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Mark Powell’s Palmetto Past & Present: South Carolina’s Favorite Irish Son

The legacy of James F. Byrnes …

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Another St. Patrick’s Day is upon us. Though we don’t dye rivers green here as they do in Chicago, still a respectable amount of green beer will likely be downed in Columbia’s Five Points or on East Bay Street in Charleston.

The sons and daughters of Erin have contributed much to our state from its very beginning. For instance, Irishman Florence O’Sullivan was the first surveyor in the original Carolina Colony. Their impact grew from there.

Andrew Jackson’s parents were Scots-Irish immigrants (let us sidestep the whole “Which side of the state line was he actually born on?” debate) as was the father of his vice president, John C. Calhoun who wrote in 1841, “I have ever taken pride in my Irish descent.”

In our time we have seen the influence of the two Rileys, Governor Richard from Greenville and Mayor Joseph in Charleston.

But for my money, the title of most distinguished Irish South Carolinian belongs to one man, hands down. Because James F. Byrnes was in a category all by himself. Few Americans can hold a candle to his remarkable catalog of achievements.



Solicitor, congressman, senator, U.S. Supreme Court associate justice, U.S. secretary of state, key figure in the turbulent post-World War II transition back to a peacetime economy, and finally governor of South Carolina.

Not bad for a kid who dropped out of school.

Byrnes was born to Irish Catholic parents in Charleston in 1882. His dad (a city clerk) died shortly after his birth. In those days long before Social Security, his mother supported Jimmy and his sister by working as a dressmaker. Her task grew tougher when his grandmother, widowed aunt, and cousin moved in with the family.

As the Byrnes’ financial situation worsened, getting an education was no longer an option for young Jimmy. Though he left the classroom at age fourteen to earn money to help support his family, he kept on learning. A job in a lawyer’s office led to him becoming a stenographer for the Second Judicial Circuit – where he was responsible for transcribing this famous trial. At night he studied law and was admitted to the bar in 1904.

As he worked long hours to better himself, Jimmy still managed to find time for fun. He had been an altar boy in his childhood and loved to sing. The young Catholic lent his rich tenor to the St. Thaddeus Episcopal Church choir in Aiken. There Cupid’s arrow found his heart and he fell in love with college student and fellow choir member Maude Busch. There apparently were some heated discussions over their faith, with Mama Brynes siding with “Miss Maude” and the family’s parish priest opposing the relationship. The priest lost and the two were married in 1906. Byrnes became an Episcopalian shortly thereafter – a decision which may have changed the course of American history several decades later.

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James F. Byrnes (Harris & Ewing)

Jimmy Byrnes was already on the fast track in Palmetto politics. Appointed solicitor in 1908, he took the plunge two years later by gambling his infant career on a shot at the big time. It was the closest of close calls. He won the Democratic nomination (the same in those days as winning a Republican primary today) for the state’s Second Congressional District by a mere 57 votes. On such slender threads does destiny often hinge.

Byrnes spent the next fourteen years (1911-1925) in the House before joining the elite handful of Americans who have served in the legislative, judicial, and executive branches of the federal government.

After ten years in the U.S. Senate (1931-1941), Byrnes served for fifteen months on the U.S. supreme court prior to being tapped by President Franklin Roosevelt with running his war economy – and later the nation’s war mobilization effort.

During this time, Byrnes came within a whisker of getting the top job himself. When Roosevelt sought a fourth term in 1944 his second vice president, Henry Wallace, had become too liberal ever for FDR. There was support for Byrnes to be Roosevelt’s next Veep — until several groups inside the Democratic Party put the kibosh on it. They included some leading Catholic politicians who viewed him as a turncoat to their faith. Harry Truman got the nod instead, and the presidency as well when FDR died less than 90 days into his final term.

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Byrnes with Truman and Stalin at Potsdam in July 1945 (Harry S. Truman Presidential Library)

Love, it seems, had carried an especially steep price tag for Byrnes – although Truman installed him as his secretary of state.

Byrnes finished his remarkable career by becoming governor in 1951 – after which he became a central figure in the evolution of the state’s partisanship during the latter half of the twentieth century. He endorsed Republican president Dwight Eisenhower, GOP nominee Barry Goldwater and encouraged Strom Thurmond to bolt the party in 1964.

Jimmy Byrnes died at his Columbia home in April 1972, three weeks shy of his 90th birthday.

There were blemishes in his record, of course, such as supporting some issues that are looked upon disapprovingly today. There is a time and place to discuss those matters, but this is not it. Instead, let us celebrate a man who rose by the strength of his sheer talent and ability, who answered when his state and country called him to serve, and who ultimately returned home to end his days among his own people.

They say everyone is Irish on St. Patrick’s Day. Perhaps a better idea would be for our public servants to be more like Irishman Jimmy Byrnes every day.      



Mark Powell (Provided)

J. Mark Powell is an award-winning former TV journalist, government communications veteran, and a political consultant. He is also an author and an avid Civil War enthusiast. Got a tip or a story idea for Mark? Email him at



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