Tillman, Benjamin

Tillman, (Benjamin Ryan) “Pitchfork Ben”

(1847–1918) farmer, governor, U.S. senator; born in Ropers, S.C. Himself a farmer, he led a Farmers Association that promoted reforms in agricultural and industrial education. Once elected governor of South Carolina (Dem., 1890–94), he took over South Carolina politics and government. Although a populist-progressive in some matters—taxation, education—he also framed an article in a new state constitution that practically denied African-Americans the right to vote. Campaigning for the U.S. Senate in 1894, he shouted, "Send me to Washington and I'll stick my pitchfork into [President Cleveland's] old ribs!" and gained the inimitable nickname by which he would thereafter be known. In the Senate (Dem., S.C.; 1895–1918), he became an even more outrageous figure, opposing liberal Republicans such as President Theodore Roosevelt, yet advocating increased naval spending and the Hepburn Rate Bill. All the while he resisted extending any civil rights to African-Americans—even justifying lynching and calling for repeal of the 15th amendment. Meanwhile, he continued to control affairs in South Carolina (getting his nephew acquitted in 1903 of assassination of a political foe). After 1902 he became more irascible and quarrelsome than ever but a paralytic stroke in 1909 limited his ability to harangue people; he stayed in the Senate, however, to the end.
The Cambridge Dictionary of American Biography, by John S. Bowman. Copyright © Cambridge University Press 1995. Reproduced with permission.
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