A sense of humor and just enough gall to win
Following is the text of 1995 Scholar Ryan Sneed's address at the Byrnes Foundation fortieth annual luncheon, June 14, 2003.
When Kristine Hobbs asked me at Super Weekend to speak on James F. Byrnes today, I was completely blown away by such a request. Of all people, how was I going to be able to speak about a man I had never met, and my only relationship with him was through books, newspaper clippings, and the occasional anecdote by those who knew him.
My introduction to James F. Byrnes began like many of us; I received a scholarship from the James F. Byrnes Foundation. I had little knowledge of who this man was and what he accomplished in his political career. As a senior in college, I had to do a thesis, which was confined to the years of 1920 and 1945. Without hesitating, I decided to explore the life of James F. Byrnes during those years. So, after many red inked drafts, "James F. Byrnes, Roosevelt's 'Assistant' President from 1942-1945" was born. This was my first formal introduction to who this man really was and what he accomplished.
Now that I've been out of college a while, I thought surely you would never see me again in a library, especially doing any sort of research. But as I began to delve into the life of James F. Byrnes, once again, I found that I had really missed some things the first time around. I had missed out on his charm, his love for serving people, and his sense of humor.
James Francis Byrnes was know by many titles: He was known as & Representative Byrnes. Senator Byrnes. The Honorable James F. Byrnes. Justice Byrnes. Assistant President Byrnes. Secretary of State. The Great Compromiser. The Jaunty Irishman. Governor Byrnes. Jimmy. Jim, to close friends. Or even Pop to some.
He wore many hats and held many titles, however he never lost sight of his humble beginnings. During his 1950 campaign for the 1951 gubernatorial Election, a reporter asked Byrnes, after he had addressed an auditorium of grade-school students and talked with many of them, if he minded being informally addressed as "Jimmy" by the youngsters. Byrnes replied, "Certainly not. Because when a youngster calls me 'Jimmy,' I know I have their daddy's vote."
But before he held all those titles, Byrnes began his life under humble circumstances at 128 Calhoun Street in Charleston, SC.
Byrnes was born May 2, 1882. He was the grandson of Irish Catholic immigrants who came to American after the Great Irish Potato Famine in the 1840's, and the Byrnes' family originally began life as immigrant farmers on the Yamasee River in lower South Carolina. He was the son of James Francis Byrnes, who died two months before his son's birth of tuberculosis, and Elizabeth McSweeney Byrnes. Because of his father's untimely death and his mother working tirelessly as a dressmaker, Byrnes left school at the age of 14 to help support his family. When I say family, I mean it in every sense of the word. In the Byrnes' household, in addition to raising her son and daughter, the young widowed Mrs. Byrnes supported her invalid mother, her sister, and her sister's son. Byrnes always said that his family motto was, "Eat it all, wear it out, make it do."
Byrnes' mother taught him shorthand, which was useful after he left school, as he soon got a job at a law office in Charleston as an errand boy. Little did anyone know that this would be the launching ground for what was to become his political career.
Although Byrnes didn't officially finish school, later in life he was honored by many honorary degrees from colleges such as: Columbia, Yale, Pennsylvania, Washington and Lee, UNC, Clemson, College of Charleston, Presbyterian College, The Citadel, Furman, Wofford, and the University of South Carolina. Later in life, Byrnes quipped, "I could not afford a formal education, but now in my old age, I'm educated by degrees." Byrnes' career began almost in a whirlwind. After he was admitted to the South Carolina Bar Association in 1903, he purchased the Aiken Journal and Review newspaper which he edited weekly until he was elected as the Solicitor for the Second Circuit in 1908. He was elected to the US House of Representatives in 1911 where he served for 14 years until 1925. Recalling his first campaign, Byrnes said, "I campaigned on nothing but gall, and gall won by exactly 57 votes."
But even after Byrnes had left his small town newspaper in Aiken, South Carolina, the editor in him still prevailed. After arriving in Washington, Byrnes noticed that the Washington railroad station had misspelled Spartanburg by adding an extra 's' making it Spartansburg. True to his early editing practices he wrote the railroad station telling them, "you need to learn how to spell."
In 1925 Byrnes turned his attention to the US Senate, however, Byrnes lost in a close election. But true to one of Byrnes' favorite adages, "winners never quit, and quitters never win," he sought the seat again in 1930 and won in a landslide victory. He served in that capacity unit 1941 when he was appointed to the United States Supreme Court. This prestigious appointment was in part due to his loyalty to President Roosevelt and Roosevelt's "new deal" platform.
Byrnes only served on the Supreme Court for sixteen months. Normally, a Supreme Court appointment is a lifetime appointment. Byrnes, however, under his own free will stepped down from what he thought would be his most prestigious role in his political career.
Because on the morning of December 7, 1941, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, thrusting the United States into World War II. And on the morning of December 8, President Roosevelt summoned Byrnes and Byrnes offered up his services immediately to Roosevelt. Byrnes would prove himself indispensable to Roosevelt and the war effort, earning the unofficial title of "assistant president." Byrnes' job was to run the home front while Roosevelt was tending to the issues of the war. However, when Roosevelt would run into a snag and needed votes, he would send out his number one politician to sway the votes in his favor.
Byrnes rarely ever spoke on the floor because he preferred a more private environment. This was usually done in what many of the politicians referred to as Byrnes' "Cloakroom." This was nothing more than a janitor's closet that had been transformed into a small office for Byrnes, resting perfectly off the House and Senate corridors. Byrnes would pull individual Senators and Representatives aside as they were leaving sessions and invite them into his "cloak room" to what Byrnes termed as "to strike a blow for liberty," which in layman's terms means nothing more than to drink down a couple of stiff bourbon drinks. The cloakroom had nothing more than a card table, a couple of folding chairs, a liter of Hankey Bannister Bourbon, and a bottle of branch water with a couple of antique glasses. This was where Byrnes was at his best. Turner Catledge, a journalist during those times wrote, "Byrnes was a born manipulator, he could con the pants off of anyone in Washington."
