The Farmers’ Association was the vehicle for Benjamin Ryan Tillman’s political ambitions in the mid-1880s. Farmers’ clubs or agricultural improvement groups already existed across the state; Tillman hoped to unite them in supporting his goals of agricultural, educational, and governmental reform while challenging the ruling conservative wing of the Democratic Party.
Tillman canvassed the state, speaking at local clubs and getting editorials printed and reprinted in newspapers. The response was substantial. In Newberry County hundreds of farmers turned out for the convention of the Jalapa Farmers’ Club in March 1886. Other clubs received similar response or were created throughout the spring and summer of 1886. The Farmers’ Association held its first statewide meeting in Columbia in April 1886. All of the delegates were white—and Tillman made it clear that the Farmers’ Association was for whites only—but some conservative Democrats were present.
Although the association’s early rhetoric claimed that it was separate from the Democratic Party, it quickly became a means for Tillman to preempt the party’s movements. In Darlington County the same man was vice president of the county Democratic Party convention and the county Farmers’ Association convention. Farmers’ Association groups often met before local Democratic Party conventions and determined the slates of candidates to be proposed at the party functions. By early 1887 Democratic Party and Farmers’ Association groups met at the same time or association representatives simply took control of party proceedings.
The relationship between the two groups did not always work to Tillman’s advantage. Conservative Democrats initially held off the Tillman challenge, and at the end of 1887 the Farmers’ Association was struggling. Two events helped revitalize the movement. First, the founding of Clemson College in 1888 meant that Tillman could claim he had achieved one of his long-standing goals. Second, the nationwide growth of the Farmers’ Alliance movement sparked new enthusiasm for grassroots organizing among South Carolina’s farmers. The progressive Farmers’ Alliance drew members from the Farmers’ Association, and the leadership of the two groups overlapped.
Tillman’s work at local organizing paid off in 1890. In January, Farmers’ Association president G. W. Shell urged farmers to hold a nominating convention separate from that of the Democratic Party. A convention was held in March, and after some engineering by Tillman’s associates, the convention agreed to nominate candidates. Tillman was “nominated” as a candidate for governor despite the fact that his name was not put up to vote.
The “Shell Manifesto” and Tillman’s nomination threw into sharp relief the formerly blurry lines separating the Farmers’ Alliance, the Farmers’ Association, and the Democratic Party when the last two groups did not endorse the March convention. But conservative Democrats were unable to agree on a single candidate to oppose Tillman and found their local organizations overmatched by the Farmers’ Association. Tillman’s grasp of the nomination in August 1890 proved the effectiveness of his local organization. Although the Farmers’ Association had initially claimed distance from politics, in reality it effectively helped propel Tillman to the governorship.
Cooper, William J., Jr. The Conservative Regime: South Carolina, 1877–1890. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1968.
Kantrowitz, Stephen. Ben Tillman and the Reconstruction of White Supremacy. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2000.