Bad Congress, Part 1: Ben Tillman
The Paladin of White Supremacy
I’m Paul Musgrave, a political scientist and writer. This is Systematic Hatreds, my newsletter about my thoughts regarding politics and the study of politics. The newsletter takes its title from a line in The Education of Henry Adams:
Politics, as a practice, whatever its professions, had always been the systematic organization of hatreds.
This week, we’re talking about the first in our survey of bad members of Congress: “Pitchfork” Ben Tillman (1847-1918), Senator from South Carolina (1895-1918).
Bad Congress, Part 1: Ben Tillman
For a while now, it’s been my goal to survey some of the baddest, evilest, all-around-worst members of the U.S. Congress. In more than two centuries, more than 12,000 people have served as senators or representatives (or both)—and some of them have been traitors, malefactors, or epic assholes. Bad Congress will introduce you to America’s rogues gallery, helping to put a face on the flaws and failures of the first branch.
Let’s start with someone who may be in the top (or bottom) five: “Pitchfork” Benjamin Tillman.
The basics, from the Biographical Directory of the United States Congress:
TILLMAN, BENJAMIN RYAN, (brother of George Dionysius Tillman), a Senator from South Carolina; born near Trenton, Edgefield County, S.C., August 11, 1847; pursued an academic course; left school in 1864 to join the Confederate Army, but was stricken with a severe illness; engaged in agricultural pursuits; Governor of South Carolina 1890-1894; established Clemson College and Winthrop College while Governor; member of the State constitutional convention in 1895; elected as a Democrat to the United States Senate in 1894; reelected in 1901, 1907 and 1913 and served from March 4, 1895, until his death; censured by the Senate in 1902 after assaulting another Senator on the Senate floor; chairman, Committee on Revolutionary Claims (Fifty-seventh through Fifty-ninth Congresses), Committee on Five Civilized Tribes of Indians (Sixty-first and Sixty-second Congresses), Committee on Naval Affairs (Sixty-third through Sixty-fifth Congresses); Tillman was known as "Pitchfork Ben" during his years in the Senate; died in Washington, D.C., July 3, 1918; interment in Ebenezer Cemetery, Trenton, S.C.
Why he’s a member of the Bad Congress: Tillman did as much as anyone to create an explicit project white supremacy as a political project as anyone in the post-Civil War United States.
There’s a noble myth you can tell—and which was told, for generations, sometimes in an academic guise as the Dunning School and sometimes just as the legend—about how white Southern elites undermined Reconstruction in the South. Let me be clear: it’s a myth, it’s a hoax, it’s a falsehood—but you can tell it, and it was told. In the myth, Reconstruction was forced on a defeated South by a gang of corrupt Northern politicians who allied with African-Americans who weren’t yet ready to wield political power. The result: an assault on everything that made a chastened South unique in the service of naked political intriguing and spoils-taking. The myth would end with a “redemption” of the South: now loyal to the Union but once again controlled by its rightful White elite caste.
To most readers of Systematic Hatreds, this probably rings false. Of course, it is. (In an earlier newsletter, we talked about how explicit violence—and even a coup in Wilmington, North Carolina—formed part of that project.) But one traditional way of making this generation-long project to undo Reconstruction and install Jim Crow a little more appealing, at least to white audiences, was to emphasize the cross-class dynamics of apartheid. Sometimes, as you can imagine, this looked a little populist, even redistributive, in the best way that crooked apartheid can. Especially from today’s vantage point, in a world with Nazis and nuclear weapons, and a region that once enslaved humans by the millions, Boss Hogg isn’t the worst thing around.
That was part of how Pitchfork Ben Tillman wanted to be known. He portrayed himself as thwarting the elites of his native South Carolina and especially of the North (the eponymous “pitchfork” was to be stuck in the side of President Grover Cleveland). He headed off a growing demand for prohibition by establishing state control of liquor, establishing a total monopoly over beer, brand, and liquor that both tamped down sales of alcohol and also provided a market for the state’s farmers. He oversaw the creation of Clemson College for white men and Winthrop College for white women. With a base among farmers, he even favored agricultural research. (Despite the rural nom de guerre, he was himself a scion of a wealthy family—local slaveholding gentry.)
Those were the sorts of stories that got told by white histories for the better part of a century. The larger stories, though, were effaced or euphemized—stories like how Tillman, then governor, allowed a Black man accused of rape to be lynched. (Tillman also pledged that he would lead a lynch mob if a Black man were accused of raping a white woman.) He also bragged of his role in the 1876 Hamburg Massacre, in which Tillman and his Red Shirts violently suppressed Black voters as part of the electoral fraud that led to the end of Reconstruction governance in South Carolina. He also worked to jettison the state’s 1868 constitution and replace it with a new one disenfranchising Blacks, cementing the hold of his faction and race on state power at one go. (The 1895 constitution remains South Carolina’s fundamental law today.)
In all, he forged a coalition that allowed him to break Reconstruction and eventually impose full legal segregation through fraud, violence, and just enough legal support—and then he went national.
Tillman took his fight for whiteness to Washington as a U.S. senator. As senator, Tillman protected apartheid policies and even extended them. Part of that included one of the most disgraceful episodes in twentieth-century federal civil rights policy: the re-segregation of the federal work force, with federal job applications suddenly requiring photographs and Black federal employees forced out of their jobs or to work behind screens. Tillman personally helped force a Black Civil War hero from a customs post in Charleston.
He fought hard to justify segregation. A sympathetic overview of his career in the Journal of Southern History quotes him as saying in the Senate “We took the government away. We stuffed ballot boxes. We shot them [the Negroes]. We are not ashamed of it.” Read in their fullness, Tillman’s speeches in the Senate reflect a litany of anti-Black talking points all directed at the ardent denial of not only the desirability but the possibility of equality in any sphere—for him, even education of the sort practiced by Booker T. Washington was a pathetic waste.
(One peculiarity of Tillman’s racial views was that he condemned imperialism, such as the 1898 war and the subsequent annexation of the Philippines, on racist grounds. In an 1899 speech, he condemned Kipling’s praise of American imperialism, the poem “The White Man’s Burden”: “How many more victims are we to offer up on this altar of Mammon or national greed?” The war, he thought, was “dishonorable” and without justification, carried out only on behalf of “the growth of commerce”. But it was all because he viewed the Filipinos, too, as a degraded race and feared mixing with them.)
Tillman died in 1918. A God who loved America would have had him perish sooner.