Tillman, of German descent, was born to a wealthy planter family in Edgefield County, South Carolina. He left school, in 1864 when he was disabled by an illness, which resulted in the removal of his left eye; he never served in the Confederate Army. 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."
Posing 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, now Clemson University. When the Alliance in other states moved toward the Populist Party and its radical "Ocala Demands", Tillman arranged for the South Carolina Democratic Party to adopt the platform, wholesale. The strategy prevented the development of an independent Populist Party, assuring white control through the dominant, white Democratic Party.
Tillman was largely responsible for calling the State constitutional convention, in 1895, that disfranchised almost all of South Carolina's blacks and imposed the Jim Crow of segregation and second class status for blacks.
He was elected as a Democrat to the United States Senate in 1894, and was reelected in 1901, 1907, and 1913, serving until his death.
During his Senate career, he was censured by the Senate, in 1902, after assaulting another Senator. Seniority gave him power in the Senate.
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. He was one of the most outspoken and unapologetic advocates of white supremacy ever to serve in Congress.
- Burton, Orville Vernon. In My Father's House Are Many Mansions: Family and Community in Edgefield, South Carolina (1985) online edition
- Kantrowitz, Stephen. Ben Tillman and the Reconstruction of White Supremacy (2000) excerpt and text search; portrays him as a terrorist, organizer, tyrant and bully
- Clark, Kathleen. "Who Made Jim Crow?" Reviews in American History 2001 29(2): 238-246. Issn: 0048-7511 Fulltext: in Project Muse; reviews Kantrowitz book
- / online review by Bruce Palmer
- Kantrowitz, Stephen. "Ben Tillman and Hendrix McLane, Agrarian Rebels: White Manhood, 'The Farmers,' and the Limits of Southern Populism." Journal of Southern History. 66#3 (2000) pp 497+. in JSTOR; online edition
- Simkins, Francis Butler. The Tillman Movement in South Carolina (1926) online edition
- Simkins, Francis Butler. Pitchfork Ben Tillman, South Carolinian (1944), standard biography
- Simon, Bryant. A Fabric of Defeat: The Politics of South Carolina Millhands, 1910-1948, (1998) online edition
- "Their own Hotheadedness": Tillman speech in Senate advocating disenfranchisement of blacks and lynching of those who protested
- "The White Man's Burden" as Prophecy. Tillman speech in Senate denouncing U.S. imperialism in the Philippines on humanitarian and patriotic grounds