Byrnes, James F.

views updated May 11 2018

James F. Byrnes

Born May 2, 1879

Charleston, South Carolina

Died April 9, 1972

Columbia, South Carolina

Secretary of state, U.S. senator, Supreme Court justice, governor

One of the few Americans to serve in all three branches of the federal governmentas U.S. congressman and senator, Supreme Court justice, and secretary of stateJames F. Byrnes became known as "assistant president on the home front" during World War II (193945). To guide wartime home front economic activities, President Franklin D. Roosevelt (18821945; served 193345; see entry) assigned Byrnes more powers than ever held by a public official. He was clearly one of the most powerful men in Washington through much of the 1940s.

Humble beginnings

James Francis Byrnes was born in Charleston, South Carolina, to Irish immigrants. His official birth date is listed as May 2, 1879, though he was actually born on May 2, 1882. He changed his birth date so he could apply for work early in life. His father, a city clerk, died weeks before he was born, of tuberculosis at age twenty-six. His mother, Elizabeth McSweeney Byrnes, worked hard as a dressmaker to provide for Jimmy, as he was known throughout his life. The family made do and young Jimmy attended private Catholic school. However, Jimmy left school at age fourteen and found work as a messenger and later law clerk for a law office for the next seven years to help support the family. The circuit court in Aiken, South Carolina, hired Jimmy Byrnes at the age of twenty-one as a court stenographer (reporter). Judge James Aldrich and others in the court took personal interest in Byrnes and guided him through law studies. In only three years, in 1903, Byrnes successfully passed the South Carolina bar exam and began a private law practice in Aiken while remaining a court reporter.

In 1906 Byrnes married Maude Perkins Busch of Aiken. They would have no children. Byrnes quickly jumped into politics. He won his first public office in 1908 as a public prosecutor. Just two years later, in 1910, he won a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives as a Democratic candidate in a very close race.

Congressman Byrnes

Byrnes served as a U.S. congressman for the next fourteen years. He struck a very distinctive presence in the Washington power circles. He was short, thin, very energetic, and had sharp eyes. Though living modestly, he dressed well. Byrnes quickly gained the respect of other congressmen for his shrewd dealings in seeking compromises on issues to get legislation passed.

Byrnes had interests in several domestic issues. He was also a strong supporter of the newly created federal highway system. After his reelection in 1912, he became a member of the important House Appropriations Committee that oversees government funding. While working on naval funding issues, Byrnes formed a close friendship with a young Franklin D. Roosevelt, who was assistant secretary of the navy at the time, stationed in Washington, D.C. Typical of a white American from South Carolina in the 1910s, Byrnes believed in racial segregation (separation of races in public places) and worked to defeat anti-lynching bills introduced in Congress. (Lynching is the unlawful murder of black Americans by mob action.) Byrnes also fought women's right to vote, which was finally granted by constitutional amendment in 1920.

Having gained substantial prestige in the House, Byrnes ran for the U.S. Senate in 1924 but lost to a longstanding popular political figure in South Carolina. Byrnes suddenly found himself out of public office. He returned to a private law practice for the next six years in Spartanburg, South Carolina. During this time he kept his name before the South Carolina public through active participation in various civic affairs.

A rising political force

In 1930 the economic downturn of the Great Depression (192941) struck South Carolina hard. Unemployment rose as business activity slowed down. The door was opened for new political leaders. Seizing on this opportunity, Byrnes ran for the U.S. Senate again and won by a slim vote margin thanks to the support of wealthy financier and fellow South Carolinian Bernard Baruch. As he had earlier in the House, Byrnes quickly rose in the Senate to positions of power, becoming a member of various important committees.

Roosevelt was nominated the Democratic candidate for president in 1932, and Byrnes campaigned hard for his friend. After winning the election, Roosevelt used Byrnes as a key Democratic Senate leader to push New Deal legislation through Congress. The New Deal was President Roosevelt's program of economic relief and reform to help those most affected by the Great Depression. They successfully steered numerous programs through into reality. With their public popularity running high, both Roosevelt and Byrnes easily won reelection in 1936.

Byrnes had great ambitions for higher office given his successes in Congress and numerous friends in powerful positions. When Roosevelt decided to run for an unprecedented third term in 1940, Byrnes expected to be the president's running mate. Roosevelt selected Henry A. Wallace instead. However, Roosevelt soon turned to Byrnes for another important role. The president sought to have a Supreme Court more sympathetic to his New Deal programs when deciding legal challenges. When a position on the bench opened, Roosevelt appointed Byrnes to the U.S. Supreme Court in June 1941.

Donald Nelson

Within a month after the December 7, 1941, Japanese surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, and nine months before the Office of Economic Stabilization was created with Jimmy Byrnes its head, President Franklin D. Roosevelt (18821945; served 193345) created the War Production Board (WPB) to guide the war industry mobilization on the home front. The president turned to Donald Nelson (18881959) to lead this very important task.

