James Byrnes (1882-1972)

James Byrnes, U.S. senator and secretary of state, was born on May 2, 1879, in Charleston, South Carolina, a few weeks after his father's death. When he reached fourteen, Byrnes dropped out of school to help his dressmaker mother, Elizabeth McSweeney Brynes, support the family by working as a messenger in a local law office. After studying shorthand and lying about his age, he worked as a court reporter. Two of the judges for whom he worked took special interest in Byrnes and helped tutor him in literature, the law, and history. In 1903, after passing the South Carolina bar, he moved to Aiken where he opened his practice and continued to work as a court reporter.

Jimmy Byrnes, as he was known to his constituents, quickly climbed the political ladder. After serving two years as a local prosecutor, he represented the Second District in the House of Representatives from 1911 to 1924 and worked with FDR, then assistant secretary of the navy, to help secure additional funding for naval forces. Although Byrnes eventually won election to the Senate in 1930, he had to run twice to secure the seat – after having been defeated by Coleman Blease, who exploited Byrnes's Catholicism and distaste for the Ku Klux Klan.

While in the Senate, Byrnes supported the fiscal conservatism promoted by Bernard Baruch and became known around the Senate cloak room as "the New Deal's legislative ball carrier." However, as FDR moved to the left and addressed civil rights and labor issues, Byrnes' support for the New Deal waned while his affection for FDR did not. In 1941, FDR appointed him to the United States Supreme Court, which he left in 1942 to accept FDR's request that he direct the Office of Economic Stabilization. The following year, FDR appointed Byrnes head of the Office of War Mobilization and Reconversion, a superagency charged to "initiate policies, plan programs, and coordinate all federal agencies in the production, procurement, and distribution of all war materials – military and civilian." In short, FDR let "assistant president" Byrnes manage the home front while FDR managed the war.

Byrnes wanted the vice-presidential nomination in 1944 and FDR supported him; however, Byrnes' antilabor and civil rights positions convinced party leaders that he would hurt the ticket. Byrnes then hoped that FDR would appoint him secretary of state, which he refused to do; however, FDR did ask his friend to accompany him to Yalta. Byrnes finally became secretary of state when Truman reorganized the Roosevelt cabinet in 1945. Although he supported the immediate use of the atomic bomb against the Japanese, Byrnes refused to use the bomb as a weapon against the Soviets and to mend postwar differences with the USSR, leading Truman and critics in Congress to question his leadership. Byrnes resigned January 1947 when Truman refused to defend his stewardship.

The South Carolinian grew increasingly critical of Truman's Fair Deal policies and campaigned for governor on a platform critical of federal interference in state and local affairs. As a strong opponent of racial integration and governor of South Carolina from 1951-55, Byrnes opposed school integration and encouraged massive resistance. He broke with the Democrats in 1960, supporting Nixon in 1960 and Goldwater in 1964. He died on April 9, 1972, in Columbia.



American National Biography. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999, 139-141.