James Francis “Jimmy” Byrnes was born at 538 King St. in Charleston, South Carolina and reared in Charleston, South Carolina. Byrnes’s father died shortly after Byrnes was born. His mother, Elizabeth McSweeney Byrnes, was an Irish-American dressmaker. At the age of fourteen, he left St. Patrick’s Catholic School to work in a law office, and became a court stenographer. In 1906, he married the former Maude Perkins Busch of Aiken, South Carolina, and became an Episcopalian. Though they had no children, he was the godparent of James Christopher Connor.
Byrnes never attended high school, college, or law school. In 1900, when his cousin Governor Miles B. McSweeney appointed him as a clerk for Judge Robert Aldrich of Aiken, he needed to be 21. Byrnes, his mother, and Governor McSweeney just changed his date of birth to that of his older sister Leonora. He later apprenticed to a lawyer – a not uncommon practice then – read for the law, and was admitted to the bar in 1903. In 1908, he was appointed solicitor for the second circuit of South Carolina, serving until 1910. Byrnes was a protégé of Benjamin Tillman (who was known as “Pitchfork Ben”) and often had a moderating influence on the fiery segregationist Senator.
In 1910, he narrowly won the state’s third Congressional District in the Democratic primary, then tantamount to election. Byrnes proved a brilliant legislator, working behind the scenes to form coalitions and avoiding the high-profile oratory that characterized much of Southern politics. He was a champion of the “good roads” movement that attracted motorists, and politicians, to large-scale road building programs in the 1920s. He became a close ally to President Woodrow Wilson, and Wilson often entrusted important political tasks to the capable young representative rather than to more experienced lawmakers.
In 1924, Byrnes declined renomination to the House, and instead sought nomination for the Senate seat held by incumbent Nathaniel B. Dial, though both were former allies of the now-deceased “Pitchfork Ben” Tillman. Anti-Tillmanite and extreme racist demagogue Coleman Blease, who had challenged Dial in 1918, also ran again. Blease led the primary with 42 percent; Byrnes was second with 34 percent. Dial finished third with 22 percent.
Byrnes was opposed by the Ku Klux Klan, which preferred Blease. Byrnes had been raised as a Roman Catholic, and the Klan spread rumors that he was still a secret Catholic. Byrnes countered by citing his support by Episcopalian clergy. Then, three days before the run-off vote, twenty Catholics who said they had been altar boys with Byrnes published a professed endorsement of him. The leader of this group was a Blease ally, and the “endorsement” was circulated in anti-Catholic areas. Blease won the run-off 51% to 49%.
After his House term ended in 1925, Byrnes was out of office. He moved his law practice to Spartanburg, in the industrializing Piedmont region. Between his law practice and investment advice from friends such as Bernard Baruch, Byrnes became a wealthy man, but he never took his eyes off of a return to politics. He cultivated the Piedmont textile workers, who were key Blease supporters. In 1930, he challenged Blease again. Blease again led the primary, with 46 percent to 38 percent for Byrnes, but this time Byrnes won the run-off 51 to 49 percent.
During his time in the U.S. Senate, Byrnes was regarded as the most influential South Carolinian since John C. Calhoun. He had long been friends with Franklin D. Roosevelt, whom he supported for the Democratic nomination in 1932, and made himself the President’s spokesman on the Senate floor, where he guided much of the early New Deal legislation to passage. He won an easy reelection in 1936, promising: “I admit I am a New Dealer, and if [the New Deal] takes money from the few who have controlled the country and gives it back to the average man, I am going to Washington to help the President work for the people of South Carolina and the country.”
Since the colonial era, South Carolina’s politicians had dreamed of an inland waterway system that would not only aid commerce, but also control flooding. By the 1930s, Byrnes took up the cause for a massive dam-building project, Santee Cooper, that would not only accomplish those tasks but also electrify the entire state with hydroelectric power. With South Carolina financially strapped by the Great Depression, Senator Byrnes managed to get the federal government to authorize a loan for the entire project, which was completed and put into operation in February 1942. The loan was later paid back to the federal government with full interest and at no cost to South Carolina taxpayers. Santee Cooper has continued to be a model for public-owned electrical utilities world-wide.
In 1937, Byrnes supported Roosevelt on the highly controversial court packing plan, but voted against the minimum wage law of 1938 that would have made, as he argued, the textile mills in his state uncompetitive. He opposed Roosevelt’s efforts to purge conservative Democrats in the 1938 primary elections. On foreign policy, Byrnes was a champion of Roosevelt’s positions of helping Great Britain and France against Nazi Germany in 1939–1941, and of maintaining a hard diplomatic line against Japan.
