Coleman Livingston Blease was a fiery, controversial politician in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in the upstate of South Carolina. He was hailed as the friend of mill workers in the midst of an unstable period for such laborers. However, his opponents and some historians today claim that he had no real stands and nothing to say. Rather he won ignorant people to him simply by yelling loudly, making scenes, and appealing to the racial prejudices of lower class whites. It cannot be denied, nevertheless, what an influential man he was in his day.
"Coley" Blease was born in 1868 in Newberry, South Carolina. His father, Henry Horatio Blease, was a farmer as well as a hotel proprietor, and his mother, Mary Ann Livingston Blease, was mother to eight children, of which Coley was sixth. Blease grew up in Newberry, attending Newberry College and South Carolina College's law school. However, he was expelled from the law school after one year, for committing plagiarism, so he moved to and graduated from the law school at Georgetown University in 1889.
Soon after graduating, Blease began practicing law in Saluda and Newberry and was apparently involved with a number of the important cases. In 1890, Blease both began his career in the state house of representatives and became a "Tillman lieutenant." Benjamin Tillman had begun a political revolution among white farmers in the 1880's, and his movement allied with the mill operatives in 1890 with the sole common factor being suspicion or hatred of towns. Blease was one of the leaders of this united movement, and his ties with Tillman seem to have remained strong through his career, though there is some discrepancy. One source includes Tillman as his opposition during Blease's governorship of South Carolina. However, upon his election in the primary in 1910, Tillman was quoted as saying, "I expect Governor Blease to disappoint his enemies and to act with such prudence and wisdom that his will justify and make happy his friends. While he has faults, like the devil, he is not as black as he has been painted" (The Greenville News; Sept. 15, 1910; p.1)
Blease ran successfully as governor again in 1912, receiving many of his votes from, naturally, the mill operatives. The town was his main opposition, but Blease's overall support was still high. An anti-Blease movement appeared, however, from about 1914-1920. During these years, Blease remained in the background of the political world.
The 1920's saw the return of a "new, improved" Blease. He presented himself as a more responsible, dignified leader, not as harsh as he used to be. He ran for U.S. Senate in 1924, won, and remained in the Senate until 1930. He then returned to the race for his state's governorship in 1934, at the height of a textile strike. But Blease lost significantly to the "cotton mill boy," Olin D. Johnston, who represented the move in modern politics toward New Deal liberalism. As a whole, the mill workers had finally shifted their thinking in this direction as well, wanting more government action. Johnston was their man— no longer Blease.
From then until his death in 1942, Blease lived in Columbia. His first wife had passed away in 1934, the same year as his major defeat by Johnston. Blease remarried in 1939, but that marriage lasted only a year. In 1942, at the age of 73, Coley died.
Coleman Blease's political career was a wild ride. A fiery figure, Blease was on the forefront of the action for most of his political life. He said what he thought, and oftentimes what he thought offended people—if not the content, then the manner of its delivery. He was admired by the mill workers, despised by the townspeople and professional class. Blease himself was the primary cause of factions while serving as governor from 1910-1914, and because of these strong feelings on both sides, voting participation was at a record high. Whatever their opinions of Blease as a man, most historians agree on the disorderliness inspired by his demeanor. In one biography, he is described as leading an "incoherent protest" against the middle class. Another historian, David Carlton, describes Bleaseism as "fundamental negativism, . . . a brief, bizarre interruption in the flow of modern South Carolina history" (Carlton 223, 11).
It is undeniably true that Blease drew raucous crowds to himself. Stump meetings were attended by drunken people and often "degenerated into near riots." Blease displayed himself as one of the people—talking like them, espousing their ideas, involving himself in their activities. For instance, he was very much a part of organizations such as the Order of Red Men and Woodmen of the World. These fraternal circles were a prominent part of the mill workers' lives as well. He also knew how to talk to these people. For instance, he could appeal to racial prejudices with statements like, "This is a white man's country and will continue to be ruled by the white man" (The State; Jan. 18, 1911; Pt. II; p.2) According to one man, "he voiced the feelings of the common people in their own language" (Carlton 222). Opponents saw this as merely yelling loudly to crowds of people who did not understand what was going on. He got their attention without having to convince them of any substance.
