This new biography of one of the great “fixers” in American political life, James F. Byrnes, creates the impression of an American Ozymandias, proclaiming by example the ephemerality of human greatness. Byrnes and his political colleagues did mold the world in which we live long after the last of them died; yet the scene of waste remains, as the life of James Byrnes, almost all of its 90 years spent in the public sphere in an astonishing array of positions—member of both houses of Congress, Supreme Court Justice, secretary of state, governor—extends itself before us. James Byrnes was in many ways an honest and committed public servant, yet even he, no matter how sly or able (and he was indeed both) could not resist being increasingly consumed by the steady possession of public power.
Sly and Able presents a vibrant, at times colorful account of a nation struggling to define and accommodate itself to rapidly changing social and economic realities. Robertson throughout the book gives us glimpses of a world barely remembered: the “palmetto stump” campaigning in turn-of-the-century South Carolina, the great textile mill strikes of the 1930’s, and the forgotten figures, great and small, that populated American political life earlier in this century. Byrnes’s career was spent largely as a participant, and his life (1882-1972) spans most of the significant post-Civil War events of American politics. In some respects, “Jimmy” Byrnes’s is a classic Horatio Alger story. His family, refugees from the Irish potato famine, arrived in South Carolina almost two decades before the attack on Fort Sumter, and by the eve of hostilities had acquired significant land holdings along the coast. After the war the family wealth dissipated, and the senior Byrnes moved to Charleston to find work; by the time Jimmy was born, his father was dead from tuberculosis. The Byrnes family was poor again, and the son passed up college to support his family.
Except for short periods in private law practice, James Byrnes’s every position was in some way connected to government, beginning with his jobs as court stenographer and later court solicitor in Spartanburg, From there he entered Congress, as a representative for the Second District. While in Congress he met his first political mentor, the one-eyed Senator “Pitchfork” Ben Tillman of South Carolina. Farmer and agrarian radical, Tillman was the first in a line of prominent “fathers” who included Woodrow Wilson, Bernard Baruch, and Franklin Roosevelt. Each of these relationships proved mutually beneficial, the elder men finding a second youth through the energetic young Byrnes, and Byrnes in exchange receiving the benefits of their power.
Although Robertson makes a claim throughout the book for Byrnes’s “conservatism,” this disposition seems to have been largely temperamental, and Byrnes for the most part did not let it interfere with his pragmatism or ambition. What really seems the motivating factor in his career was the continuing quest for influence. Not that he was unprincipled in his pursuit of political power; there is no evidence of his using political office for financial gain, and, except for the most necessary concessions to the race problem, Byrnes did not engage in the racial agitation common to Southern politics of the time, even when these were used in attempts to unseat him. Byrnes’s career was that of a former poor boy who docs not wish to be powerless again, and who has the wit and skill to maintain his usefulness to those ruling the Rome then growing on the Potomac. As Robertson says of his elevation to the Supreme Court, where he served as an undistinguished member, “it was simply not in Jimmy Byrnes’ nature to refuse a promotion, whether he wanted the new job or not.” Such recalcitrance might have proved detrimental to his constant drive to the center of power.
The youthful congressman played no small part in the new Rome’s growth. After some disillusionment and disappointment in the 1920’s, Byrnes began his rise in the 1930’s, having allied himself with a President least likely to appeal to a conservative Southern politician. Franklin Roosevelt and Jimmy Byrnes had a strong but stormy friendship over the next two decades, as Roosevelt twice promised Byrnes the vice-presidency, and twice broke that promise. Despite these bitter betrayals (in 1944, Truman was carrying in his coat pocket the speech that would have nominated Byrnes when he himself, supported by FDR, accepted the nomination), Byrnes remained a loyal supporter of the Roosevelt colossus (who in Sly and Able is presented as distinctly deceitful), even working behind the scenes in Congress while an associate Justice to help secure passage of the Urst and Second War Powers Acts. Byrnes exacted a political price for these extrajudicial duties; he finally left the Court in 1942 to head the Office of Economic Stabilization, and in 1944 he became director of the newly created Office of War Mobilization, agencies Byrnes himself had outlined for Roosevelt.
It was in these years that Byrnes became known as “the assistant President,” and Robertson’s description of the office and its powers, even given the contingencies of war, is a case study in democratic tyranny. The two agencies gave Byrnes authority “relating to the control of civilian purchasing power, rents, wages, salaries, profits, subsidies and all related matters.” Byrnes was in complete control, and there was no appeal from his decisions. He was the first of the various “czars” whom American Presidents have appointed to circumvent self-government by free citizens, and Byrnes worked vigorously and efficiently to put his practical talents to use effectively to control the American economy for the remainder of the war.
Byrnes did display a certain conservatism in the form of regional loyalty after he became governor of South Carolina in 1950 and began to oppose the further growth of the total state and the concomitant social revolution in the South, which the Truman administration supported. But the omnipotent state that Byrnes himself had helped to create was already a reality, and his resistance, on the race issue, was futile. Byrnes had refused Klan endorsements of his candidacy in the past, and one of his first acts as governor was to promote anti-Klan legislation. Still, he was firmly committed to segregation, believing that white Southern moderates like himself could maintain the racial balance. Byrnes was unprepared for the unrelenting conviction civil rights activists had for their cause, and his political tricks at last failed him.
This perhaps was the great fixer’s greatest weakness. Unlike that other great Carolinian who also served the nation in a range of positions—John C. Calhoun—Jimmy Byrnes was an unreflective man, who seemed unable to understand anything besides ambition, and unable to define success in anything but political terms: bills passed, favors gained, positions held. His greatest enemy, Robertson implies, was the typical modern affliction of boredom, and in that too he was purely American.
[Sly and Able: A Political Biography of James F. Byrnes, by David Robertson (New York: W.W. Norton) 639 pp., $29.95]