Skip to main content

The Plowboy From Edgefield

ISSUE:  Autumn 1932

The War Between the States did not entirely free the Negro; for in the South, as it destroyed the cage of chattel slavery, it opened wide the gates of the wage-labor system. It did, however, free a class of whites, who, between the land-holding gentry on the one hand and the Negroes on the other, had been well-nigh stifled. In South Carolina this class was composed of small farmers, living chiefly in the upland hills, isolated and scattered, but clinging fiercely to their independence, and ambitious to enjoy some of the advantages and comforts hitherto exclusively reserved to the slave-owning aristocracy.

To them the Civil War brought revolution, and as soon as the great estates began to break up and fall away from the soft and discouraged hands of the gentry, this new class, favored by the high price of cotton, gained possession of farms ranging between one hundred and two hundred acres, which, even if deserted by the freed Negroes, wandering gloriously around in a dream of support by the Federal Government and a sharing of offices with carpet-baggers, could still be profitably operated by white families who were willing to work with their hands.

The price of cotton and food-stuffs remained high for several years, and small farmers experienced, now that the incubus of slavery had been blown away by guns, a new energy and a new hope. They increased their acreage and began to look for recognition in a world of larger horizons. At first, however, they dared not assert themselves too conspicuously. The Negro was in politics and in office. Politicians proclaimed that to get him out, white cohesion was necessary. South Carolina farmers, therefore, temporarily suppressed their own ambitions and subordinated themselves to the town aristocracies, meanwhile clinging faithfully to the Democratic party, until, in 1876, the whites under General Wade Hampton, the former Confederate cavalry leader, defeated the “Radicals,” as the Republicans and carpet-baggers were called, and made it difficult for Negroes to hold political office and even to vote.

The meekness with which the Republicans yielded was astonishing. But their Northern supporters were already sick of carpet-baggers and their machinations among an artless black peasantry, and no attempt was made to withstand the rough-riding methods by which the Hamptonites returned to power.

These are the memories which have cemented South Carolina to the Democratic party and likewise have made it impossible for Republicans to gain aught but a fitful foothold in those other states of the Solid South that were once ruled by Reconstruction bayonets. One has to recapitulate these things, for already new generations have arisen which know not Joseph and which find inexplicable a South still standing solid in a universe which is otherwise shifting and dissolving like any cloud.


Once the Negro was driven almost wholly out of South Carolina politics and the upper-class white was restored to his comfortably upholstered position among the State offices, the small farmers of the hills awaited the blessings to emanate from the new Jerusalem.

But meantime a new situation had arisen. The effects of the national panic of 1873, following the usual post-war era of giddy expansion and currency inflation, made themselves felt, and a period of declining prices ensued which pressed hard on the independent farmers. Those who had borrowed a dollar worth fifty cents, with which to pay for their fertilizer, machinery, and increased acreage, found themselves obligated to pay back with a dollar worth eighty or ninety cents. An oppressive and wasteful cash-crop system had become installed, through which the town merchant, taking a lien on the crops still in the ground or as yet unplanted, advanced supplies in the spring “on time,” exacting prompt payment in the fall.

Such advances involved large risks, and merchants charged prices accordingly. Thus, a barrel of flour selling at eight dollars for cash might cost twelve dollars on time; a pound of bacon at twelve cents might cost eighteen cents on time; a gallon of molasses costing forty cents was perhaps charged at seventy-five cents, while a yeoman who had standing enough to obtain a bank loan of one thousand dollars might find that deductions, bonuses, interests, and fees made his loan cost him, in the end, nearly thirteen hundred. The farmer, in an effort to square his accounts, reduced his standard of living and that of his family to a minimum, entailing habits which have left a persistent mark on his status; for in recent times the National Bureau of Economic Research has estimated that the annual income of the South Carolina farm family averages only $487.00.

These conditions built up the towns at the expense of the country, and set up a new aristocracy composed of town merchants and small bankers, which added its political powers to that of the old aristocracy of planters and estate owners. This new aristocracy was regarded by the farmer with smoldering resentment—a resentment not lessened by the fact that some of his class had successfully penetrated it.

