Speech in the Senate on the Disenfranchisement of African Americans

What was Tillman’s rationale for disenfranchising African Americans? Why did Senator Spooner interrupt Tillman’s speech? Does Tillman’s acknowledgement that black Americans committed no crimes against white southerners during the Civil War support or undercut his justification of lynching?
How would Tillman respond to Wells’ account of the causes of lynching?

Benjamin R. Tillman (1847–1918) was Governor of South Carolina (1890–1894) and U.S. Senator (1895–1918). He played an active role in anti-black violence in the 1870s and helped draft the state’s 1895 constitution that sought to disenfranchise blacks. For example, it created both a poll tax and a literacy test, the latter of which could be manipulated to discriminate against African Americans. Tillman alluded to this effort in his speech, and explained his rationale for it. He also frankly acknowledged the use of lynching. Tillman had used the theme of white supremacy to build political power in South Carolina and was known for his abusive rhetoric and violent manner. Not only did he organize violence against African Americans, he once punched another senator in the face on the floor of the Senate. When Theodore Roosevelt had dinner in the White House with Booker T. Washington, Tillman is reported to have said that it would take killing a thousand black men to put them back in their place.

—David Tucker

Source: Congressional Record, 56th Congress, 1st Session, 3223-3224.

Mr. President, I regret that I feel the necessity of bringing up again some parts of the speech of the Senator who has just taken his seat. However, he would not allow me to answer or interject an objection as he went along. It has reference to the race question in the South, the question which has been the cause of more sorrow, more misery, more loss of life, more expenditure of treasure than any and all questions which have confronted the American people from the foundation of the Government to the present day. Out of it grew the war, and after the war came the results of the war, and those results are with us now. The South has this question always with it. It cannot get rid of it. It is there. It is like Banquo’s ghost, and will not down.[1] I have felt called on to attack the Republican policy of this day and time and to accuse the Republicans in this Chamber with being hypocrites in regard to that issue; I have felt constrained to do so by reason of the facts and of the events of the past few years.

The Senator from Wisconsin[2] . . . gave us a picture of the condition of the slave during the war, and of the debt of gratitude which the Southern people owe to those slaves, who had charge of our wives and children and homes, and, to their everlasting credit, during those four long and bloody years not one solitary crime was reported against them of the kind that is now reported every week. I say that he cannot exceed me in appreciation of the fact that the Southern people did owe and do owe and will exceedingly owe a debt of gratitude to their slaves for their behavior.

But I would call the Senator’s attention to the absolute and inevitable corollary, that if the slaves of the South, with the opportunities which were afforded them during those years when all the men were at the front, and when their wrongs, if they had any, would have prompted revenge, were guilty of no crime against their mistresses and their children, it in thunder tones gives the lie to the charges as to the cruelty of the slave system in the South.

There were numerous instances, possibly too numerous, of cruelty and wrongdoing, and I shall not apologize for the system, for, thank God, it is gone—torn up by the roots at a great cost of life and sacrifice of property. I would not restore it if I could by the waving of a hand. But I say to him when he parades that as a reason why we ought to be grateful—and I acknowledge that we ought—he at once convicts himself and those of his fellows who went on that crusade of blood and destruction for the purpose of liberating those people of having been misled and of having given Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin undue weight in inaugurating that crusade. I have already given due credit on this floor to the North for patriotism and honesty of purpose and I realize that the love of the Union was a mighty factor in that great struggle. But it cannot be denied that the slaves of the South were a superior set of men and women to the freedmen of today, and that the poison in their minds—the race hatred of the whites—is the result of the teachings of Northern fanatics. Ravishing a woman, white or black, was never known to occur in the South till after the Reconstruction era. So much for that phase of the subject.

As to the rights of the Negros in the South, of which he now claims to be the champion—

Mr. Spooner. [interrupting] No.

Mr. Tillman. Well, I do not understand the Senator. I am very unfortunate in being unable to fathom his meaning. He speaks clearly, and I usually have the means of interpreting language that is plain and unmistakable; but he did say something about the rights of those people.

Mr. Spooner. I did.

