Cover image for Ben Tillman & the reconstruction of white supremacy
Ben Tillman & the reconstruction of white supremacy
Kantrowitz, Stephen David, 1965-
Publication Information:
Chapel Hill : University of North Carolina Press, [2000]

Physical Description:
422 pages : illustrations, map, portraits ; 25 cm.

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E664.T57 K36 2000 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks

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Through the life of Benjamin Ryan Tillman (1847-1918), South Carolina's self-styled agrarian rebel, this book traces the history of white male supremacy and its discontents from the era of plantation slavery to the age of Jim Crow.

As an anti-Reconstruction guerrilla, Democratic activist, South Carolina governor, and U.S. senator, Tillman offered a vision of reform that was proudly white supremacist. In the name of white male militance, productivity, and solidarity, he justified lynching and disfranchised most of his state's black voters. His arguments and accomplishments rested on the premise that only productive and virtuous white men should govern and that federal power could never be trusted. Over the course of his career, Tillman faced down opponents ranging from agrarian radicals to aristocratic conservatives, from woman suffragists to black Republicans. His vision and his voice shaped the understandings of millions and helped create the violent, repressive world of the Jim Crow South.

Friend and foe alike--and generations of historians--interpreted Tillman's physical and rhetorical violence in defense of white supremacy as a matter of racial and gender instinct. This book instead reveals that Tillman's white supremacy was a political program and social argument whose legacies continue to shape American life.

Reviews 1

Choice Review

Although Kantrowitz agrees with several conclusions reached by Francis B. Simkins in his Pitchfork Ben Tillman, South Carolinian (1944), he moves beyond this work. Kantrowitz more effectively analyzes the redemption of South Carolina from Republican control in the bloody election of 1876. When the Redeemers failed to satisfy the needs of upcountry farmers, Democrats, including Tillman, rejected a Greenback-Republican fusion and won the 1882 election with the race issue. Tillman was wedded to a belief in white supremacy, which he used to rebel against the low-country planters and merchants. Later he successfully convinced the country to accept white supremacy, but his distrust of national political power prevented his support for Populist or Progressive solutions. Furthermore, Tillman was no believer in democracy. He not only led the fight to disfranchise blacks, but also rejected the vote for women. In fact, he privately said that most whites were not worthy of the ballot. As for women, he argued that politics was a masculine activity and would cause women to be unrespectable. Finally the author stresses that Tillman was not a common man of his time and that most of the state's aristocracy agreed on the use of violence to keep blacks down. All levels. ; Concordia University



Chapter One Mastery and Its Discontents Most of the 40,000 people in South Carolina's Edgefield District had been born into slavery. More than half of the rest, white women and a handful of free black people, could never expect to be citizens. But on the eleventh day of August 1847, Benjamin Ryan Tillman entered his world near its apex. He would never be subject to a master's surveillance and coercion, nor, after childhood, would he face legal subordination to a male relation. Like his father, for whom he had been named, he would be free and independent -- and rich, for the elder Tillman owned four dozen slaves and 2,500 acres of land, more than most of his neighbors. Ben Tillman would inherit not only the formal citizenship that came with white male adulthood but also the social power that came with wealth.     But wealth based on slavery came at a price, for neither law nor custom could transform people into things. As workers, kinfolk, believers, and rebels, African Americans pitted their wills against their masters', defying their legal status as property and making the practice of slaveholding a constant struggle. Wealthy slaveholders, especially planters (those owning twenty or more slaves), sought to give their regime a human face, claiming that paternalist concern bound owner and owned into a virtual family, each household a peaceable kingdom in which subject and sovereign alike had important roles to play. But any flowers of mutuality that did develop had shallow roots, for they rested on the rock of coercive force. Masters lived in fear of a servile revolution that would destroy their entire society, a fear periodically reinforced by news of insurrection plots and murderous assaults. Slaves did more than fear: they suffered physical and emotional brutalities for which there could be no legal redress, although barns burned with some frequency and white families seemed vulnerable to food-borne ailments that household slaves managed to avoid. These reciprocal terrors -- not paternalist myths of reciprocal duties -- lay at the heart of antebellum Southern life. Very few masters and even fewer slaves ever forgot that the essence of slavery was physical domination or that a bullwhip carried in a velvet bag was a bullwhip just the same.     South Carolina's planter elite recognized that control of the enslaved majority demanded solidarity among the group that held a collective monopoly on citizenship -- the state's white male household heads. These men ranged from the proprietors of modest family farms to wealthy planters heavily invested in slaves, cotton, and the international export market, all sharing common expectations. In theory, no one, outsider or household member, could challenge a master's patriarchal authority over his dependents, male or female, slave or free. That mastery of household and dependents -- whether or not these included slaves -- in turn entitled a man to participate in the shared arenas of political and civic life. Household and collective sovereignty provided the ideal against which most white men measured their world.     Wherever they turned, planters confronted social realities that contradicted this theory of independent mastery. Inequalities between masters and slaves and between wealthy and less wealthy whites created profound social tensions. Individuals and sometimes groups resisted slaveholders' authority. Patriarchs who violated community norms in the treatment of their dependents might be disciplined by neighbors concerned with preserving the overall legitimacy of patriarchal authority, and legislatures might formally limit masters' power over their slaves. Participation in the international economy made cotton producers vulnerable to forces well beyond their control. By the 1840s, many planters had come to believe that these internal stresses were being exacerbated and exploited by an abolitionist conspiracy "to check, and if possible to exterminate the institution of slavery." Abolitionists, they claimed, sought to close new territories to slavery, distribute insurrectionary materials and ideas throughout the South, and incite the enslaved black workforce to bloody revolution.     