There was a demand that the State do something to bring relief; but the Hampton regime of course could have done nothing even had it tried. The tangle was an economic one, and it could not be resolved by a political instrument.

The Hampton administration, moreover, was not by nature fitted to grasp and deal with such a condition. It was composed of dignified gentlemen, courteous and affable, habituated to leisure, well read in the classics, and fitted for office by right of habit. Their minds were in essence purely eighteenth century, and, as far as they could, they set themselves to restore an eighteenth century atmosphere in South Carolina. It was an atmosphere invested with undeniable charm and grace. It contained horses and dogs, soft-footed servants and stately houses, broad acres and tree-lined avenues, scented gardens and the kindly talk of neighbors; and it was devoid of all haste, noise, and fever.

In the midst of this suavity and quietude, a voice, high-pitched and angry, was suddenly heard. It not only anathematized the status quo; it called names and shouted epithets. It said that the land in South Carolina was not being cultivated but “butchered.” It said the present inertia presaged a “descent into hell.” It said the State was in the hands of “drones and vagabonds, demagogues and lawyers in the pay of finance,” ruling “cowards and idiots.” It called the revered Democratic party “the old lady.” It denounced its leaders as “imbecile statesmen, oligarchs, and Bourbons.” It called Columbia and Charleston “greedy old cities.” It asked the farmers of the State if they were going to remain “dogs” taxed by “the worst of all taxes, ignorance.”

Men said this voice belonged to Ben Tillman. Little was known about him except that he was one-eyed and came from Edgefield County.


Edgefield is one of the upland or western group of South Carolina counties, rumpled by red hills and cut by numerous little valleys, among which flourish groves of hardwoods alternating with forests of sombre pines. With its position on the Georgia border, well removed from such centers as Columbia and Charleston, and having few and uninviting roads, Edgefield County for decades was satisfied with an isolated and hedged-in life. It made some pretensions to culture, however, for at an early date it had an academy and a little library in the village of Edgefield, and its whiskeydrinking, tail-coated lawyers sometimes read the Greek and Roman orators when they were not talking politics and defending homicides.

Settled by restless land-seekers, together with Scotch-Irish and a few Germans and Frenchmen, Edgefield County observed the frontier code of manners common to early American communities as yet unstabilized as to social strata. Men went armed; slaves did the work; and surplus energies went into hard drinking, disputes about politics, and shooting affrays.

Ben Tillman himself was the scion of a family eminent for its participation in violent episodes. His father, owner by inheritance from Virginia-born forebears of a large estate, and host to stage passengers at his home between Edgefield village and Augusta, Georgia, once stood trial for murder. Ben’s brother, John, was killed by two brothers named Mays; another brother, Oliver, was killed in a Florida quarrel; Ben’s favorite brother, George, once shot and wounded General John R. Wever, a fellow citizen of Edgefield County, and later fled the State after killing a man in a gambling dispute; while James H. Tillman, a nephew of Ben Tillman, in January, 1903, with a boldness that made even South Carolina gasp, publicly shot and killed N. G. Gonzales, the able if prejudiced editor of the Columbia State, as he walked along the street.

Ben Tillman, who was born August 11, 1847, on his father’s farm fifteen miles from Edgefield village, grew up abstemious and with apparently no taste for the quarreling and dissipation that characterized other members of his family. As the youngest son, Ben got the concentrated attention of his mother, and he repaid her with a devotion which was no doubt her compensation for the bitter grief her older and more turbulent sons had brought upon her. She was, according to Francis Butler Simkins, from whose studies of South Carolina’s political and social life many of the subjoined facts derive, a woman of powerful personality and will, managing, after her husband’s death, the Tillman estate, and steadily increasing the number of its acres and slaves.