Born in Hannibal, Missouri, Nelson graduated from the University of Missouri with a degree in chemical engineering. Hired as a chemist by Sears, Roebuck and Company in 1912, Nelson rose through the company ranks to become executive vice president in 1939. As the German military swept through Western Europe in early 1940, Roosevelt became increasingly eager to assist Great Britain and France in their effort to stop Germany. He appointed Nelson in May 1940 to a Treasury Department post in charge of handling requests from foreign nations for raw materials and war materials. After France fell to German forces in June 1940 and Britain came under relentless intense aerial bombing, concern increased about preparing the nation for possible war. In January 1941 Roosevelt created the Office of Production Management (OPM) with Nelson responsible for purchasing billions of dollars of materials for the defense industries. In July, to spur the flow of needed materials to military and war industries, Roosevelt created the Supply, Priorities, and Allocations Board (SPAB) with Nelson its director.

The Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor and declaration of war led Roosevelt to create the WPB in January 1942. U.S. war production was placed under the guidance of one person, Nelson. Immediately Nelson began taking such dramatic actions as converting the automobile industry to the production of war planes, tanks, and military vehicles. Nelson also oversaw the allocation of such critical materials as steel and production of synthetic rubber. Nelson remained head of WPB until he resigned in August 1944. Nelson became Roosevelt's special representative on a trip to the Soviet Union and China before returning to private industry, where he served as chairman of the board for several mining and chemical companies until his death in September 1959.

Assistant president

Following the surprise Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, on December 7, 1941, Byrnes quickly became restless hearing cases on the Supreme Court. He wanted an active part in the war effort. His opportunity came in October 1942 when Roosevelt selected him to serve as head of the newly created Office of Economic Stabilization (OES), with his office located in the White House. As head of OES, Byrnes was responsible for keeping prices of consumer goods in check, developing a new tax plan to finance the war, and overseeing a new complex rationing program. It was a controversial position that he handled well. Most notably, he adopted the Controlled Materials Plan (CMP) that strictly controlled the distribution of aluminum, copper, and steelthree materials critical to war industries. The success of the CMP played a major role in getting war production underway.

As the war industries continued to gear up to full speed, disputes arose between industries and the War Production Board (WPB) over access to manpower and raw materials. The WPB had been created in January 1942, with Donald Nelson its head, to oversee the war mobilization of industry on the home front. Numerous disputes arose over access to raw materials and to workers as shortages began appearing by early 1943. In May 1943 Roosevelt created the Office of War Mobilization (OWM) with Byrnes its head to guide the WPB and resolve disputes. Byrnes now had responsibility for both the home front economy and industrial mobilization.

Byrnes, through these roles, became the second most powerful person in government next to Roosevelt, even referred to as "assistant president." While Roosevelt concentrated on the war and foreign diplomacy, Byrnes set domestic policies and coordinated all the federal agencies and the production, purchase, and distribution of all war materials. He oversaw everything from rationing to the scheduling of sporting events. This included control of prices for consumer goods, rent prices, wages, services, food production, and profits of war industries. He even controlled the availability of shoes to the public. Among these duties he also oversaw the Manhattan Project, the top secret program to develop the atomic bomb. He met with project scientists to discuss government policies toward the use of the atomic bomb. Some one hundred thousand people were involved in the Manhattan Project.

Once again Byrnes wanted to be Roosevelt's running mate for the 1944 elections and eventually become the real president. However, the Democratic Party selected Harry S. Truman (18841972; served 194553) instead because of

Byrnes's segregationist views and because labor did not like the restrictions on wages he imposed during the war.

In late 1944, in anticipation of the war's end, OWM was revamped into the Office of War Mobilization and Reconversion (OWMR) to oversee the transition back from industrial production of war materials to consumer goods. Byrnes remained its head. Businesses and government were eager to dispose of the now unneeded large manufacturing plants used for war production. Businesses were also eager to end the longstanding government contracts they had received to produce war materials.

Cold War negotiator

By 1945, with the home front war efforts winding down, Byrnes began applying his strong negotiating skills to assist President Roosevelt in foreign affairs. Through 1945 and 1946, Byrnes was a central figure in the developing Cold War (194591) political and military rivalry between the United States and the Soviet Union. In February 1945 the president invited Byrnes to accompany him to a meeting with Soviet premier Joseph Stalin (18791953) and British prime minister Winston Churchill (18741965) at Yalta in the Soviet Union. The three world leaders discussed what postwar Europe should be like, particularly what to do about Germany. While at Yalta, Byrnes lunched daily with Roosevelt and took detailed notes of Roosevelt's accounts of his meetings with Stalin. Only two months later, President Roosevelt died suddenly of a cerebral hemorrhage. Vice President Truman became president and immediately called for Byrnes and his notes. The new president wanted to be consistent with Roosevelt's thoughts and private commitments made at Yalta. Truman also asked Byrnes to organize Roosevelt's funeral and appointed him secretary of state.

Byrnes accompanied Truman to the next meeting with leaders of Great Britain and the Soviet Union at Potsdam, Germany, in June 1945. Throughout the remainder of 1945, Byrnes was the key U.S. official at various high-level international meetings including a December meeting in Moscow. He remained confident his seasoned negotiating skills would lead to a productive relationship with the Soviets.

