James Francis Byrnes, Jr.

74th Governor of the State of South Carolina 1951 to 1955

Date Born: May 2, 1882

Date Died: April 9, 1972

Place Born: Charleston, SC

Place Buried:
Trinity Episcopal
Cathedral Cemetery
in Columbia, SC

Residence: Aiken County, SC, Spartanburg, SC, and Columbia, SC, at retirement

Occupation: Lawyer, Newspaper Editor


St Patrick's Parochial School, Charleston: Withdrew at 14)
Byrnes was awarded honorary LL.D. degrees from John Marshall College, University of South Carolina, Columbia University, Yale University, and Washington and Lee University

U.S. House of Representatives: 1911-1925
U.S. Senate: 1931-1941
U.S. Supreme Court: 1941-1942
U.S. Secretary of State: 1945-1947

Byrnes accompanied President Franklin D. Roosevelt to the Yalta Conference.
Byrnes accompanied President Harry Truman to the Potsdam Conference in 1945.
Byrnes authored Speaking Frankly and All In One Lifetime.
The James F. Byrnes Foundation, which grants college scholarships, was established in 1948.

1950: James Francis Byrnes, Jr. was elected governor without opposition, receiving 50,633 votes.

November 7, 1950: At age 68, James Francis Byrnes, Jr. was the oldest person ever to be elected governor of SC


James Francis Byrnes, Jr. was born on May 2, 1882 in Charleston, SC. His father, James Francis Byrnes, died of tuberculosis six weeks before he was born. His mother, Elizabeth McSweeney Byrnes, was an Irish-American dressmaker. At the age of 14, he left St. Patrick's Catholic School to work in a law office, and became a court stenographer.

James Francis Byrnes, Jr. never attended high school, college, or law school. In 1900, when his cousin Gov. Miles Benjamin McSweeney appointed him as a clerk for Judge Robert Aldrich of Aiken, he needed to be 21. Byrnes, his mother, and Gov. 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 South Carolina bar in 1903.

In 1906, James Francis Byrnes, Jr. married Maude Perkins Busch of Aiken, SC, and they had no children.

In 1908, James Francis Byrnes, Jr. was appointed Solicitor for the 2nd Circuit of South Carolina, serving until 1910. Byrnes was a protégé of former governor and U.S. Senator Benjamin Ryan Tillman, and often had a moderating influence on the fiery segregationist Senator.

In 1910, he narrowly won the state's 3rd U.S. 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.

After his U.S. House of Representatives 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, James Francis Byrnes, Jr. 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 U.S. 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, Senator 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 of 1942. The loan was later paid back to the federal government with full interest and at no cost to SC taxpayers. Santee Cooper has continued to be a model for public-owned electrical utilities world-wide.

In 1937, Byrnes supported President 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 President Roosevelt's efforts to purge conservative Democrats in the 1938 primary elections. On foreign policy, Byrnes was a champion of President Roosevelt's positions of helping Great Britain and France against Nazi Germany in 1939–1941, and of maintaining a hard diplomatic line against Japan.

Senator 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."

In part as a reward for his crucial support on many issues, President Franklin D. Roosevelt appointed James Francis Byrnes, Jr. an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court in July of 1941. He was the last Justice appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court 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.

President Roosevelt brought James Francis Byrnes, Jr. to the Yalta Conference in early 1945, where he seemed to favor Soviet plans. After Roosevelt died, Harry S. Truman was elevated to the Presidency, and he appointed James Francis Byrnes, Jr. 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 1950, at the age of sixty-eight, James Francis Byrnes, Jr. was elected governor of South Carolina, serving from 1951 to 1955, in which capacity he vigorously criticized the U.S. Supreme Court's decision in Brown v. Board of Education.

Ironically, Gov. James Francis Byrnes, Jr. 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 the U.S. 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 several U.S. Supreme Court civil rights cases, particularly in regard to public education.

Gov. Byrnes poured state money into improving black 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 SC Constitution limited governors to one four-year term, and James Francis Byrnes, Jr. retired from active political life following the 1954 election.

In his later years, James Francis Byrnes, Jr. 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 affiliation to the Republican Party, and South Carolina within two decades of his death had become a solid 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 James Strom Thurmond of SC 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 SC U.S. Representative Albert W. Watson, who had been stripped of his congressional seniority by the House Democratic Caucus after endorsing Barry Goldwater for president. Byrnes openly endorsed Watson's 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 James Francis Byrnes, Jr.'s death on April 9, 1972, at the age of 89, he was interred at Trinity Episcopal Cathedral Cemetery in Columbia, SC.


James Francis Byrnes, Jr. a U.S. Representative and a U.S. Senator from South Carolina; born in Charleston, SC on May 2, 1882; attended the public schools; official court reporter for the second circuit of South Carolina 1900-1908; editor of the Journal and Review, Aiken, SC 1903-1907; studied law; admitted to the bar in 1903 and commenced practice in Aiken, SC; solicitor for the 2nd Circuit of South Carolina 1908-1910; elected as a Democrat to the 62nd U.S. Congress, re-elected to the six succeeding U.S. Congresses (March 4, 1911-March 3, 1925); was not a candidate for renomination in 1924, but was an unsuccessful candidate for U.S. Senator; resumed the practice of law in Spartanburg, SC; elected as a Democrat to the U.S. Senate on November 4, 1930; re-elected in 1936 and served from March 4, 1931, until his resignation on July 8, 1941, having been appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court; chairman, Committee to Audit and Control the Contingent Expense (73rd through 77th U.S. Congresses); Associate Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court from July 1941 until his resignation on October 3, 1942, to head the wartime Office of Economic Stabilization until May 1943; director of the Office of War Mobilization, May 1943 until his resignation in April 1945; Secretary of State in the Cabinet of President Harry Truman 1945-1947; resumed the practice of law in Washington, DC; Governor of South Carolina 1951-1955; retired and resided in Columbia, S.C., where he died April 9, 1972; interment in Trinity Episcopal Cathedral Cemetery.

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