Governor, U.S. secretary of energy, college president. Jim Edwards was the first Republican governor of South Carolina in the twentieth century. He was born on June 24, 1927, in Hawthorne, Florida, to the schoolteachers Ordie Morton Edwards and Bertie Rae Hieronymus. The family moved to Charleston when Edwards was only one year old. After serving in the U.S. Maritime Service from 1944 to 1947, he continued his education and graduated from the College of Charleston in 1950. The following year Edwards married Ann Norris Darlington of Edgefield, and they eventually had two children He earned the D.M.D. degree from the University of Louisville School of Dentistry in 1955 and interned in oral surgery at the University of Pennsylvania Graduate Medical School. On completion of his medical training in 1960, Edwards returned to South Carolina and established an oral-surgery practice in Mount Pleasant.
During the 1960s Edwards became active in the South Carolina Republican Party. Initially attracted to the party by the conservative philosophy of Barry Goldwater, Edwards served as chairman of the Charleston County Republican Party from 1964 to 1969 and gradually assumed statewide influence in the party. In 1971 Edwards lost a special election for Congress, but he won a seat in the S.C. Senate the following year. Colleagues in both parties liked the affable Edwards. Democratic senator Ernest Hollings described Edwards as “an honest fellow who’s got his own positions and is not the partisan type.”
In 1974 Edwards challenged General William C. Westmoreland in the first modern statewide Republican primary for governor. In the July 16 election, Edwards won an upset victory. While Westmoreland carried more counties, Edwards overwhelmingly carried Charleston County, where he gained a strong following from building the local party. In the general election Edwards faced William Jennings Bryan Dorn, who became the Democratic candidate after the state supreme court ruled that the primary winner, Charles “Pug” Ravenel, did not meet the state’s residency requirements. In the campaign Edwards assumed the reform mantle and gained many disaffected Democratic and independent votes. In a close contest, Edwards won the governorship by 18,500 votes, carrying 50.5 percent of the total cast. Recalling his highly improbable election, Edwards quipped, “No amount of planning beats darn luck.” His election as governor became a landmark in the growth of modern two-party politics in South Carolina.
The Edwards campaign emphasized, “No debts and no deals.” He sought to hold the line on state payrolls and curbed welfare fraud by reforming the State Department of Social Services. He pushed successfully for the landmark Education Finance Act and established the South Carolina Energy Research Institute to coordinate energy development. During his term, his friendship with California governor Ronald Reagan drew attention, and Edwards was one of two Republican governors who backed Reagan’s challenge to President Gerald Ford in 1976.
As governor, Edwards won praise, and even his detractors admitted that the former oral surgeon had done considerably better than expected. He was an effective but not a dominant governor, limited by the weak institutional powers of office and an overwhelmingly Democratic legislature. Although his political popularity was high, Edwards never sought elective office again and returned to his oral-surgery practice at the end of his term in January 1979.
When Ronald Reagan became president in 1981, he named Edwards secretary of energy. Although ideologically compatible with Reagan, Edwards had little experience in energy matters or Washington politics. Early in his two-year stint in the Department of Energy, Edwards admitted that he did not run the department, but rather, “It ran me.” He emphasized the expansion of nuclear energy resources and decontrol of crude oil prices, and he revamped Carter administration programs that featured conservation and development of alternative fuels. He stepped back from the Reagan administration’s initial plans to eliminate the Department of Energy but did propose downsizing the department.
Resigning as secretary on November 5, 1982, Edwards returned to South Carolina to become president of the Medical University of South Carolina in Charleston. Under his leadership, MUSC thrived, expanding into new areas of medical research and securing a tenfold increase in research funding. Edwards retired in 1999 to widespread praise for his leadership, thereby capping his remarkable public career.
Bailey, N. Louise, Mary L. Morgan, and Carolyn R. Taylor, eds. Biographical Directory of the South Carolina Senate, 1776–1985. 3 vols. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1986.
Shirley, J. Clyde. Uncommon Victory: 1974 Gubernatorial Campaign of James B. Edwards. Columbia, S.C.: R. L. Bryan, 1978.