Ben Tillman and Hendrix McLane, Agrarian Rebels: White Manhood, "The Farmers," and the Limits of Southern Populism

Article excerpt

IN OCTOBER 1892 J. HENDRIX MCLANE, SOUTH CAROLINA'S MOST SUCcessful proponent of interracial agrarian radicalism, left a People's Party rally exhilarated by "great speeches" and a "righteous movement." But McLane did not spend the rest of the night planning strategy with South Carolina's other Populist leaders. For one thing, he was not a Populist: a decade earlier, the biracial agrarian coalition that McLane had led against the state's Democratic Party had been destroyed before it won a single office, and by 1892 McLane identified himself as a reform Republican. For another, South Carolina Populists were as dejected as they were scarce. Although only a few weeks remained before the November elections, the state lacked even a slate of People's Party candidates; instead, the mantle of agrarian rebellion in South Carolina had been seized by Benjamin R. Tillman, a wealthy planter, terrorist, and anti-Populist Democrat. But more to the point, McLane had taken up a role common to southern dissidents--that of exile. After listening to other men's speeches at Tremont Temple that October night, McLane made his way home through the streets of Boston.(1)

Like other frustrated white radicals, McLane had been unable to contend with southern white men's "fear of Negro domination" and had given up on biracial political action.(2) Tillman's white supremacy had triumphed. But a close analysis of McLane's defeat and Tillman's ascendancy suggests that not simply race, but a racialized conception of manhood, shaped the fate of each man's efforts. Both Tillman and McLane, like their counterparts in other states, drew on their common experiences and expectations in appealing for political support. But while McLane and other radicals urged white men to think beyond their racial identity and build political coalitions on the basis of economic interest, Tillman used the history and language of white manhood to suggest that only white male producers were entitled to govern.

McLane and his white allies failed to rebut this presumption. They failed in part because of the brutal violence committed by Tillman and other white supremacist Democrats, but the radicals were not defeated by armed force alone. Time and again, as McLane and men like him urged other white men to join their biracial movement--and, later, as they sought explanations for their failure--they spoke the same language of white manhood that Tillman and others had been using against them, a language of citizenship, productivity, and self-assertion that drew its power from southern white men's historically rooted expectations of political, economic, and social primacy. Beginning in the 1880s Tillman forged a white supremacy movement that rested on the racialized notion of manhood as much as on the enforcement of racial hierarchy; his radical opponents, however, proved unable to imagine or articulate a vision of manhood that was not also defined and delimited by race. Understanding white manhood in terms strikingly similar to those used by their opponents, they could not persuasively rebut the charge that their efforts would put that precious legacy at risk.

For generations, political, economic, and social authority in the South had been the almost exclusive province of white men. Most slaveholding and non-slaveholding white men shared a system of law, custom, and metaphor: as the master of a small farm household--or of a vast "family, black and white"--a white man was an independent citizen, soldier, and voter; normatively, white women and children, and black men, women, and children existed only in various states of dependence on particular white men.(3) This was, of course, more an ideal than a uniform social reality. A significant minority of white men lacked economic independence and a political voice. Men of modest means had fought for decades to achieve even the nominal equality of citizenship and in some respects still remained politically disadvantaged. …