In South Carolina the dominion of the Conservative Party had a specific beginning and ending: the election of the Confederate hero Wade Hampton III as governor in 1876 and the election of Benjamin R. Tillman as governor in 1890, following a bitter campaign in which Tillman had vilified the Conservatives for being wedded to the past and neglecting the state’s real problems.
The term “Conservative Party” has a distinct meaning in southern history in general and in South Carolina history in particular. It refers to the organization that led the overthrow of Republican Reconstruction and dominated southern politics until the agrarian revolt of the 1890s. The men who led these parties have been given different designations, chiefly Bourbons, Redeemers, or Conservatives, more precisely Conservative Democrats.
In South Carolina the dominion of the Conservative Party had a specific beginning and ending: the election of the Confederate hero Wade Hampton III as governor in 1876 and the election of Benjamin R. Tillman as governor in 1890, following a bitter campaign in which Tillman had vilified the Conservatives for being wedded to the past and neglecting the state’s real problems. Taking control of their state after almost a decade of Republican rule, South Carolina Conservatives saw themselves as redeeming their home from alien forces. To them, redemption had a single purpose: restoring the South Carolina they believed had been lost in the turbulent years since 1865. The Conservative leadership was made up overwhelmingly of men who had come of age in antebellum South Carolina and who had led their state’s forces during the Civil War, a struggle they judged a holy cause that must always be honored. As evangels of restoration, they offered no new programs to a state reeling from a disastrous war and the financial debacle caused initially by the Panic of 1873 and in the 1880s by the long decline in agricultural prices.
Yet, in trying to restore their vision of a former–and in their minds a better–South Carolina, Conservatives put their mark on their state and its subsequent history. They strove for political unity by proclaiming the Democratic Party as the only legitimate political voice. The Republican Party, which according to them stood for conflict and foreign values, must be suppressed. The renewal of South Carolina College controlled by native whites was essential, for that institution was seen as having the vital mission of inculcating the ideals and worthiness of the past in the future leaders of the state.
Although the Conservatives accepted the end of slavery, they rejected any notion of social or political equality for the freed slaves. They were determined that South Carolina would be ruled by whites, though whites remained a minority of the population. But shunning violence for racial control as wrong, impractical, and politically precarious, they turned to legislation. With complex election laws and redistricting they severely restricted black political participation and power.
On the economic front Conservatives followed the antebellum pattern, encouraging industrial development while retaining the belief that agriculture would remain central in the state’s economy. But for the grinding agricultural depression of the 1880s they had no prescription. Although the Conservatives led their state for only fourteen years, the South Carolina they constructed–of white supremacy, of the holiness of the Democratic Party, of reverence for the Confederacy–predominated until well into the second half of the twentieth century.
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.