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
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
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
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."