Mr. Tillman. And he said we had taken their rights away from them. He asked me was it right to murder them in order to carry the elections. I never saw one murdered. I never saw one shot at an election. It was the riots before the election, precipitated by their own hotheadedness in attempting to hold the government, that brought on conflicts between the races and caused the shotgun to be used. That is what I meant by saying we used the shotgun.

I want to call attention to one fact. He said that the Republican Party gave the Negroes the ballot in order to protect themselves against the indignities and wrongs that were attempted to be heaped upon them by the enactment of the black code.[3] I say that [the Negroes were given the ballot] because the Republicans of that day, led by Thad Stevens,[4] wanted to put white necks under black heels and to get revenge. There is a difference of opinion. You have your opinion about it, and I have mine, and we can never agree.

I want to ask the Senator this proposition in arithmetic: In my State, there were 135,000 Negro voters, or Negroes of voting age, and some 90,000 or 95,000 white voters.[5] General Canby[6] set up a carpetbag government[7] there and turned our State over to this majority. Now, I want to ask you, with a free vote and a fair count, how are you going to beat 135,000 to 95,000? How are you going to do it? You had set us an impossible task. You had handcuffed us [and] thrown away the key, and you propped your carpet bag Negro government with bayonets. Whenever it was necessary to sustain the government you held it up by the Army.

Mr. President, I have not the facts and figures here, but I want the country to get the full view of the Southern side of this question and the justification for anything we did. We were sorry we had the necessity forced upon us, but we could not help it, and as white men we are not sorry for it, and we do not propose to apologize for anything we have done in connection to it. We took the government away from them in 1876. We did take it. If no other Senator has come here previous to this time who would acknowledge it, more’s the pity. We have had no fraud in our elections in South Carolina since 1884. There has been no organized Republican Party in the State.

We did not disfranchise the Negroes until 1895. Then we had a constitutional convention convened which took the matter up calmly, deliberately, and avowedly with the purpose of disenfranchising as many of them as we could under the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments. We adopted the educational qualification as the only means left to us, and the Negro is as contented and as prosperous and as well protected in South Carolina today as in any State of the Union south of the Potomac. He is not meddling with politics, for he found that the more he meddled with them, the worse off he got. As to his “rights”—I will not discuss them now. We of the South have never recognized the right of the Negro to govern the white men, and we never will. We have never believed him to be equal to the white man, and we will not submit to his gratifying lust on our wives and daughters without lynching him.[8] I would to God the last one of them was in Africa and that none of them had ever been brought to our shores. . . .

I want to ask permission in this connection to print a speech which I made in the constitutional convention of South Carolina when it convened in 1895, in which the whole carpetbag regime and the indignities and wrongs heaped upon our people, the robberies which we have suffered, and all the facts and figures there brought out are incorporated, and let the whole of the facts go to the country. I am not ashamed to have those facts go to the country. They are our justification for the present situation in our State. . . .

  1. 1. Lord Banquo, Thane of Lochaber, from the play Macbeth, by William Shakespeare. Macbeth murders Banquo in the first half of the play in an attempt to secure his claim on the throne; Banquo’s ghost reappears at various points in the second half of the play to torment the king.
  2. 2. John Coit Spooner (1843–1919) was a Republican Senator, 1885–1991, 1897–1907 and considered by many of the time the Senate’s leading Constitutional expert. He had enlisted in the Union Army during the Civil War.
  3. 3. Black codes were laws passed by Southern states at the end of Civil War to restrict the freedom of freedmen.
  4. 4. Thaddeus Stevens (1792–1868) was a Republican Congressman from Pennsylvania, a leading anti-slavery politician, and a proponent of a radical reconstruction of the South following the Civil War.
  5. 5. South Carolina did not have a majority white population until around 1920.
  6. 6. Edward Canby (1817–1873) was Military Governor of the Second Military District (August 1867 to August 1868) that included North and South Carolina. Canby was assassinated by Modoc Indians during a negotiation.
  7. 7. “Carpetbaggers” is a derogatory term for a Northerner who went to the South after the Civil War and held office, or otherwise sought to take advantage of post-war conditions.
  8. 8. See "Lynch Law in America" and Along This Way.
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