At the moment of Ben Tillman's birth, the men of his class had already begun mobilizing a white male army against the threats to slavery. This mobilization was in some respects as delicate a task as slave discipline: the defense of slavery had to be framed as a defense of a society based on white patriarchal privilege rather than a defense of a particular property interest. In the short term, this mobilization succeeded. In slave patrols, anti-abolitionist vigilant societies, volunteer militia companies, and finally the Confederate army, white men stood together to defend their households, property, and communities against threats from within and without. Before long, Tillman would be expected to join them -- to share in the society's wealth and government, to share in the solidarity and struggles of master-class life. But during the years of his infancy and childhood, his life depended on his class's ability to maintain dominance over millions of slaves and solidarity with millions of nonslaveholding white men. These struggles defined Tillman's early experience. Although he never served in the Confederate army, he became a veteran of the longer, more ambiguous war to make the world safe for mastery.     The Reciprocal Terrors of Slavery     Slaveholders claimed to have paternal feelings for and relations with their slaves, but they also understood that it was crucial that they be feared. In May 1849, the Edgefield Advertiser issued an unusually blunt warning to local slaveholders. Alarmed by the recent murder of county resident Michael Long by one of his slaves, the newspaper editor insisted that "rigid discipline" was the only "wise policy and real justice. Those who indulged their slaves, "yielding to the tender and humane emotions of their hearts," violated the most basic precept of mastery: black slaves -- a "race of beings naturally ungrateful and treacherous" -- could only "be governed by motives of fear ." The most grievous offense against good discipline, the editor declared, was the practice of allowing slaves to move about freely at night, for this enabled them to trade in stolen property with "wicked white men." Slaves who fell into this practice and under these influences learned to "despise their Master's authority." Before long, "for the smallest offence," these corrupted servants would "inhumanely murder him who was their friend and protector." In short, failure to maintain "uniform, vigilant, and rigid control" over their slaves could cost slaveholders their lives.     As Alexis de Tocqueville had noted in Democracy in America , although the fear of slave insurrection was "a nightmare constantly haunting the American imagination," white Southerners generally greeted the topic with "frightening ... silence." But the Advertiser 's warning, remarkable only for its lack of euphemism, reflected no merely local, temporary, or peculiar sentiment. Slaves had risen in revolt throughout South Carolina's colonial history. During the War of Independence, many had fought with the British against their revolutionary masters. Countless plots and panics over the next decades reached a climax in 1822, when Denmark Vesey's conspiracy terrified white Charleston. Ben Tillman's father had already reached adulthood when Charleston's authorities hung dozens of slaves implicated in Vesey's abortive rebellion. Events elsewhere, notably Nat Turner's bloody march through Virginia in 1831, made plain the costs of insufficient vigilance. The Advertiser 's warning only reminded slaveholders of familiar but unpleasant facts: the people they owned might kill them in pursuit of vengeance or freedom. As the editor pointed out, Michael Long's murder -- for which two slaves were finally hung and a dozen others whipped -- was "only one of several similar instances in our District within the last two years."     Deterrence, not murder, was the slaveholders' goal, and domination relied on the credibility of each planter's perceived capacity for violence. The hanging of a slave for murdering his or her master represented a failure -- for the master, certainly, but for slaveholding society as well. Slaveholders meted out brutal lashings in part to quash real or perceived threats but also to make gruesome examples of the disobedient. Masters' responses to individual acts of disobedience served as a crucial firebreak, for without credible authority on each plantation, the regime would dissolve into economic chaos and perhaps into violence.     As the slaveholders' foremost historian has pointed out, these men knew that resorting to violence in every instance would mean living in a state of war. But just beneath the surface of the late antebellum era's long truce bubbled the knowledge that punishment and retaliation might be only a heartbeat away. The wealthy white men of the Beech Island Farmers' Club, an agricultural society including many Edgefield planters, understood this dynamic. Four days before Ben Tillman's birth, they met to discuss discipline. When slaves became "impatient, unwilling, and rebellious," one declared, masters could not afford to hesitate or negotiate. "It is necessary to whip if your rules are disobeyed," declared another; "enforce your authority, whip if it is necessary to whip, but do not threaten ." "[I]nstead of perpetual scolding, and threatening," agreed a third, "use the rod." The preservation of a labor system and a way of life demanded vigilance. "[I]t depends entirely on the management of our slaves," one planter warned, "whether this institution shall continue to exist."     Such catastrophes were more likely to affect individual masters than to affect their society as a whole, for slaves as well as masters knew that insurrection plots ended in failure and death. Split up into relatively small groups on separate plantations, living under the watchful eyes of masters, patrollers, and potentially indiscreet fellow bondspeople, black Southerners focused on carving out less dangerous spaces of cultural and social autonomy than those envisioned by Vesey. But slaves never ceased testing the limits of masters' control. Their resistance frequently took place silently, anonymously, and indirectly. They worked more slowly than they could; they "lay out" in the woods to avoid punishment; they stole from the master's stores; and they traded with free people.     Troubled by these signs of individual and collective will, slaveholders sought explanations. Perhaps, they argued, such behavior was the result of racial incapacity: if black people "naturally" malingered and stole, slaveholders reasoned, then no individual master could be blamed if his slaves were less than perfectly reliable. In private correspondence, local agricultural society debates, and regional journals such as DeBow's Review , they made an art (and sometimes a science) of parsing the moral and intellectual shortcomings of "the Negro." In addition to arguing that status and behavior followed race, they suggested that inequality was a natural and beneficent aspect of human society. Savannah River planter James Henry Hammond, convener of the Beech Island planters (and later governor and U.S. senator), argued in widely published anti-abolitionist letters and speeches that blacks formed a natural "mudsill" class, freeing white people from society's hardest and dirtiest work. In the North, heartless employers made wage-slaves of white men, and mobs roamed the cities. Racial slavery, by contrast, had made the South a uniquely fortunate and harmonious society.     