The other strongest influence in Ben’s early life was his brother George. After wandering in Nicaragua, George came home to serve a sentence for manslaughter, but he was hampered in his subsequent practice as a lawyer by Governor Pickens’s refusal to pardon him fully unless he quit the State. George was a cynic, a man with a grievance, and a tremendous reader of books. Ben was led by his example to read the English classics, and steeped himself in Ben Jonson, Swift, Shakespeare, and that cornerstone of antebellum Southern culture—Sir Walter Scott. These studies, combined with the thorough schooling that his mother provided for him, gave Tillman a command of expression, both in writing and speaking, which in subsequent years astonished those of his enemies who had heard of him only as a plowboy from the cornfields of his native county.

Upon young Tillman’s devotion to books was blamed his most distinguishing physical defect—his empty left eye-socket. Excessive reading by poor light was believed to have induced an inflammation of the eyeball. It prostrated him for months with torturing pain; at length an abscess developed, and the eyeball had to be removed. He was then seventeen years old.

His prolonged illness left the lad with a weakened constitution, although it abated only temporarily the energy which he seemed able to draw upon at will. It was two years before he recovered; meantime the opportunity had gone by to carry out two intentions. One was to enter South Carolina College, later the University, of which most of the State’s leading men were graduates; the other was to serve in the Confederate army.

In the post-bellum period the sine qua non of successful candidature in South Carolina was service to the Confederacy. The mist of even a few years had obscured the mistakes and disillusions of the war; and for the humiliations of Reconstruction men sought compensation in a fierce tenderness for the memories of a lost cause. Although Ben was able to show that he had enlisted and had been accepted, the charge that he had used his illness to avoid donning a Confederate uniform never failed to excite in him a paroxysm of fury; and his enemies, beholding the exposed heel of Achilles, rarely omitted to rub it, goading Tillman to a shrill madness.

After the war Tillman married and moved to a four-hundred-acre farm given to him by his mother. For some dozen years he did well, for prices were rising, and he widened his holdings and added to his plows. In 1881 came the first crisis of his agricultural career: he was induced to buy a steam engine arid other machinery, his purchases leaving him heavily in debt. It is possible that the sale was made by some “city slicker,” thereby enhancing his rage against towns and all their inhabitants. At any rate, the burden well-nigh broke him down, for lean years of drought, crop failures, and unsteady prices ensued. He tried to recoup himself through further investments in land, but purchases from town merchants at ruinous prices prevented him from getting his nose above water, and he was soon selling off his extra acreage at whatever he could get. His fellow farmers were in the same plight. Years of hard work, of planning, of sacrifice, of straitened standards of living, had brought South Carolina farmers into a deeper bog of poverty than ever. Some drastic step was called for. What should it be?


Meantime Tillman had been doing his share in the suppression of the Negro vote and the restoration of Caucasian supremacy. Political historians have been content to pass over this period with the fewest possible words, but Tillman was ever candid about his part in it, not only admitting but boldly proclaiming that intimidation, manipulation, and violence were used in the white campaign to recapture the State government.

To offset the formation of colored militia companies then drilling throughout the State, the whites organized “sabre” and “rifle” clubs, and of one of these Tillman was made captain, thereafter being known as Captain Tillman. An incident illustrative of the processes of the time is given by the historian of Edgefield County, John A. Chapman, whose writings were never friendly toward the Tillmans. In July, 1876, a Negro company, having a colored captain named Dock Adams, got into a conflict with some whites at the village of Hamburg. Says Chapman: “B. R. Tillman, afterwards governor, was an active participant in this riot. Captain Adams with his forces retired to a large brick building owned by Mr. Sibley, and ordered his men to shoot. . . . It is said that after night Allen T. Attaway, a mulatto giant, and five others, were taken into a cornfield and dealt with summarily. The Radicals say that the tongue of Attaway, which had been used so badly, was cut out.”

When Tillman, at the age of thirty-seven, first emerged into the glare of the South Carolina stage, however, it was not at all as a sabre-brandisher or as a politician, but as a quiet and reasonable spokesman for better agricultural methods. It was evident to him that the careless and wasteful fashion of land cultivation, brought down unchanged from the days of slavery, was impoverishing the soil and keeping the farmers, ever prone to ancestor-worship, in an abyss of inertia and ignorance. He made several attempts to bring them together in a discussion club, only to encounter the typical farmer traits of apathy, suspicion, and touchy individualism. But his efforts did bring him an invitation to address a joint meeting of the State Agricultural and Mechanical Society and the State Grange in August, 1885.

