Richards entered Congress in 1933 as a New Deal Democrat. He was an enthusiastic supporter of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s domestic and foreign policies until 1941, when the congressman, now a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, raised serious questions about Roosevelt’s request for a watered-down Neutrality Act.
Congressman, diplomat. Richards was born on August 31, 1894, in Liberty Hill, the oldest of nine children born to Norman Smith Richards and Phoebe Gibbes. His roots were planted in the agricultural hamlet of Liberty Hill. However, more than two decades of service in Congress and as an envoy to the Middle East would place him on an international stage in a rapidly changing world.
In 1911 Richards earned a scholarship to Clemson College. He attended classes for two years and then transferred to the University of South Carolina. A lackadaisical student, Richards returned to Liberty Hill in 1915 without a degree. He enlisted in the U.S. Army in April 1917 and saw combat in France during World War I. Returning to South Carolina, Richards entered law school at the University of South Carolina in 1919 and received his law degree two years later. On November 4, 1925, Richards married Katherine Wiley of Lancaster County. They had three children.
In 1922 Richards won election to the Lancaster County probate judgeship, serving until 1933. This was the beginning of a distinguished political career that would last more than thirty years. He would never taste defeat at the ballot box.
With the Great Depression ravaging South Carolina’s Fifth Congressional District, in 1932 Richards challenged the incumbent representative, William Francis Stevenson, who had been in Congress since 1917. On the stump, the youthful veteran stressed his military service (Stevenson had none) and the need for a change in Washington. In that summer’s Democratic Party primary (the only election that mattered), Richards ousted Stevenson.
Richards entered Congress in 1933 as a New Deal Democrat. He was an enthusiastic supporter of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s domestic and foreign policies until 1941, when the congressman, now a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, raised serious questions about Roosevelt’s request for a watered-down Neutrality Act. In a congressional speech that November, Richards recalled his own World War I experiences and noted that FDR was trying to get America into another conflict “through the back door.” Richards adamantly vowed, “America comes first with me.”
When Pearl Harbor was attacked by the Japanese the following month, Richards tried to enlist in the military, but the administration requested that he remain in Congress. By the end of the war, Richards was a senior member of the House, visiting numerous countries to witness the war’s destruction and rebuilding efforts. By 1950 Richards had become a vigilant cold warrior, urging a steadfast stand against Communist encroachment abroad. He chaired the House Foreign Affairs Committee twice (1951–1953 and 1955–1957), working closely with Presidents Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower.
After retiring from Congress in early 1957, Richards was called back into service by the Eisenhower administration as a special ambassador to the Middle East. From March to June 1957 Richards toured that region, meeting with leaders to discuss the threat of “International Communism.” He dispensed $200 million in financial aid on the mission, visited fifteen nations, traveled thirty thousand miles, and persuaded leaders of the strategic region to remain friendly to the United States.
Richards worked as a consultant for the American Tobacco Institute after his diplomatic mission and practiced law in Lancaster with his son. He retained a keen interest in international affairs, corresponding with Presidents John Kennedy, Richard Nixon, and Gerald Ford. He died in Lancaster on February 21, 1979, and was buried in the Liberty Hill Presbyterian Church Cemetery.
Lee, Joseph Edward. “‘America Comes First with Me’: The Political Career of Congressman James P. Richards, 1932–1957.” Ph.D. diss., University of South Carolina, 1987.
–––. “A South Carolinian in the Middle East: Ambassador James P. Richards’s 1957 Mission.” Proceedings of the South Carolina Historical Association (1988): 103–11.
Richards, James Prioleau. Papers. Modern Political Collections, South Caroliniana Library, University of South Carolina, Columbia.