Hammond's argument for slavery as a just and organic social order appealed to his fellow planters. Masters hoped that if they articulated the rules clearly enough and enforced them reliably, slaves would accept the legitimacy of their masters' authority. As one planter acknowledged, "[S]o long as the slave thinks he is unjustly held in bondage, just so long will he be impatient, unwilling and rebellious." "You must convince them you are not a tyrant but act on the principle of justice," another explained. The plantation, in other words, must become a just and well-ordered world of familial devotion. Nothing captured this ideal more precisely than the slaveowners' language of paternalism. Slaves, essentially childlike, incapable of higher reasoning, and only haltingly responsive to moral tutelage, required the combination of kindness and discipline that only a father could provide. Since no slave parent's authority had any legal standing -- slaves' children literally belonged to someone else -- paternal responsibility fell to the slaveholder. Like other children, slaves might occasionally require physical correction. A slaveholder representing himself in this way could refer, without apparent irony, to his "family, white and black." He might frame a slave's act of malingering, theft, or insolence as that of a wayward child, not that of a potential revolutionary.     But this paternalism characterized planters' fantasies far better than it did their society, for forbearance and benevolence could exist only in the space created by terror. At the core of paternalism, in other words, lay brutal coercion. Slaves might be part of a figurative "family," but in fact masters frequently threatened slaves with sale away from their actual families as a way of coercing obedience, a practice that exposed the hollowness of paternalist pretensions. Slaves might be described as erring children in need of correction, but few children of the master class were subjected to the kinds of beatings administered to human property on Southern plantations. An individual master and slave might even develop bonds of real affection and shared experience, but a master's death, illness, debt, or whim could in an instant upset what had appeared to be (and even felt like) a system of reciprocal obligations. A master who forbore, who acted with restraint in every extremity, could hardly expect to turn a profit or even to survive. He needed to be able, in the space of a heartbeat, to exchange the paternalist's face for one of savage, violent determination. Planters who surrendered wholly to "tender and humane" feelings, the Edgefield Advertiser scoffed, sacrificed the patriarchal authority they most needed, and this left them dangerously vulnerable to the black and white men who would otherwise remain their subordinates. Not long after Ben Tillman's second birthday, a local white man was killed while trying to subdue a shotgun-wielding slave; the killer, the Advertiser claimed, "frankly admits that his former master was a kind and indulgent man." Whatever the slave had actually said, however his master had actually behaved, it was impossible to miss the intended point: unchecked leniency had wrought deadly mischief.     For this racial system of labor control to function, slaves had to understand that they had a simple choice: obedience or retribution. The slave who approached a master deferentially to seek a favor might or might not gain it. But the slave who seriously overstepped the bounds of appropriate submission would face no such uncertainty. On an isolated plantation on a hot July afternoon, a master facing a recalcitrant or rebellious slave had only one aim: to make an example of that person by bringing him or her brutally to heel. The slaveholders never forgot for more than passing moments that their dominance -- "legitimate" or not -- above all required fear.     King Cotton and His Subjects     Participation in the international cotton economy made the Tillmans rich, but it also enmeshed them in financial networks that, like slavery, they could not fully control. Cotton might have been "King," as Hammond insisted on the floor of the U.S. Senate, but not in precisely the way that he meant. Having staked their livelihoods on cotton, planters became less the masters of the staple crop than its subjects. No theory or exhortation could alter large cotton producers' profound dependence (there was no other word for it) on outside capital to produce and market their crop. Fluctuations in the international market created uncertainty even among the very wealthy. At Ben Tillman's birth, South Carolina was in the throes of a long and painful economic depression. The cotton boom of the early nineteenth century had tied the state and its cotton-producing households to the Atlantic economy. When the price of cotton sank to a near-catastrophic low in the late 1830s, it pulled those households down with it.     The depression ruined many fortunes, and it might easily have brought down the Tillmans. The elder Benjamin Tillman died young in 1849, and with cotton prices low and the plantation's longtime manager suddenly absent, the household could easily have fallen from its lofty economic position. But cotton prices rebounded in the 1850s, and families who had retained the land and slaves to capitalize on the recovery could prosper. Sophia Tillman and her older children not only had kept the productive capital the patriarch had left them but had improved on it. During the booming 1850s, the household's wealth in land and slaves nearly doubled. When Tillman was ten, the family's investment in slavery grew to include thirty Africans smuggled to America on the Wanderer . Tillman later remembered these recent victims of the middle passage as "the most miserable lot of human beings -- the nearest to the missing link with the monkeys."     But the long depression caused some planters to question their way of life, particularly their dependence on cotton. Planter intellectuals such as Edmund Ruffin and James Henry Hammond disapproved of Southerners' single-minded devotion to cotton production at the expense of economic self-sufficiency. Cotton, they feared, not only wore out land but also constrained planter independence. They sought control over their local market centers, employing a proprietary language reflecting slaveholders' expectation of mastery. "We are justly entitled to supply our own market-towns," Hammond declared in 1856; "they are ours Ours [ sic ] they belong to us and we should allow none to compete with us" -- especially Northern manufacturers. He and other "reformers" called for diversification, self-sufficiency in grain and meat production, and a host of legal and agricultural reforms that they hoped would improve the productivity and profitability of staple production. They also set in motion the process of industrialization, hoping that factories like Edgefield's Graniteville would both reduce their reliance on Northern manufactured goods and absorb the surplus labor force, both free and slave.     The end of the depression fatally undermined these efforts to diversify the regional economy. As long as slaves constituted planters' primary investment and cotton prices remained high, each planter would seek to gain the maximum possible return, and industrialization, diversification, and soil conservation would attract more pious words than devout deeds. In the short term, slave-produced cotton was simply more profitable than diversification, and with supplies available from producers in other regions, few chose to dedicate land and labor to pursuits other than cotton production. Industry remained an economic sideline, and the Augusta hinterland did not produce enough corn or pork to meet its population's needs. The planter class as a whole entered the 1850s as single-mindedly devoted to cotton production -- and as dependent on it -- as it had ever been.     