Hidden History

This One-Eyed, Insult-Spewing Senator Was the Donald Trump of the 1890s

How a fiery farmer known as “Pitchfork Ben” ravaged his own party, galvanizing angry voters with racist rhetoric — before it all came crashing down.

This One-Eyed, Insult-Spewing Senator Was the Donald Trump of the 1890s

On a warm morning in July 1896, on the third day of the Democratic National Convention, South Carolina Senator Benjamin Tillman stepped onto the stage of the Chicago Coliseum. After three years of recession, Democratic President Grover Cleveland had declined to run again, and the field was open to a new candidate. Tillman had made a name for himself by savaging Cleveland, calling him a “bag of beef” whom he promised to “prod in his old fat ribs,” and audiences loved him for his fiery candor. As he faced the seas of delegates in front of the stage many called up to him, “Tillman!” and “Pitchfork Ben!” All Pitchfork Ben had to do was carry it a little further, and he had a shot at the presidential nomination. A short, rumpled man in his late forties, he glared at the audience with his one good eye.

Tillman had lost the eye during the Civil War – not in battle, but after contracting a bacterial infection while swimming in a millpond near his parents’ home in South Carolina. Too young to fight in the war, it wasn’t until afterwards, during Reconstruction, that he found his cause. In a time when freed slaves were just beginning to exercise their rights to vote, serve in office and own property, Tillman was one of many in the south to take up arms in the name of white supremacy.

According to Stephen Kantrowitz in his book Ben Tillman and the Reconstruction of White Supremacy, Tillman joined the Sweetwater Saber Club in 1873 and participated in terrorizing members of local black militia organizations that had formed lawfully and been supported by the federal government. After a Fourth of July parade, Tillman and other Sweetwater club members, known as “Red Shirts” fired into the home of Ned Tennant. Over the next few days the incident nearly escalated to a full-on battle between white supremacists and local African Americans.

At a Red Shirt reunion in 1909, Tillman stated, “Altogether, in 1874 and 1876, I was a participant in four race riots. All of these were most potent influences in shaping the conflict between the whites and blacks and producing gratifying results which brought the white man again into control of his inheritance.” Much of this culminated with the election of 1876, when Tillman and his Red Shirts participated in mass intimidation of African American voters, along with rigging key elections throughout southern South Carolina, in order to keep blacks and pro-Reconstruction Republicans from retaining control of the state government, a trend that would coalesce into nearly a century of disenfranchisement.

“How did we recover our liberty?” he said years later, as a U.S. Senator. “By fraud and violence.”

Ten years before the 1896 Democratic convention, Benjamin Tillman stepped before the audience at the courthouse in Bennettsville, South Carolina, and launched his first attack on the nation’s government. The occasion was the ninth annual joint session of the State Grange and the State Agricultural and Mechanical Society, where for two days, farmers and politicians had come together to complain about high debt, high prices and a state education system that had failed to teach its farmers the latest techniques. Tillman was a nobody – a local farmer whose brother happened to be a state congressman – but when he took the stage he electrified the crowd, blaming “disreputable politicians” for South Carolina’s “descent into hell.” He demanded resolutions to promote agricultural education, and the crowd roared along with him.

“In appearance and manners,” writes historian Francis Butler Simkins, in his 1947 work Pitchfork Ben Tillman, South Carolina, “he differed from the sort of speakers to which South Carolina conventions were accustomed. Instead of the typical gentleman with long hair and pleasing face, here was a farmer whose appearance was a mixture of the plain and the uncouth and whose one eye flashed ominously.”

The speech made Tillman plenty of enemies among the state’s political class, but it also made him famous overnight. The Columbia Daily Register called it “the sensation of the meeting,” writing that “every sentence was responded to with prolonged applause.” His profound vitriol created an advantage. Simkins writes, “It made him a leader of the discontented; it convinced him and his friends that their wrongs could be redressed.” Tillman explained it in his much more succinct way, “I did not go to Bennettsville to pass resolutions but to explain to the farmers how they are duped and robbed.”

