State 125

James Byrnes: South Carolina’s ‘assistant president’

James Byrnes, in an undated photo
James Byrnes, in an undated photo File photo/The State

Before becoming S.C. governor, James “Jimmy” Byrnes held many titles, and even got close to being president before he died at age 89.

After being elected a district prosecutor, the Democrat went on to be a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 14 years and, for a decade, the U.S. Senate, where he pushed the New Deal.

President Franklin Roosevelt appointed Byrnes to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1941, but the Charleston native left that post soon after to become the president’s director of economic stabilization and the office of war mobilization in World War II. It was in that powerful role that Roosevelt nicknamed Byrnes his “assistant president.”

Byrnes almost became Roosevelt’s successor. But the president decided against having Byrnes as his running mate out of fear that the southerner would hurt his re-election chances.

After Roosevelt’s death, President Harry Truman appointed Byrnes U.S. secretary of state, where he advocated for dropping two atomic bombs on Japan in 1945. He also helped broker the post-war alliance that led the nation into the Cold War.

Byrnes’ final political office was S.C. governor, which he held from 1951-1955. The segregationist pushed through the state’s first sales tax aimed at improving the state’s “separate but equal” African-American schools.

In 1953, President Dwight Eisenhower appointed Gov. Byrnes a delegate to the United Nations General Assembly, his last role representing the federal government.

Jamie Self

Editor's note: This story has been updated to correct Byrnes' age at his death — 89, according to historians. According to some accounts, the former S.C. governor as a teenager changed his birthday to appear older so he could be appointed to a court position.

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