home Who Was Benjamin Tillman?

In the Fall of 2013, Will Moredock, a columnist for The Charleston City Paper, launched the original downwithtillman.com website. He died in the September of 2019. That original website consisted of this essay.

The Trouble with Tillman

by Will Moredock

It was a warm spring day, May 1, 1940. Some three thousand white people were gathered on the concourse in front of the Statehouse in Columbia. Their purpose that day was to witness the unveiling of the bronze statue honoring the memory of the late Governor and U.S. Senator Benjamin Ryan Tillman.

In attendance were several dozen of Tillman’s relatives and descendants and some of the most powerful men of the state. Among them were Governor Burnet Maybank; U.S. Senator James F. Byrnes, who delivered the keynote address; and former Governor John G. Richards, Tillman’s friend and acolyte, who introduced Byrnes. Unveiling the eight-foot bronze statue that day was Minnie Thompson Moore, of Atlantic City, N.J, Tillman’s granddaughter.

The statue was the inspiration of Richards, and the work of prolific Chicago sculptor Frederick C. Hibbard, whose Civil War and other figures stand in parks, statehouse grounds and battlefields around much of the country. It presented Tillman standing in a suit and knee-length coat, on a stone pedestal, atop a five-step base. It was funded by a $10,000 appropriation from the General Assembly and $10,000 raised in a statewide, county-by-county campaign, chaired by Richards.1

Most of the crowd assembled there remembered Tillman, who died in 1918, and many had known him personally. That did not stop Byrnes from speaking for an hour, recalling Tillman’s life and deeds.

The story was legend: The farm boy from Edgefield District was born in 1847, and showed a precocious love of books and the power of words. At age 17, a cranial tumor cost him his left eye and the opportunity to serve in the Confederate army.2

After the Civil War, South Carolina was under military occupation and governed by the Republican Party, composed of African Americans, northern whites and southern white Unionists. Former secessionists chafed at being governed by the black majority, who until 1865, had been their slaves.

Wearing red shirts, lawless white men banded together into vigilante gangs to ride through the region, terrorizing blacks and disrupting political meetings and elections. Young Ben Tillman, age 29, was a leader of the Edgefield Red Shirts, which went by the name of the Sweetwater Sabre Club. 3

More than 30 years later, Tillman described their mission in a reunion of the Red Shirts in Anderson, S.C.: “It had been the settled purpose of the leading white men of Edgefield to seize upon the first opportunity that the negroes might offer them to provide a riot and teach the negroes a lesson: as it was generally believed that nothing but bloodshed and a good deal of it could answer the purpose of redeeming the state from negro and carpetbag rule.” 4

In July 1876, a contrived confrontation in Hamburg, S.C., between a  black militia unit and white vigilante band from Edgefield led to bloodshed. The ensuing Hamburg Massacre, on July 8, saw one white man and a number of black militiamen killed before whites brought in artillery and superior numbers and put an end to it. Some 40 African Americans surrendered and were surrounded by armed whites. Five of them were called out by name and executed. 5

In Ellenton two months later, on September 17, several Red Shirt gangs converged to slaughter more than a hundred African Americans. Simon Coker, a black state senator who was in the area to investigate violence  against black citizens, was captured; two of Tillman’s men were selected to execute him. His executioners informed Coker that he was about to die, according to Tillman’s account, and Coker said, “Here is my cotton house key; I wish you would please send it to my wife and tell her to have our cotton ginned and pay our landlord rent just as soon as she can.” 6

Then Coker said he would like to pray, and went to his knees. According to Tillman, after a few moments, one of his men said, “’You are too long’. . . .the order ‘aim, fire’ was given with the negro still kneeling.”

In his commentary on the murder, Tillman wrote, “It will appear a ruthless and cruel thing to those unacquainted with the environments. . . . The struggle in which we were engaged meant more than life or death. It involved everything we held dear, Anglo-Saxon civilization included.” 7

White violence against blacks escalated throughout the state as the election of 1876 approached, resulting in a Democratic victory of fewer than 1,200 votes statewide. In Edgefield and adjacent Laurens districts, where Tillman and his Red Shirt neighbors had been waging war on blacks, the Democratic slate received more votes than there were voting age adults of both parties. 8

Months of chaos and strife ensued in Columbia, until Gen. Wade Hampton and the Democrats were able to assert their power over the Statehouse. A separate arrangement led to the withdrawal of federal troops from South Carolina. Reconstruction collapsed in the state and white supremacy was on the way to full dominance of state government. 9

