JAMES CREELMAN IN PEARSON’S MAGAZINE (AMERICAN)July11906
Tillman, Defender of the Senate
JAMES CREELMAN IN PEARSON’S MAGAZINE (AMERICAN)
Recent events at Washington have brought into renewed prominence, Benjamin Ryan Tillman, senator from South Carolina. Tillman is a dramatic figure in American political life and the character sketch of him that follows throws into relief his extraordinary nature.
BENJAMIN RYAN TILLMAN is the most violently outspoken as well as the most unbribable of radical Democrats. His is the fiercest and roughest spirit that has ever found voice in the "great advisory council" which constitutes the federal side of Congress, the "palladium to the residuary sovereignty of the States."
Senator Tillman speaks from an inner knowledge of the Senate, extending over a period of abo/ut eleven years. He has studied the senators at close range. He has entered into the penetralia of their official life. With a suspicion and cynicism that has found vent in many picturesque, and sometimes shocking, outbursts! on the floor of the Senate, he has searched patiently for evidences of senatoiial corruption. No sense of delicacy, no regard for the proprieties or for personal associations has ever bridled that wild tongue.
And what is the testimony of Senator Tillman after eleven, years) of service in the body which is now pictured as a breeder of corruption and treason? Here are his own words :
“I believe the Senate to be a great body of great men. When I came to Washington at first I thought that the senators were generally corrupt or corruptible; that was my honest opinion.
“Since that time I have been compelled to change my belief. Nothing could be falser than the idea that the Senate is corrupt or treasonable. I am convinced that, with rare exceptions, the senators are honest and
patriotic personally, and that when they have failed to do their whole duty in the Senate it has been because of party loyalty and prejudice, rather than peisonal crookedness.
‘ ‘ The truth is that the Senate continues to be a deliberative body, with freedom of debate and of action, while the House of Representatives merely records the will of the speaker.
“The Senate is still what Washington described it to be. You know that Jefferson was in Europe during the great Constitutional Convention. When he came back he visited Washington and, it is said, reproached him for consenting to the creation of the Senate. He demanded to know why Washington had not opposed the idea.
“When Jefferson asked this question he was, so the story goes, walking up and down with a cup of tea in his hand. The tea was too hot and he poured it out into a saucer.
“Washington smiled. ‘You have answered yourself,’ he said. ‘The Senate is a saucer in which we will cool the legislationi -brewed fin the House.’ ”
In order to judge the value of Senator Tillman as a witness for the Senate one must know something about the man and hisi antecedents.
He is tall, deep in the chest, sinewy, loose-limbed and awkward. There is not a more formidable figure to be found in America.
The countenance is singularly coarse. The brow is wide but not high. It overhangs a dead eyesocket and a single living brown eye. The nose is large, long, and fleshy. It is
the nose of a born commander of men. The cheeks, which once were iiaty are now pudgy. The jaws are heavy and have a terrific grip. The mouth is thick-lipped and has a brutal suggestiveness. The chin is wide and separe, the chin of a desperado. The neck is thick and muscular.
But the head is almost Napoleonic m its strength and symmetry and it is ordinarly carried high, with an air of defiance.
The face makes one think of piracy, cannibalism. It is «the splendid outline of the head that redeems and explains it. Not that there is any trace of cunning or treachery in the countenance; yet it is beyond comparison as an example of savage masculinity.
Still, that fierce brown eye can Siof«ten compassionately and can twinkle with sunniest humor; and those terrible lips can quote Greek and Latin and talk of flowers and poets and little children. For the face is but a mask to hide a very honest, very human man, who entered the Senate at the head of a fiery farmers’ revolmtion, a mob-leader, cursing all things conservative—to grow into a national legislator whose intelligence, industry and rough integrity have won the respect, if not the love, of his most fastidious antagonists in the Senate.
In considering Sena«tor Tillman’s defence of the Senate against the carefully worked-up plan to undermine the confidence of the people, it seems hardly necessary to recall the fact that he is not ordinarily an optimist. He has a jaundiced mind, which looks with distrust and suspicion. But he is;, in his own way, hear«tily honest. It was into his hands that the railroad rate regulation bill was committed in the Senate, and his strongest incentive in the
lung fight against proposed amendments was due to his incurable distrust of a part of «the federal judiciary. So that it is hardly likely that a senator who does not hesitate publicly to assail the national courts would be likely to overlook or condone treason or corruption in those wi«th whom he is engaged in fiercest strife in the Senate.
The day of Senator Tillman’s first speech in the Senate ! Who that was there can forget it"? Walking down one of the aisles to the front row of desks, he wheeled about in his| long black coat, folded his arms tightly across his broad chesty threw his head back—his eye glaring from his paled visage, his lip lifted in a mocking, snarling sneer—and in a speech of almost unexampled virulence, he scoffed at the dignity of the Senate, ridiculed its» smothering tiaditions and denounced President Cleveland as ua self-idolatrous, bull-necked despot. ”
And how the orator’s face lighted with a sudden, cruel pleasure when his rough language to Senator Hoar crimsoned «the face of that silverhaired leader and caused him to throw up his hands despairingly. For it was in the law of destiny, foreshadowed many times in American history, that South Carolina and Massachusetts should find joy in the clash of their opposite temperaments and traditions. And the spark of anger «that flashed across those rows of seats, from the infuriate face of Tillman to the mild, round countenance of New England’s most venerated and cultured spokesman, was of the same fire that blazed in the breasts of Roundhead and Cavalier before they left England to resume their struggle in the western world.
