Republican Party leader. Edens organized the modern Republican Party in South Carolina. He was born on May 13, 1925, in Columbia, the son of J. Drake Edens, Sr., and May Youmans. After serving in the U.S. Marine Corps, in 1946 he married Ferrell McCracken. Edens earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of South Carolina in 1949 and until 1955 was vice president of his family’s food store chain. Following the company’s merger, he became self-employed with numerous business interests.
Edens’s initial involvement with the Republican Party occurred during the 1960 presidential campaign. In 1961 he was cochair of the successful campaign of Charles Boineau, the first Republican elected to the General Assembly in the twentieth century. He was also manager of the 1962 U.S. Senate campaign of the journalist William D. Workman, who received a surprising forty-three percent of the vote as a Republican challenger to veteran Democrat Olin D. Johnston.
From 1963 to 1965 Edens was chairman of the state Republican Party. He worked methodically to strengthen and expand the party organization statewide. His party-building activities took him to every corner of South Carolina. He eventually established the foundation for a state party that thereafter posed a serious electoral challenge to the Democrats.
Edens, an early supporter of Barry Goldwater for president, reached a high point at the 1964 Republican National Convention when he rose to announce the state delegation’s vote: “I am humbly grateful that we can do this for America. South Carolina casts sixteen votes for Senator Barry Goldwater.” With that, Goldwater had the majority needed for the nomination. In autumn 1964, with Edens as his state campaign chairman, Goldwater carried South Carolina for the first Republican victory in a presidential election since 1876. Nationally, however, Goldwater lost in a landslide election to Lyndon B. Johnson.
In 1965 Edens became the state’s Republican national committeeman, and in 1965 he was chosen one of the committee’s four national vice chairmen. In the space of just five years, he had risen from relative obscurity to become the highest-placed southerner in the national Republican Party.
Edens was a delegate to the national Republican convention twice more, in 1968 and 1976, and remained on the national committee until 1972. By the mid-1970s, however, he had yielded leadership of the state party to relative newcomers to the Republicans.
An avid outdoorsman and conservationist, Edens in 1976 was named to the South Carolina Wildlife Commission and in 1979 was elevated to the chairmanship of the commission by Democratic governor Richard W. Riley. By the early 1980s Edens continued to pursue these interests despite declining health. On July 30, 1982, at the Isle of Palms beach, Edens accidentally drowned while swimming. In death he was remembered as “Mr. Republican” and the “father of the Republican Party in South Carolina.” Columbia’s State newspaper editorialized, “We know of few South Carolinians who were more respected than Mr. Edens.”
Edens, J. Drake, Jr. Papers. Modern Political Collections, South Caroliniana Library, University of South Carolina, Columbia.
Sampson, Gregory B. “The Rise of the ‘New’ Republican Party in South Carolina, 1948–1974: A Case Study of Political Change in the Deep South.” Ph.D. diss., University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, 1984.
Surratt, Clark. “Edens Praised for Service to State.” Columbia State, July 31, 1982, pp. A1, A7.