Ben Tillman later said of those turbulent days: “We have done our level best [to prevent blacks from voting]…we have scratched our heads to find out how we could eliminate the last one of them. We stuffed ballot boxes. We shot them. We are not ashamed of it.” 10

In the years following Reconstruction, ancient class resentments resurfaced. Small white farmers, especially in the upstate of South Carolina, resented the political and economic dominance of the wealthy planter class, represented by the likes of Wade Hampton. They saw these “Bourbon” Democrats as allies of the bankers, merchants and railroads in a natural coalition to exploit the small farmer. 11 With his fiery rhetoric and his self-education on political and agricultural issues, Tillman proved himself a natural leader of the agrarian reform movement. 12 His manner of speech and public behavior were course and angry. He became a prototype of the classic white southern demagogue.

Tillman’s dynamic rabble-rousing got him elected governor in 1890 and reelected two years later. His most sweeping reform was the calling of a convention in 1895 to draft a new state constitution, whose primary purpose was to disenfranchise black voters, paving the way for racial segregation – Jim Crow Laws – across the state. The new constitution created literacy tests and poll taxes, requiring a voter to own and pay taxes on property assessed at $300.  13

In 1894, Tillman was elected to the United States Senate, where he served until his death in 1918. He spent much of that time haranguing the Senate and working the Chautauqua circuit across the width and breadth of the nation, in his words, “preaching to those people the gospel of white supremacy according to Tillman.” 14

In 1906, after Booker T. Washington dined in the White House with President Theodore Roosevelt,  Tillman said, “The action of President Roosevelt in entertaining that nigger will necessitate our killing a thousand niggers in the South before they learn their place again.” 15

Throughout his career, he called for violence against black people, and inflamed ancient fears of the black man as sexual rival and sexual predator. In 1892, he said, “There is only one crime that warrants lynching, and Governor that I am, I would lead a mob to lynch a negro that ravishes a white woman. I do justify lynching for rape, and before Almighty God, I am not ashamed of it.” 16

Later, as senator, he declaimed, “I have three daughters, but, so help me God, I had rather find either one of them killed by a tiger or a bear and gather up her bones and bury them, conscious that she had died in the purity of her maidenhood, than to have her crawl to me and tell me the horrid story that she had been robbed of the jewel of her womanhood by a black fiend.” 17

Benjamin Ryan Tillman left a decidedly mixed legacy. He was a demagogue, a terrorist and a murderer. He stirred the vilest passions in his followers and his words were probably responsible for the deaths of many African Americans at the hands of white mobs. His gubernatorial administration created the Dispensary system, giving the state the exclusive right to make and sell alcoholic beverages in South Carolina. The Dispensary produced “the most profound, insidious, and widespread agency of corruption” the state had ever seen. 18

His tenure as governor was marked by progressive reform on economic and agricultural issues. Clemson College (now University) was established to train young white men in modern agricultural techniques. Winthrop College (now University) was created to train young white women as teachers in the public schools. The state established agencies to regulate railroads and phosphate mining. 19

As U.S. Senator, he sponsored what became the Tillman Act of 1907, the first attempt by the federal government to limit corporate monetary contributions to national political campaigns. 20 He was adept at bringing federal money to the state for public improvements and was instrumental in creation of the enormous Charleston Navy Yard, which provided employment for generations of Charleston residents.

But modern historians maintain that Tillman’s reforms were more cosmetic than substantive and his administration was rife with corruption. Walter Edgar has written that Tillman “was guilty of accepting favors and gifts while governor. Local Reformer officials went on a stealing spree that rivaled the days of the (Reconstruction) Moses administration.” 21

As for agriculture reforms, Edgar wrote: “For the state’s farmers, support of whom was the reason the Reform movement had come into being, life was little better for all of Tillman’s promises. The size of farms continued to decline…Tillman’s promises had ‘proved like Dead Sea apples, but ashes in the mouths of the people’… 22

“Tenants, sharecroppers, and mill operatives may have supplied the votes for Reform victories, but those they elected to statewide office had backgrounds not much different from their Conservative opponents.” 23

Stephen Kantrowitz agrees with Edgar’s assessment: “As governor, Tillman made reforms that were more symbolic than substantive…He took popular but economically inconsequential stands against railroads and the state-chartered phosphate monopoly. He established a state liquor monopoly, the ‘Dispensary,’ which provided him with unprecedented patronage power.” 24

Even as Tillman’s statue was unveiled in 1940, his legacy was being recast by his votaries. In his speech that day in 1940, Byrnes handled his subject with evasion and euphemism.