Whether or not the people listened to the content of his speeches, nevertheless, there was content in them. Blease was admittedly "wet," speaking against prohibitionist measures; he fought for sanitary conditions in the mills; he strongly opposed compulsory education; and he was in favor of harsher restrictions on drug use (including, as he once said, "in this connection, . . . the evil of the habitual drinking of coca-cola, pepsi-cola, and such like mixtures, as . . . they are injurious" (The State; Jan. 18, 1911; Pt. II; p.1).
However, these issues did not make Blease's platform. His platform, as such, was his ability to relate to the mill workers on their level. They saw in him someone they could trust. As opposed to today, when politicians appeal to the working class by offering a more proactive government and more programs, Blease understood that these workers were not interested in such a government. They saw such involvement as an "engine of oppression" used against them. Blease both preached and practiced an anti-conformity which the mill operatives found comfort in.
At the same time, Blease's platform did not oppose any organization—just an imposed organization. During 1929, the South experienced a series of strikes in the mills, instigated largely by the Communist group, National Textile Workers Union (NTWU). Then a U.S. Senator, Blease delivered a speech to the workers in Anderson on June 28.
Though much of it is probably justified, Blease did receive criticism for his uncouth manner and his sometimes reckless speech. He himself certainly felt that it was undeserved. In fact, almost half of his inaugural address for the governorship in 1911 centered on this issue. Blease recounted quotes (actually reciting an entire article from the Newberry Herald and sections of additional articles) which demonstrated his enemies' criticisms of him. He spoke forcefully against the unfairness of such treatment. "I do not believe that it would be possible for any other man ever to have to undergo the vituperation and abuse from the press that I had." He even challenged one editor to come to the next State campaign meeting "and have his 'something to say in regard to the candidacy of Candidate Blease' to my face, where I can and will have the opportunity to make reply" (The State; Jan. 18, 1911; Pt. II; p. 1).
It was to this feistiness, however, that Blease owed the support of the laborers. He channeled this attitude to most benefit them, at the same time demonstrating a genuine care for them. "These people are our people; they are our kindred; they are our friends, and in my opinion they should be let alone, and allowed to manage their own children and allowed to manage their own affairs" (The State; Jan. 18, 1911; Pt. II; p. 1, 2).
"You ought to organize. You should have organized long ago. I am heartily in favor of any legal organization of the cotton mill people of my state, as long as it does not preach lawlessness, communism, or I.W.W.-ism and is not the products of a lot of Yankee trash running around down here stirring up devilment. . . . You should organize yourself, among yourselves. You can get consideration without having to send up north to get a committee to go in and talk with the officials."
"Aligned against me were a united daily press and an almost united solid weekly and semi-weekly press, pouring forth all kinds of falsehood, vituperation, and abuse, receiving the assistance of a number of men who call themselves ministers of the gospel—God save the mark! . . . I do not believe that it would be possible for any other man ever to have to undergo the vituperation and abuse from the press that I had."
"I also, in this connection [drug use], beg to call your attention to the evil of the habitual drinking of coca cola, pepsi-cola, and such like mixtures, as I fully believe they are injurious."
"These people (the mill workers) are our people; they are our kindred; they are our friends, and, in my opinion, they should be let alone and allowed to manage their own children and allowed to manage their own affairs."
"I believe that the grandest, most perfect and independent form of government is a poor government and a rich people."
Biography Resource Center
Carlton, David L. Mill and Town in South Carolina, 1880-1920. Louisiana State University Press (Baton Rouge), 1982.
The Greenville News.
Huff, Archie Vernon, Jr. Greenville: The History of the City and County in the South Carolina Piedmont. University of South Carolina Press (Columbia), 1995.
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