James Francis Byrnes was born on May 2, 1882, and his father passed away shortly after his birth, leaving his dressmaking mother to raise him. Faced with rising expenses, he dropped out of school at the age of 14 to become a court stenographer even though his mother had to lie about his birth date. His cousin Governor Miles B. McSweeney appointed him to this position.
Lawyer Gets Married
In 1903, James passed the bar exam after spending many hours studying at home. Three years later, he married Maude Perkins Busch, but the pair never had any children. He became the Solicitor for South Carolina’s Second Circuit Court.
United States Representative
James grew more fascinated with politics. He won election to the United States House of Representatives in 1911 where he continued to serve until 1925. During Byrnes’s first time, New Mexico and Arizona were admitted to the Union while Alaska became a territory. States that approved the 16th Amendments to the United States were ratified. During his second term, the Federal Bank was first opened, and the 17th Amendment to the Constitution was ratified. During the remainder of Byrnes’s term in the United States House of Representatives, most of his time was spent on the United States’ involvement in World War I.
United States Senator
In 1924, James ran for the United States Senate but narrowly lost the election. Thereafter, he returned to Spartanburg, South Carolina, where he ran a private law firm until he won election to Congress in 1931. Most notably, Congress approved the creation of the Federal Home Loan Bank helping Americans buy homes at lower prices. Byrnes was a huge supporter of policies wanted by President Roosevelt at home and abroad. He did, however, oppose him on raising minimum wages. He played a key role in blocking anti-lynching legislation saying it was necessary to keep African Americans in check.
Associate Justice to the Supreme Court
In 1941, President Roosevelt appointed him as an Associate Justice to the Supreme Court to replace James McReynolds, who was retiring. He was so well-liked in Congress that they approved him on June 12, 1941, which was the same day that Roosevelt nominated him. He wrote 14 opinions during his time on the court. Unlike most United States Supreme Court judges who stay on the bench for life, Bryne only stayed on the bench for sixteen months until October 3, 1942.
Executive Branch Service
President Roosevelt persuaded him, however, to work in the executive branch during World War II. He first oversaw the Office of Economic Stabilization before overseeing the Office of War Mobilization. This office controlled all manufacturing of parts for military vehicles during World War II, along with many other types of manufacturing. He was so indispensable to President Roosevelt that he earned the nickname Assistant President.
Many expected Brynes to be nominated as Roosevelt’s running mate but the Democratic Convention named Harry S. Truman to that position instead. Roosevelt so trusted Brynes that he was one of the few people in the room when Churchill, Stalin and Roosevelt met for the Yalta. It was the hope of this conference held from February 4 to 11, 1945, that a plan could be agreed upon to allow post-Nazi Europe to govern itself. A second conference soon was convened just nine weeks after Japan’s surrender in July 1945. At this conference, President Truman represented the United States while Stalin started the conference but was replaced by Attlee. Stalin was also present throughout the conference. The goal was to establish post-war order.
Secretary of State
After President Roosevelt passed away on April 12, 1945, Truman appointed Brynes to be Secretary of State. In this role, he was a major decision maker in dropping the atomic bomb on Japan. With this appointment, he became the only man in history as of 2017 to serve in all three branches of the federal government. He continued in the role of Secretary of State until January 21, 1947. Some reports indicate that Byrnes had been progressively more irritated that the Democrats had not chosen him as Roosevelt’s running mate. Many point to his speech given at Stuttgart, West Germany, as setting the tone for international relations after the war.
Speaking Frankly Author
James Francis Byrnes wrote two books. In the first is titled Speaking Frankly, he outlines the relationship between the United States and the Soviet Union with a particular emphasis on the Yalta Conference and the Potsdam Conference. This book was published shortly after he left office in 1947.
Governor of South Carolina
The voters of South Carolina elected him governor of their state in 1951. As a leader, Byrnes was so popular in the state that no Republican ran against him. One of his first acts was to make it illegal to wear face masks on any night except Halloween because the Klu Klux Klan was very active in the state. Byrnes, with the help of the legislature, also poured tax dollars into creating equal-but-separate schools for African-American students. These schools, however, never lived up to the reputation that the white schools in the state had for delivering a quality education. While Byrnes had given up the opportunity to serve on the Supreme Court, he spent much of his time as governor trying to stop the Supreme Court from integrating schools in the Brown v. Brown decision. After one term in office, the voters did not return him to office.
All in One Lifetime Author
After his retirement, he wrote a second book titled All in One Lifetime, an autobiographical look at his life. He used the proceeds from these books to start the Byrnes Foundation. All proceeds from the sale of these books supports the Byrnes Foundation. This group continues to provide support to orphans along with personally mentoring them as they journey through college and beyond.
James Francis Byrnes passed away on April 9, 1972. He is interred at Trinity Episcopal Courtyard in Charlotte, North Carolina.