The man who launched his public career on his Red Shirt activities and his war against the Reconstruction government was remembered not as a terrorist, but as a statesman and reformer. 25

“The farmer from Edgefield led a crusade whose goal was the freedom of South Carolina from what the farmers felt was virtually taxation without representation….” Byrnes declared. “With the meager weapons at their command, they were fighting a losing, hopeless battle against intolerable economic conditions. They concluded that their lot could not be improved without far-reaching changes in the state’s leadership.” 26

Byrnes went on to recount Tillman’s political campaigns, the founding of Clemson and Winthrop colleges, the calling of the constitutional convention of 1895. “A trained warrior on the battlefield never fought with greater skill than did Tillman in his many political battles,” Byrnes intoned. “He aroused among his followers an enthusiasm that knew no bounds…” 27

Nowhere in his hour-long elegy to the Edgefield farmer did Byrnes say anything about the blood and bullets, the riot and terror of the Red Shirt campaign. As for the constitutional convention which disenfranchised the African Americans majority and turned them into second class citizens, Byrnes was most delicate and euphemistic: “For twelve weeks the convention wrestled with difficult tasks under the unrelaxing vigilance of Senator Tillman, and the constitution which emanated from this gathering registered with almost uncanny accuracy the desires of the dominant element in South Carolina.” 28

In his recounting of the life and career of Ben Tillman, Byrnes makes absolutely no mention of African Americans, nor Tillman’s political and military campaigns against them, no mention of lynching or segregation. This is the traditional white version of history in South Carolina and throughout the South. Whites have been loath to describe in detail the history and the heroes that they claim to be so ennobling and heroic. The story of secession and the Civil War has been told for generations with no hint that black people were at the center of the conflict. Now Byrnes was able to tell the story of Benjamin Ryan Tillman without any mention of racial strife – or even of race.

Likewise, the inscriptions on Tillman’s monument give only the barest and most innocuous details of his life:

East side


North side

BORN AUGUST 11, 1847, DIED JULY 3, 1918

West side


South side


Today, Ben Tillman is revered by none except white supremacists. 30 The white supremacist group Stormfront calls Tillman one of “the greatest men South Carolina and indeed this nation has ever produced.” 31

In January 2008, state Rep. Todd Rutherford (D-Richland) offered a resolution to have the Tillman statue taken down. It failed to get out of committee in the Republican-dominated chamber. 32

Over the years, some have said that the solution to the Tillman dilemma is to place a plaque in front of the statue giving the darker side of the Ben Tillman story. I have two questions for these people: First, how big a plaque would it take to tell the story of Tillman the terrorist, Tillman the segregationist, Tillman the advocate of lynching and white supremacy? And second, when the public saw the truth spelled out on their Statehouse grounds, how many would wish to keep Tillman standing there?

The argument is often made that Tillman is part of South Carolina’s history and removing his statue would represent a rewriting of that history. But that history has already been rewritten as the words on Tilman’s statue and in Byrnes’ elegy clearly show. Neither mention Tillman’s war of terror against African Americans, nor his proudest achievement: removing African Americans from the voter rolls through the constitution of 1895. Those who defend the statue as part of South Carolina history are confusing remembrance with reverence. No one is arguing that Ben Tillman should not be remembered. Indeed, the things he did and said should never, ever be forgotten! But the Tillman statue belongs in a museum, along with other relics and oddities of the past. The Statehouse grounds are a place of honor and veneration. Ben Tillman is not fit to stand there. He should come down immediately.

Once Ben Tillman’s statue is removed, I propose that we do the same with his constitution. The state constitution of 1895 was drafted primarily to disenfranchise African Americans. With the black majority off the voter rolls, whites were able to deprive them  of education, economic opportunity and equal protection of the law through a system of racial apartheid loosely known as Jim Crow laws. Over more than a century, that constitution has been amended more than 300 times.33

Broad swaths of it, dealing with voting rights, education and other matters have been struck down by federal courts and federal civil rights legislation.

Other portions of this constitution have proven unwieldy and almost unworkable. The executive branch is fragmented into numerous agencies and departments, many with elected heads, who use them as personal fiefdoms and compete in the bureaucratic jungle for resources and publicity. These departments should be consolidated into the governor’s cabinet, with their chiefs appointed by the governor and accountable to the governor.

Over the years, the constitution has been criticized by scholars, studied by legislative committees, amended, patched and endlessly rewritten. Much of it is needless and redundant because it covers matters that should be covered – and sometimes are covered – by statute. Today it is a gerry-rigged Rube Goldberg contrivance, which has been cobbled together with such arcane institutions as the state Budget and Control Board and public service commissions in order to perform basic governmental functions. The constitution of 1895 was created to impose rural 19th century religious, marital and racial strictures across the state. Yet, with all the amending and rewriting, it has not kept pace with the attitudes and needs of a modern urban society.