White Patriarchal Solidarity and Its Limits     South Carolina's politics fell somewhat short of the Jacksonian ideal of rough parity among adult white men. In most slave states, politics were substantially shaped by rivalries between planter-dominated black belts and yeoman-dominated white belts. After the spread of cotton into the upcountry by the 1820s, however, South Carolina's substantial population of small slaveholders and nonslaveholding white men was overmatched almost everywhere, even in the upcountry. The spread of cotton culture across the state's backcountry created majority or near-majority black populations in nearly every county. Because South Carolina lacked a coherent white belt -- elsewhere a counterweight to Planter power -- the state's political institutions did not democratize as fully as those of other Southern states. Despite a significant expansion of democratic rights among white men during the first decade of the century, the state retained property qualifications for some offices, and the legislature selected or appointed many state and local officers, as well as the state's federal electors.     Although widely distributed slaveholding retarded formal democracy, it encouraged an unusual degree of social consensus among white men. Slaveholding was more widely distributed in South Carolina than almost anywhere else in the South: historian James Oakes estimates that a white man in the antebellum South had about a 50 percent chance of owning a slave sometime during his life, and by 1850 the average white South Carolina man's odds must have been even better. At midcentury, nearly 50 percent of Edgefield's free household heads owned at least one slave, suggesting that in South Carolina, slaveholding was becoming a normal or perhaps even normative part of adult white manhood. At the same time, planters like the elder Benjamin Tillman controlled most of the society's wealth. Although those owning twenty or more slaves made up only the richest 20 percent of Edgefield slaveholders, they owned 60 percent of all the slaves in the district. At any given moment, a majority of white household heads owned no slaves at all, and the number of slaveholding households in Edgefield fell by nearly too between 1850 and 1860. Most slaveholders owned no more than five slaves and relied heavily on the labor of white family members. But in 1850, more than half of Edgefield's 22,000 slaves belonged to just 360 planter households, and the wealthiest 10 percent of slaveholders -- including the Tillmans -- controlled more than half the total wealth.     Wealthy white men sought to limit and defuse the potential conflict between slaveholding and nonslaveholding men by sharing some of the tangible benefits of slavery. A poor white man might be able to borrow or rent a wealthier man's slave for a crucial task or period, and large landowners might allow their less fortunate neighbors to use their lands for hunting, fishing, and foraging. But what a wealthy landowner considered a favor, his resentful "client" might assert as a right. In late 1847, schoolmaster, minister, and proslavery ideologue Iveson Brookes received word from an overseer in Georgia that a "bad neighbour," William Lumpkins, had grown accustomed to farming on some of Brookes's unused acres. Lumpkins "cursed" and "abused" the overseer for ejecting him, then twice burned Brookes's fence, striking at the literal and legal boundaries of Brookes's household. In dealing with white men such as Lumpkins, the least fortunate of the formally enfranchised, the planters walked a tightrope between sacrificing too much of their own autonomy and provoking a rejection of the regime as illegitimate.     These inequalities among white men did not seriously undermine white patriarchal solidarity, for white men's citizenship did not depend on slave-ownership but on the control of a household, a more widely distributed form of authority. The right to direct labor inside the household conveyed the right to participate in political and economic life beyond its borders, and under most circumstances, only adult white men had those rights. Children could not be independent social actors, and most white men agreed that black people's "natural" incapacities, like the lesser but still serious ones of white women, relegated them to dependent social roles. The society's laws, restricting political and economic citizenship almost entirely to white men, reflected and reinforced these axioms of white patriarchal republicanism.     The inequalities of slavery and patriarchy likewise reinforced one another. Just as slaveholders likened their authority to that of a father over his children, proslavery ministers and politicians might -- carefully -- compare a master's authority over his slaves to a husband's authority over his wife. All three were legitimate forms of the mastery that made a white man independent. The point was not to suggest that poor white men's wives were effectively their slaves; indeed, it was bad form to discuss the hard physical labor performed by white women in poor and even middling white households. Rather, white men's legal and customary power over white women within a family characterized the great majority of households, rich and poor. Although a white man's wife and children had rights beyond those of any free or enslaved black person, white husbands and fathers had final legal and social authority in most matters. They could determine when and how their children were educated and what work wives and children did. The patriarch even had the right to deed sons and daughters to a third party away from their mother. Inequality was the rule, not the exception, in social relations, and slavery was not a "peculiar" institution at all but a more absolute form of the same right and proper power God had granted white men over their free wives and children.     A white patriarch's power operated even from beyond the grave. As a wife, Sophia Tillman could not vote or hold office, nor could she engage in economic activity except as her husband's agent. When she became a widow in 1849, she continued to face legal constraints to her autonomy. The land and slaves she inherited at her husband's death were not hers to dispose of as she saw fit: in order to sell some of the land, she had to petition the county Court of Equity. She had to do the same to gain legal guardianship of her own children. Formally entitled to make contracts and hold property, the widow nevertheless remained much less than a full citizen of the white man's republic.     Other laws sought to reconcile the ideal of white patriarchy with uncomfortable racial and sexual realities. Free black men and women who headed households did so under daunting legal and social constraints. Sexual relationships across lines of color and status -- a few of which were sanctioned by marriage -- had produced many children whose visibly mixed ancestry presented a threat to "commonsense" definitions of whiteness and blackness and to the relationship between race and status. The state legislature, recognizing that many "white" persons had nonwhite antecedents, refused to ban racial intermarriage or even to establish a legal definition of whiteness or blackness. Jurists (including those upper-class white men who felt most intimately implicated in this history) employed a flexible standard in order to avoid confronting the absurdities and contradictions of their notions of "race."     