In Moscow, Byrnes made a last all-out effort to establish friendly relations with the Soviets. He made several deals concerning international control of atomic energy and the kinds of postwar governments that would exist in Bulgaria, Hungary, and Japan. The deals proved very unpopular when he returned to the United States. Many in Congress and the public charged that Byrnes gave in to the Communists. His political influence on the national stage would not recover.

Byrnes toughened his position toward the Soviets through 1946. He was even named Time magazine's Man of the Year in 1946. However, he could not overcome a growing personality conflict with Truman. Byrnes finally resigned as secretary of state in January 1947.

Governor Byrnes

Returning to South Carolina, Byrnes won election as governor of South Carolina in 1950, receiving 85 percent of the vote. Disagreeing with Truman's and the Democratic Party's opposition to racial segregation, like many Southerners in the early 1950s Byrnes switched political party membership to the Republican Party. Byrnes was particularly interested in improving public education in South Carolina for both white and black Americans as well as establishing programs for mentally handicapped black children. However, he remained resistant to public school integration, which directly led to the landmark 1954 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education. The case combined a South Carolina case with several other cases. The decision banned racial segregation in public schools. Byrnes retired from office in 1955 and died on April 9, 1972, in Columbia, South Carolina. In January 1982 Byrnes became the twenty-fourth person inducted to the South Carolina Hall of Fame.

For More Information


Brown, Walter J. James F. Byrnes of South Carolina: A Remembrance. Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 1991.

Byrnes, James F. All in One Lifetime. New York: Harper, 1958.

Curry, George F. James F. Byrnes. New York: Cooper Square, 1965.

Robertson, David. Sly and Able: A Political Biography of James F. Byrnes. New York: Norton, 1994.


"Nelson, the Coordinator." Business Week (January 31, 1942): p. 18.

Web sites

The Byrnes Scholarships. (accessed on July 18, 2004).

Byrnes, James F.

views updated May 18 2018

James F. Byrnes

Born May 2, 1879
Charleston, South Carolina
Died April 9, 1972
Columbia, South Carolina

U.S. secretary of state, senator,
Supreme Court justice, governor

J ames F. Byrnes was the first American to serve as a U.S. congressman, U.S. senator, Supreme Court justice, secretary of state, and governor. In the early 1940s, he was sometimes called the "assistant president," but by the late 1940s he was a forgotten man in federal government.

Byrnes was at the side of Presidents Franklin D. Roosevelt (1882–1945; served 1933–45) and Harry S. Truman (1884–1972; served 1945–53; see entry) as the Cold War was taking shape. The Cold War was an intense political and economic rivalry between the democratic United States and the communist Soviet Union that lasted from 1945 to 1991. Byrnes strove hard to establish a friendship between the Soviet Union and the United States as World War II (1939–45) drew to a close, but he was overcome by the Soviets' aggressive efforts to expand their influence and, as noted in David Robertson's Sly and Able: A Political Biography of James F. Byrnes, Truman's frustration over what he viewed as "disastrous compromises." As a result, Byrnes lost influence in the United States and faded from national prominence, but resurfaced as governor of South Carolina.

A self-made man

James Francis Byrnes was born to Irish immigrants in May 1879 in Charleston, South Carolina. His father, for whom he was named, died of tuberculosis, a respiratory disease, only weeks before James was born. His mother, Elizabeth McSweeney Byrnes, was a dressmaker who worked hard to provide for her family. Though his family was needy at times, young James was never deprived. Byrnes attended Catholic school until age fourteen, when he left to become a messenger for a law office. He needed to take this job to help support the family. By age twenty-one, he had become a circuit court stenographer (a type of note taker) in Aiken, South Carolina. Under the fatherly guidance of two judges, Byrnes studied law and successfully passed the South Carolina bar exam three years later in 1903. In 1906, he married Maude Perkins Busch of Aiken. They did not have children. Known by friends as Jimmy, Byrnes won his first public office in 1908, becoming a public prosecutor. In 1911, in a very close race, he won a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives as a Democratic candidate. He served in the House until 1924.

Byrnes was short and thin; he lived modestly but dressed well. Other congressmen considered him tireless and shrewd in diplomacy. He was always thought of as highly ambitious. Byrnes held some extreme personal and political views: He was a white supremacist, one who believes that people of color are naturally inferior to whites. He also actively opposed an antilynching bill in Congress. (Lynching is execution-style murder—often by hanging—carried out by a mob. Lynchings of black Americans frequently occurred in the South.) Despite his vote against antilynching legislation, Byrnes said he opposed the violent tactics of the Ku Klux Klan, a militant white supremacy group that had a large membership in South Carolina. Byrnes was also against women's suffrage, or the right to vote.

While in Congress, Byrnes showed unusual skill in bringing people together to reach compromises and pass legislation. He supported the creation of the federal highway system and became a member of the important House Appropriations Committee after reelection in 1912. Byrnes steadily moved up in prestige in the House and, while working on naval funding, formed a friendship with future president Franklin D. Roosevelt, who was assistant secretary of the navy at the time. In 1924, Byrnes decided to run for the U.S. Senate but lost the Democratic nomination to a longstanding popular figure, Coleman L. Blease (1868–1942). Out of public office, Byrnes moved to Spartanburg, South Carolina, where he practiced law for six years and remained active in civic affairs.

