Byrns was born in Cedar Hill, Robertson County, Tennessee, son of James Henry Byrns and Mary Emily Jackson. He was named for a maternal uncle, Joseph William Green Jackson who died in the Civil War. A graduate of public schools, he displayed a strong early interest in politics and was elected to the Tennessee House of Representatives in 1894 and reelected in 1896 and 1898. In 1900 he was elected to the Tennessee State Senate.
In 1902 he ran for district attorney of Davidson County, Tennessee but was defeated — his only unsuccessful political race in 18 efforts. In 1908, Byrns received the Democratic nomination for U.S. Representative and was elected in November of that year to a term beginning March 4, 1909. He served in the House for the rest of his life.
Byrns was widely respected and his influence grew as his seniority did. He was chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee from 1928 to 1935. In 1931 he was appointed chairman of the powerful House Appropriations Committee and in 1933 became House Majority Leader. In 1935 he became Speaker of the House.
Byrns was Speaker when he died in Washington, D.C., and had been planning to run for reelection. His funeral, attended by President Roosevelt and other dignitaries, was held in the United States Capitol. He was interred at Mount Olivet Cemetery in Nashville. His son Jo Byrns, Jr. later served a single term in the House but never achieved the popularity of Jo, Sr.
Byrns was also an active Civitan.
Social Security Debate Has Echoes of 1935; Resistance to Bush Plan Reminiscent of FDR's Seven-Month Battle for Congress to Pass Original Bill
Apr 26, 2005; When Franklin Delano Roosevelt returned to Washington on April 9, 1935, tanned and rested from a two-week fishing trip off...