James Byrnes rose from an obscure childhood in South Carolina to become the only person ever to reach the highest ranks of all three branches of the federal government. In 1944, he came close to obtaining the Democratic nomination for vice-president, which would have made him, rather than Harry S. Truman, president upon the death of Franklin D. Roosevelt, in 1945.
James Francis Byrnes was born on May 2, 1882, in Charleston, South Carolina. His father had died shortly before, leaving his mother to take care of the family. Byrnes left school at the age of 14 to help provide for the family. With the skill at shorthand that he had by then acquired, he obtained a position as a court reporter in 1900. From 1903 to 1907, he served as editor of the Journal and Review in Aiken. There he met, and married in 1906, beautiful Maude Busch, a recent graduate from Converse College, which graduated "superior and gracious ladies,” Byrnes said.
By studying law, Byrnes learned enough to be admitted to the South Carolina Bar and served as Second Circuit Solicitor from 1908 until 1910, when he was elected to the United States Congress as a Democrat at the age of 31. He was re-elected every two years until 1924, when he ran unsuccessfully as a Democrat for the U.S. Senate. After six years practicing law in Spartanburg, South Carolina, he tried again and was elected to the Senate in 1930.
In 1941, Roosevelt wanted Byrnes for the U.S. Supreme Court, and Byrnes obliged. He resigned from the Senate and accepting the position of Associate Justice, in which he wrote approximately 16 decisions. Possessing strong ideals about the court’s purpose in interpreting laws, Byrnes said, "My belief is that it is the duty of a judge to declare what is the law and not what he thinks the law should be."
A year later, Roosevelt decided that he needed Byrnes more in the executive branch, so Byrnes resigned from the court and became Director of Economic Stabilization. In that role, he was responsible for the control of domestic prices, rents and wages. Later he ran the Office of War Mobilization, with the responsibility to procure, transport, and distribute goods and services to both civilians and the military.
In the summer of 1944, Roosevelt was looking for a replacement for Henry A. Wallace to run with him as the vice-presidential candidate. Byrnes had become known as the "Assistant President" and his name was frequently mentioned, but there were objections because of his conservative Southern orientation. Harry S. Truman had not sought the position, and had in fact drafted an acceptance speech for Byrnes to use at the convention. However, Roosevelt decided Truman would be a better choice.
FDR asked Byrnes to accompany him to the Yalta Conference in February 1945. Byrnes played a role when FDR sought his advice. At the conference that also included Joseph Stalin and Winston Churchill, the Big Three discussed reparations, contributions, and the Lend-Lease program.
Byrnes continued for a while in the administration, resigning in early April 1945, as the war wound down. He returned to Spartanburg to practice law again when Roosevelt died.
Byrnes returned to Washington as a presidential advisor to Truman, and in July, Truman promoted him to Secretary of State. Byrnes regarded the Soviet Union as America's principal adversary and believed that his country's possession of the atomic bomb would persuade the Soviets to comply with American demands during negotiations. There is little evidence that it did.
As Secretary of State, Byrnes visited Moscow in December 1945. While there, he concluded that the new governments in Romania and Bulgaria were meeting the requirements of the Yalta Conference, so he recognized them. Truman was furious that Byrnes had taken this step without consulting him, and although he eventually went along with his secretary of state, an estrangement began to develop.
Byrnes stayed in the cabinet until January 1947. Once again, he took up the practice of law in Spartanburg, but once again he could not remain on the political sidelines. In 1950, he was elected governor of South Carolina, the oldest man ever to hold that office, at age 79.
Although as a Southern politician he was virtually obliged to oppose racial integration, he still took steps during his term to advance education in South Carolina by first proposing a three percent sales tax to upgrade schools for whites and blacks.
While Byrnes upheld the segregation laws, he felt those laws could only be considered fair by making black schools equitable with white schools. Therefore, during his term as governor, Byrnes allocated two-thirds of the revenue from the sales tax to black schools. He also consolidated school districts from 1,200 to 102, enabling the remaining districts to make improvements with the additional funding made available.
Byrnes finally retired from public life at the end of his term as governor in 1955. He wrote two books: Speaking Frankly and an autobiography, All in One Lifetime. From the book proceeds, he and Maude began the James F. Byrnes Foundation, which continues to provide college scholarships. He died on April 9, 1972, and is buried at Trinity Episcopal Church, across the street from the South Carolina Statehouse. So well-respected was Byrnes for his public service that General Lucius D. Clay said in his eulogy:
"There are only a few — a very few — in a world of many people who can, by virtue of both character and achievement, be called great. Justice Byrnes was such a man. But of the few who are recognized as great, there are an even smaller number who are both great and good. Justice Byrnes was also a good man."