Lawmakers were even more concerned about the immediate threat posed by manumission. Some slaveholders freed slaves who were also their children, and others rewarded those who performed exemplary service -- such as betraying insurrection conspiracies -- by granting them freedom. Slaves, especially self-hiring skilled workers, could sometimes negotiate to buy their freedom. Statewide, free blacks numbered nearly 10,000 in 1860, including a few who were wealthy but many more who were only somewhat better off than slaves. But all means of achieving freedom had been limited by the 1820 state legislature, which made manumission illegal except by legislative enactment. A truly paternalist elite might have felt compelled to grant the petition of Edgefield slaveholder David Adams, who sought to free the slave who had guarded the dead body of his son on a Mexican battlefield. But lawmakers rejected Adams's petition, as they did most others. The legislators' reasoning was simple: once the moment of paternalist passion had passed, the community would have to deal with one more free black man -- in this case, one who had demonstrated his courage under fire. Sever the ties that bound such people to white patriarchal households, allow them to associate freely with one another, and who was to say what they would do? As the Edgefield Advertiser warned, "[A] few privileged negroes will instill corruption and disobedience in all the slaves within their reach." By 1850, hemmed in by law and suspicion, fewer than 200 free blacks resided in Edgefield County, making up less than .5 percent of its population. In the world of Ben Tillman's youth, these people who blurred the racial boundary between slavery and freedom were an isolated and increasingly mistrusted minority.     Other blurrings of that important boundary revealed fissures within white patriarchal solidarity itself. Sociability and commerce between slaves and the poorest strata of white society created a biracial underworld in the slave South. Black and white South Carolinians frequently worshiped together, and not always in congregations dominated by whites or neatly divided into masters and slaves. The state's lawmakers, sensitive to the rights of masters who wished to guide the religious lives of their slaves, barred patrollers from breaking up interracial religious meetings -- provided that the congregations had white majorities and the meetings took place before 9:00 P.M. Other meetings and assemblies merited no such protection: white violators' names were to be reported to a magistrate, and patrollers could whip nonwhite participants, including free blacks. Whether or not abolitionist propaganda or ideas passed within these black and white circles, their very existence constituted a threat to the proper lines of authority.     Slaveholders knew that their slaves frequently engaged in illegal commerce with white men, a deeply troubling collaboration against slave discipline. Such illegal trade -- "traffick" -- flew in the face of slaveholders' authority, their property rights, and their insistence on white male solidarity. Masters warned one another about the evil influence of "disorderly, and ill behaved persons, whether white or black." As the Edgefield Advertiser had noted in discussing the murder of Michael Long, it was through trading stolen property with wicked free people that slaves learned rebelliousness. The penalties for trafficking were therefore severe. The slaves involved were punished at the master's discretion, and the white men involved faced criminal sanction. Local planters resolved in 1846 to rid their area of the menace, forming the Savannah River Anti-Slave Traffick Association, and in the early 1850s, the Beech Island Farmers' Club reconstituted itself as an "Agricultural and Police Society." Indictments and prosecutions for trafficking filled Edgefield's court dockets, and numerous white Edgefieldians received up to two months in jail and fines of $100, sentences only slightly lighter than those handed down to white men who killed other men's slaves without proper cause. The absolute loss of property in trafficking could not compare to the loss of a major capital asset like a slave, but as the Advertiser had suggested, the influence of such white men on slaves constituted a threat to masters' lives and to the system of slavery itself. The defense of planter power required disciplining white people as well as black, but the punishment of white men for interfering with relations of mastery raised the uncomfortable possibility that slaveholders and nonslaveholders had fundamentally different interests.     The Cost of Violence     The violent careers of Ben Tillman's older brothers suggested yet another fissure among white men in this society -- the tension between slaveholders' rhetoric of white male equality and their well-learned habit of violently asserting their authority against all challenges. Even proslavery ideologues ostensibly celebrating white male supremacy might describe the virtues of their society in aristocratic terms. Planter-philosopher James Henry Hammond wrote that slavery had created "a large class elevated above the necessity of any kind of labor" who were able to "take enlarged and many views of every thing; to govern masses; to sway, comparatively, a broad expanse of territory; to control and scorn to be controlled, except by kind affection, sound reason, and just laws." The existence of such a class (to which Hammond happened to belong) was "essential" to "a high state of civilization." But what of the majority of white men who did not own slaves, who did in fact have to labor, and who perhaps constituted the "masses" Hammond claimed the authority to govern? Rich men had to tread carefully, a task they found temperamentally difficult. Expectations of mastery were hard to limit or repress, and white male slaveholders frequently trod on the feelings and perceived rights of other white men.     In the 1850s, as Ben Tillman gained a formal education at the hands of country schoolmasters, he also learned from the dramas of white male violence that pervaded his society. His father had left a mixed legacy to Tillman's older brothers, and they in turn instructed their youngest sibling in the rules governing violence among white men. The elder Benjamin Tillman, fond of drinking and gambling, was among a group of nine men convicted for "riot, assault & battery" by an Edgefield jury in 1841. He subsequently sought to cultivate the virtues of restraint, becoming a member of a local temperance society. But his "rehabilitation" would have been swift in any case: physical conflicts such as brawling and assault were common, and county juries included many men who had recently been disciplined by those same bodies. Punishments of white men for violence against one another tended to be light, and offenders who had been duly punished remained full members of the community. In 1843, the elder Tillman served on the grand jury that had punished him two years earlier. The following year, he was foreman of a coroner's jury. The planter continued to oversee the living and the dead.     