Column: Roosevelt’s assistant president from Aiken
One hundred years ago, Aiken was represented in Congress by an ambitious young man named James F. “Jimmy” Byrnes. He was to acquire enormous power and prestige, and almost became president.
Young Jimmy Byrnes alighted off the train from Charleston in 1900 to clerk for Judge James Aldrich. Born in 1882 and raised in genteel poverty, armed with little more than the Gregg shorthand he learned from his mother, the charming and quick-witted Byrnes quickly rose in Aiken society.
During his Aiken years, he married Maude Perkins Busch, joined St. Thaddeus Episcopal Church, passed the bar exam without formal legal training, and co-owned the Aiken Journal and Review.
Byrnes wasn’t physically imposing, thin as a rail and only 5 feet, 7 inches tall. But his political ascension was swift, and he wielded extraordinary power during the half century between Woodrow Wilson and Richard Nixon.
In 1908, he was elected Solicitor for the Second Circuit. In 1910, he went to Congress representing the Second District, which then, as now, included Aiken. He served seven terms as a protégé of Senator “Pitchfork” Ben Tillman and an ally of President Woodrow Wilson. Byrnes was known on Capitol Hill as a “fixer” due to his genius for crafting legislation and building coalitions.
In 1924, he was defeated by Coleman Blease in a vicious campaign for the Senate.
Byrnes’s Roman Catholic upbringing was used against him, as was his reluctance to engage in racial demagoguery. Byrnes remained ever after at odds with the Ku Klux Klan.
In the 1930 rematch with Blease, Byrnes emerged victorious. He closely allied himself with President Franklin Roosevelt, and became the senatorial point man for New Deal legislation.
According to biographer David Robertson, “President Roosevelt had never lost a bill that Sen. Byrnes had supported, and the president had never been able to win passage of a bill that Byrnes had opposed.”
Jimmy Byrnes dominated South Carolina. Besides controlling the state’s federal patronage, he championed the Santee Cooper Power and Navigation Project over the opposition of Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes.
“He was the state’s most powerful senator since Calhoun and, like Calhoun, harbored presidential aspirations,” wrote historian Walter Edgar.
Yet, the presidency eluded Byrnes as it had Calhoun.
Though he remained Roosevelt’s friend, Byrnes and the president clashed.
He opposed Roosevelt’s unsuccessful purge of conservative Democrats in 1938 and laid his ax against several New Deal programs. “When the emergency passes,” Byrnes declared, “they must pass.”
In 1941, Roosevelt appointed Byrnes an Associate Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. The Senate approved his appointment in eight minutes.
Byrnes was the last non-law school graduate to sit on the court.
Yet, the Supreme Court bored Byrnes. He longed to get back into the political fray. Pearl Harbor rescued him from judicial exile.
Needing a strong hand to manage the home front, Roosevelt appointed Byrnes the director of the Office of Economic Stabilization and the Office of War Mobilization.
A skilled bureaucratic infighter, Byrnes’s power over domestic policy waxed as Roosevelt’s energy and interest waned. With blank executive orders provided by the president, Byrnes dictated over countless aspects of American life during the war years.
Roosevelt wrote him, “You have been called the assistant president and the appellation comes close to the truth.”
In 1944, Roosevelt considered dumping Vice President Henry Wallace and replacing him with Byrnes. The opportunity vanished, however, when organized labor and the civil rights community objected to the Southerner. Instead, Harry Truman became the compromise candidate for vice president and then president the next year.
No South Carolinian ever came closer to the presidency.
But doors kept opening for Byrnes. In 1945, Truman appointed Byrnes Secretary of State. He advocated the atomic bombing of Japan, supported the alliance with the Soviet Union, and then became an ardent Cold Warrior after unhappy encounters with Stalin and Molotov.
In 1950, he was elected – pretty much by acclamation – governor of South Carolina.
Finally, Byrnes engineered the political realignment of the South. Sensing that Southern Democrats no longer fit within the party of Harry Truman and Lyndon Johnson, he promoted the Republican Party until his death in 1972.
Jimmy Byrnes is nearly forgotten today. Yet, he was a pivotal figure in American history, straddling both the eras of the Old and New South. Part progressive and part reactionary, a friend to big government and to big business, personally honest but politically devious, he remains difficult to pigeon-hole by today’s standards.
All in all, it was a remarkable journey for a poor boy from Charleston who made Aiken his home.
Gary Bunker is a former Aiken County councilman.