Coming to terms with Tillman & post-War Southern populism

Benjamin “Pitchfork” Tillman (1847-1918) is a frequent and easy target for critics of Southern politics and culture. The sometimes coarse, one-eyed populist was a hero to many impoverished small farmers in South Carolina. But the governor and US senator was also a symbol of the sometimes violent and crude leaders who governed the South following the demise of the planters. Unlike the traditional Southern elite these populists depended upon White democracy (“the despotism of numbers,” as described by Robert Barnwell Rhett, the Father of Southern Nationalism) and frequently exhibited a spirit of racial hatred not found among the Antebellum South’s ruling class. Tillman and those like him came to power in a devestated South which was no longer wealthy or influential – and one in which they had to battle (politically and physically at times) the former slaves for control. Perhaps unsurprisingly, they often lacked the humane and patriarchal character of the old guard.

Francis Butler Simpkins, professor of history at Emory University, notes in the introduction and opening pages of his book The Tillman Movement in South Carolina (Duke University Press, 1926):

In order to understand the Tillman Movement in South Carolina it is necessary at the outset to take into account those economic and social changes which made such reforms in the political life of the state as Tillman championed possible and perhaps inevitable. … [I]t is necessary, first, to show to what degree the social system of ante-bellum South Carolina was destroyed by forces unlocked by the Civil War and how these new forces made possible the rise to economic and social importance of a class of the white population with little previous influence.

Simpkins notes that “The political control of South Carolina before 1865 was in the hands of an aristocracy of planters to the exclusion of the black and white masses.” As described in my book Our Southern Nation: Its Origin and Future (American Anglican Press, 2015), this class tended to be well-educated, humane, patriarchal and sophisticated in the art of political science. It was the same planter class which ruled the greater plantation civilization of the New World, known to many nineteenth century Southerners as the “Golden Circle.”

Simpkins goes on to write:

The Civil War, to a large degree, destroyed the physical basis of society as it had existed in South Carolina prior to that event. Stores were closed; roads were out of repair. Charleston was a ‘city of ruins, of desolation, of vacant houses, of widowed women, of deserted warehouses and of Wharfes were overgrown with rank weeds.’ Columbia, where much treasure had been stored, was a wilderness of ruins. Ashley Hall, Middleton Place, Porcher House, and the homes of William Gilmore Sims and Wade Hampton were in ashes. Slaves and Confederate bonds had become worthless, and land had fallen to one-third of its former value.

…The break-up of the old social organization and the subsequent failure of the Negro [during Reconstruction] to gain a position of social importance commensurate with his numbers were accompanied by the emergence into importance of a new class of white people, who outdid the ante-bellum aristocracy in the race for leadership of the state.

Simpkins points out that small farmers and planters were united under the leadership of former planter and Confederate general Wade Hampton in the Revolution of 1876 which restored White Southern rule to the State. As long as the “Saviour of South Carolina” lived he was able to hold back the growing populist movement through the power of his own prestige. White unity within the Democratic Party ensured Southern governance, but it was a racial-political unity with two very different poles – supported by competing social classes.

The externally-imposed poverty and social chaos of the late 1800s established the unfortunate conditions under which the post-War South suffered. These were the conditions which deposed our traditional patriarchal order and brought coarse populists to power. The rise of such a class of White democrats (with a little ‘d’) was far more to be desired than the genocide which was inflicted upon the French colonists of Saint-Domingue or the utter devestation inflicted upon Whites in other post-plantation societies of the Caribbean. However, the abuses of the day and sometimes poor policies put into place must be understood as consequences of US invasion, occupation and egalitarian revolution. Without Abraham Lincoln’s imperialistic war upon the South it is highly unlikely that there would have been a Tillman Movement in the Palmetto State.

Tillman statue

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