overrated by American historians than the potential biracial alliances of Populism. Sure, the Colored Farmers Alliance existed. But whatever connection they had with the white Farmers Alliance was extraordinarily tentative and one has to squint very hard and ignore a whole lot to get to the point where you think real bi-racial cooperation was possible. From Tillman to Tom Watson to Mary Lease to William Jennings Bryan, the Populists (or Populist-adjacent in Bryan’s case) were full of hard-core white supremacists. In fact, nearly every one of them was a hard-core white supremacist. There was no room for people of color in their movement.
Anyway, despite an attempt by the Conservatives to run another candidate against Tillman, he won easily. His major policy goal was completely stripping all Black rights from the once enfranchised people. He tiptoed around the lynching issue, initially claiming that it was only necessary because Conservative government was so bad and never really officially endorsing it, but most definitely not doing anything about it. There were a lot more lynchings in his second term than in his first. He also turned his back on the Populists and became a mainline Democrat. That was the route to power in South Carolina after all. Far more important to Tillman than Populism was disfranchising Black voters. He pushed through a constitutional convention to achieve this in 1894. It barely passed and probably only through massive voter fraud, in part because many whites figured it would be used against them. Tillman didn’t care much. Like Trump, he had contempt for his own voters. Later, Tillman would more openly support lynching, giving speeches bemoaning the fact that South Carolina didn’t do what North Carolina whites had done in 1898 and engage in mass murder of Blacks who tried to have political power in Wilmington.
Being governor was only a first step for Tillman. He wanted to head to Washington as a senator. In 1894, the state legislature gave him his wish. Before he headed to Washington, he led his convention and got everything he wanted. Years later, defending his actions on the floor of the Senate, Tillman stated:
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. He 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…. I would to God the last one of them was in Africa and that none of them had ever been brought to our shores
Strom Thurmond nods approvingly.
Tillman instantly wanted the big job. But his way of speaking–nothing but resentment and attacking his opponents–alienated the national Democratic Party at the 1896 convention. Turns out the South Carolina style of hate didn’t quite play nationally, even among a very racist party. Instead, he took to being what the historian and his biographer Steve Kantrowitz called “the wild man of the Senate.” In 1902, he took to the Senate floor to accuse his fellow South Carolina senator and his political enemy John McLaurin of corruption. They then got into a fistfight on the Senate floor. These were two senators from the same party and even the same state. Classy stuff here. Theodore Roosevelt responded by banning him from the White House. He liked the idea of war with Spain but opposed taking colonies because it would dilute the white race. He traveled around the nation, giving radical racist speeches to large audiences. Even many Democrats found Tillman disgusting. He remained a rough, mean, nasty, violent man his entire life, embracing this as his political identity. But he was powerful, no question about that. No Democrat could afford to alienate Tillman too strongly. They needed his help. He wouldn’t retire either. Even though he was pretty sick by his later years, he kept running. After initially saying he would not run for another term in 1918, he then reneged and decided he wanted that term. He conspired to get his rivals to drop out. But then he had a cerebral hemorrhage and died in 1918, at the age of 70. Too bad it took so long.
There’s a lot more to say, but that’s enough for now. This post is long enough. Have at it in comments.
Pitchfork Ben Tillman is buried in Ebenezer Baptist Church Cemetery, Edgefield, South Carolina.
If you would like this series to visit other scumbag white supremacist politicians of Tillman’s age, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Tom Watson is in Thomson, Georgia and Edmund Pettus is in Selma, Alabama. Previous posts in this series are archived here.