After Bennettsville, Tillman continued his campaign with letters to state newspapers warning that “the lawyers who controlled the state” had better come to a solution before “the storm, which is brewing, shakes the foundation of their beloved college and, perhaps, topples it to the ground.” He began speaking regularly around the state, and quickly learned that attacks against state institutions and officials, including members of his own party, only further engendered him to the average farmer. Mobs of his supporters appeared at his speeches and at those of his opponents, and violence became common, according to Kantrowitz. He created a massive surge of anger at the political establishment, and rode it all the way to the state capital in 1890, when he was sworn in as South Carolina’s 84th Governor.

At his inauguration, Tillman addressed the largest crowd ever assembled to witness the swearing in of a South Carolina governor, saying that his election was a victory for “democracy and white supremacy over mongrelism and anarchy, of civilization over barbarism.” Farm reform was the issue that made him famous, but it was not the one closest to his heart. More than anything else, Charles Tillman was a proud white supremacist.

Even for an era when racism was commonplace, Tillman held an exceptional hatred towards African Americans, whom he called, “a most miserable lot of human beings – the nearest to the missing link with the monkey – I have ever put my eyes on.” Thanks to the efforts of his Red Shirts, white control of South Carolina was unshakable, and Tillman intended to use it to his advantage.

At his inauguration, Tillman stood before the audience like a tousled emperor, dim-eyed from his empty left eye socket, and torched a quarter century of Southern lip service that leaned toward reconciliation with Northern policies.

“The whites have absolute control of the state government, and we intend at any and all hazards to retain it,” he said. “The intelligent exercise of the right of suffrage … is as yet beyond the capacity of the vast majority of colored men. We deny, without regard to color, that ‘all men are created equal’; it is not true now, and was not true when Jefferson wrote it.”

Two of his first acts as governor were to abolish local elections in favor of gubernatorial appointments, all but eliminating the chance for African-Americans to obtain state office, and publically admonished northerners from sending aid money to the relief of poor blacks in his state, insisting it would create “lazy, idle crowds [wanting to] draw rations.” Jim Crow had come to stay.

All these things made Senator Matthew C. Butler nervous. His seat in the U.S. Senate was set to expire in 1895, and after two terms as governor Tillman had begun to turn his political sights on the Senate. Butler had initially expected Tillman’s negative attacks to cause a backlash amongst voters stating, “A few rowdys can make a great rumpus and noise, but they do not represent the body of the people,” according to Kantrowitz, but when Tillman’s popularity continued to rise, Butler realized he was in for a fight.


Butler went on the offensive, playing Tillman’s own game by attacking the governor with Tillman-esque slander and hyperbole. Both Tillman and Butler had been involved with the disenfranchisement of African-American voters at the end of Reconstruction. The debates between governor and senator devolved into a rotten contest over who was the more ardent white supremacist. “Their struggle over the legacy of 1876,” writes Kantrowitz, “was in part over who could more legitimately claim to have murdered” black Americans.

As he fought for the Senate seat, Tillman arranged for a referendum calling for a new state constitution designed to restrict the voting rights of African-Americans by using literacy, property and residency as a qualification to vote. The referendum was a hard pill to swallow, even in the post-Reconstruction South, and according to Kantrowitz, Tillman and his supporters had to engineer the election by stuffing ballots. Butler and other conservative Democrats cried foul, but the damage was done. The referendum passed, and Tillman won Butler’s Senate seat in a landslide.

