Skip to content

Killing Tillman – Part Two: Picking Cotton

Note: This is the second in a series of short articles about Ben Tillman’s imprint on South Carolina. The first article may be found here. I intended for this article to be about the 1895 constitution but found this just too interesting to ignore. For the historical details contained herein, I am in debt to Empire of Cotton A Global History by Sven Beckert, Knopf, 2014 and The Conservative Regime, South Carolina 1877 – 1890 by William J. Cooper, Jr., LSU Press, 1968.

Ben Tillman was fourteen years old when the War Between the States broke out. His family was a prominent slave holding family in Edgefield. His older brother, George, went to Harvard and then on to serve in the US Congress.

Ben was not so fortunate. Family fortunes saw a sharp decline after the war and Ben could not afford college. He continued farming cotton and expanding his fields until the market for cotton fell again the early 1880’s due to a global surplus. After barely surviving several bad years, Tillman decided that he and his fellow farmers knew nothing about farming other than growing cotton whose repeated plantings had destroyed the fertility of their fields. This realization prompted his calls for an agricultural college to teach and apply the scientific method to farming.

To understand the victory of Tillman and his 1895 Constitution, we must first understand cotton and the labor required to grow it.

Cotton, this innocuous plant whose fibers are found in almost all of our textiles, may seem commonplace now, but in 1860 it was poised to create a worldwide manufacturing empire that would form the foundation of global capitalism on which our economies are based today.

In 1860 the South produced four-fifths of the world’s cotton supply. We controlled the land and the enslaved labor required for production. We supplied almost all of the cotton to the textile manufacturers of Europe. They controlled the global textile market. We were poised to ride a billowy wave of immense economic prosperity. Then came the War.

Standard classroom history books will tell us that the primary cause of the War was the abolition of slavery, the noble humanitarian cause of the North. Some texts will give a nod to the concept of State’s Rights, the noble Constitutional defense by the South.

Considering our understanding of global capitalism today, we cannot deny that the control of cotton production with its enslaved labor force and promised wealth was the ignoble political cause of the South. Neither can we ignore that denying the South that control was the ignoble political cause of the North.

War being a continuation of a political objective by other means, as Clausewitz tells us, rather than an expression of a humanitarian objective, we understand why the North had no plans for the freed slaves after Appomattox other than returning them to the cotton fields.

Union General Francis C. Barlow expressed the North’s “humanitarian” view succinctly in 1865 to Henry Lee Higginson, a wealthy Bostonian looking to pick up a cotton plantation in post-war Georgia. Barlow told his friend, “Making money there is a simple question of being able to make the darkies work.” Not the most egalitarian statement ever declared by a Union emancipator who had bled his troops dry in Antietam’s sunken road.

Controlling the labor of freed slaves – the only asset they had – was a primary objective of both victor and vanquished in 1865. After the North abandoned their “reconstruction” efforts, white conservative Democrats who took control of the state government actively sought the votes of black citizens. Wade Hampton, in the 1876 race for Governor, promised that he would see “that laws are enforced in justice tempered with mercy, protecting all classes alike.”

Hampton and his followers, a group derived from the ante-bellum South Carolina, also maintained free public education for both white and black citizens. By 1880, parity had almost been reached in per capita spending between whites and blacks with blacks receiving more money due to them having the majority of the population.

A new method to reform black farm labor also emerged during this time to replace the old plantation method. Sharecropping, a land division scheme that offered black farmers some independence while allowing white farmers to maintain property ownership was welcomed at first.

Beyond trying to build a foundation for the future by maintaining the voting right of blacks and an opportunity for a public education, Hampton and his followers attempted to turn the state’s economy away from relying solely on agriculture.

Much like the General Assembly today, they used tax incentives to lure Northern textile mills to the state. They encouraged new enterprises such as mining and expanding the rail system. To help streamline new business ventures, they created the office of Secretary of State. Under Hampton, the state was slowly moving toward a more progressive future.

Then came the Shell Manifesto of 1890. The manifesto, drafted by G. W. Shell and president of the Farmer’s Association, called on farmers to offer a full slate of candidates for nomination at the upcoming Democrat convention. Tillman would be at the head as candidate for Governor. They were considered reformers and wanted Hampton and the old elites out of the way so that they could form a South Carolina in their own image.

Coming next: Reform goes wrong – at least for some – and how our state budget still reflect’s Tillman’s image.