“All in One Lifetime”: The Story of FDR’s Assistant President, Jimmy Byrnes

I am not quite ready to deliver my full analysis of the election and who and what is responsible for the GOP’s underperformance, as the House hasn’t been officially called for the Republicans and it’s not confirmed whether Congresswoman Lauren Boebert of Colorado, a staunch Trumpist, has been reelected. This will, however, be the subject of my next post as well as self-evaluation on my election calls.

The 20th century produced numerous political titans in American history, some well-known, others not so much. Everyone recognizes FDR, but not everyone recognizes the man who was second to him on domestic policy during World War II. No, not Vice President Henry Wallace, rather James F. “Jimmy” Byrnes (1882-1972).

Byrnes’ rise to national prominence was rather unexpected given the state from which he was from: South Carolina. Although Southerners had managed to play their cards considerably beyond their numbers on policy in Congress, they still paid a cost of not being able to win presidential elections (at least not if officially from a Southern state, anyway). John Nance Garner as FDR’s first VP was a major win in itself for the South. Jimmy Byrnes, as the public called him, would start in politics quite young, winning his first election to Congress at the age of 28 in 1910. He was a staunch foe of President William Howard Taft and would become a staunch ally in equal measure to President Woodrow Wilson. Wilson quickly recognized the young Byrnes’ legislative skill, and he became one of his favorites. He would give Byrnes tasks normally allocated to men considerably more senior than him given his high competence.

The 1924 Election: A Temporary Stumbling Block

In 1924, Byrnes ran for the Senate, with his foremost competition being former Governor Coleman Blease. Although white supremacy was the rule in South Carolina, politicians had discretion over whether they could race-bait in their campaigns or not. Blease was a race-baiter without equal in this time in South Carolina while Byrnes was not. The latter was personally friendly with individual blacks and would even invite his employees into his home on Christmas Eve for singing songs while his wife played the piano. Not every Southern white would host black people in their home for a social occasion. Byrnes also was born and raised a Catholic, but he had converted to Episcopalian as an adult. Despite this, the Ku Klux Klan, which supported Blease, engaged in a whisper campaign that he was still secretly a Catholic. Blease won the nomination by two points. However, this was but a temporary setback to Byrnes’ rise, and six years later he won a rematch against the demagogue.

Byrnes and FDR

One of the reasons President Roosevelt was rather muted on the subject of civil rights was that he needed the support of capable legislators from the South including Majority Leader Joe Robinson of Arkansas, Pat Harrison of Mississippi, and Byrnes to enact his New Deal agenda. Byrnes was almost entirely loyal to Roosevelt’s agenda in his first term, but in his second term he took exception to sit-down strikes and opposed the Fair Labor Standards Act as harming South Carolina’s competitiveness. Although he initially supported Roosevelt’s “court packing plan”, he had evidently changed his mind by the time he voted to shelve the plan indefinitely after the death of Majority Leader Joe Robinson (D-Ark.). Byrnes may have been one of the people who had given Robinson his word that he would vote for it, and with Robinson dead, many senators no longer felt bound to it. In 1938, he backed Senator Ed Smith for reelection despite FDR backing Governor Olin Johnston on account of Smith’s opposition to the Fair Labor Standards Act. Smith had never been that popular in South Carolina and FDR’s meddling, in addition to Byrnes’ support, got him another term.

The Supreme Court

In 1941, the irascible Justice James Clark McReynolds assumed senior status, thus Roosevelt decided to reward one of his leading supporters with a spot on the Supreme Court. However, unlike Hugo Black, Byrnes would not make an impact on the Supreme Court or stay long. The Supreme Court was simply not the right environment for him, and he was quickly dissatisfied. He needed to be in the action, and Roosevelt had a good role for him. Upon his deciding to leave the court in 1942, Byrnes was made the director of the Office of Economic Stabilization, followed by being head of the Office of War Mobilization. This made him essentially the assistant president on domestic affairs. In 1944, he was considered for the VP slot, but the reality was that picking a political figure from South Carolina for VP was a good way for the black vote to move back to the Republicans. Thus, Roosevelt instead selected Missouri Senator Harry S. Truman, who had voted for civil rights measures. Truman would find use for Byrnes as his Secretary of State, and it was a conflict over Secretary of Commerce Henry A. Wallace over his speech calling for the end of the Cold War that resulted in Byrnes and Secretary of the Navy James Forrestal to successfully push President Truman to fire Wallace in September 1946 (Simkin). This resulted in Wallace’s 1948 bid for the presidency.