Not all conflicts were so easily resolved. Large slaveholders, dependent for their survival and prosperity on the credibility of the masks they wore, extended this sensitivity to appearances into other areas of their lives. Young men of the planter class grew up watching their fathers' ease and forbearance give way almost without warning to violent punishment. And they learned to play out the drama of mastery in relation to other white men as well as to slaves. Benjamin Tillman's sons understood from an early age that no slight or suggestion of insincerity would pass unanswered. Their obsession with "honor" -- their refusal to let another person question their words, deeds, or appearances -- took its urgency from the exigencies of slaveholding.     Benjamin Tillman feared that his teenage son George, having spent a year as an overseer, had learned the lessons of plantation management and white manhood too well. In an 1844 letter to prospective schoolmaster Iveson Brookes, Tillman noted that George might become involved in social "collisions." The teenager's " disposition is such not to submit to imposition or insult by any," he explained. To "submit," of course, was to act like a slave, not an independent, honorable man, so the father was perhaps boasting as well as warning. But a young man had to learn how to handle his honor. A carefully nuanced negotiation, mediated by mutual acquaintances, might restore social equilibrium; this, and not a potentially deadly duel, was the goal of the "affair of honor." One way or another, however, white men had to maintain both individual images (and self-images) of indomitability and a collective solidarity that transcended their individual squabbles.     Although George became a lawyer and state legislator, his "disposition" eventually proved to be just as dangerous as his father had feared. In July 1856, at a gaming table in an Edgefield hotel, Tillman demanded his winnings on a bet of $10. A local white artisan, J. H. Christian, supported the dealer's contention that Tillman had bet only $5. Tillman called Christian "a damned liar." Christian replied in kind, whereupon Tillman pulled out a pistol and shot his gainsayer dead. This was not a legitimate expression of white male mastery. As one witness opined, "[T]here was nothing said sufficient to provoke the murder, but if there was it was Tilman [ sic ] who gave it." The Edgefield grand jury indicted Tillman for murder, whereupon he fled, joining William Walker's campaign to create a slaveholding republic in Nicaragua.     It was two years before George returned to Edgefield to face justice, but neither his crime nor his flight rendered him anathema to polite society. Convicted of manslaughter, he served his two-year sentence under lenient conditions; he practiced law from within his jail cell, and before his term was over, he had been elected to the state senate. To be sure, he had murdered a respectable white mechanic -- "an independent and an honest man," according to the Edgefield Advertiser -- but his act was hardly unique. The same hotel where he killed Christian had been the scene of another murder of one white man by another only six months before. Furthermore, Tillman's was a crime of passion. Had he committed a different sort of murder -- had he, for instance, plotted to murder his wife and then blamed a slave for the crime, as a white Edgefield man had done earlier in 1856 -- he might have earned the death sentence. George's crime, by contrast, was palliated by its close connection to qualities that his society valued in its leaders -- self-assertion and the capacity for explosive violence. After Serving his sentence, he was welcomed into the highest levels of his community's civic life.     He returned just in time to save the family household from the ruin of improper governance. In his absence, John (the next oldest son) had run roughshod over the family's feelings and finances. Ben, the youngest, remembered John as a bully, "naturally tyrannical in his disposition," who "lorded over my mother and the other children to his heart's content." John also speculated in slaves, amassing a $20,000 debt that took his mother several years to pay off. His depredations extended beyond the household: at least three times between 1854 and 1860, he was indicted for riot or assault. In 1858, found guilty in two separate cases, he served ten weeks in jail and was fined $80. Even a convicted miscreant could claim gentlemanly status; that year, John also initiated an ominous exchange of letters with a neighbor, asking him to clarify whether or not he had "characterized my conduct as inconsistent with that of a gentleman."     To Ben Tillman, looking back a half-century later, the contrast between George and John was far more stark than their comparably violent careers would suggest. Indeed, he offered George and John as models of legitimate and illegitimate authority, the one "a second father to us all," the other "wild and dissipated." The final confrontation he remembered between them made the contrast clear. When George returned to Edgefield in 1858 and confronted John about his misdeeds, John drew a pistol. George, Ben recalled, "tore his shirt open and said `shoot, you dam' coward. You are afraid to shoot, for no brave man ever treats widows and orphans as you have done.' After waiting a minute with his bared bosom, he turned and walked up stairs, and John slunk off." John's undisciplined and irresponsible power -- potentially the ruin of the Tillmans' fortunes -- had been overcome by George's proper understanding of patriarchal responsibilities, which included sound financial practices, proper treatment of dependents, and (not least) physical courage. Christian's loved ones might not have seen George's virtues in the same light, but to ten-year-old Ben, they had embodied proper white manhood. John, by contrast, followed his ruinous course to his own destruction. While under indictment for assault with intent to kill, John was himself murdered in May 1860.     Anti-Antislavery     Slaveholders struggled to contain the paradoxes of white male independence, but they saw abolition and even "Free Soil" as threats of a different order. As the United States expanded across the continent, Southern elites came to see the increasingly determined antislavery movement as a threat to their liberties and lives. Before long, they feared, they would become an insignificant voice, outvoted in the U.S. Senate and overwhelmed in the House of Representatives. In 1820, they drew the line, fighting for the admission of Missouri as a slave state; they ultimately won a compromise that guaranteed slavery's extension into the rich portion of the Louisiana Purchase below 36°30' north latitude. They also fought to prevent national policy from favoring Northern manufacturing over slaveholding agriculture: South Carolina took the lead in confronting the national government during the nullification crisis a decade later. The cases differed in important respects, but they both revealed the widespread belief of slaveholders that unless they possessed a virtual veto over federal legislation, they and their institution would not long remain safe.     