Byrnes played a key role in blocking anti-lynching legislation, notably the Castigan-Wagner bill of 1935 and the Gavagan bill of 1937. Byrnes even claimed that lynching was necessary “in order to hold in check the Negro in the south”, saying “rape is responsible, directly and indirectly, for most of the lynching in America”.
Byrnes despised his fellow South Carolina Senator Cotton Ed Smith, who strongly opposed the New Deal. He privately sought to help his friend Burnet R. Maybank, then the mayor of Charleston, defeat Smith in the 1938 Senate primary. During the primary, however, Olin Johnston, who was limited to one term as governor, decided to run for the U.S. Senate. Because Johnston was also a pro-Roosevelt New Dealer, he would have divided the New Deal vote with Maybank and ensured a victory for Smith. Johnston was also supportive of the New Deal’s labor legislation, while Byrnes’ support was limited, and following a series of labor strikes in the fall of 1937, Byrnes withdrew consideration for potentially endorsing Johnston. Taking advice from Byrnes, Maybank decided to instead run for governor, and Byrnes made the reluctant decision to support Smith. Byrnes envisioned that Smith would retire in 1944 and that Maybank would successfully run for Smith’s Senate seat and build a strong political machine in the state with him.
In part as a reward for his crucial support on many issues, Roosevelt appointed Byrnes an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court in July 1941. He was the last Justice appointed to the Supreme Court of the United States who had been admitted to practice by reading law; he did not attend law school. Byrnes resigned from the Court after only fifteen months to head the Office of Economic Stabilization.
Byrnes left the Supreme Court to head Roosevelt’s Office of Economic Stabilization, which dealt with the vitally important issues of prices and taxes. How powerful the new office would become depended entirely on Byrnes’s political skills, and Washington insiders soon reported he was fully in charge. In May 1943, he also became head of the Office of War Mobilization. Under the leadership of Byrnes, the program managed newly constructed factories across the country that utilized raw materials, civilian and military production, and transportation for U.S. military personnel and was credited with providing the employment needed to officially bring an end to the Great Depression Thanks to his political experience, his probing intellect, his close friendship with Roosevelt, and in no small part to his own personal charm, Byrnes was soon exerting influence over many facets of the war effort which were not technically under his departmental jurisdiction. Many in Congress and the press began referring to Byrnes as the “Assistant President.”
Many expected that Byrnes would be the Democratic nominee for vice president with Roosevelt in 1944, replacing Henry A. Wallace, who party officials strongly felt was too eccentric to replace an ailing president who likely was going to die before his next term ended. Roosevelt refused to endorse anybody other than Wallace, but preferred Byrnes as the best alternative to Wallace and sought to push Byrnes as the party’s nominee for vice president if the party’s delegates refused to renominate Wallace at the 1944 Democratic National Convention. However, Byrnes was regarded as too conservative for organized labor, the big city bosses opposed him as an ex-Catholic who would offend Catholics, and blacks were wary of his opposition to racial integration. The nomination went instead to U.S. Senator Harry S. Truman of Missouri. Roosevelt brought Byrnes to the Yalta Conference in early 1945, where he seemed to favor Soviet plans. Written in shorthand, his notes comprise one of the most complete records of the “Big Three” Yalta meetings.
Upon his succession to the presidency after Roosevelt’s death on April 12, 1945, Truman relied heavily on Byrnes’s counsel, Byrnes having been a mentor to Truman from Truman’s earliest days in the U.S. Senate. Indeed, Jimmy Byrnes was one of the first people whom Truman saw on the first day of his presidency. It was Byrnes who shared information with the new president on the atomic bomb project (Truman had known nothing about the Manhattan Project beforehand). When Truman met Roosevelt’s coffin in Washington, he asked Byrnes and former Vice President Wallace, the two other men who might well have succeeded Roosevelt, to join him at the train station. Truman originally intended that both men would play leading roles in his administration, signaling continuity with Roosevelt’s policies. While Truman quickly fell out with Wallace, he retained a good working relationship with Byrnes and increasingly turned to him for support.
Truman appointed Byrnes as Secretary of State on July 3, 1945. He played a major role at the Potsdam Conference, the Paris Peace Conference, and other major postwar conferences. According to historian Robert H. Ferrell, Byrnes knew little more about foreign relations than Truman. He made decisions after consulting a few advisors, such as Donald S. Russell and Benjamin V. Cohen. Byrnes and his small group paid little attention to the State Department and similarly ignored the President. In 1945 Byrnes was elected an honorary member of the South Carolina Society of the Cincinnati.
