James F. Byrnes was a lawyer with no formal education, something you would never see today, and so is remarkable. More striking is he had an influential role in the political careers of presidents Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, Dwight Eisenhower, and Richard Nixon. Despite ending his scholastic career at fourteen when he left and went to work, FDR appointed him a Supreme Court Justic and if all of that was not notable, unlike most life-jurists, he did not die in office, but resigned, and returned to political life, and ran, successfully, as governor of his home state, South Carolina.
He was born in Charleston, South Carolina, on May 2, 1882 to a newly widowed mother. As the clerkship for Judge Aldrich required him to be 21 years old, he falsified his year of birth as 1879. This, while striking today, was not particularly remarkable at the time, as many people did that to meet work requirements.
He represented South Carolina in the House (1911-25) and Senate (1931-41). When he was really twenty-one, they admitted him to the bar as a self-taught lawyer. From there, he ran for the Senate, where he helped spearhead much of his friends’ Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s (FDR) New Deal legislation. Like another Roosevelt faithful, Frank Murphy, Byrnes was sworn in as associate justice of the Supreme Court in July 1941 right before the start of World War II.
Our header picture is color coded for this a very august body : the British UK Prime Minister Clement .R. Attlee (White), President Harry S Truman(Blue) , and Soviet Union General Secretary (Premier) Josef Stalin (red ) all seated from left to right. In the rear, standing are US Admiral and President of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, J.D. Loahy, UK Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin, US. Secretary of State, J.F.Byrnes (green) and Soviet Chairman of the Council of People’s Commissars (Prime Minister) Vyacheslav Molotov at Potsdam, Germany.
Despite being a Supreme Court Justice, FDR appointed him director of the office of Economic Stabilization in May 1942, and director of the Office of War Mobilization in May 1943. Popularly known as “assistant president for domestic affairs,” Byrnes had authority over production, procurement, and distribution of all civilian and military goods, manpower allocation, and economic stability.
Byrnes attended the Yalta Conference with Roosevelt and was appointed secretary of state (1945-47) by President Truman with whom he attended the Potsdam Conference. Byrnes represented the U.S. on the “Council of Foreign Ministers,” assembled to write the WWII peace treaties. For these efforts, Time magazine recognized him as the “Man of the Year” for 1946.
Although a segregationist while governor of South Carolina (1951-55), Byrnes ensured passage of anti-mask and anti-cross burning bills (rebuffs to the Klan) and created a sales tax intended to bring parity to the state’s deplorably maintained minority schools. However, the Civil Rights movement called for deeper change and Thurgood Marshall (and the NAACP External) challenged the state’s “separate but equal” policy with a lawsuit, Briggs v. Elliott.
Fearing Marshall’s success would evoke a violent backlash from white demagogues and undercut his own efforts, Byrnes had the state’s lawyer admit to gross inequities and propose a detailed plan for improved schools which the court would monitor. Byrnes prevailed locally, but Marshall rolled the case into Brown v. Board of Education in Topeka, Kansas, a successful national challenge to Plessy v. Ferguson and the doctrine of “separate but equal.”
As with another South Carolinian John C. Calhoun a century earlier, Byrnes too became a strong supporter of state’s rights. He led disaffected Southern Democrats to endorse Dwight Eisenhower in the 1952 presidential election because the Republican platform stated it was the responsibility of the state, rather than federal government (which was the Democratic platform), to carry forth civil rights reform.
After suffering a long illness, Byrnes passed away in April 1972.
If you are interested in learning more about Justice Byrnes and his effect on mid-20th century politics, The End of an Alliance: James F. Byrnes, Roosevelt, Truman, and the Origins of the Cold War by Robert Messer is about the only book I know on the topic. You can get it for Kindle et alia on Amazon here. FWIW I have not read it.