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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 495

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This is the grave of James Byrnes.

Born in 1882 in Charleston, South Carolina, Byrnes did not come from the type of elite that usually made leading South Carolina politicians. His father died shortly after James was born. His mother was a dressmaker. But a widowed aunt came to live with them and while I’m not sure what was going on in that house, a serious emphasis on education resulted; one of the aunt’s children later became the head of the American Bar Association. He left school at the age of 14 to work at a law office, where among his first job was transcribing the trial of Pitchfork Ben Tillman’s nephew for killing the editor of a South Carolina newspaper. By 1900, Byrnes had a cousin who was governor. Engaging in a combination of nepotism and seeing the skill of the young boy, he wanted to name Byrnes as a clerk for a state judge. But you had to be 21 and he was only 18. Easy solution: the family changed his birth date.

Despite Byrnes’ lack of education, he was admitted to the bar in 1903. An protege of Ben Tillman, Byrnes received sweet plums despite his age. In 1908, he was appointed solicitor to the second circuit of South Carolina. He also turned his back on his Irish Catholic path, converting to Episcopalianism, probably a good move for an ambitious man in South Carolina.

In 1910, Byrnes ran for Congress and won the Democratic primary. He became a very effective legislator. Despite his close relationship with the bombastic racebaiting Tillman, Byrnes was more a behind the scenes operator, focusing on getting legislation passed. He was a big player in beginning the process of the federal government subsidizing paved road construction as automobiles began transforming American life. He became a close ally of Woodrow Wilson during his presidency and was a key player in getting much of his agenda through the House.

In 1924, Byrnes decided to go for the Senate. He wanted to primary Nathaniel Dial, who was another old Tillman ally. Coleman Blease, a racebaiter to the right of even Tillman, also ran. It was a very ugly primary. Byrnes could racebait too. But Blease and Dial remembered Byrnes’ Catholic past and so the Ku Klux Klan was for anyone but Byrnes for that. Truthfully, though, they were really all in for Blease. The latter won the primary but did not get a majority. Dial finished third so it was Blease versus Byrnes. In a very close race, Blease won 51-49. Byrnes was out of a job.

Byrnes did not want to leave politics behind. But he had to bide his time. He moved his law practice to Spartanburg, in the rapidly industrializing Piedmont. He was very close to other Democrats in the Washington elite and invested in the most important of those guys–Bernard Baruch. He became rich. But he still wanted to be in politics. So, in 1930, he decided to take on Blease once more. In the multi-candidate primary, Blease again received a plurality, but this time, Byrnes snuck through in the run-off. He of course was elected in the general election since there was no effective Republican Party in South Carolina.

Byrnes chose a good time to enter the Senate. While Democrats were always going to be elected from the South, 1930 was the election that voters in the rest of the nation massively rejected Hoover and the Republican Party, laying the groundwork for Franklin Roosevelt’s 1932 presidential victory. While we remember as FDR as a liberal, he had lots of conservative advisors, in his Cabinet, in other key positions, and in Congress. Plus, Byrnes and Roosevelt were friends from the Wilson years. So Byrnes became Roosevelt’s top lieutenant in the Senate, despite being a new senator.

Mostly, Byrnes supported the New Deal, more than many southern Democrats. The key was getting federal money to develop the South. Byrnes’ big project was federal control over inland waterways to build dams and canals and prevent flooding. This wasn’t part of the Tennessee Valley Authority, but there were so many water projects in these years and Byrnes made sure South Carolina got more than its share. The giant Santee Cooper project was completed in 1942. Byrnes was a big champion of the courtpacking plan and was one of Roosevelt’s most important allies on foreign policy as the nation moved toward World War II.

But let’s be clear, Byrnes was a still a racist southerner. He opposed the Fair Labor Standards Act because of fears it would help black workers. He made sure that no anti-lynching legislation would ever pass the Senate. Byrnes openly defended lynching, saying it was necessary “in order to hold in check the Negro in the south” and that “rape is responsible, directly and indirectly, for most of the lynching in America.” Southern white politicians might disagree about the New Deal, but about white supremacy backed with murder and torture? They were all on board for that.

In July 1941, Roosevelt repaid his friend by naming him to the Supreme Court. But there were bigger tasks at hand. When the United States entered World War II that December, Roosevelt soon decided he needed Byrnes in other roles than on the Court. So after only 15 months, he resigned to head the Office of Economic Stabilization. Being a major political insider, he continued to move ahead in the war planning world and in 1943 was given the plum job to head the Office of War Mobilization, which planned much of the war economy. He was probably Roosevelt’s most important advisor during the war.

In 1944, it was clear that party regulars were not going to accept Henry Wallace for another term as Vice-President. Byrnes wanted the job, but Roosevelt, a cagey operator to be sure, wasn’t going to give it to him. He wanted to replace Wallace with William O. Douglas, but when the party pressed Harry Truman on him, Roosevelt said that was OK too. Byrnes just had too many enemies. Labor hated him for opposing the Fair Labor Standards Act. Northern blacks didn’t want a pro-lynching VP, and the urban machines in the North were offended by his leaving the Catholic Church.

When Truman took over upon Roosevelt’s death, he needed strong advisors and Byrnes was there for that role. But there was some confusion. Truman knew nothing about foreign policy. He figured that since Byrnes talked a big game and had accompanied Roosevelt to Yalta, that the latter did. So he named Byrnes Secretary of State. One problem–Byrnes was totally ignorant about the issue. Byrnes also clearly thought he should be president. So while both he and Truman wanted to take a much harder line against the Soviets than Roosevelt had or certainly than Wallace wanted, Truman soon felt that Byrnes was setting foreign policy by himself. Truman believed Byrnes wasn’t even telling him the details of what had happened at the Moscow Conference in December 1945, accusing his Secretary of State of not doing enough to keep Iran out of the Soviet sphere. Byrnes became ever more hard line against the Soviets and was named Time’s Man of the Year in 1946. But the personal relationship between Truman and Byrnes had collapsed over the bitterness of the latter not being president and the insecurity of former over that issue. So Byrnes resigned in 1947.

Bynres might have gone into retirement, but instead ran for governor of South Carolina in 1951, serving one four-year term. In his inaugural address, he stated, “Whatever is necessary to continue the separation of the races in the schools of South Carolina is going to be done by the white people of the state. That is my ticket as a private citizen. It will be my ticket as governor.” Although he did not have the reputation as a racebaiter as some southerners, the difference was only a matter of degree and loudness, not policy. He did increase funding to black schools in order to make separate but equal seem more equal in the face of the court challenges that would lead to Brown. South Carolina had a one-term limit and so he retired from public life in 1955.

In his later years, Byrnes helped start the process of the white South moving to the Republican Party. He started endorsing Republicans in 1952 with Eisenhower. He endorsed Harry Byrd’s independent segregationist ticket in 1956, then went Republicans for the rest of his life. He personally gave Strom Thurmond the blessing to leave the Democratic Party. Byrnes remained a Democrat but there was nothing left of the Democratic Party in a man who was a huge supporter of Barry Goldwater in 1964. Byrnes died in 1972.

James Byrnes is buried at Trinity Episcopal Church, Columbia, South Carolina.

This grave visit was supported by LGM reader donations. Thanks! Nothing better than profiling awful white supremacists, not to mention major political players of the mid-twentieth century. If you would like this series to profile other people to hold the position of Secretary of State in this era, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Edward Stettinius is in Locust Valley, New York and Henry Stimson is in Laurel Hollow, New York. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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