Senator, justice, and administrator

Beginning in 1930, the economic downturn of the Great Depression (1929–41), which began when the stock market crashed in 1929, hit South Carolina hard. People were looking for new leaders. With the backing of wealthy financier and fellow South Carolinian Bernard Baruch (1870–1965), Byrnes won election to the U.S. Senate in 1930 by a slim margin. Byrnes quickly moved up in the Senate to a position of great power. He campaigned hard for Franklin Roosevelt in the 1932 presidential election. Once in office, Roosevelt used Byrnes as a key Democratic Senate leader and assigned him to various important committees so Byrnes could push New Deal legislation through Congress. The New Deal was Roosevelt's program of economic and social relief and reform designed to ease the painful effects of the Depression on the nation. Like Roosevelt, Byrnes easily won reelection in 1936. He greatly desired to be Roosevelt's running mate in the 1940 presidential election but lost out when Roosevelt selected Secretary of Agriculture Henry A. Wallace (1888–1965) instead. In June 1941, President Roosevelt appointed Byrnes to a different lofty position: justice of the U.S. Supreme Court.

Byrnes would sit on the Supreme Court for only sixteen months before he became restless. He wanted to become more involved in the growing home front effort during World War II. Roosevelt responded by appointing Byrnes as director of economic stabilization. He was to control the domestic economy, especially by keeping prices of goods down, during the war. Byrnes was highly successful in this important role, so in May 1943 Roosevelt expanded Byrnes's responsibilities. The president appointed him chairman of the War Mobilization Board for coordinating all war agencies and federal departments. From his office in the White House, Byrnes was now fully in charge of the domestic economy, allowing Roosevelt to concentrate on the war effort. Some people referred to Byrnes as the "assistant president." However, in 1944, he was again passed over as Roosevelt's running mate; the Democratic Party selected U.S. senator Harry S. Truman of Missouri instead.

Cold War negotiator

In 1945, Byrnes began applying his strong negotiating skills to foreign relations. In February, he accompanied President Roosevelt to the Yalta Conference in the Soviet Union. There they met with Soviet premier Joseph Stalin (1879–1953; see entry) and British prime minister Winston Churchill (1874–1965; see entry). During the conference, Byrnes had lunch each day with Roosevelt and took detailed notes, reminiscent of his court stenographer days. Following Roosevelt's sudden death from a cerebral hemorrhage (bleeding in the brain) just two months later, Vice President Truman became president; Byrnes organized Roosevelt's funeral. Upon becoming president, Truman immediately called on Byrnes and his Yalta notes. Truman wanted to study Roosevelt's thoughts and postwar plans so he could make decisions consistent with those plans; he also wanted to follow through on private commitments Roosevelt made at Yalta.

Byrnes was a central figure in the developing rivalry between the United States and the Soviet Union, a rivalry that eventually came to be called the Cold War. He was confident that he had the necessary negotiating skills to establish a productive relationship with the Soviets. He traveled with President Truman to the next meeting of the Big Three leaders, at Potsdam, Germany, in June 1945. (The Big Three refers to the United States, Great Britain, and the Soviet Union; the Big Three also referred to those nations' leaders: Truman, Churchill, and Stalin.) For the rest of 1945, Byrnes served as the key U.S. representative at various high-level meetings, including the London Conference of Foreign Ministers in September, a December meeting in Moscow with the Soviet and British foreign ministers, and the United Nations (UN) organizational meeting.

In the December meeting in Moscow, Byrnes made an all-out attempt to establish friendly relations with the Soviets. Byrnes made several deals regarding international control of atomic energy and the postwar governments of Bulgaria, Hungary, and Japan. However, his concessions (issues he agreed to) to the Soviets proved highly unpopular back in the United States. Byrnes's preference for diplomacy over military confrontation attracted increasing criticism. He was accused of being soft on communism. When Byrnes returned from

Moscow, Truman personally rebuffed him for being too eager to concede to the Soviets in order to make a deal. According to Sly and Able: A Political Biography of James F. Byrnes, in a letter to Byrnes, Truman said, "I'm tired of babying the Soviets." Byrnes's influence soon began to decline; his role as a skilled compromiser and negotiator during the Cold War occurred at a time when both the United States and the Soviet Union were unwilling to compromise.

Byrnes tried toughening his approach toward the Soviets through 1946. At Stuttgart, West Germany, on September 6, 1946, Byrnes announced in a major speech that it was now U.S. policy to reestablish an independent Germany, something the Soviets strongly opposed. Many saw this speech as the end of the wartime alliance between the West and the Soviet Union.

Byrnes's efforts to befriend the Soviets were ultimately unsuccessful, but his departure from Truman's cabinet was not about job performance; it had more to do with a personality conflict. Byrnes and Truman simply did not get along. Byrnes envied Truman for succeeding Roosevelt as president and often negotiated with foreign nations without consulting with Truman. In addition, Byrnes's position on white supremacy was in stark contrast to Truman's domestic policies. Byrnes finally resigned in January 1947. Just before leaving office, he negotiated peace treaties with the Soviet Union and Italy, Romania, Hungary, and Finland. It was a last-gasp effort at U.S.-Soviet friendship. General George C. Marshall (1880–1959; see entry) replaced Byrnes as secretary of state.