Although Byrnes’s tough position against the Soviets paralleled the feelings of the President, personal relations between the two men grew strained, particularly when Truman felt that Byrnes was attempting to set foreign policy by himself, and only informing the President afterward. An early instance of this friction was the Moscow Conference in December 1945. Truman considered the “successes” of the conference to be “unreal” and was highly critical of Byrnes’s failure to protect Iran, which was not mentioned in the final communiqué. “I had been left in the dark about the Moscow conference,” Truman told Byrnes bluntly. In a subsequent letter to Byrnes, Truman took a harder line in reference to Iran, saying in part, “Without these supplies furnished by the United States, Russia would have been ignominiously defeated. Yet now Russia stirs up rebellion and keeps troops on the soil of her friend and ally— Iran… Unless Russia is faced with an iron fist and strong language another war is in the making. Only one language do they understand—“how many divisions do you have?” I do not think we should play compromise any longer …I am tired of babying the Soviets”. This led to the Iran crisis of 1946, and Byrnes took an increasingly hardline position in opposition to Stalin, culminating in a speech in Stuttgart on September 6, 1946. The “Restatement of Policy on Germany”, also known as the “Speech of Hope”, set the tone of future U.S. policy as it repudiated the Morgenthau Plan economic policies and gave the Germans hope for the future. Byrnes was named TIME Man of the Year. Truman and others believed that Byrnes had grown resentful that he had not been Roosevelt’s running mate and successor, and in his resentment he was disrespecting Truman. Whether this was true or not, Byrnes felt compelled to resign from the Cabinet in 1947 with some feelings of bitterness.
At an age when most of his contemporaries retired from politics, Byrnes was not yet ready to give up public service. At age sixty-eight, he was elected governor of South Carolina, serving from 1951 to 1955, in which capacity he vigorously criticized the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education.
Ironically, Byrnes was initially seen as a relative moderate on race issues. Recognizing that the South could not continue with its entrenched segregationist policies much longer but fearful of Congress imposing sweeping change upon the South, he opted for a course of change from within. To that end, he sought to fulfill at last the “separate but equal” policy which the South had put forward in Supreme Court civil rights cases, particularly in regard to public education. Byrnes poured state money into improving Negro schools, buying new textbooks and new buses, and hiring additional teachers. He also sought to curb the power of the Ku Klux Klan by passing a law that prohibited adults from wearing a mask in public on any day other than Halloween; he knew that many Klansmen feared exposure, and would not appear in public in their robes unless their faces were hidden as well. Byrnes hoped to make South Carolina an example for other Southern states to follow in modifying their “Jim Crow” policies. Nonetheless, the NAACP sued South Carolina to force the state to desegregate its schools. Byrnes requested Kansas, a northern state which also segregated its schools, to provide an Amicus curiae brief in supporting the right of a state to segregate its schools. This gave the NAACP’s lawyer, Thurgood Marshall, the idea to shift the suit from South Carolina over to Kansas, which led directly to Brown v. Board of Education. The South Carolina state constitution limited governors to one four-year term, and Byrnes retired from active political life following the 1954 election.
In his later years, Byrnes foresaw that the American South could play a more important role in national politics. To hasten that development, he sought to end the region’s nearly automatic support of the Democratic Party, which Byrnes believed had grown too liberal and took the “Solid South” for granted at election time, yet otherwise ignored the region and its needs. In time, he switched his own party affiliation to Republican, and South Carolina within two decades of his death had become a reliably Republican state.
Byrnes endorsed Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1952, segregationist candidate Harry Byrd in 1956, Richard M. Nixon in 1960 and 1968 and Barry Goldwater in 1964. He gave his private blessing to U.S. Senator Strom Thurmond of South Carolina to bolt the Democratic Party in 1964 and declare himself a Republican, but Byrnes himself remained a Democrat.
In 1965, Byrnes spoke out against the “punishment” and “humiliation” of South Carolina U.S. Representative Albert W. Watson, who had been stripped of his congressional seniority by the House Democratic Caucus after endorsing Goldwater for president. Byrnes openly endorsed Watson retention to Congress in a special election held in 1965 against the Democrat Preston Callison. Watson secured $20,000 and the services of a GOP field representative in what he termed “quite a contrast” to his treatment from House colleagues.
In 1968, Byrnes secretly advised Nixon on how to win old-time Southern Democrats to the Republican Party. Following Byrnes’ death on April 9, 1972, at the age of 89, he was interred in the churchyard at Trinity Episcopal Church in Columbia, South Carolina.
- May, 02, 1882
- Charleston, South Carolina
- April, 09, 1972
- Columbia, South Carolina
- Trinity Episcopal Cathedral Cemetery
- Columbia, South Carolina