Benjamin Ryan Tillman (1847-1918), an American statesman for the South and a demagogue, was known as "Pitchfork Ben." His political campaigns on behalf of poor whites gave direction to a new generation of Southern activists who reorganized post-Reconstruction politics and society.
Benjamin Ryan Tillman was born in Edgefield Country, S.C., on Aug. 11, 1847, of an old Southern family. He was raised on a plantation which boasted numerous slaves. A bright student, Tillman was prevented from serving with the Confederate forces during the Civil War because of the loss of his left eye. After the war he began farming, experiencing the frustrations of Southerners under Reconstruction policies and Federal troops.
Despite his many acres Tillman identified himself more with poor white farmers than with the aristocrats of his state who sought to return to what they recalled as a gracious and chivalrous era. The fear poor white farmers felt and their hatred of freed blacks found expression in bloody riots in 1876 in which Tillman participated. Only in 1885 did his demands for farmers' education and aid and the organization of the Farmers' Association give him a political base.
During the next years Tillman engaged in bitter controversies, making scapegoats of blacks and aristocrats and organizing a political machine of rural supporters. Becoming a power in the state Democratic party, in 1890 the "One-eyed Plowboy" urged voters to "spit out of your mouths" candidates allegedly arraigned against the farmers' interests, and he rode into power. As governor of the state in 1890-1894, and afterward, he dictated all legislation. Some of his policies comported with those of the Populists of the period. Thus he appointed a commission to fix railroad rates; in 1896 he managed to institute the primary system of nominating Democratic candidates (as distinguished from the old convention system) to enable a broader spectrum of the white voters to name candidates; and he won tax equalization and education measures. However, his determination to make blacks second-class citizens had less in common with populism. Tillman's most original program was his pioneer Dispensary, which gave the state sole right to sell alcoholic liquors.
In 1896, having named his successor as governor, Tillman won a seat in the U.S. Senate; his assertion that he would "stick my pitchfork into [President Grover Cleveland's] old ribs" appropriately introduced him to the national audience. In Washington his unbridled scorn for blacks divided both liberals and conservatives. Tillman's hatred of President Theodore Roosevelt became a major motif in his career. Nevertheless, his exposé of the inordinate profits gained by steel manufacturers for government ships, his battle for naval expansion, and, most important, his work to revitilize the Interstate Commerce Commission through the Hepburn Act (1906) gave him status among those working for progressive measures.
Although Tillman remained a senator and a figure in South Carolina politics, he loomed largest in his last decade as the prototype of New South politicians like James K. Vardaman in Mississippi and the later Jeff Davis of Arkansas. Both roused their poor white constituents for progressive social measures but also for the suppression of black civil rights. Tillman died on July 3, 1918, in Washington.
Further Reading on Benjamin Ryan Tillman
The authority on Tillman is Francis B. Simkins: see his The Tillman Movement in South Carolina (1926) and Pitchfork Ben Tillman, South Carolinian (1944).