Governor Byrnes

Byrnes kept quiet in public on national issues for two years after leaving the State Department. By 1949, Byrnes began openly criticizing some of Truman's domestic policies. Returning to public life, Byrnes won election as governor of South Carolina in 1950, receiving 85 percent of the vote. While in office, he pressed Truman to bomb the People's Republic of China (PRC) during the Korean War (1950–53) because he had been so criticized for being soft on communism that he adopted a more warlike position on issues.

Byrnes also supported racial segregation, or separation of the races, in public schools. An opponent of the civil rights movement, which stressed equal rights for African Americans, Byrnes, like many Southerners in the early 1950s, switched his party affiliation and became a Republican. His fight against public school desegregation directly contributed to the landmark 1954 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education, a court case that combined cases from several states, including South Carolina. The Court decided to ban racial segregation in public schools, but Byrnes vowed to fight implementation of the decision. He fought the adoption of segregation policies with limited success when implementation was delayed. Byrnes retired from office in 1955 and died in April 1972 in Columbia, South Carolina.

For More Information


Brown, Walter J. James F. Byrnes of South Carolina: A Remembrance. Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 1992.

Byrnes, James F. All in One Lifetime. New York: Harper, 1958.

Byrnes, James F. Speaking Frankly. New York: Harper, 1947. Reprint, Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1974.

Graebner, Norman A., ed. An Uncertain Tradition: American Secretaries of State in the Twentieth Century. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1961.

Messer, Robert L. The End of an Alliance: James F. Byrnes, Roosevelt, Truman, and the Origins of the Cold War. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1982.

Robertson, David. Sly and Able: A Political Biography of James F. Byrnes. New York: Norton, 1994.

Yergin, Daniel. Shattered Peace: The Origins of the Cold War and the National Security State. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1977.

Yalta and Potsdam

James Byrnes had perhaps his best moments in foreign affairs while attempting to forge a friendly relationship with the Soviet Union during the two 1945 summit meetings at Yalta and Potsdam. The summits involved the leaders of the United States, the Soviet Union, and Great Britain, the countries known as the Big Three. In February, Byrnes traveled with President Franklin Roosevelt to Yalta, a town on the Crimean Peninsula in the Soviet Republic of the Ukraine.

At the meeting, Soviet premier Joseph Stalin agreed to attack Japan to help the U.S. war effort in the Pacific. Roosevelt and British prime minister Winston Churchill conceded to the Soviet Union veto power in the newly developing United Nations organization. They also gave in to Stalin's demands to shift the west border of Poland westward to include parts of Germany. In return, Stalin agreed to allow free elections in Poland. The leaders also agreed to divide Germany into four postwar occupation zones, with the Soviets, the Americans, the British, and the French each controlling one zone. In addition, Churchill and Roosevelt agreed to require war reparations from Germany, another demand Stalin made for the Soviet Union. (Reparations are payments a defeated country must sometimes make for damages it caused during a war.) Despite reaching these agreements, the leaders of the three countries revealed in their negotiations a growing division between East and West over future goals.

The next meeting of the Big Three came on July 26, 1945, in Potsdam, Germany. Harry S. Truman had replaced Roosevelt after Roosevelt's sudden death in April, and Clement R. Attlee (1883–1967; see entry) had replaced Churchill as Britain's prime minister. Because the two Western leaders were new, Byrnes played a stronger role in orchestrating agreements. Regarding war reparations, he proposed that the United States, the Soviet Union, Britain, and France obtain reparations only from their own German occupation zones. If Stalin accepted this arrangement, the Americans, the British, and the French would formally accept the new Polish boundaries that Stalin and the Soviets wanted. Through Byrnes's negotiations, the four German occupation zones became more permanently fixed. In addition, Italy became part of the Western sphere of influence, and Bulgaria, Romania, and Hungary became part of the Eastern sphere. Through Byrnes's personal orchestration, the division of Europe had become firmly established.

Byrnes, James Francis

views updated May 23 2018


James Francis Byrnes, a self-taught lawyer, was briefly an associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court during the 1940s and also served as secretary of state, the governor of South Carolina, a U.S. senator, and an influential member of President Franklin D. Roosevelt's cabinet.

Byrnes was born May 2, 1879, in Charleston, South Carolina. Economic circumstances forced him to quit parochial school at the age of 14 and go to work as a clerk in a Charleston law firm for $2 a week to help support his family. He learned shorthand and eventually obtained a job in Aiken, South Carolina, as the official court reporter for the Second Judicial Circuit, a state court. He studied law in his spare time and was admitted to the South Carolina bar in 1903. He then purchased a newspaper in Aiken, the Journal and Review, and served as its editor for five years. Active in the democratic party, Byrnes was elected district attorney for the Second Judicial Circuit in 1908, and two years later won a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives, where he served for 15 years. Following an unsuccessful bid for the U.S. Senate, he returned to South Carolina in 1925 to practice law in Spartanburg. In 1930, he again ran for the Senate, and this time he won election.