Governors for more than 20 years have fought for radical overhaul of state government, including replacing the Budget and Control Board and consolidating executive authority in the Governor’s Office. But these measures would simply be more gears and pulleys, more bells and whistles on Mr. Goldberg’s old machine.

In January 2008, Governor Mark Sanford called for major government reform and dealt a blow to the legacy of Ben Tillman in his State of the State address:

“We can’t compete in today’s world with the government structure now in place. It leaks money and lacks accountability.

“The 1895 Constitution that set today’s governmental structure was built around the fear that a black man would be elected governor of South Carolina, and any structure built on this foundation is an insane model from which to run your government in the 21st century.

“I ask you allow the people of South Carolina the opportunity to vote to change it not for me because I’ll be gone from this office before any change could be instituted but for your neighbor, for your cousin, for your grandchildren.

“With the 1895 Constitution, Ben Tillman was very frank in his intentions: ‘We of the South,’ he said on the floor of the U.S. Senate, ‘ have never recognized the right of the negro to govern white men, and never will.’ Think about that quote for a moment. ‘We of the South have never recognized the right of the negro to govern white men, and never will.’

“Leaving aside for a moment the cost and inefficiency of the government model that went with this thinking, all of this is code for a larger operating paradigm that allows a small group of people to control or disproportionately influence the rest of us.

“This is the plantation model of ‘we know what’s best for y’all’ and the complete opposite of what (Thomas) Friedman argues in the vital urgency of freeing people and empowering individuals to imagine and act quickly on their imagination.

“I believe the Tillman model has held South Carolina back for more than a century, that it is wrong, and that our government should not be operating from this framework given the way it brings too little in accountability, too little in transparency and too much in cost.” 34

South Carolinians have a complicated relationship with a history they love, but clearly do not understand. This should be a moment for every South Carolinian to take a long look at our past, at figures like Ben Tillman, and ask ourselves who they were, what they stood for and if they really speak to who were are today. In the process we might discover who we are and how we got here. We cannot begin to know ourselves without knowing our past.

It’s time for a new day in South Carolina. We can hasten that day by doing away with the graven image of Ben Tillman on the Statehouse grounds and calling a convention to scrap and replace the constitution he gave us in 1895. Our state needs a constitution for the 21st century and an image we can present to the world with pride.


  1. News and Courier, May 2, 1940, 5.
  2. Kantrowitz, Stephen, Ben Tillman & the Reconstruction of White Supremacy, University of North Carolina Press, 2009, 36-39.
  3. ibid., 60-64.
  4. Tillman, B.R., The Struggles of 1876, p. 17.
  5. Kantrowitz, 64-69.
  6. Burton, Orville Vernon, In My Father’s House Many Mansions, University of North Carolina Press, 1985, 283.
  7. ibid., 290.
  8. Edgar, Walter, South Carolina – A History, University of South Carolina Press, 1998, p. 404.
  9. ibid., 405-406.
  10. Simkins, Francis Butler, Pitchfork Ben Tillman, Lousiana State University Press, 1944; reprint, 1964 by Peter Smith, Gloucester, 490.
  11. ibid., 76-8.
  12. ibid., 92-105.
  13. Edgar, Walter, editor, The South Carolina Encyclopedia, University of South Carolina Press, 2006, 217-218.
  14. Tillman, Struggles of 1876. p. 1..
  15. Kantrowitz, p. 259.
  16. Moore, John Hammond, Carnival of Blood, University of South Carolina Press, 2006, 68.
  17. Simkins, 397.
  18. Simkins, 226.
  19. Edgar, Encyclopedia, 961-962.
  20. fec.gov.
  21. Edgar, 450-45.
  22. ibid., 45.
  23. ibid., 451.
  24. Edgar, Encyclopedia, 961-962.
  25. The State, May 2, 1940, 2.
  26. ibid., 2.
  27. ibid., 2.
  28. ibid., 2.
  29. waymarking.com.
  30. www.unskkkk.com/board/showthread.php?t=12495 (now defunct) and www.amren.com/news/2011/06/leave_tillmans/.
  31. stormfront.org/forum/t455423/.
  32. H 4496 Joint Resolution, By Rutherford, Howard, Hart and Scott.
  33. Edgar, Encyclopedia, 217-218.
  34. Gov. Mark Sanford’s 2008 State of the State address. Post and Courier, Jan. 16, 2008

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