Byrnes and Post-War Planning

In February 1945, Byrnes accompanied FDR to the Yalta Conference and would later accompany Truman to the Potsdam Conference in which the US, Britain, and the USSR determined the postwar setup for Germany. At Potsdam, Byrnes learned that the USSR was planning on to make Romania, Bulgaria, and Hungary Soviet-controlled. He would subsequently get the better of Soviet negotiator I.M. Maisky over whether the USSR or the West would have control over the industrialized western sector of Germany (Horton). That same year, he informed President Truman of the Manhattan Project and advised him to use atomic weapons against Japan on two grounds. First, that the war would end sooner, and second, that the United States would be able to fully dictate post-war terms. On September 6, 1946, Byrnes delivered the Restatement of Policy on Germany, commonly known as “The Speech of Hope”, which repudiated the punitive Morgenthau Plan and directed policy towards rebuilding Germany. This speech would result in Time Magazine making him its “Man of the Year”. The two would later sour on each other as President Truman noticed that Byrnes was trying to direct foreign policy himself by making decisions and only telling him after, and they would part ways in 1947. The following year, he endorsed Governor Strom Thurmond’s Dixiecrat bid for the White House.

Governor Byrnes

In 1950, Byrnes successfully ran for South Carolina’s governor. He read the writing on the wall and attempted to make “separate, but equal” a reality in the sense that he wished to make the schools blacks and whites attended to actually be equal. This approach, which he hoped would stave off calls for desegregation, he attempted with his 1951 law imposing a sales tax to fund new facilities, school buses, and districts to improve the education of the state’s black population. That year, Byrnes would also have a law passed banning the wearing of masks in public unless it was Halloween to curb the KKK. However, he was completely hostile to desegregation, and threatened to take the path that the Byrd Machine in Virginia would take for years…an end to public education altogether (Graham). Byrnes, in other words, was trying to make the Jim Crow system sustainable by alleviating some of its negative effects on blacks.

Moving to the GOP and the End

If you were to have told Byrnes in 1910 that he would support Republicans at any point in his life, he probably would have looked at you as if you were in a straightjacket, but he began to move away from the Democrats given conflicts with President Truman but also, he had already started to trend away from progressive politics in his second term in the Senate. While he was not a Republican in any of his offices and never officially switched parties, he would begin favoring them for president in 1952 with his support for Dwight Eisenhower. He would retire in 1955 and the following year would support a quixotic movement to vote for Senator Harry F. Byrd (D-Va.). However, Byrnes would then support Republican candidates for president for the rest of his life and regarded Senator Barry Goldwater’s vote against the Civil Rights Act of 1964 as his finest moment. He had come to believe that the Democrats had moved too far left and was disturbed by their turn to civil rights causes, another thing that was unthinkable for the Democratic Party of 1910. He published his autobiography, All in One Lifetime, in 1958, the title being a recognition of the scope of his career as well as the fact that he is one of the few people to have served in all three branches of government. Byrnes died on April 9, 1972, only weeks short of his 90th birthday. When it comes to South Carolinians and their influence on national politics, he was second only to John C. Calhoun and is thus one of the most influential Southerners in American history.


Graham, C.B. (2016, May 17). Byrnes, James Francis. South Carolina Encyclopedia.

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Hill, R. All in One Lifetime: James F. Byrnes of South Carolina. The Knoxville Focus.

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Horton, T. (202, August 20). James F. Byrnes: FDR’s ‘Indispensable Man’. Post and Courier.

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James F. Byrnes. Atomic Heritage Foundation.

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Simkin, J. James F. Byrnes. Spartacus Educational.

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One thought on ““All in One Lifetime”: The Story of FDR’s Assistant President, Jimmy Byrnes

  1. Excellent On Byrne’s. He Would Made An Interesting President Arguably Better Than FDR, Truman, Maybe Even Eisenhower. Sadly, We Have No Southern Statesmen OR Southern Conservatives NOW… The GOP Is Partly To Blame. Why Else?! Thanks For The History. Best Wishes From Dave IN TEXAS. Happy Sunday!

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