“Pitchfork” Ben Tillman was a monster. Governor of South Carolina from 1890-1894 and US Senator from South Carolina from 1895 until his death in 1918, in a time of overt public racism Tillman stood out. He openly boasted on the floor of the Senate of murdering blacks during Reconstruction to help whites regain political power. He offered blacks in South Carolina the choice of being helots or extermination. His racial views are repugnant not only to our eyes, but to many, perhaps most, of his white contemporaries. He achieved the disenfranchisement of blacks at the South Carolina Constitutional Convention of 1895, a disenfranchisement that would survive his death for almost a half century.
This terrible racism now obscures the main reason why Tillman had such a political hold on South Carolina for a generation and a half, and why he was a very effective legislator in the Senate. With his racism he combined a radical populism that appealed to small farmers and laboring men who held the balance of power in South Carolina. He appealed to them against the traditional rulers of South Carolina who seemingly had no answers to the economic challenges that beset the poor of South Carolina. With his radical message he became a well paid speaker on the Chautauqua Circuit, giving speeches throughout the nation in which he made little effort to conceal his racial views.
The essence and power of Tillman’s economic message was shown at the Democrat convention in 1896 at which bi-metalism, an economic theory that was complete hooey, was regarded as the economic nostrum to cure the nation’s ills. Tillman gave a brief speech:
When this convention disperses, I hope my fellow citizens will have a different opinion of the man with the pitchfork from South Carolina. I am from South Carolina, which was the home of secession. [Great hissing.] Oh, hiss if you like. There are only three things on earth which can hiss—a goose, a serpent, and a man, and the man who hisses the name of South Carolina has no knowledge whatever of its grand history. But I tell you I do not come from the South Carolina of 1860, which you charge brought about the disruption of the Democratic Party. The war there declared was for the emancipation of the black slaves. I come now from a South Carolina which demands the emancipation of the white slaves. You charge that in 1860 South Carolina brought about the disruption of the Democratic Party. I say to you now that I am willing to see the Democratic Party disrupted again to accomplish the emancipation of the white slaves. New York for twenty years or more has been the one dominant factor and dictator of the National Democratic Party. While we want to thank New York and Connecticut and New Jersey for the aid extended to us in the past, I want to say to you here that we have at last recognized in the South that we are mere hewers of wood and drawers of water, while the great states I have named have eaten up our substance. My friends say this is not a sectional issue. I say it is.
[Great scenes of disorder then ensued, and quiet was restored with difficulty. Many times the senator was interrupted, but he went on:]
I deny utterly that there is any sectional feeling over this silver issue. I have been in the East ten days, and nine-tenths of the voters in those States are for silver. The Democratic and Republican political machines, by the use of money, have stifled the sentiments of the people on this money question.
[References by the speaker to Senator Hill brought a renewal of the storm, and Senator Tillman was obliged to raise his voice to a shout as he ended:]
As Grover Cleveland stands for gold monometallism, we have repudiated him. We are diametrically opposed to his policy, and why should we write ourselves down as asses and liars? They ask us to say that he is honest. Well, in reply I say he signed a contract for bonds in secret, with one of his partners as a witness. Nobody disputes his boldness or obstinacy. He had the courage to overthrow the Constitution of the United States when he overrode the rights of the citizens of Illinois and sent federal troops into this state. You ask us to indorse his fidelity. In reply, I say he has been faithful unto death—the death of the Democratic Party. We have denounced him in South Carolina as a tool of Wall Street, and what was prophecy then is history now. Senator John Sherman’s speech in the Senate in support of the Administration’s money policy was but the certificate of a Cleveland Republican. I tell you that the Democratic Party of the United States will turn out the party in this fall’s election if it dares indorse Grover Cleveland here. I tell you you dare not go before this country after indorsing the Cleveland administration. We of the South have burned our bridges behind us so far as the Eastern Democrats are concerned. We have turned our faces to the West and they have responded. I have only a few more words to say, and I know that you will be asked to do this by time-serving politicians, the men who follow and never lead public opinion. Once again I say to you that we must refuse to indorse the Cleveland Administration or go before the country stultified.
One of the most difficult aspect of studying history is putting ourselves into the shoes of people whose views we find repugnant in order to better understand their views and to understand their times. It is a hard task but it must be done, even with a monster like Pitchfork Ben.