By E.T. Yazoo - Originally Published 11/13/2000 -The Carolina Clemson rivalry began at least ten years before the first football game was played in 1896. The rivalry evolved out of the stormy politics of the post-reconstruction reform era, known by South Carolina historians as the Tillman era. The charismatic leader, Benjamin Ryan Tillman, or "Pitchfork Ben," governed South Carolina from 1890 until 1894, and was the father of Clemson. He, and he alone, made Thomas Clemson's grant of 814 acres for a state sponsored agricultural college in Fort Hill, S.C., an 1889 political reality.
The official Clemson University web site, which purports to set forth the history of Clemson University, including a link to the 1888 will of Thomas Clemson, dedicates not a single sentence to the man without whose help the school would not exist, Tillman. Although his name is absent from Clemson's modern-day published web history, his name is memorialized on the Clemson campus by its tallest building, clock-faced Tillman Hall.
Perhaps the reason for the omission of any mention of Ben Tillman in the official Clemson written history was Tillman's role in racial politics of South Carolina. Tillman led efforts to disenfranchise black South Carolinians in the 1890s. He advocated--while Governor--lynching, and at least 18 lynchings occurred during his two administrations as Governor. Maybe Clemson omitted Tillman's name was because of his earlier participation, during the 1870s and 1880s, in the armed groups like the Sweetwater Rifle Club and the Edgefield Huzzars, militia groups which instigated the Hamburg Massacre and intimidated participants of the Hamburg Trial. Such terrorist activity helped sweep out Governor Chamberlain's Carpetbagger, Reconstruction government in favor of Wade Hampton's 1876 Bourbon Democrats. But neither Tillman's participation in the terrorism of 1870s and 1880s, nor his 1890 segregationalist policies are materially relevant to the origins of the rivalry between USC and Clemson. Instead, more relevant to the rivalry between Carolina and Clemson is his leadership in less famous--but equally important--class-based political reforms of the late 1880s and 1890s.
Tillman was a master of class warfare. In his rise to power, he skillfully exploited the rift between the growing population of poor white farmers and the wealthy Bourbon Democrat leadership. He railed against the old ruling antebellum planters and the wealthy merchants of the 1870 and 1880s. These merchants and financiers grew wealthy by loaning money to small farmers in exchange for crop liens, sometimes earning as much as 25% to 100% interest on the loans. As cotton prices fell in the 1870s and 1880s, the social climate in South Carolina was ripe for a revolutionary leader who could exploit the broadening chasm between rich and poor. "The people have been hoodwinked by demagogues and lawyers in the pay of finance," said Tillman at an 1885 address in Bennettsville, S.C. He condemned the "damnable lien laws," and the graft seeking politicians and lawyers, to roaring crowds. In a Charleston, S.C., speech Tillman accused the Charleston leaders of being, "fat lawyers who were agents of fat railroads, who are breaking the hearts of the country people." His flaming speeches swept he and his followers into power in a wave of populist sentiment.
One of Tillman's highest political priorities, the first he advocated in an 1886 Farmer's Convention, was the promotion of agricultural education. Tillman believed a separate agricultural college was needed. Tillman was no fan of South Carolina College, regarding the school as a place for the children of antebellum and mercantile elitists. He called graduates of South Carolina College, "drones and vagabonds." Tillman was unsatisfied with the state of agriculture education at South Carolina College, "the pitiful, contemptible, so-called agriculture annex." In a letter to the News & Courier Tillman described the annex as "a sop to Cerberus, a bribe to maintain the support of the farmers in the Legislature."
Unfortunately for Tillman, the 1887 Bourbon Democrats, many of whom were friends of the college, opted to expand South Carolina College. The 1887 Legislature appropriated $100,000, renamed the school as "the University of South Carolina," and created a new College of "Mechanical Arts and Agriculture." Tillman responded to this legislative effort by writing letters to the Charleston News & Courier: "They had better compromise on the matter, ere the storm which is brewing, shakes the foundations of their beloved college and perhaps topples it to the ground." Later, Tillman in a "farewell letter" wrote that the friends of University of South Carolina might "crow lustily over the great victory they have won." However, he warned that, poor farmers who could not afford the funds for the expansion of the University would show the "lordly planters [dissatisfaction] with the weak and contemptible agricultural tail which had been attached to a literary kite."
Tillman felt it was first necessary to destroy and then rebuild. In an 1887 debate with Professor R. Means Davis of the South Carolina College, he argued that South Carolina College failed to develop statesmen needed to "rebuild our shattered commonwealth." He asserted that the school produced "mere theorists and cranks" or "book farmers." Tillman contended that it was impossible to maintain an agricultural school at South Carolina College because "the very atmosphere of the place was tainted with contempt for farming."