Initially, Byrnes was a strong advocate of Franklin D. Roosevelt's new deal legislation and served as Roosevelt's legislative adviser, thus playing a crucial role in securing support in the Senate for Roosevelt's policies. Byrnes also helped the president successfully manage the furor surrounding the chief executive's "courtpacking" plan, a bill proposed by Roosevelt to expand the Supreme Court so that he could nominate justices who would uphold New Deal legislation. Roosevelt heeded Byrnes's advice not to seek a vote on the bill after several 1937 decisions indicated that the Court would be more inclined than its members previously had been to hold Roosevelt's programs to be constitutional. Later in his second Senate term, Byrnes joined the Democratic opposition to pro-union New Deal legislation. Nevertheless, he remained close to Roosevelt and helped secure the repeal of the Neutrality Act of 1935, 49 Stat. 1081, and the passage of the lend-lease act of 1941, 22 U.S.C.A. § 411 et seq.

In June 1941, Roosevelt nominated Byrnes to fill the seat on the U.S. Supreme Court vacated by the resignation of Associate Justice james c. mcreynolds. Byrnes won confirmation easily but served on the Court for little more than a year, completing the shortest tenure in the history of the Court.

Byrnes wrote only 16 majority opinions, including Edwards v. California, 314 U.S. 160, 62 S. Ct. 164, 86 L. Ed. 119 (1941), in which the Court struck down a California law that made bringing indigents into the state a crime. In his opinion, Byrnes argued that the law posed an unacceptable burden upon interstate commerce. He also wrote the majority opinion in Taylor v. Georgia, 315 U.S. 25, 62 S. Ct. 415, 86 L. Ed. 615 (1942), where the Court held that a state penal law that required workers receiving advances to remain at their jobs until the advances were paid back violated the thirteenth amendment prohibition against involuntary servitude.

Despite these significant contributions, Byrnes was not happy on the Court. He wanted to be more actively involved in the country's war effort. In October 1942, after only sixteen months on the Court, Byrnes resigned his seat. He left the Court at the request of President Roosevelt to become director of the newly created Office of Economic Stabilization, established to help prevent wartime inflation. Less than a year later, Byrnes became head of the Office of War Mobilization, an agency created to manage the production of war and civilian goods. The range of authority and influence Byrnes wielded in both posts led Roosevelt to refer to him publicly as "assistant president."

In Roosevelt's 1944 campaign for a fourth term, Byrnes was considered for the vice presidential nomination when opposition to Henry A. Wallace, the current vice president, surfaced. But Byrnes's pro-management views proved to be unacceptable to labor leaders, and the nomination instead went to harry s. truman. Byrnes nevertheless remained a close adviser to Roosevelt, accompanying him in 1945 to the yalta agreement with joseph stalin and Winston Churchill.

"Poverty and immorality are not synonymous."
—James Byrnes

Byrnes continued to play a major role in government after Roosevelt's death, when President Truman, a longtime friend, appointed Byrnes secretary of state. Byrnes's service in the state department was controversial. He took criticism for his recommendation that the

atomic bomb be used to end the war with Japan. As secretary of state, Byrnes was the chief representative for the United States in a number of high-level international conferences held following the war, including the Potsdam Conference. In negotiations with the Soviet Union, Byrnes favored a settlement that greatly weakened Russia's control over Eastern Europe and increased the United States' monopoly on atomic weapons. He also argued for the reunification of Germany. The Soviets strongly resisted

both proposals, and the failure of these negotiations helped to launch the cold war.

Byrnes resigned from the cabinet in 1947 after a disagreement with Truman over his Fair Deal programs, which Byrnes saw as socialistic. After leaving the Truman administration, Byrnes practiced law in Washington, D.C., for several years. In 1947, he published Speaking Frankly, an account of his experiences with postwar diplomacy, which became a best-seller.

Byrnes returned to politics in 1950 when he was elected governor of South Carolina. He served for one term, during which he compiled a somewhat mixed record with respect to civil rights. His administration suppressed the activities of the ku klux klan in the state, but Byrnes was a vocal opponent of school desegregation.

After leaving office in 1955, Byrnes retired to Columbia, South Carolina, where he died in 1972. Byrnes was the only U.S. citizen in the twentieth century to have served in prominent roles in all three branches of the government—legislative, judicial, and executive. His autobiography, which was published in 1958, is titled All in One Lifetime.

further readings

Brown, Walter J. 1992. James F. Byrnes of South Carolina: A Remembrance. Macon, Ga.: Mercer Univ. Press.

Byrnes, James. 1958. All in One Lifetime. New York: Harpers.

——. 1947. Frankly Speaking. New York: Harpers.

Congressional Quarterly. 1989. Guide to the U.S. Supreme Court. 2d ed. Washington, D.C.: Congressional Quarterly.

Messer, Robert L. 1982. The End of an Alliance: James F. Byrnes, Roosevelt, Truman, and the Origins of the Cold War. Chapel Hill: Univ. of North Carolina Press.

Ward, Patricia Dawson. 1979. The Threat of Peace: James F. Byrnes and the Council of Foreign Ministers, 1945–1946. Kent, Ohio: Kent State Univ. Press.


New Deal; Roosevelt, Franklin Delano.