Byrnes served as Roosevelt's right hand man through the war in the capacities of Director of War Mobilization and Director of Economic Stabilization, which respectively prepared the country for war and then capped the inflation of goods and salaries and implemented rationing of high demand resources.
Byrnes was not used to the media frenzy that he encountered after being appointed Director of War Mobilization. His first press conference took place in the White House's "Fish Room," which had mounted fish all over the walls. Noting one particular fish, Byrnes' first statement to the press was, "I feel like that fish. I'm sure if he had a sign right now it would say, if I had kept my mouth shut, I wouldn't be here on this wall."
While serving as Director or War Mobilization, Byrnes was instrumental in the "Manhattan Project," which lead to the development of the Atomic Bomb. Later in the war, he was integral in making the decision to drop the bomb.
After the war, Byrnes traded in his domestic policies to become an indispensable American diplomat as Secretary of State under President Harry S. Truman. Byrnes was instrumental in concocting some of the Cold War policies that would influence politics well into the 1980's.
After Byrnes left his position as Secretary of State, he returned to South Carolina and rumors began to circulate that Byrnes would run for governor, and he did just that. Byrnes served as Governor of South Carolina from 1951 to 1955. This was the last political office Byrnes held.
Byrnes' life truly surrounded what he stated as, "The highest of distinctions is service to others." And to capture his life of public service, Byrnes began work on his memoirs, which resulted in his first book, Speaking Frankly, and later, All In One Lifetime. With the proceeds from these books, the James F. Byrnes Foundation was born and the first scholarship was given in 1949 in the amount of $500. After receiving royalties from his first book in the amount of $20,000, Byrnes stated, "This was the only real amount of money I ever had."
But of all the accomplishments in Byrnes' life, his most prized accomplishment was marrying Maude Busch of Aiken, South Carolina. Mrs. Byrnes was a beautiful and talented recent graduate of Converse College, an institution that was noted for turning out what Byrnes said were "superior and gracious ladies." They married on May 2, 1906, ironically, Byrnes' birthday. However, they married under some controversy. Maude being an Episcopalian, and Byrnes being baptized Roman Catholic, posed a problem for the couple getting married in the small town of Aiken. But to satiate the church's stance on the subject, Byrnes begrudgingly "converted" to the Episcopalian faith. On commenting on his faith in his book, All in One Lifetime, Byrnes wrote, "For myself, I think a man's religion is a matter between God and himself and I dislike the hypocrite who parades his religious views no less than the bigot who arouses prejudice against other faiths." However, no matter with which denomination Byrnes' allegiance laid, he was always steadfast in his Christian beliefs.
Byrnes's Christian beliefs carried over into every aspect of his life, as he never told nor cared to hear a profane story. Byrnes was a great storyteller, however. He loved to tell and hear a good story. One of his favorite stories was that of the time that he picked up two hitchhikers outside of Bethesda, Maryland. Byrnes recalled:
I was hailed by a young sailor, who asked for a ride for himself and his redheaded buddy, who was leaning against a telephone pole. When I agreed to take them into town, the sailor at the pole started navigating toward the automobile and I knew the telephone post had performed a useful service. The smaller of the two sat next to me. The inebriated redhead also got into the front seat and put his head back in comfortable relaxation. The little, but talkative, one seemed afraid I might object to the condition of his friend and tried to keep me diverted. He asked what kind of work I did. I said, "Right now I'm out of a job." He seemed sympathetic and asked what my job was when I worked. I said, "I was Director of War Mobilization." His expression clearly showed he had never heard of it. After being quiet for a second or two, he made another effort, "Well, what did you do before that?" "I was the Economic Stabilizer," I said. He had never heard of that one either. "I mean before the war," he replied. "I was a Justice of the Supreme Court," I told him, thinking that that at least would impress him. He asked, "You mean the highest court?" "Yes," I said. With his elbow he nudged the other boy asking, "How would you like to be a member of the highest court?" Shaking his head the intoxicated redheaded slurred, "I wouldn't like it. There's no chance for a promotion."
Fortunately, James F. Byrnes never viewed any position he held as having no room for promotion. He always proved himself indispensable to his country, his friends, his wife, and his children, which is how he and Mrs. Byrnes referred to the scholars of the Byrnes Foundation.
Even after he retired from his life in politics, he still made himself available to politicians who asked for his advice. One politician that sought out his services regularly was President Richard Nixon.
President Richard Nixon wrote these words after Byrnes' death on April 9, 1972: "James F. Byrnes was one of those men who ranked principles first and that should be his legacy to all of us who seek to serve our country. No man in American history has held so many positions of responsibility in all branches of our government with such distinction. He was a great patriot who always put his country ahead of his party."
President Nixon ordered that flags across the nation be flown at half mast in honor of Byrnes. Nixon's statement may have summed up Byrnes' political career. However, the courage, character, personality, and vision that made James Francis Byrnes began with a mother's love, grit, and determination. And with just enough gall to win by 57 votes he embarked on an illustrious political career that propelled him from the House, to the Senate, to the White House, and to the halls of the United Nations. And all Byrnes said he ever wanted out of politics was "three meals a day, two new suits a year and a reasonable amount of good liquor." He may have left his mark in this world through his political career, but his legacy lives on here today through who he and Mrs. Byrnes referred to as their "children."