Benjamin Ryan Tillman

1847-1918

Benjamin Ryan Tillman was born near Trenton, Edgefield County, S.C., August 11, 1847.  He pursued an academic course; left school in 1864 to join the Confederate Army, but was stricken with a severe illness. He later engaged in agricultural pursuits.

Tillman became the leader of the backcountry whites in South Carolina and fostered their discontent with the ruling tidewater aristocracy.   In 1890, he formed the Farmers Alliance and was elected governor the same year.   Tillman accomplished a political revolution in South Carolina when he defeated Governor Wade Hampton and the old guard Bourbons who had run the state since the end of Reconstruction.  Tillman and his movement aimed to expand the political control of the state to lower- and middle-class people at the expense of the stateís former leaders and blacks.  He served two terms (1890Ė94). Tillman greatly advanced agricultural education (Clemson and Winthrop colleges were opened) and railroad regulation. He was responsible for the adoption of the dispensary law, whereby the state controlled the sale of liquor.

Tillman dominated the state constitutional convention of 1895, which adopted rules virtually disfranchising South Carolina blacks.  Many of his measures reflected the influence of Populism. In 1894, Tillman was elected Democratic U.S. Senator. In the Senate he was the champion of the Southern farmer and allied himself with the Populists against the currency program of President Cleveland. He vigorously attacked Cleveland in the Democratic convention of 1896 and gave support to William Jennings Bryan and free silver. He earned the nickname Pitchfork Ben when he threatened to stick his pitchfork into Cleveland. Although Tillman was at odds with President Theodore Roosevelt, he helped secure passage of the Hepburn rate bill for railroads. In general he supported Woodrow Wilsonís administration, particularly Josephus Danielsís naval expansion program.

Tillman was censured by the Senate in 1902 after assaulting another Senator on the Senate floor.  He died in Washington, D.C., July 3, 1918 and is interred in Ebenezer Cemetery, Trenton, S.C.