In 1893, while Tillman was still governor, the nation collapsed into a depression. Although the causes of the Panic of 1893 were as varied as railway over-speculation and a Midwestern drought, Tillman’s Democrats blamed one culprit above all else: gold. In a country where gold had become scarce, the dollar was still tied to a gold standard, and the Democrats believed this drove up prices and destroyed ordinary, hard-working farmers. They called for backing the dollar with silver as well as gold, believing that “bimetallism” would put more money into circulation, drive down the value of the dollar, and put more cash in the hands of farmers and other low-wage workers. In this issue, which pitted Middle America’s farmers against the Eastern elite, Tillman would find the purest expression for his agrarian rage.

“We will join the West,” he wrote to Nebraska Democrat William Jennings Bryan, “in the fight for the emancipation of the masses from the slavery of gold.”

In the coming presidential election, Tillman predicted a shift in the country’s political map according to the question of bimetallism, and he believed he might be at its forefront.

“It is another Farmers Movement on the national scale,” he explained to John L.M. Irby, a fellow U.S. Senator from South Carolina. In his first speeches to Congress, Tillman introduced himself as “the only farmer in this august body,” saying that while the nation’s captains of industry had dismissed bimetallism, it had not yet been tested “on the pitchfork of the farmer.” He attacked the policies of President Cleveland, whom he called “a besotted tyrant” and “the most gigantic failure of any man who ever occupied the White House,” according to Kantrowitz and Simkins. His brutal attacks on the bankers, politicians and other officials made him a beloved figure by many Americans. He began hearing cries to run for President.


But he had a problem. Unlike the general attitudes of silver supporters across the country, Tillman believed the issue of bimetallism was a sectional concern that only affected the South and western parts of the nation instead of the nation as a whole. As far as he was concerned, the South was more important than the rest of the country put together. He would quickly learn how incorrect that stance was as he stepped onto the stage at the 1896 Democratic National Convention.

Before the convention, Bryan asked Tillman if he wanted to open the July 9 speaking program, or close it. Tillman wanted to close, but his speech was set to go for fifty long minutes, and Bryan didn’t think New York Senator David B. Hill, the pro-gold opposition leader, would agree to such a long closing speech. So Tillman agreed to go first, and Bryan would close with a much shorter speech. From his opening line, Tillman found that the white supremacist rage that had carried him to the South Carolina statehouse did not play so well in front of the national crowd.

“I come to you from the South,” he said. “From the home of secession…”

At that word, he was drowned out by boos and hisses, according to the official minutes of the convention. Although South Carolina remembered secession fondly, in the rest of the country it was still a dirty word. Tillman doubled down, praising the Confederacy as the true heir to the revolutionary spirit of 1776.

“South Carolina in 1860 led the fight in the Democratic Party which resulted in its disruption,” he said. “The disruption of that party brought about [the Civil War]. The war emancipated the black slaves. We are here now heading a fight to emancipate the white slaves.”

The speech pitted Southern Democrats against the rest of the nation. Tillman stood on the platform, his moon face marked with the missing eye, his fair eye beady and hot with old-school secessionist fervor, facing down delegates who leered back at him as his speech dove into ugly allusions toward inter-party revolutions and violent overthrows. He was ugly, brutal and boorish, and the crowd hated him, interrupting numerous times to call for Senator Hill to step in and stop him. Tillman pressed on for the full fifty minutes, but nobody cared anymore.

The dam had burst. Tillman was doomed. Whatever chances Benjamin Tillman had at the presidential nomination died in those fifty minutes. Bryan would close the debates that evening with his legendary “Cross of Gold” speech, which preached unity instead of division, and is remembered as one of the greatest moments in the history of American political conventions. When it finally came time to vote on a nominee, Bryan pulled 930 delegate votes to win the nomination. Tillman managed seventeen, all from South Carolina. It was as close to the pinnacle of American power as he ever came.

He served in the Senate until his death in 1918, where he fought bitterly to extend and protect the legacy of Jim Crow. His enduring legacies were the 1895 state constitution, whose restrictions on voting rights survived far into the twentieth century, and the statue that shows him, one eye staring ahead defiantly, and which still stands on the grounds of the South Carolina statehouse.