A politician from South Carolina, Coleman Livingston Blease was a member of the state legislature and from 1911 until 1915 was the governor of South Carolina. He was also a U.S. senator from 1925 until 1931. His political career was one of a populist who used racism and demagoguery to gain the support of the poor whites.
Educated at Newberry College and South Carolina College (later the University of South Carolina), Blease was expelled for plagiarism in 1887 and always held a grudge against the university. In the following year he went to Georgetown University, graduated, and then started practicing law at Newberry. In 1890, he helped Benjamin Ryan Tillman, who was standing for elections to the state house of representatives. Tillman managed to get support from the wealthy farmers, but Blease saw that his own appeal was to the tenant farmers and textile mill workers, who were becoming increasingly more numerous. This emergence in state politics in South Carolina coincided with an agrarian upheaval that saw many people lose their lands.
Blease gained much support from within the Democrat Party and in 1911 was elected as governor of South Carolina. His period as governor—from January 1911 until January 1915—was extremely controversial. Race had remained a major issue in South Carolina politics, and Blease maintained hard-line policies against the aspirations of African Americans, with their education system remaining massively underfunded. Blease also turned a blind eye to lynching, to the point that some argue that he actually encouraged the practice. He openly referred to African Americans as “baboons and apes.”
These attacks on African Americans won him support from many of the poor white mill workers and sharecroppers who otherwise would have been critical of his opposition to child labor laws, his criticisms of factory inspections, and his attacks on compulsory school attendance. His supporters also delighted in his attacks on the wealthy. Blease did manage to establish a state tuberculosis sanatorium and closed down a badly run textile mill in the state penitentiary. His populist appeal became known as “Bleaseism.” In his doctoral thesis, Ronald D. Burnside noted that Bleaseism was an incoherent protest that was wracked by partisan politics.
Just as controversial as his racial policies, Blease was also active in pardoning convicted criminals. These included his chauffeur, who was twice fined for speeding, and also some 1,500 to 1,700 prisoners, with allegations made that he accepted payments for including people in the lists.
The main political opponent of Blease was Tillman, who had earlier been an ally. Tillman felt that Blease was running an openly corrupt administration. The two fought a bitter series of battles for control of the Democratic Party in South Carolina. Blease was reelected governor in 1912, but two years later he narrowly failed in his bid for election to the U.S. Senate, defeated by Ellison D. Smith. He then lost the gubernatorial election by less than 5,000 votes, but many of his supporters were elected to important positions in the state.
See also: Democratic Party ; Tillman, Benjamin R. (1847–1918)
Burnside, Ronald Dantan. The Governorship of Coleman Livingston Blease of South Carolina, 1911–1915. Ph.D. dissertation, Indiana University, 1963.
Hollis, Daniel W. “Cole Blease: The Years between the Governorship and the Senate, 1915–1924,” South Carolina Historical Magazine 80 (1): 1–17.
Lander, Ernest McPherson. A History of South Carolina. Chapel Hill: University of South Carolina Press, 1970.
Logue, Cal M., and Howard Dorgan. The Oratory of Southern Demagogues. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1981.
Miller, Anthony Barry. Coleman Livingston Blease: South Carolina Politician. Master's thesis, University of North Carolina, 1971.