The Tillman Era

The Growth of the Populist Movement

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Postbellum Agriculture

The Post Bellum agricultural depression continued after the end of Reconstruction.

The Conservative Gov’t did nothing to help small farmers. Cotton continued to dominate the SC economy, but didn’t bring prosperity either. The crop lien system actually allowed creditors to have first claim on a farmer's crop. Continuous debt followed the small farmers. Farmers in the South and Midwest could not pay their loans. Farmers in South Carolina were still picking cotton by hand well into the 20th Century which limited crop yield.


SC farmers were also competing with foreign suppliers as well and had difficulty keeping up with supply and demand. Worldwide supply eventually became higher than demand which brought down prices and profit for cotton. In SC, the debt problem was increased because of sharecropping. The farmers originally responded by over planting their crops. The increased supply led to a lower demand and prices on crops would drop.


Small farmers in SC also had to worry about forfeiting their land and bank foreclosures.

Drought and pests also affected crops. The army worm and boll weevil led to periodic crop failures.

The Populist Movement

The political roots of the Populist movement were established in SC, as in other parts of the South and Midwest because of worsening economic conditions for farmers. Farmers first organized as the Grange, a social organization designed to help the isolation of farm life. In the Midwest, the Grange movement developed into a political organization.


In SC, farmers didn’t have any political power. Farmers organized regional Farmers Alliances which advocated an increase in monetary supply, especially coining silver.

The Farmers’ Alliance was segregated between a white alliance and a black alliance.

In the 1890s, alliances around the country united to form the Populist Party, which supported the regulation of railroads, banking, free unlimited coining of silver, and a system of federal farm loans.


Populists advocated democratic reforms such as the popular election of Senators, the secret ballot and a graduated income tax. The farmers attempted to ally with the industrial workers by advocating an 8 hour day and restrictions on immigration. Populists were successful in electing senators, governors, and state legislators in the South and West. In SC, farmers did not form a separate party but worked to control the Democratic Party.

Ben Tillman

Farmers in SC accepted the leadership of Ben Tillman due to his speaking and political skills. Tillman was considered a Populist because he appealed to the needs of the common folk against the elite. However, Tillman was not a true Populist because he wanted control of the Democratic Party in SC. Tillman was a demagogue, a political leader who would gain power and popularity by speech (i.e. Hitler).


Unlike other Southern Populists, Tillman did not seek the support of the black farmers.

Tillman’s white supremacy message and racist views led to an increase of violence and lynching against blacks. Tillman was also for disenfranchising the black voter.

Clemson University

The fight between Tillman’s followers and the Conservative Democrats got statewide attention with Tillman’s support for the establishment of Clemson as an agricultural college and his opposition to the elitism of USC.


Tillman was a supporter of educational facilities for farmers to teach them better crop management along with developing new crops to increase their profits. The property at Clemson was a gift by Thomas Green Clemson, John C. Calhoun’s son-in-law. Thomas Green Clemson supported Tillman’s thought that Clemson should be an agricultural college.


However, Clemson was also a land grant college in that its operation was supported by a system of land grants started by the Federal Gov’t (Morrill Act) by which a part of the sales of western lands was reserved to support agricultural improvements in older states.

South Carolina State University

To satisfy the “separate but equal” doctrine, SC had to establish SC State University as a land grant college for black farmers. SC State University received limited financial support from the state.


As a land-grant institution, it struggled to provide agricultural and mechanical training to generations of black youngsters. Through its extension program, it sent farm and home demonstration agents into rural counties to provide knowledge and information to impoverished black farm families.

Natural Disasters

Clemson & SC State encouraged diversification of crops, but changes in crop production had occurred in various regions of the state as a result of natural disasters and ownership. Although its epicenter was closer to Summerville, the effects of the 1886 earthquake were catastrophic to the city of Charleston. The 1886 earthquake was the most catastrophic quake east of the Mississippi River. Charleston’s response to the quake modernized construction practices, disaster preparedness, and scientific study which continue today


The hurricane of 1893 that hit Charleston wiped out rice fields (along with phosphates) and brought an end to “Carolina Gold”. The production of rice in the far east also assisted in halting rice production. Low Country farmers turned to truck gardening to supply to local markets. The Pee Dee region began producing tobacco. Peaches were introduced to the Upcountry. Cotton continued to dominate SC agriculture into the 20th century.