Tillman, Benjamin “Pitchfork”

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Tillman, Benjamin “Pitchfork” 1847–1918

Benjamin Ryan (“Pitchfork Ben”) Tillman was born into a wealthy slaveholding family in the plantation district of Edge-field, South Carolina, on August 11, 1847. He served with a murderous paramilitary unit, agitated for agricultural reform, and was elected to two terms as South Carolina’s governor and four terms as a U.S. senator. Throughout that career, Tillman sought to reshape the post–Civil War nation by limiting the political and social freedoms of African Americans and those of any whites who challenged those limits.

An illness during the Civil War kept Tillman out of the Confederate military and cost him his left eye. After the war, he supervised former slaves as agricultural laborers in Florida and South Carolina. During Reconstruction, he joined former slaveholders and ex-Confederate officers and soldiers in the rifle club movement, which threatened and assaulted South Carolina’s Republican officials and their black and white supporters. He took part in the Hamburg Massacre (July 8, 1876), in which rifle club members (known thereafter as “Red Shirts”) besieged a black militia unit, took many prisoners, and selected several militia men and local black officials from among them. They shot these men in the head before telling the rest to flee and firing upon them as they did. Contrary to frequent depictions of such violence as spontaneous eruptions of white Southern men’s rage, this was a premeditated slaughter. Tillman later explained that “the leading white men of Edgefield” had determined “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” (Kantrowitz 2000, p. 67).

Maintaining the “superiority” of whites remained Till-man’s primary objective, but black aspirations were not the only threat to that superiority. Throughout the 1880s and 1890s, he worried that the dire state of the agricultural economy would persuade hard-pressed white farmers to renew the Reconstruction-era coalition between black and white voters. Supporters of movements such as Populism sometimes seemed willing to sacrifice white supremacy if doing so would help advance their economic and political programs. Tillman argued that the Populists’ insistence on federal intervention in the economy, coupled with their intermittent appeals to black voters, augured a return to the political, economic, and racial evils of Reconstruction.

Tillman responded with a vision of agricultural renewal that focused explicitly and exclusively on the grievances of white farmers. Because Tillman’s rejection of federal intervention made it impossible for him to address the large structural issues confronting postbellum agriculture, he focused his ire on the lawyers, politicians, merchants, “aristocrats,” and “Bourbons” whom he claimed ran the state. He pursued this course in national politics as well: It was his threat to stick a pitchfork in Grover Cleveland, whom he depicted as the enemy of white farmers, that gained Tillman his nickname. He accused individuals of corruption and called for a “farmers college” for young white men. In the late 1880s he was able to ride the broad regional wave of political discontent into power. He so outraged elements of the Democratic establishment that when he won the party’s nomination for governor, some disgruntled white elites bolted the party and appealed to black voters for support. Nevertheless, Tillman was overwhelmingly elected governor in 1890.

As governor, Tillman’s commitment to white uplift and white liberty was generally trumped by his fear of a black political and social resurgence. He oversaw the establishment of Clemson College for white men and Winthrop College for white women, but he remained less committed to the practice of higher education than to the principle of white supremacy. In 1891 he refused to accept federal aid for Clemson if doing so would require him to accept a proportionate amount of aid for black higher education. Tillman was the prime mover behind the South Carolina Constitutional Convention of 1895, which achieved his goal of disfranchising most black voters without running afoul of the Fifteenth Amendment. His promise that no white man would lose his vote under the new constitution was greeted with skepticism, and the 1894 referendum on calling a convention was fiercely contested. In the end, pro-convention forces probably won their narrow victory through electoral fraud. Tillman then helped draft a constitution under which men had to own substantial taxable property, prove their literacy, or demonstrate an understanding of the Constitution in order to register to vote. As a result white eligibility and turnout fell dramatically, and black voting was virtually eliminated.

Tillman asserted that black men, freed from slavery’s policing, presented a dire and constant sexual threat to white women. He condemned lynching as an assault on the authority of the state and sometimes called out militia units to protect prisoners, but he also publicly pledged that in cases where a black man was accused of raping a white woman, he would himself lead the lynch mob. Tillman never put his pledge into practice, but he did collude with lynch mobs. In one 1893 case, he sent a black rape suspect to face a crowd of many hundreds protected by only a single guard. The man was lynched. Tillman argued that white men’s violence toward accused black rapists was a product of their instinct for “race preservation,” a force so powerful that it could cause “the very highest and best men we have [to] lose all semblance of Christian beings” (Kantrowitz 2000, p. 260). As long as foolish or wicked men attempted to subvert “race preservation” by mandating racial equality, he asserted, white men would respond with violence.

Tillman voiced similar sentiments in the U.S. Senate and, as he became a popular speaker, on platforms throughout the nation. Most journalists and public officials depicted Tillman as a “wild man,” an impression that drew credibility from many of his activities, including his frequent boasts about his own part in the Hamburg Massacre and his apparent embodiment of the “white savage” he described in his speeches. His nickname, “Pitchfork Ben,” seemed to capture this image of violent (and agrarian) discontent. Tillman proved himself to be a skilled organizer and a competent legislator, but the nickname and reputation served him very well, for they supported his argument that white men opposed black freedom and equality instinctively and impulsively. The depiction of Tillman as the spokesman of the instinctively racist white southern man reinforced Tillman’s argument that white supremacy was something bred in the bone, not a social and political program that required enforcement and reinforcement in order to succeed.

Tillman sought to prevent the federal government from making the “race problem” worse. He fervently opposed U.S. imperialism, fearing that the occupation of territories such as the Philippines would bring millions more nonwhite people into the American polity. From the Senate, especially during the administration of Democrat Woodrow Wilson, Tillman worked to segregate the federal bureaucracy, strip prominent black men of federal offices, and relegate black federal workers to the lowest rungs of the civil service. Ben Tillman died on July 3, 1918, near the end of his fourth term in the U.S. Senate.

SEE ALSO Southern Politics, 1883–1915


Burton, Orville Vernon. 1976. “Ungrateful Servants?: Edgefield’s Black Reconstruction; Part 1 of the Total History of Edgefield County, South Carolina.” Ph.D. diss., Princeton University.

Kantrowitz, Stephen. 2000. Ben Tillman and the Reconstruction of White Supremacy. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.

Simkins, Francis Butler. 2002 (1944). Pitchfork Ben Tillman, South Carolinian. Columbia: South Carolina University Press.

Williamson, Joel M. 1984. The Crucible of Race. New York: Oxford University Press.

Stephen Kantrowitz