The meetings of this body had hitherto chiefly served a social purpose; they brought days of mild diversion into the monotonous lives of hard-bitten men; but no one took seriously the prosy papers read by gentleman-farmers and well-dressed planters.

Tillman’s first words created an immediate breeze in a sultry atmosphere made wilting by the August heat of a South Carolina sun. His appearance and bearing made his auditors lean forward with shining eyes. Although dressed in a rural fashion, there was nothing farmerish in his close-cut hair, his high-pitched and cutting voice, his burning Cyclopean eye, his bitter, ironical features. Without any of the usual oratorical sweetening, he hurled accusations right and left. Half the farmers, he said, were mortgaged to death; their fibre had so weakened that they no longer rebelled against an oppressive credit system; they were led around by “demagogues and lawyers”; the State government had an “ante-bellum mind”; the agricultural department of South Carolina College was a mere “bribe to maintain the support of the farmers in the legislature.”

He demanded, as a beginning, that South Carolina College do something for agriculture; that the legislature be asked to establish farmers’ institutes and agricultural experiment stations; and that a State board of agriculture be formed, composed of farmers. He particularly urged the creation of a technical school for farmers’ sons.

The cheers with which the farmers spurred him on revealed that he was voicing their gospel. Nevertheless, all his resolutions were voted down except that calling for experiment stations. No immediate results followed, but it was soon apparent that the more radical farmers of the State had found a spokesman and leader, and that they were ready to fall in behind him. Tillman’s address brought back echoes of approval from all the rural parts of the State, and he was soon writing letters to the newspapers elaborating his criticisms and making speeches which drew ever larger crowds. His utterances, written and oral, left a welt wherever they landed. He excoriated the State government as being full of drones afflicted with “political leprosy” who had made of the farmer a mere “mudsill.” “Say, you men who own the soil of South Carolina,” he cried, “how do you like this wet nursing, this patronizing, this insufferable insolence?”

Tillman at this time seemed to have no political ambitions. His debts and his farm interests absorbed all his time, and he doubtless perceived that although his denunciations of the office-seekers and conservative aristocracy were music to the farmers, his harsh personality was repellent even to his admirers, while his open contempt for his fellows made for him as many enemies as friends. Nevertheless his furious hacks had broken down a psychological dam, and soon there poured through this break the first flood of a perceptible farmers’ movement, so large and tidal that its existence could not be denied. It was recognized that this movement could, if it would, capture the State government, and if Tillman should choose to mount it and embark for the governor’s chair, an unprecedented situation—an appalling situation, indeed—would descend upon the conservative politicians of the State; and they hurriedly took counsel together.

The first weapon resorted to by the upper classes was ridicule. Tillman was “the agricultural Moses,” the crusading “plowboy from Edgefield.” He was one-eyed, left-handed, and he came from the cornfields. The choice of such a weapon as ridicule was a primary mistake. No man in South Carolina—and the land had clever editors and practiced orators — could match nicknames with Tillman; no other man was so stimulated by abuse; and he had the gift of so imparting pungency to his epithets with witty and ironic similes from the barnyard and the feed-lot that his rural audiences howled their appreciation and roared for more.

At length the farmers’ movement was ripe for a drive at the State government, and there was a resistless demand that Tillman take the lead. He reiterated his scorn for office, but behind the scenes the sheer pressure of events made him the boss and dictator of the new movement, and though he might reject office, he was not the man to scorn power.


For four years the farmers strove to put through their demands for political reforms and economic improvements, triumphing at times but as often losing. The legislature resented Tillman’s rude methods and more than once he announced his retirement, only to emerge again to take the stump and pour epithets upon the city politicians and the low-country “oligarchs.” He delighted to relate how often farmer legislators had been seduced by the aristocrats of Charleston and Columbia. He had been once taken into the Columbia Club for a drink, but had refused it. However, there was no denying it was a “monstrous nice place.” “No wonder,” he said, “the cornbread and bacon fellows like it.”

