As governor, Blease emphasized individual freedom for whites and racism. He opposed government regulation, even if its purpose was to benefit the same mill workers to whom he appealed. He denounced an act to limit working hours for mill employees, believing it interfered with parents’ control over their children. He vetoed legislation to inspect factories for safety and health considerations, stating that a man ought to be able to work under any conditions he chose. He opposed compulsory education as an attempt to replace parents with “the paid agents of the State in the control of children,” and he vetoed four compulsory attendance bills while governor.
Governor, U.S. senator. Blease was born near Newberry on October 8, 1868, the son of Henry Horatio Blease and Mary Ann Livingston. From 1884 to 1886 Blease attended Newberry College, and he earned a bachelor of laws degree from Georgetown University in 1889. He was admitted to the South Carolina Bar that same year. In 1890 Blease married Lillie B. Summers, who died in 1914. In 1939 he married Caroline Floyd, but the couple separated a year later. Both marriages were childless.
Blease entered public service in 1890, when he was elected to represent Newberry in the S.C. House of Representatives. Reelected in 1892, he was elevated to the position of Speaker Pro Tempore of the sixtieth General Assembly (1892–1893). Defeated in reelection bids in 1894 and 1896, Blease returned to the House in 1899. He was ambitious for higher office and made unsuccessful runs for the office of lieutenant governor in 1900 and 1902, then won election to the S.C. Senate from Newberry in 1905. Two years later he served as President Pro Tempore of the Senate for the sixty-seventh General Assembly (1907–1908). Blease ran unsuccessfully for governor in 1906 and 1908 but won the office in 1910 and was subsequently reelected in 1912.
Blease’s two terms as governor were the high-water mark of perhaps the most polarizing figure in South Carolina political history. His appeal was primarily among a new class of South Carolinians that emerged early in the twentieth century: the white mill worker. Part of Blease’s attraction among mill workers was his flamboyant style and his unmatched stump-speaking ability. But he also identified with working-class whites, especially the mill workers, and capitalized on their desire to be treated as equals. Blease understood their fear that they were being marginalized by middle-class society. While critics saw him as nothing more than a demagogue and as lacking any concrete substance, “Coley” became the champion of mill workers who had little use for progressive “do-gooders” or government regulators who intruded in their workplaces and homes. Neither reformer nor innovator, Blease was an obstructionist who blocked legislation that threatened the ability of operatives “to manage their own affairs.” Confronting Blease’s overwhelming support from mill operatives was his equally solid opposition among middle-and upper-class South Carolinians, who denounced “Bleasism” as a threat to law and order. The controversy surrounding Blease brought supporters and opponents to polls in staggering numbers, with voter participation topping eighty percent in the 1912 gubernatorial campaign.
As governor, Blease emphasized individual freedom for whites and racism. He opposed government regulation, even if its purpose was to benefit the same mill workers to whom he appealed. He denounced an act to limit working hours for mill employees, believing it interfered with parents’ control over their children. He vetoed legislation to inspect factories for safety and health considerations, stating that a man ought to be able to work under any conditions he chose. He opposed compulsory education as an attempt to replace parents with “the paid agents of the State in the control of children,” and he vetoed four compulsory attendance bills while governor. He was against the medical examination of schoolchildren, asserting that he would pardon any man who killed a doctor who violated his daughter’s modesty.
While promoting equality for white mill workers, Blease also appealed to racial bigotry and accused opponents of attempting to reduce white mill workers to the same level as African Americans. He labeled blacks as “baboons” and “apes” and urged that there be no spending of white men’s taxes on black schools. As governor, Blease promoted separation of the races on chain gangs and defended lynching, stating, “whenever the Constitution comes between me and the virtue of the white women of the South, I say to hell with the Constitution.” He promised that he would pardon any lyncher convicted by a jury. Blease’s relationship with the General Assembly was tumultuous, and his numerous vetoes were frequently overridden by the legislature. His language was often coarse and vulgar, forcing state newspapers to delete portions of his speeches from print. One Blease veto message was so inflammatory that state legislators expunged it from the printed journal.
Despite his volatile tenure, there were some accomplishments during his reign as governor. These included the establishment of a state tuberculosis sanitarium, the adoption of the medical college in Charleston as a public institution, the creation of a special tax on hydroelectric companies, the support for better provision for common schools, and the abolition of the penitentiary hosiery mill because of unhealthy conditions.
Blease resigned as governor five days before the end of his term so that he would not have to hand his office over to Richard I. Manning, who was elected on an anti-Blease platform of progressive reform. Blease failed in attempts to return to the governor’s chair in 1916 and 1922, and likewise failed in 1914 and 1918 to win election to the U.S. Senate. However, in 1924 he won election to the U.S. Senate with the slogan “Roll up yer sleeves and say what cha’ please; the man fer the office is Cole L. Blease.” During his one term Blease had no influence in national Democratic circles since he refused to be bound by party caucuses. He did support the nomination of Judge John J. Parker to the U.S. Supreme Court while many other southern senators did not. He voted against reducing federal income taxes, and he contributed to the successful effort to get a third federal judgeship for South Carolina. He was successful in getting the King’s Mountain Battlefield bill passed. In 1930 he was defeated in his bid for reelection by James F. Byrnes. Although he still enjoyed a loyal following in South Carolina, Blease never again commanded enough votes to return to the governor’s mansion, losing attempts in 1934 and 1938. In 1941 he was elected a member of the State Unemployment Compensation Commission. He died on January 19, 1942, in Columbia and was buried in Newberry.
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Simon, Bryant. “The Appeal of Cole Blease of South Carolina: Race, Class, and Sex in the New South.” Journal of Southern History 62 (February 1996): 57–86.