■ It was Senator Tillman’s shocking frankness, couched in language never before heard in the Senate—for not
all the Southern States together could pi event him from admitting, sometimes glorying in, the barbarous political methods made necessary by the fear of negro domination—it was this that made men like Senator Hoar loathe his very presence.
It was reckless truth-telling that finally startled Senator Hoar into a revision of his first judgment of the South Caiolinian, and the time came when the Massachusetts senator acknowledged him to be one of the most useful men in American public life, a man of brains) and purpose without whom the Senate would be incomplete. The thing came about in this way:
The Senate was in executive session and the appointment of a negro to Federal office was under discussion. Senator Tillman was on his feet, his face livid, his clenched hands swung above his head.
“I tell you,” he cried, “that you can keep up this kind of thing till you compel the people of the south to get shot-guns and kill every man you appoint.”
“Whatt?” exclaimed Senator Hoar, rising. “The Senator from Soiuth Carolina would not admit that in open session.”
“Open the doors right now and see whether I will admit it or not,”’ shouted Senator Tillman.
“Your predecessors never acknowledged it,” suggested the astonished Massachusetts! senador.
“Maybe not,” replied the South Carolinian, “but if they didn’t they concealed the facts. We don’t intend to submit to negro domination and all the Yankees from Cape Cod to hell can’t make us submit to it.”
There was something in that incident which aroused Senator Hoar’s interest in Senator Tillman, and from
that dime on there grew up a friendship which lasted until Senator Hoar’s death.
This picturesque man, who has been variously estimated from a hero and statesman to a loutish charlatan and crank, is by origin half English, a quarter German and a quarter Irish. His ancestors were South Carolina farmer folk who served in the War for Independence. The senator was born fifdy-nine years ago in; a large, old-fasjhioned house on his father’s ample cotton plantation in Edgefield County, South Carolina. His father died and his mother, assisted by her elder sons, managed the farm. Mrs. Tillman was a woman of great intelligence and courage. But misfoitune came when the Civil War broke out and her hundred slaves deserted.
“A hundred thousand dollars’ worth of property promptly walked oft' our farm at that time,” said Senator Tillman the other day.
Although his brothers were old enough to serve in the Confederate Army, Benjamin R. Tillman was a school-boy of fifteen when the great struggle began. He knew that at sixteen lie must join the Confederate forces, and his brothers wrote back from the field entreating him to get as much education asi possible, because the war might lastt so long that he would never again be able to go to school.
Even at night young Tillman would continue his studies, frequently carrying a lighted pine knot into the woods and lying down with his books beside it. He was a lank, tall, silent boy, dictatorial and brusque, but a natural student. The heat of the pine torch injured his left eye and a plunge in cold water brought on a tumor that destroyed it. It wasi the almost two years’ illness following
this mishap that prevented the youth from serving* in aims against the Union.
Those who have raised their hands in horror at Senator Tillman’s pitiless war against the political aspirations of the negroes of his state should remember that »the most impressionable years of his young manhood were passed in the Reconstruction period, and' no humane person can contemplate the experience of South Carolina at that time without a shudder. It was a race struggle pure and simple, and there were days when the desperate whi»te population threatened to renew the war unless they were relieved from the horrors and disasters of negro domination.
In 1876, he was captain of a company of volunteer hussars in Edgefield County, and he led his men in the anti-negro riots at Ellenton and Hamburg. Afterward he rode at »the head of his company to Aiken to be tried for insurrection. As a mark of defiance to northern politicians of the John Sherman type, the entire company, including Captain Tillman, appeared at their trial in blood-red shirts presented by South Carolina women.
Umtil 1886, Senator Tillman was a farmer, innocent of oratory or politics. He had violent opinions on the race question and his tongue was the dread of the country side. But it was not until that year he became a public character. He was drawn from his farm in a movement to extend the scope of the State Agricultural Board, to transfer the control to the farmers and to establish a college on agricultural and industrial lines. That sounded the keynote of a policy that was soon to develop a scheme of modified socialism founded upon the right of the farm to govern the town.
The political power of the negro
had been trampled under foot. The remnants of the fine old Bourbon political oligarchy had resumed control of South Carolina. City, town, factory and store worked together at the polls. The farmers scattered throughout the state constituted a majority of the electorate, but they were without organization or leaders.
.In 1889 the Farmers’ Alliance was organized, and through tha»t organization Senator Tillman fashioned the discontented and dejected rural mob into an army. In 1890, he was nominated for governor by the faimers, and elected.
After serving a second term as governor he was elected to the United Sta»tes Senate in 1895.
.One of the most vivid incidents of his career in Washington occurred when his colleague and former political follower, Senator McLaurin, declared in the open Senate that Senator Tillman had uttered “¡a deliberate and malicious lie.”
Instantly Senator Tillman bounded a»t his colleague and beat him in the face with his fists. The sergeant-atarms and a number of senators intervened, but Senator Tillman managed to strike his opponent again over the shoulder of the sergeant-at-arms.
“I just had to do it,” he explained. “If I hadn’t done it I needn’t have gone back to South Carolina. It isn’t that kind of a. state.”
For that original style of senatorial retort, the Senate suspended Senator Tillman for several days and President Roosevebt roughly recalled an invitation to the White House banquet to Prince Henry which he had sent to the senator.
Taking Senator Tillman all in all. he is the last man in American politics to be suspected of sheltering corruption, especially the corruption of rich men or private corporations.
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