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South Carolina

SC Governors – Benjamin Ryan Tillman, 1890-1894

South Carolina SC History SC Governors Governor Benjamin Ryan Tillman

Also see: SC Government

"Pitchfork" Ben Tillman

Ben Tillman was an unabashed and self-proclaimed "white supremacist" who led South Carolina's notorious Red Shirts, a paramilitary gang that murdered black people on small and large scales. Before his election, he participated in the Hamburg Massacre, using his role in the riot to vault his political career. About the massacre, in which six innocent African-Americans were killed, he stated, "The leading white men of Edgefield [decided] to seize the first opportunity that the Negroes might offer them to provoke a riot and teach the Negroes a lesson." Tillman further described the massacre as an opportunity for "the whites [to] demonstrate their superiority by killing as many of them as was justifiable."

Interestingly, while Tillman claimed to champion the rights of small farmers, he did very little to help them once he attained office. He did establish Clemson University for the study of agriculture, but other than that, he largely abandoned those who had voted for him.

Tillman is immortalized by a larger-than-life bronze and granite memorial at South Carolina's Statehouse, and both Tillman Hall at Clemson and Tillman Hall at Winthrop continue to bear his name.

Biographical Overview

  • Born: August 11, 1847 in Edgefield County near Trenton, SC
  • Died: July 3, 1918 in Washington, DC
  • Buried: Trenton, SC in Ebenezer Cemetery
  • Religion:
  • Political Party: Democrat
Portrait of Benjamin Ryan Tillman
Benjamin Ryan Tillman
Courtesy of Men of Mark in South Carolina


  • Left school at 17 to enlist in the Confederate States Army


  • Farmer

Major Events and Accomplishments, 1st Term, 1890–1892

  • 1890 – Governor Tillman never held a government office prior to being elected governor
  • 1890 – The 1890 census revealed that the state's population was 59.9% black and 40.1% white
  • December 11, 1890 – Governor Tillman's supporters replaced Wade Hampton with John L. M. Irby in the US Senate
  • February 18, 1891 – The first issue of the anti-Tillman newspaper The State was published under the editorial control of N. G. Gonzales

Major Events and Accomplishments, 2nd Term, 1892–1894

  • December 24, 1892 – The General Assembly established the Dispensary system of selling liquor, giving the state government a liquor monopoly that lasted until 1907
  • 1893 – Clemson Agricultural and Mechanical College (now Clemson University) admitted its first students
  • 1893 – The last of the justices appointed during Governor Wade Hampton's administration were replaced with appointees of the Tillman administration
  • 1894 – Governor Tillman was the keynote speaker at the laying of the cornerstone for the Winthrop Normal and Industrial School of South Carolina (now Winthrop University)
  • March 30, 1894 – Citizens in Darlington rioted after liquor Dispensary constables fired a shot into a crowd, killing a bystander
  • March-April 1894 – Governor Tillman called up the militia to restore order following the unrest over the Dispensary system, but militia companies from Charleston, Columbia, Manning, and Sumter refused to answer the governor's call to duty

Other Government Positions

  • US Senate, 1895-1918

Other Accomplishments, Honors, Distinctions

  • Tillman became seriously ill after leaving school to join the Confederate States Army, resulting in the loss of his left eye - 1864
  • Tillman participated in the Hamburg Massacre, in which six black men were murdered without cause - 1876
  • Tillman was censured while serving in the US Senate for assaulting fellow Senator from South Carolina John L. McLaurin in the US Senate chamber - 1902
  • During World War I Tillman served as Chairman of the US Senate Committee on Naval Affairs
  • Tillman was also known as "Pitchfork Ben," either for his (theoretical) defense of farmers' interests or because he wanted to "stick" a pitchfork "into President Grover Cleveland"
  • The South Carolina General Assembly erected a monument to Governor Tillman - 1940
  • Clemson University's Benjamin Ryan Tillman Society was named for Governor Tillman
  • Tillman Hall at Clemson University was named for Governor Tillman
  • Tillman Hall at Winthrop University was named for Governor Tillman

Web Resources

Election Results

General Election – 1st term - November 4, 1890
Benjamin R. Tillman 59,159 votes 80%
A.C. Haskell 14,828 votes 20%

General Election – 2nd term - November 8, 1892
Governor Tillman was reelected without opposition, receiving 56,673 votes.


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