The 1830s witnessed the growth of Northern abolitionism, a biracial movement that denounced slavery as a moral evil. Northern endorsements of Nat Turner's 1831 uprising irrevocably identified abolition with the slaveholders' worst nightmares. By the 1840s, activists on both sides of the slavery debate warned of elaborate plots to subvert the Republic: antislavery activists thought a "slave-power conspiracy" wanted to rule the nation as it ruled black slaves, while proslavery activists feared that a few more free states would tip the national balance, enabling an abolitionist federal government to outlaw slavery throughout the nation and turn the Southern social order on its head. Controversy over the annexation of Texas, followed by war with Mexico, put the question of slavery's westward expansion at the center of national political debate. Most Americans assumed that this war (fought on the U.S. side mainly by troops from Southern states) would result in the annexation of considerable new North American territory by the United States. It was in this context in August 1846 that Pennsylvania's David Wilmot rose in Congress to propose that slavery be prohibited in any territories taken from Mexico. The Wilmot Proviso proved too sharp-edged a weapon for even the well-practiced defenders of sectional compromise to parry with complete success. Wilmot's resolution gained the support of many other Northern Democrats, worrying those who had counted on the national party structure to preserve the peace and suggesting that even a reliably anti-abolitionist party could not hold sectional feelings in check. Even worse, by shifting the debate from abolition to anti-extension, the Wilmot Proviso made antislavery politics central to Northern political debate. Such resistance to the expansion of slavery made it clear to some South Carolina legislators that the "incendiary machinations" of Northern "fanatics" had penetrated the halls of Congress.     In addition to offering the possibility of martial glory, war with Mexico had promised new lands where poor men and younger sons might earn their fortunes. Edgefield's white men had supported the war with gusto. Throughout the conflict, the Edgefield Advertiser reported on the Mexican exploits of the Edgefield Hussars, a company that included the Tillman family's eldest son, Thomas. In the summer of 1847, less than two weeks after his brother Ben's birth, Private Thomas Tillman was killed at Churubusco, becoming one of Edgefield's many casualties in the war. Upon receiving this news, a "committee" of local worthies resolved that they "warmly appreciate[d] the courage and spirit" he had displayed. But Thomas's body could not be sent home to receive due honors in South Carolina because he had been buried in Mexico in a mass grave. When Edgefield's slaveholders organized to oppose the Wilmot Proviso, therefore, some of them had already invested their sons' lives in the new territory. At Edgefield's anti-Wilmot Proviso assembly, the outspoken A. P. Aldrich warned of the "controlling power" abolitionists had gained over Northern politicians and of a "design ... to interfere with the institution of slavery." Such interference, Aldrich and others suggested, should trouble nonslaveholders as well. In theory, slaveholding households were "families," and any interference with their workings constituted interference with a white man's right to govern his household. Challenges to masters' authority therefore constituted threats to husbands' authority, and vice versa. And if such challenges could threaten or undermine the household prerogatives of large slaveholders -- the most powerful white men -- then less powerful white men could hardly expect their own authority to remain secure.     By 1850, the controversy over slavery in the West had become a national political crisis. To accomplished peacemakers like Henry Clay, the answer lay in a new compromise package, one that would resolve the interwoven issues of slavery and the territories. But to suspicious slaveholder politicians like Clay's old nemesis, South Carolina's John C. Calhoun, no legislative compromise would suffice. Indeed, nothing short of a new constitutional settlement would restore Southern men -- and slavery -- to their proper place of honor in the nation's councils. Calhoun believed that this, too, would probably fail, and even as he proposed antimajoritarian constitutional remedies, he and his disciples began to lay the organizational groundwork for disunion in the name of "Southern rights."     The language of Southern rights was intended to rally white men against Northerners who sought to contain slavery. But even as it identified slaveholding as a Southern right worthy of impassioned defense, it did not place slavery itself at the rhetorical heart of its claims. Rather, it appealed to the shared commitment to white manly independence and suggested that by infringing on white Southern men's right to carry their property and way of life into new lands, antislavery forces were relegating the region's white men -- "the South," in its revealing shorthand -- to the status of subordinates. Indeed, slaveholders had difficulty discussing infringements of a citizen's rights without suggesting that the victim of such affronts had been enslaved. The staunchly pro-extensionist Edgefield Advertiser , urging the county's white men to brook no compromise, refused to "so grossly insult their acknowledged bravery and independence as to suppose for a moment that they will submit to these wanton infringements of their rights." Submission was for dependents, not for white men. The Reverend Brookes, for his part, demonstrated that he was as committed to protecting Southern white men's collective rights from Northerners' schemes as he was to protecting his own property rights from William Lumpkins's depredations. In 1850, he published a lengthy pamphlet against Northern "reproaches and incroachments" in which he accused abolitionists not only of seeking to unleash a servile rebellion but also of planning to march south and make the slaveholders themselves into slaves. Slavery as political metaphor and slavery as social institution blurred as Brookes interpreted abolitionism for a local audience.     Abolitionists, slaveholders believed, were plotting to foment a bloody slave revolt. Under normal circumstances, proper discipline could catch potential slave rebels early and make examples of them. But how could planters defend themselves if the catalyst for revolt came from outside the system? During the summer of 1849, the arrival of abolitionist pamphlets in the mail alarmed upcountry elites. How, the Edgefield Advertiser demanded, had the senders obtained the names of those to whom they addressed the pamphlets? What other information did they have? And what else did these "secret agents" intend? "There are no doubt, men lurking at this time, in our midst," declared the paper. "The community should have an eye upon them. At a time like the present vigilance is the sacred duty of every citizen!" That fall, a Spartanburg committee of safety imprisoned a man named Barrett who was purportedly the author or distributor of these pamphlets. Enough confusion and controversy attended his peremptory arrest that the authorities permitted Barrett to leave the state. But the Advertiser warned that any future Northern abolitionists found in the South would be "tried, condemned, and hung as spies." Edgefield residents even petitioned the General Assembly to prohibit the importation of slaves or the immigration of free blacks into the state from any point to the north or northwest lest the infection spread. Although the committee voted to reject the petition, recognizing its contradiction of the southern rights claim that slave property was as portable as any other kind of property, a few members understood and sympathized with the petitioners' intent. In a rare minority report, they offered a domino theory of abolitionism: slaves in the border states of the Chesapeake, by virtue of their proximity to free states, had already been "indoctrinated" with "the principles of insubordination, and even of abolitionism." Their movement into South Carolina would do more than "injure and corrupt" South Carolina slaves; the steady drain of slaves from tobacco-to cotton-growing regions would eventually render South Carolina itself a border state, "with Maryland, Virginia, and even North Carolina hostile to our peculiar institution." Isolated and encircled, the state would be helpless against the abolitionists.     