He told the people of Charleston, “You are the most arrant set of cowards that ever drew the fresh air of heaven.” For reply the News and Courier called Tillman the leader of “a people who carry pistols in their hip pockets, expectorate on the floor, have no tooth brushes, and comb their hair with their fingers.”

Tillman desired nothing better. Such descriptions of his followers showed them in what contempt the aristocrats held them, and bound them yet more firmly to Tillman as the one man who could beat critics on their own ground. And Tillman went on to hold up to scorn the four-linked “ring” that, he said, held the State in its grip—South Carolina College (just converted into a university), the Charleston Military Academy (the Citadel), the Agricultural Bureau, and the Columbia Club.

In March, 1890, a convention of the Farmers’ Association nominated Tillman for governor, and Tillman, despite all his outcries against office-seekers, could barely conceal the eagerness with which he accepted the nomination.

“I will fight,” he cried, “as long as I have a dollar left and the health with which to fight. I will put myself against the combined intellect of the ring.”

The campaign was the most turbulent ever conducted in a state which likes its politics hot and strong. At the debates between Tillman and his competitor, Joseph II. Earle, excited crowds gathered, and at times interruptions were so frequent that neither speaker could be heard. At rural centres Tillman was the overwhelming favorite, while in the larger towns the conservatives frequently shouted him down. Both farmers and townsmen came to these meetings armed, and the canvass, which covered virtually every county, was conducted in an atmosphere of tension which repeatedly threatened to end in riot or bloodshed.

Tillman easily destroyed the opposition to his nomination, and he repeated his victory when independents put up a candidate against him. Even the revered figure of Wade Hampton had no effect on frantic pro-Tillman audiences; indeed, General Hampton in this campaign heard for the first time in his life the hostile cry of “Put him out!” In the election Tillman and the farmers swept everything before them, and in 1890 South Carolina inaugurated its first governor elected by a strictly agrarian movement.

Tillman’s administration was conducted with far less frightfulness than was expected. In fact, although he announced that the whites, having again the control, meant at all hazards to retain it, one of his first proposals was that sheriffs who failed to prevent mob action against Negroes be removed from office; and the opening year of his reign was distinguished by not a single lynching.

In his first two years Tillman succeeded in establishing Clemson and Winthrop Colleges as technical schools for farm boys and girls; he reapportioned legislative representation and shifted some of the tax burden to corporations; and he obtained the defeat of Hampton as United States Senator; but many of his proposed reforms failed to get through the legislature. Its members resented certain things; one of them was the fact that Tillman, despite his old declamations against lawyers, relied on lawyers as his agents and political lieutenants, and another was that he had accepted a free pass from the railroads.

Tillman countered by demanding a legislature that would not be mere “driftwood,” and after a second campaign, scarcely less noisy and violent than the first, the farmers gave him one. The new legislature passed a railroad regulation bill; gave recognition to the arrival of the industrial era in South Carolina by limiting the labor hours in cotton mills to sixty-six a week; placed Charleston in a district with a sixty-thousand black majority; reorganized the county governments; slightly increased the tax levy and reduced the salaries of office-holders; and passed a Dispensary Law placing the retailing of liquor in the hands of the State. All these measures were aimed more or less directly at the towns and the town oligarchies.

Tillman then took up the task of bringing about a convention to revise the “ring-streaked negro constitution” of 1868, and himself dominated the assemblage which framed a measure that made it impossible for the Negro any longer to figure in South Carolina politics. The same measure, curious to relate, penalized counties in which lynchings occurred to the extent of not less than two thousand dollars. The convention also did something for the schools and granted partial exemption to small homesteads from creditors’ claims.


It is doubtful, even if Tillman had not left the governor’s chair for the United States Senate in 1894, whether the farmers could have carried their program further; for cotton manufacturing began to supersede agriculture as the focus of interest in upland South Carolina. Tillman had small interest in the rise of industry and little sympathy for any urban proletariat. He probably got out of South Carolina politics at just the right time, for the mill workers began to rally to Coleman Blease, once a Tillman lieutenant, and soon the agrarian war began to recede, as the result partly of the desertion of those farmers who had attained prosperity and partly of the despair of those who had dropped back into share-cropping and tenancy.

