Benjamin Tillman

Ben Tillman (1847-1918), an up-and-coming Democrat in 1896, had been elected to the U.S. Senate from South Carolina in 1894. He had previously served as governor of South Carolina from 1890-1894, a term in which he won a reputation as one of the early Southern demagogues. His policies as governor, however, were conservative but not out of the mainstream for Southern Democrats: he worked hard to curb lynching in his state, while at the same time advocating segregation and disfranchisement.

Tillman kicked off the 1896 presidential campaign with a rousing speech in the Senate in which he attacked Grover Cleveland, the sitting president and titular head of his own Democratic party. Like many other Democrats, especially those from the South and West, Tillman was upset at Cleveland's Gold Democratic leanings and demanded stronger measures to cope with the economic depression that had begun in 1893, and affected cotton areas of the South even earlier. This speech (see right) gave Tillman a nickname that endured for the rest of his life: during it, Tillman made several references to pitchforks and threatened to go to the White House and "poke old Grover with a pitchfork" to prod him into action. Afterward, the Senator was known as "Pitckfork Ben".

Tillman's rhetoric was often more inflammatory than his actual policy positions. "I have three daughters," he once told Congress, "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." Such speeches on the alleged threat of black rapists--characteristic of populist Southern Democrats in the early 1900s--bespoke as many fears about women's increasing independence as about "social equality" between blacks and whites.

A farmer himself, Tillman spoke for agricultural interests as he saw them, directing particular hostility toward Wall Street, industrial interests, and the Northeast. As such, he had much in common with the Populists and was often accused by his critics of fomenting sectional conflict. Tillman considered South Carolina's state agricultural college, founded during his governorship, one of his key achievements. As a Senator, he defended the interests of the South as he saw them, often in vehement terms. He was censured in 1902 for physically attacking a colleague on the floor of the Senate.

Tillman was so vehemently in favor of looser monetary policy that many Americans associated him with Populism in 1896. Though clearly a populist in the broad sense--appealing to the common man in his speeches--Tillman remained a silver Democrat and never endorsed the Populist platform. In Republican cartoons, though, he often appears in league with Populist leaders.

Tillman died in Washington in 1918--still in his seat as a U.S. Senator, finishing his fifth term.

Cartoons on this site concerning Ben Tillman

February 27, People's Advocate
March 19, People's Advocate
July 12, Los Angeles Times
July 25, Judge
October 10, Harper's Weekly

Ben Tillman's Fiery Tongue

His Great Speech Arraigning the Administration of Grover Cleveland.
Portentious Words from the Brave South Carolinian.
A Speech That Will Live in the History of the Country
Like Those of Lincoln, Clay and Webster.

excerpts from a front-page report in the People's Advocate, Columbiana, Alabama, 27 February, 1896

When Senator Ben Tillman, of South Carolina, got the floor in the senate to speak on the free coinage substitute, he spoke to a packed floor and galleries and received the undivided attention of his hearers.

The senator said that he would use plain Anglo-Saxon, the language of the common people, for he was one of them. He spoke bitterly of the essay-reading indulged in by senators, charging that that body was not the deliberative body that it was intended it should be by the fathers who framed the constitution....

'So far as I know, I am the only farmer pure and simple in this august body. Yet out of the 70,000,000 people in this country, 35,000,000 are engaged in agricultural pursuits alone. If, then, one farmer has broken down the barriers and forced his way here, upon his head rests the responsibility of giving utterance to the feelings, the aspiration of his fellows and of giving utterance to the sense of wrong they have. Therefore, Mr. President, I feel constrained to-day to raise my voice to speak, and before I get through you will realize the fact that I speak plainly and bluntly....

'The senator from Ohio (Mr. Sherman) said the other day that the question of the free coinage of silver is old straw, that it has been thrashed and thrashed and thrashed; that there is nothing new in it. It has been thrashed, sir, by lawyers; it has been thrashed by railroad magnates; it has been thrashed by the president of this corporation and the attorney of that corporation. It has not yet been handled on the pitchfork of the farmer. I am here to see if I cannot get a few grains more of truth in the straw.... They use pitchforks to handle manure, and perhaps I shall find some of that in my pathway before I get through.'

... Speaking of Cleveland and Sherman, he said, 'In what respect to they differ? ... The people by their votes (in 1892) demanded a change from the republican policy. A democratic president gave them a change for the worse by encouraging his moneyed friends who controlled the newspapers and thus directed the current of public opinion to hurry up their operations of robbery by means of the panic and to accelerate the downward progress of the country.

'I came up here as the governor of my state and stood out in the cold around here on North Capitol street for four hours, nearly frozen to death, to be present at the jollification and glorification upon the inauguration of a democratic president, with a democratic senate and a democratic house, and God forgive me for begin such a fool. (Laughter.) Thank God, I did all I could to keep him from being nominated.'

....The senator then asserted that Cleveland had not, during his term of office, held the hand of a simple, square, straight, honest toiler in the field. 'He knows nothing about farmers, and more's the pity, he cares nothing about them. They are burning our candle at both ends, robbing us on one hand with the tariff and robbing us on the other hand with the single gold standard. And they have asked us like beasts of burden, like dumb driven cattle, to bear these things and say nothing but to vote the party ticket.'

... In discussing the gold standard he said: 'Rothschild and his American agents graciously condescended to come to the help of the United States treasury in maintaining the gold standard which has wrought the ruin, and only charges a small commission of $10,000,000 or so on one little transaction. Great God, that this proud government, the richest, most powerful on the globe, should have been brought to so low a pass that a London Jew should have been appointed its receiver to have charge of the treasury.....

'The fair flower of liberty planted by Jefferson in the immortal declaration of the 4th of July, 1776, watered by the blood of our revolutionary sires under Washington, cannot be uprooted or smothered by the noxious weeds of monopoly and class privilege without bloodshed; and a cataclysm which will give us a military despotism or leave the republic redeemed, regenerated and disenthralled is just as sure to come as yonder sun shines in the heavens unless we do our duty here and take the hands of [communist] conspirators off the people's throats and give them an opportunity to breathe, to work, to live.'


© 2000, Rebecca Edwards, Vassar College