In Ben Tillman's world, white men had to take up arms against such threats. In theory, the inculcation of "the sturdy virtues of the soldier" provided "a strong guaranty against the effeminate influences of an easy life, and the erect and manly discipline of military life elevates the character and pride of a man." More practically, threats to slavery itself required an overwhelming and collective military response. Militia and slave-patrol laws made adult white men into a home guard, required by law to cooperate in disciplining the slave labor force. In moments of crisis, moreover, white men frequently organized less formal volunteer companies and vigilance societies to squelch real or perceived threats to local authority. During the spring of 1849, as authorities dealt with the slaves accused of murdering Michael Long, the county's white elite held a series of meetings to establish "committees of safety and vigilance," informal local anti-abolitionist militias.     These unofficial committees drew their authority from the same circumscribed "people" that constituted the region's democratic citizenry. However violent the actions they took in defense of white men's prerogatives, James Henry Hammond explained, they could hardly be considered mobs. Unlike Northern society, with its growing "riot and bloodshed," Southern slave society had no mobs, only the "habitual vigilance" of a citizenry "concerned in the maintenance of order." A band of "the people[,] ... assemble[d] to chastise" a trespassing abolitionist, "no more [constituted] a mob, than a rally of shepherds to chase a wolf out of their pastures would be one." If abolition were forced on it, that "rally of shepherds" would turn on the blacks so wickedly set free: "`[A]rmed police' ... would immediately spring into existence," Hammond explained, and before long "the African race would be exterminated, or reduced again to Slavery."     Throughout 1849 and 1850, some of South Carolina's white citizens tried to transform this martial mobilization into secession from the Union. One observer believed that the "military parade of an armed force" he witnessed at an anti-Wilmot Proviso meeting in Charleston was "kept up to scare the Government of the United States as well as the negroes." Those who wanted South Carolina to leave the Union no matter what other states did became known as secessionists. The Edgefield Advertiser , placing itself firmly in this camp, solemnly declared in the summer of 1849 that "[w]e now look to disunion as our only hope." Secessionists such as George Tillman contrasted their self-assertion with their opponents' lack of manliness. The Edgefield paper snidely offered space in its columns to "any opponents of resistance, or to speak plainly, submissionists , who desire to advocate their cause before the public."     Authority over one's dependents was no more important than equality with one's fellow citizens. When secession met with opposition from men who feared it would disrupt the cotton economy, a writer calling himself "Secession" accused the commercial interests of Charleston and other towns, comprising 50,000 or so white citizens, of attempting to dominate the upcountry's 500,000 white inhabitants. "Secession" urged rural districts to send large delegations to the state's secession convention, hoping that "the sight of an army of sturdy backwoodsmen, may revive the drooping patriotism of Charleston, and reinvigorate the flagging courage of her degenerate sons and perfumed foplings." "Flagging" and "drooping" urban manhood could be invigorated by a manly secessionist stand. A headline in the Edgefield Advertiser a few months earlier claimed that by electing secessionist delegates, the counties of Newberry and Laurens had proved themselves "erect." Another writer attempted to persuade slaveholders that men's mastery over human property meant nothing compared to their willingness to resist oppression. "Every cowardly little monster can tyrannize over his slaves," he wrote, but slaveholders who wielded only this kind of power would seem "very ridiculous" if they simultaneously allowed themselves to "endur[e] from the hand of a strong man, the foulest enormities that ever blighted the prosperity of a once free people." If a man's "sovereignty" was the essence of his self-worth, as sacred "as the virgin chastity of your daughters," it could hardly suffice to have the respect and fear of only one's slaves. Proper manhood required defying the strong as well as dominating the weak.     Some white men experienced the secession movement as coercion, an assault on their right to pursue independent thought and action. Out-and-out unionists even wondered whether secessionists saw them as free white men, citizens and equals, or as slaves. In 1849, one Southern unionist claimed to be "a little surprised" that a unionist acquaintance from South Carolina was "suffered to go about Mr. Calhoun's plantation so much without a pass ." The bitter quip exposed the rigid dichotomies of power and subordination in this society, in which a dissident quickly became an anticitizen -- a slave. Likening civil society in South Carolina to a plantation under a despotic leader, this critique suggested that the state's citizens were free to vote on secession only as long as they voted as their masters wished.     For the time being, the secessionists' rhetoric and organization did not carry the day against their somewhat more moderate foes. Cooperationists, despite their name, supported secession as well, but they insisted that South Carolina should only act in concert with other slave states. The divide between factions took place along complex political and economic lines: in general, cooperation gained the support of those with strong commercial ties (who stood to lose the most if South Carolina became isolated) and those yeomen and nonslaveholders least invested in slavery, whereas planters and smaller slaveholders provided the bulk of support for secession. Despite the efforts of George Tillman and other local secession activists, when it came time to elect delegates to the state's special convention on secession in 1851, cooperationists won Edgefield -- by a single vote. In the end, nearly 60 percent of South Carolina's voters rejected delegates who favored South Carolina seceding on its own. Most staunch secessionists realized that South Carolina's white men would have to be much more united if they were to lead the region. (Continues...) Copyright (c) 2000 The University of North Carolina Press. All rights reserved.

Table of Contents

IntroductionBen Tillman and Agrarian Rebel
1 Mastery and Its Discontents
2 Planters and ""theGentlemanfrom Africa""
3 The Shotgun Wedding of White Supremacy and Reform
4 Farmers, Dudes, White Negroes, and the Sun-Browned Goddess
5 The Mob and the State
6 Every White Man Who Is Worthy of a Vote
7 The Uses of a Pitchfork
8 Demagogues and Disordered Households
Epilogue: The Reconstruction of American Democracy
Map of South Carolina in the 1880s
Tillman in his