In his campaign for the Senate, Tillman had threatened to stick his pitchfork in the ribs of Grover Cleveland, whom he called “that old bag of fat” (it was this threat that procured him his nickname of “Pitchfork Ben”); and had promised to “stir up the animals in Washington”; but his behavior during successive terms in the Senate was as sedate as if he had come from New Hampshire instead of South Carolina. He made naval affairs his hobby, and became an industrious and devout committeeman, but the animals remained safe. The Senate soon learned that his roars portended little actual biting, and he really frightened it only once. That was when he had a fist-fight on the Senate floor with his colleague and former ally, John L. McLaurin, after Tillman had made charges of corruption against him in consequence of McLaurin’s suddenly revealed correspondence with John D. Archbold of the Standard Oil Company.

Tillman was obviously enjoying the honors and prestige of his seat when in 1908 he suffered a stroke of partial paralysis. His doctors declined to promise him complete recovery. It is improbable that a man of Tillman’s energy and domineering habits had ever considered the question of death, or had believed that at such a relatively early age— he was only sixty-one—he was likely to feel the brush of its wings. At any rate, the sting instantly died from his harsh personality. The change in him was almost pathetic and would have been well-nigh incredible to his old enemies of Charleston and Columbia. Upon his partial recovery, when he roared at all, it was but gently; and he revealed an almost childish eagerness to be friendly with the very people upon whom he had once poured his epithetic acids. In his habits he became exceedingly cautious, and instead of stirring up the Senatorial animals with charges of corruption, in which he once showed a loud enjoyment, he loved to pin his colleagues in a corner and hold them there with advice as to proper diet.

He had become as harmless as any “old Confed.” when, after ten years of a gradual fading away, he died in Washington, July 3, 1918. The newspapers of his own State cut the news down as much as possible, for the World War was in a crisis. Editors wrote that he had died in harness, not remarking that the gear was much worn and no longer in style.

In his home State, Tillman effected a miniature revolution. He destroyed the picturesque semi-feudalism that remained as hold-over from ante-bellum days and left the old baronial caste permanently weakened and ineffective. He introduced into South Carolina politics a new voice—raucous, vituperative, and intolerant—that established a style; but his successors have imitated him only imperfectly. They have retained his raucousness, but not his latent sense of statesmanship. He made known to South Carolina that a new class of men had arisen, wanting power and security. These men he led within sight of the promised land, and there he left them.

But he could not have carried them further. As if realizing this, they stood uncertainly around in the glare of light for a moment, while a new stratum of politicians quietly filtered through them and occupied all the offices. And then they went back to their farming.


Tillman’s political career rested on a recognition of the concealed warfare between town and country which has gone on virtually ever since the foundation of the American republic. It is this struggle which has given rise to the Till-mans, Tom Watsons, Vardamans, Jeff Davises, and Alfalfa Bill Murrays. Tillman saw that the town tended to take all and give nothing back, and that in such a process the town was acting at times ignorantly and at times unscrupulously. He tried, in his violent way, to force the State to give back enough to the country to restore the balance; but, throughout the struggle, the town has almost continuously won. In Tillman’s case it won by shunting him into the Senate.

Today, fortified by banking and industry, the town is supreme. The country has been not only defeated but overwhelmed. For ten years the American farmer has lost ground in purchasing power and in his standard of living.

Meantime the Southern farmer, weaker economically and more emotional than his brother of other sections, has been forced backward until he is losing hope and is relaxing his grip even upon his character and manhood. The slackness, defeat, and degeneracy to be found on Southern farmsteads become more and more the theme of Southern novelists.

But as long as the aggrieved Southern farmer has any vitality left, he will occasionally find a leader. And this leader will have violent manners, use bad grammar, and wear cotton socks or none at all. He will be called a demagogue, but actually he will be a symptom—just as Tillman was.


This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.

Recommended Reading