Tillman believed the greatest obstacle to the success of an agricultural college was not cultural or physical but psychological. He feared that agricultural students would develop an attitude of inferiority. Thus, Tillman advocated a college placed a distance away where students should be required "each day to hoe, to ditch, to fork manure, to make butter, to feed stock, to graft, to bud, to prune."
Meanwhile, Tillman's class conscienceness rhetoric drew great crowds and he became more and more popular as he was drawn into politics of reform. By 1888, Tillman's followers gained a majority by ten in the state House and lacked only two of a majority in the Senate. (Tillman, however, was unable to wrest control of the party from Bourbon Democrats that year and did not secure the party nomination for Governor in 1888.)
Many of Tillman's followers were elected to the legislature in 1888 and they made acceptance of Thomas Clemson's 1888 gift, which was contingent upon legislative creation of "Clemson Agricultural College," the leading issue of the day. There was significant opposition to the proposed plan for Clemson. First, Tillman had already alienated many friends of the University of South Carolina, church colleges, and The Citadel, which Tillman called "a military dude factory." Second, Thomas Clemson's will required lifetime appointments of seven of the thirteen trustees, one of whom was Tillman, and these trustees could not be replaced or outvoted by the trustees appointed by the legislature. Thus, the state government would not have authority over the undertaking. Finally, there was a great deal of sentiment for not disinheriting the only living descendant of John C. Calhoun, Floride Isabella Lee. Philadelphia-born Thomas Clemson's will dispossessed Lee of Calhoun's family property. Nevertheless, the bill passed the House by a substantial majority, and eked out a win in the Senate by only one vote. In November 1889, Governor Richardson signed the bill establishing Clemson Agricultural College. Simultaneously, the University of South Carolina was deprived of all federal funds provided for industrial and agricultural education.
Tillman succeeded in winning nomination as Democratic candidate for governor and the election of 1890. In his acceptance speech, he stated his victory first called for a remedy for the "absolute retrogression" in education. "The people have decided," said Tillman, "that there is no use for a grand University in Columbia." Tillman asserted that the South Carolina College was a school for liberal education only, and that mechanical appliances should be transferred to Clemson. Following the Governor's advice, the legislature altered radically the organization of the University of South Carolina. The agricultural and mechanical departments established in 1887 were abolished, and a new Board of Trustees composed of the governor and his friends were elected and authorized to reorganize the school as "South Carolina College." The teaching staff was reduced from 25 to 13.
Governor Tillman, using the bully pulpit and mandate of his first election, struck the historic South Carolina College severe blows. He stated that the school was "a center of foppery and snobbery." He frequently criticized the school standards and procedures.
Tillman's frequent criticisms, turned the students and Columbia society against Tillman. Students who had hissed at Governor Tillman when he appeared in Columbia during the March 1890 campaign, snubbed him at the 1891 commencement. Tillman stated the students' conduct, "has soured me." He described it as "evidence of the narrow prejudice and bitter partisan feeling."
The school fell into bad condition, causing Tillman to write, "there is dilapidation everywhere about the institution and a woeful lack of modern books in the library." By 1892, the number of students fell from 91 to 72, and the school began to lose its ability to attract students. Tillman's followers began a movement to abolish the school. The State Superintendent of Education stated the college did not justify the annual appropriation of $41,500. Fortunately, the self-educated Tillman was a well-read individual and he recognized the need for a place to study literature and art. Tillman, thus, did not join those who were advocating abolishing the school. Ironically, his temperance on this issue might have saved the school.
Meanwhile, Governor Tillman took an active role in the creation of Clemson Agricultural College. He enthusiastically endorsed the suggestion that a plant originally planned for 250 students be expanded to 600. He bragged that Clemson Agricultural College would become "one of the grandest schools of applied science in the Union." He arranged for Clemson to get federal aid for agricultural and industrial education, and revenues derived from a tax on fertilizer. He ordered Negro convicts be supplied for labor.
When the 424 students assembled on July 6, 1893 for the opening of Clemson Agricultural College, Governor Tillman was the featured speaker. "We do not propose to make any one-sided, one-horse men of you, but you must work," said Tillman. Tillman boasted in the speech that Clemson would prove more valuable to South Carolina society than the university in Columbia he had helped dissemble. Tillman left the governor's office in November 1894, listing the establishment of Clemson Agricultural College as one of his greatest accomplishments.
Three years later, in 1896, the University of South Carolina would defeat Clemson on the football field in the first ever meeting between the schools by a score of 12-6.
Tillman went on to become a U.S. Senator, where he served until his death in Washington in 1918. Ever controversial, Tillman's service as a U.S. Senator was marred by excessive foul language, race baiting, and a 1902 fist fight on the floor of the U.S. Senate with fellow South Carolina Senator John L. McLaurin. The fight caused Theodore Roosevelt to cancel a dinner engagement. (View The Cancelation Letter By Clicking Here)