Benjamin Ryan Tillman

Benjamin Ryan Tillman Biography

U.S. Representative, Governor (1847–1918)
Benjamin Tillman was a South Carolina governor and senator who championed populist policies and promoted racial discrimination and violence.


Benjamin Tillman was born on August 11, 1847, near Trenton, South Carolina. Tillman rose to power as a representative of poor white residents of the state. He was elected governor of South Carolina in 1890 and began instituting populist reforms, including Jim Crow laws. He was elected to the United States Senate in 1894, serving until his death. Tillman died on July 3, 1918, in Washington, D.C.

Early Life

Benjamin Ryan Tillman Jr. was born near Trenton, South Carolina, on August 11, 1847. Though Tillman showed academic potential, he was forced to leave school at the age of 16 in order to join the Confederate Army. He was stricken with a bacterial infection in his left eye before he could enlist. The eye was subsequently removed.

Tillman did not allow his disability to prevent his participation in the political battles of the day. He joined a paramilitary effort to overthrow Republican rule in South Carolina, taking part in the "Hamburg Massacre" of 1876, in which armed citizens overwhelmed the federal militia. Tillman's leadership in this event established him as a leading white supremacist and launched his political career.

Political Career

Benjamin Tillman used his newfound political clout to help defeat the Republican government and establish white supremacist laws in South Carolina. These laws resulted in the suppression of the African-American vote. White voters divided along economic class lines, with Tillman emerging as a spokesman for poor white farmers.

Along with Jim Crow laws, Tillman advocated for the education and empowerment of poor whites.

Governor of South Carolina

Tillman was elected governor of South Carolina in 1890, serving for a single term. During this time, he established an agricultural school that would become Clemson College, as well as Winthrop College.

Tillman also tirelessly promoted a culture of race-based discrimination and violence. Tillman's supporters dubbed him the "Champion of White Men's Rule and Woman's Virtue" for his support of lynching as a punishment for alleged sexual misconduct by African Americans. The decade of the 1890s saw a spike in mob violence, particularly lynching, that was tolerated and even encouraged by Tillman and his allies.

U.S. Senate

Having served a full term as governor, Tillman was elected to the United States Senate in 1894. He held the office until his death in 1918. In Washington, Tillman developed a reputation as a hot-tempered presence. He threatened to stab President Cleveland with a pitchfork, earning the nickname "Pitchfork Ben," and received a formal censure for assaulting another senator. Tillman was barred from entering the White House and inspired a number of new guidelines for decorum on the Senate floor.

Tillman died on July 3, 1918, in Washington, D.C. A statue of the former governor was erected outside the South Carolina State House in 1940.

Fact Check

We strive for accuracy and fairness. If you see something that doesn't look right, contact us!