Byrnes, James F.

views updated Jun 08 2018


Born in Charleston, South Carolina, of Irish Catholic parents, James Francis Byrnes (May 2, 1879–April 9, 1972) matured into the most influential southerner in the Depression-era Senate. Raised by his mother, a dress maker, and his maternal grandmother, the young Byrnes received a parochial school education and became a full-time clerk for a Charleston law firm at the age of fourteen. He studied law independently, and was admitted to the South Carolina bar in 1904. In 1910 Byrnes won South Carolina's second district by fifty-seven votes and entered the U.S. House of Representatives. Dark haired and sharp featured, the young politician possessed an encompassing public persona that shielded a skillful, sly mind and an industrious spirit.

Intent on maintaining white supremacy, South Carolina's minority of Protestant white males controlled Byrnes' electoral base, which had suffered since 1876 from corrosive race baiting. Although Byrnes could have appeal to racial prejudices, he preferred to campaign on economic and social improvement platforms. He supported Woodrow Wilson's World War I administration and the formation of the League of Nations. He met Franklin Roosevelt at the 1912 Democratic convention, and during the Wilson years Byrnes benefited from Roosevelt's friendship. Byrnes refused to join the Ku Klux Klan and, in 1924, ran unsuccessfully for the Senate against the demagogic Coleman L. "Coley" Blease. Six years later, with the help of a new friend, Bernard Baruch, and the growing economic crisis, Byrnes defeated Blease.

Upon his nomination for president, Franklin Roosevelt drew politically shrewd Byrnes into the "Brains Trust," and the two men sustained a warm relationship throughout the 1930s. Possessing such confidants as Carter Glass, Joseph Robinson, and Byron "Pat" Harrison, Byrnes emerged as a key legislative leader for much New Deal legislation. Convinced that the Depression's origins lay at home, Byrnes opted for a planned economy. He participated as a calculating compromiser to help create the Emergency Banking Act, the Farm Credit Act, the Homeowners' Loan Act, the 1933 Economy Act, and such agencies as the Agriculture Adjustment Administration, the Civilian Conservation Corps, and the National Recovery Administration. As a member of the Senate conference committee Byrnes also forged understandings that facilitated the establishment of the Securities and Exchange Commission in 1934.

Byrnes used work relief funds from the Public Works and the Works Progress Administrations (WPA) to alter the face of South Carolina. He sided with veterans to override a presidential veto of a bonus bill. Driven by the race-based politics of his constituency, he fought in 1935 the Wagner-Costigan proposal, a federal anti-lynching bill. Although Byrnes was ill during passage of such 1935 reforms as the National Labor Relations Act, the Eccles Banking Act, the Revenue Act, the Public Utilities Holding Company Act, and the Social Security Act, he nonetheless endorsed them on the basis that these new laws would benefit South Carolinians. In 1936 he easily won reelection to the Senate.

In 1937 Byrnes joined Roosevelt's attempt to reorganize the court system. Despite the alarm of many wealthy South Carolinians, Byrnes understood that the average voter preferred reform. When the reform effort failed, Byrnes bemoaned the political errors that prevented passage. Byrnes' votes against the Fair Labor Standards and Child Labor Acts also had their roots in the South Carolina electorate and the increasingly urban tilt of the New Deal. Concurrently, his resistance to extension of the WPA was also rooted in the concerns of rural precincts where the agency's wage scales drew away labor and earned cotton growers' wrath. Byrnes actions were further shaped by his belief that the Depression was by this time lifting. After telling Roosevelt that he would stand with his friends, he supported conservative senators Walter George, Millard Tydings, Guy Gillette, and Ellison D. Smith when Roosevelt attempted to purge them from the Congress in 1938. Yet, Byrnes also helped reelect such New Dealers as Florida's Claude Pepper and Alabama's Lister Hill. While pundits claimed these actions marked a break with Roosevelt, the South Carolinian had refused to sign the southern Conservative Manifesto authored by Josiah Bailey, who touted a conservative opposition to the course of the New Deal. Byrnes endorsed the 1938 Agricultural Adjustment Act, composed the 1939 Administrative Reorganization Law, and managed the refunding of the WPA.

After trips to Japan and Germany in the mid-1930s, Byrnes feared future aggression. In 1938 he urged the Roosevelt administration to accept Jewish émigrés from Nazi persecution, and, as chair of the Navy appropriations subcommittee, he supported the expansion and increased preparedness of the U.S. Navy. Byrnes was appointed an associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court in 1941, but he resigned that post in 1942 to serve as Roosevelt's director of the economic stability. He later served as secretary of state from 1945 to 1947 during the Truman administration and as governor of South Carolina from 1951 to 1955.



Byrnes, James Francis. All in One Lifetime. 1958.

Byrnes, James Francis. Papers. Clemson University Special Collections. Clemson, South Carolina.

Byrnes, James Francis. Speaking Frankly. 1947.

Hayes, Jack Irby, Jr. South Carolina and the New Deal. 2001.

Moore, Winfred B., Jr. "New South Statesman: The Political Career of James Francis Byrnes, 1911–1941." Ph.D. diss., Duke University, 1976.

