Byrnes, James Francis

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Byrnes, James Francis

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.

Cross-references

New Deal; Roosevelt, Franklin Delano.