Ben Tillman and the Reconstruction of White Supremacy
By STEPHEN KANTROWITZ
The University of North Carolina Press
Benjamin RYAN TILLMAN came of age in 1876, Stephen Kantrowitz writes in this thoughtful biography. As the commander of Edgefield County's Sweetwater Sabre Club, a paramilitary unit dedicated to terrorizing Republican officeholders and restoring white rule in South Carolina, the 29-year-old Tillman, with his red-shirted troopers, participated in the Hamburg Riot on July 8, an occasion marked by the coldblooded murder of a number of black militiamen who had had the effrontery to conduct a celebratory parade through the mostly black town of Hamburg, S.C., four days earlier on the Fourth of July. As Tillman himself would later put it, ''The leading white men of Edgefield'' had decided ''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.'' None of the perpetrators of the Hamburg murders were ever brought to justice.
Tillman's role in the Hamburg Riot established him as a leader of men in that time and that place. His involvement, about which he boasted constantly in future years, was the cornerstone upon which he would build a remarkable political career, first as governor of South Carolina and then, for 24 years, as a United States senator.
How could these execution-style murders of 1876 serve as the springboard for such extraordinary political advancement -- and a legacy of racism that would keep Tillman's name alive as Pitchfork Ben well into the 20th century? The explanation lies, Kantrowitz believes, in the determination of white men in the post-Civil War South to reclaim what they had lost through emancipation and the experience of Reconstruction: their sense of independent, unfettered manhood. ''Tillman sought to transform the slogan 'white supremacy' into a description of social reality, reconstructing white male authority in every sphere from the individual household to national politics,'' Kantrowitz, who teaches American history at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, writes. Tillman's constituents responded to his leadership because they too believed that the end of slavery and the enfranchising of blacks had set loose a threat to white society that had to be checked by whatever means necessary. It took a man like Tillman -- an ideologue, an organizer and a terrorist'' -- to give voice to their fears and to translate their determination into physical and political action.
Tillman proved to be a master at pillorying his well-bred political opponents -- white Negroes,'' he called them, or effete urban ''dudes'' produced by aristocratic institutions of higher learning like the Citadel or the University of South Carolina. When it came to reforms that might actually help to relieve the farmer's economic plight, however, Tillman offered precious little: an agricultural college for white men (Clemson), a new school for white women (Winthrop College) and a state-run dispensary system to regulate liquor sales. Almost everything else he proposed had a single goal: the suppression of the state's black population to a position of permanent inferiority.
In 1892, a group of Tillman's supporters in Abbeville, S.C., prepared a banner anointing the governor the ''Champion of White Men's Rule and Woman's Virtue.'' Earlier that year, Tillman had coupled a statement opposing lynching with a declaration that he would ''willingly lead a mob in lynching a Negro who had committed an assault upon a white woman.'' His ''lynching pledge,'' as this promise became known, was never personally carried out, but it reveals a great deal about Tillman's rhetorical and political strategy. The black man, in Tillman's words, ''must remain subordinate or be exterminated.'' An epidemic of mob killings broke out in South Carolina in the 1890's, and in the upcountry counties of Abbeville, Edgefield, Laurens and Newberry, lynchings outnumbered legal executions during that decade.
Ben Tillman shaking hands with Woodrow Wilson
When Tillman went to Washington, his message went with him. Now known as Pitchfork Ben -- in 1892 he had threatened to stick a pitchfork in that ''bag of beef'' Grover Cleveland -- Tillman became the ''resident wild man'' of the Senate. His record was a model of negative consistency. He opposed woman suffrage (the vote would ''rub the bloom off of the peach,'' he said). He opposed American overseas expansion (building an empire comprising nonwhite peoples he looked upon as a form of insanity). And he opposed any exercise of federal authority that would allow the national government to intrude in a state's ''domestic affairs.'' This ensured his opposition to any measure that might actually provide some economic relief for the farmers back home.
Tillman also became a star on the national lecture circuit. His lecture on ''the race problem'' was by far the most popular, aiming to preach ''the gospel of white supremacy straight from the shoulder,'' and preach he did, year after year, from one end of the country to the other. He offered up a witches' brew of bare-knuckled, no-holds-barred racism and earned a handsome annual income from these performances.
When the 70-year-old Tillman died in 1918, he left behind a political legacy almost totally devoid of positive achievement. But, Kantrowitz reminds us, he left a powerful and tenacious legacy of another sort. In South Carolina, Tillman and his political allies ''fatally undermined the possibility of the development of a race-neutral language of manhood and citizenship.'' The consequences of this perversion of democratic doctrine would burden the South deep into the 20th century.
''Tillman's true legacy lives on wherever Americans continue to shore up the battered foundations of white supremacy,'' Kantrowitz notes at the end of this thoroughly researched, brilliantly argued book. ''It lives on wherever dissent is met with violence, wherever white men are the only first-class citizens, wherever 'populism' is reduced to what one contemporary called Tillman's 'gospel of discontent.' ''
''Ben Tillman and the Reconstruction of White Supremacy'' is a rich and insightful dissection of the rise of American racism in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Kantrowitz has given us the best study we have of Benjamin Tillman, but he has also given us a way to understand how racism took hold in the post-Civil War South and gradually spread its tentacles to the rest of the country. ''White supremacy was hard work,'' he observes, and no one worked harder at it than Pitchfork Ben Tillman. (source: The New York Times)
Charles B. Dew teaches Southern history at Williams College and has recently completed a study of the Southern secession commissioners and the causes of the Civil War.