Tillman, of German descent, was born near Trenton, South Carolina. He left school in 1864 to join the Confederate States Army during the American Civil War, but was disabled by an illness that later caused the removal of his left eye and thus never fought for the Confederacy. During Reconstruction, he became a paramilitary fighter in the struggle to overthrow the interracial Republican coalition in the state and disempower the black majority. He was present at the Hamburg Massacre in July 1876, during which black Republican activists were murdered by Tillman's fellow "Red Shirts."
Presenting himself as the friend of ordinary white farmers, Tillman took over the South Carolina Farmers Alliance, and used the organization as a platform for his political ambitions. He was elected Governor of South Carolina in 1890, and served from December 1890 to December 1894. He helped establish Clemson College and Winthrop College while in office and Tillman Hall on both campuses are named in his honor. When the Alliance founded the Populist Party on the Ocala Demands, Tillman arranged for the South Carolina Democratic Party to adopt the platform, though he refused to endorse the "sub-treasury," the Populists' most ambitious economic proposal, or to countenance any appeal to black voters. The strategy prevented the development of an independent Populist Party and the biracial politics of North Carolina, thus assuring white control through the dominant, white Democratic Party.
He was largely responsible for calling the State constitutional convention in 1895 that disfranchised most of South Carolina's black men and required Jim Crow laws. As Tillman proudly proclaimed in 1900, "We have done our level best [to prevent blacks from voting]...we have scratched our heads to find out how we could eliminate the last one of them. We stuffed ballot boxes. We shot them. We are not ashamed of it." (Logan, p. 91)
He was elected to the United States Senate in 1894, and was re-elected in 1901, 1907, and 1913. He served from 1895 to his death in 1918. A hotheaded and intemperate debater, Tillman became known as "Pitchfork Ben" after a speech he made on the Senate floor in 1896. In this speech, Tillman made several references to pitchforks and threatened to go to the White House and "poke old Grover [Cleveland] with a pitchfork" to prod him into action.
During his Senate career, he was censured by the Senate in 1902 after assaulting John L. McLaurin, another Senator. He became the chairman of the Committee on Revolutionary Claims (57th through 59th Congresses); served on the Committee on Five Civilized Tribes of Indians (61st and 62nd Congresses); and the Committee on Naval Affairs (63rd through 65th Congresses). During World War I, impatient with the Navy's requests for larger battleships every year, he ordered the United States Navy to design "maximum battleships," the largest battleships that they could use.
Tillman took the lead in railroad regulation, though his foe Republican President Theodore Roosevelt out-maneuvered him in passage of the Hepburn Act of 1906. Tillman was the primary sponsor of the Tillman Act, the first federal campaign finance reform law, which was passed in 1907 and banned corporate contributions in federal political campaigns.
Tillman opposed American annexation of the Philippines because he feared an influx of non-white immigrants would result, undermining white racial purity. Tillman maintained his white supremacist beliefs in the Senate that he had implemented as governor; he was one of the most outspoken and unapologetic advocates of white supremacy ever to serve in Congress. Another quote of Tillman's is "We of the South have never recognized the right of the negro to govern white men, and we never will. We have never believed him to be the equal of the white man, and we will not submit to his gratifying his lust on our wives and daughters without lynching him."
An early trustee of Clemson University, Tillman Hall is named in his honor.