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James F. Byrnes, 1879-1979

Portrait of a Statesman
A Centennial Retrospective

Following is the text of the program for the exhibit James F. Byrnes, 1879-1979, Portrait of a Statesman at the McKissick Museums, The University of South Carolina, in 1979.

James F. Byrnes, statesman
James F. Byrnes, 1879-1979
Portrait of a Statesman
A Centennial Retrospective

James F. Byrnes was the greatest statesman to come from South Carolina in the twentieth century. In his lifetime he was a lawyer, editor of The Aiken Journal and Review, court stenographer, circuit solicitor, Congressman, Senator, Justice of the US Supreme Court, "Assistant President" of the United States, Secretary of State of the United States, Governor of South Carolina, Representative to the United Nations, author, benefactor and statesman. He was a public servant for forty-five of his ninety-two years. Byrnes was fond of quoting Tolstoy that, "The sole meaning of life is to serve humanity." In the broad perspective of time, he was influential in making his state, country and the world a better place in which to live.

Serving humanity was a moral and ethical obligation to him. In 1948 he added to his goal of service the simple role of benefactor by establishing The James F. Byrnes Foundation, which continues today. Byrnes himself had been orphaned shortly before his birth by the death of his father. He had to leave school at fourteen to aid his widowed mother and was a self-taught lawyer and court stenographer -- learning shorthand, which he was to utilize all his life. Through this Foundation over five hundred men and women [Ed. Note: now more than 880] who were orphaned by the death of either or both parents, have received a total of over one-half million dollars [Ed. Note: now more than $3,500,000] to further their education. Byrnes often referred to this program -- one in which all of his worldly goods were incorporated -- as "...the most rewarding thing I ever did in my life."

No one had a greater sense of public service than did Mr. Byrnes. He had as little concern about money and material things as any man in public life. He was devoted to public service, and the ambition of his life was to render the best. No offer or temptation for monied salary or compensation was sufficient to lure him from that ambition. As a public servant he willingly left the Supreme Court -- a position of high esteem with lifetime security -- to head the Office of Economic Stabilization. He heeded the call of a grieving nation in 1945 to come out of a brief retirement and serve as Secretary of State.

Byrnes was a reconciler of men -- one who believed that the art of legislating was the art of intelligent compromise. He practiced what he preached throughout his life, remaining popular among both Democrats and Republicans because of his ability to reconcile the differences of independent men into a working agreement. Byrnes' role in the Senate between 1930 and 1941 as devoted public servant and conciliator enabled a great deal of legislation to come into being which might have otherwise been defeated. Because he believed in FDR he was able to convince others from his region to join with him in promoting the New Deal. He used that characteristic on the Supreme Court and in the Executive Branch where for five years he was one of the single most important brokers for America on the domestic and foreign scene. As Director of War Mobilization, a position which he held from 1943 to 1945, he had the power to originate policies and layout programs that would coordinate the work of all the war agencies and Federal departments in any way connected with the production, procurement, transportation and distribution of both civilian and military supplies.

The South that produced Byrnes lacked industry, roads and educational facilities, and moved slowly to correct these ills. It was small farm- and factory-oriented with a strong emphasis on yesterday and little emphasis on tomorrow. This man, a product of Southern rural America who was conditioned by its values of individualism, became an international figure, who met with Josef Stalin and Winston Churchill at Yalta and Potsdam to forge the policies which dominated the world for the next thirty years. A man essentially conservative, with a conservative South Carolina distaste for change, he was instrumentally involved from 1932 to 1937 in some of the greatest changes this nation has ever witnessed.

Byrnes was influenced by the ideas and interests of men like Governor Ben Tillman. His early Southern populist views made him an instrumental figure in the creation of a special committee in the U.S. House of Representatives dealing with the building of roads using Federal moneys. Strongly patriotic, he was one of President Wilson's more ardent supporters when it became necessary for the United States to join in World War I.

In the Senate he was very protective of the South's emerging textile industry. He fought long and hard in their interest -- typifying Southern patriotic attitudes -- and assisted Roosevelt's New Deal legislative program, except when conscience moved him, as in the court-packing bill of 1937. He also wished to outlaw sit-down strikes and he could not see why the Federal Government should put a floor under wages and a ceiling over hours.

Byrnes had spent thirty-one years in Federal politics when he ran for Governor in 1950. But he remained at heart a Southerner. He strongly opposed integration but poured more money into Black schools ($66 million) than all previous governors before him combined. He was shocked at the 1954 Supreme Court decision that separate was not equal. To the end he was a product of early twentieth century South Carolina in his politics and attitudes.

In the many positions he held throughout his life one factor remained a constant -- "the art of intelligent compromise." Byrnes was a unique individual in this respect. Throughout his career he was called upon to mediate, conciliate and compromise opposing factions into an agreeable solution. His House and Senate career epitomized this attribute. Many a piece of legislation -- not necessarily with his name imprinted on it -- was a product of this rare commodity in the man.

When factionalism was tearing at the heart of the government during World War II, FDR used Byrnes to troubleshoot for him. When Harry Truman became President, suddenly, with little background in what was happening on the foreign front, he sought out Byrnes, on whom he leaned for advice in dealing with the newly emerging Soviet threat and with questions concerning the reconstruction of Western Europe. At the various peace conferences he attended as Secretary of State, he needed to summon all the mediation and conciliation he had in him to deal with the Russians. Patient and firm, and then just firm, were his attributes toward the Soviets and their chief negotiator, Mr. Molotov. It was hard to beat the Russians, but Mr. Byrnes did it at their own game.

James F. Byrnes was a product as well as a practitioner of American politics. He and the system complemented one another, as attested to by his rise from a humble Irish Catholic background in Charleston to a man of state, national and international influence. It is a tribute to the American system that an individual with limited formal education could, by determination, ambition and diligence, enter the highest councils of the world.

2024 Application Process Closed

The application process for 2024 is closed. Scholarship announcements will be posted to the website in early June. The application for 2025 will be available December 2024. Please check back then.

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In return for their generosity and support, Mom and Pop Byrnes asked only two things from us: become the very best people we could become in life, and make sure their legacy of family continues for those who come after us.

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