More, Winfred B., Jr. "'Soul of the South': James F. Byrnes and the Racial Issues in American Politics, 1911–1941." The Proceedings of the South Carolina Historical Association (1978): 42–52.

Morgan, Thomas S. "James F. Byrnes and the Politics of Segregation." Historian 56 (summer 1994): 645–654.

Robertson, David. Sly and Able: A Political Biography ofJames F. Byrnes. 1994.

Henry C. Ferrell, Jr.

James Francis Byrnes

views updated May 18 2018

James Francis Byrnes

The American public official James Francis Byrnes (1879-1972) was a prominent political figure for some 40 years, serving under presidents Franklin Roosevelt and Harry S. Truman.

James F. Byrnes was born to immigrant Irish parents in Charleston, S.C., on May 2, 1879. His early years were difficult, for his father died a few weeks before his birth. His mother, left with two young children and almost penniless, took up dressmaking to support her family. To help, James left school when he was 14 to work as an office boy in a local law firm. Taught shorthand by his mother, he won a competition and obtained a job as a stenographer in the Second Circuit Court of South Carolina in 1900. In his free time he studied law and 3 years later was admitted to the South Carolina bar.

Byrnes opened his own law office in Aiken. He found few paying clients, however, and continued in his job as a court reporter. He also bought the Aiken Journal and Review, but his career in journalism was brief. In 1908 he was elected a circuit solicitor (an office equivalent to that of a prosecuting or district attorney) and sold his interest in the newspaper to his partner. Two years later he was elected to his first term in Congress. Before entering public life, Byrnes had married Maude Busch of Aiken in May 1906.

In 1911 Byrnes entered the House of Representatives, remaining until 1925, serving on the House Committee on Roads, the Banking and Currency Committee, and the Appropriations Committee. These experiences, together with his personal qualities, contributed to his political success. Byrnes was a genial and charming person, with a sense of humor, who quickly mastered the game of politics. "The art of legislating," he later observed," is the art of intelligent compromise."

Defeated for the Senate in 1924, Byrnes was elected in 1930. A realistic politician, a southerner, and a loyal Democrat, he supported Franklin Roosevelt in the election of 1932 and was tapped as a "brain truster" for budgetary matters. Byrnes strongly promoted New Deal legislation in the Senate during Roosevelt's first term, but after 1937 he adopted a more conservative position. He loyally defended the President's foreign policy, however, especially in the extension of trade agreements and defense appropriations. In 1940 Roosevelt considered Byrnes for the vice-presidential nomination but decided in favor of Henry Wallace. Following his third-term reelection, the President appointed Byrnes associate justice to the Supreme Court (June 1941).

But World War II was at hand, and Byrnes was on the Supreme Court for only 16 months before Roosevelt made him director of the Office of Economic Mobilization and, in the next year, head of the six-man War Mobilization Board. Byrnes now had considerable authority in the management of domestic affairs, while Roosevelt concentrated on the military conduct of the war. Byrnes's administrative performance was so outstanding that he became popularly known as "Assistant President." Roosevelt again considered Byrnes as a vice-presidential candidate in 1944 but chose Harry S. Truman. Byrnes, however, accompanied Roosevelt to the Yalta Conference in February 1945, and his detailed shorthand notes proved to be very helpful to President Truman. Shortly after Roosevelt's death in 1945, Truman appointed Byrnes secretary of state, a post he held until January 1947.

Byrnes's tenure coincided with the collapse of the wartime cooperation with the Soviet Union and the onset of the cold war. As secretary of state, he tried unsuccessfully to reconcile the conflicting interests between the United States and the Soviet Union. To satisfy the Soviet Union's demand for security against Germany, he proposed a four-power treaty of alliance to keep Germany demilitarized for 25 years; but the Kremlin rejected this offer. His effort to resolve the atomic energy issue between the two powers in 1945— he suggested the exchange of atomic information without absolute and effective agreement on inspection and control—met with opposition in Congress. Although unable to obtain solutions on either issue, Byrnes managed in 1946 to work out compromise peace treaties with the Soviet Union for Italy, Romania, Bulgaria, Hungary, and Finland. On Sept. 6, 1946, he delivered his famous Stuttgart speech, which called for the creation of an autonomous democratic German state. Increasingly, Byrnes adopted a tough posture toward the Soviet Union, but disagreements with President Truman led to his resignation on Jan. 10, 1947.

Following his departure from the Cabinet, Byrnes became associated with a Washington law firm, but in 1950 he ran for governor of South Carolina and was elected by an overwhelming majority. As governor, he fulfilled his campaign pledge to suppress the Ku Klux Klan in the state, but he resisted the efforts of the Federal government to desegregate public schools. Byrnes retired in 1955 and died on April 9, 1972, in Columbia, S.C.

Further Reading

There are no biographies of Byrnes. The most important sources on his life are his two memoirs, Speaking Frankly (1947) and All in One Lifetime (1958). The best account of Byrnes's tenure as secretary of state is the chapter by Richard D. Burns in Norman A. Graebner, ed., An Uncertain Tradition: American Secretaries of State in the Twentieth Century (1961). A brief, impressionistic vignette is in Raymond Moley, 27 Masters of Politics: In a Personal Perspective (1949). □

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