Mayor of Charleston, governor, U.S. senator. Born in Charleston on March 7, 1899, Maybank was the son of Joseph Maybank, a physician, and Harriett Rhett. He attended Porter Military Academy and earned an A.B. degree from the College of Charleston in 1919. He became a successful Charleston cotton broker after learning the business in the office of his uncle, John Frampton Maybank. In November 1923 Maybank married Elizabeth de Rousset Myers. They had three children. After her death in 1947, he married Mary Randolph Piezer on December 10, 1948. The second marriage produced no children.
In 1931, in the depths of the Depression, a steering committee of prominent Charleston businessmen asked Maybank, then a city alderman, to run for mayor. Supporters believed him capable of ending the bitter factionalism in city politics and installing an administration equipped to deal with Charleston’s worsening financial crisis. Overcoming opposition from the political machine of former mayor John P. Grace, Maybank won in a landslide victory and served as mayor from 1931 to 1938. He also became a protégé of U.S. Senator James F. Byrnes and was active in New Deal efforts to combat the economic crisis of the 1930s.
As mayor, Maybank revamped the city budget and retired much of the accumulated debt. He took advantage of New Deal programs to provide work relief for the unemployed and to improve his community. With federal grants, Maybank repaired public buildings, constructed a gymnasium at the College of Charleston, restored Dock Street Theatre, and added a municipal yacht basin, public swimming pools, a garbage incinerator, and low-income housing. Maybank also chaired the South Carolina Public Service Authority, a public corporation that built the largest New Deal undertaking in the state: the Santee Cooper hydroelectric project.
Maybank’s involvement with Santee Cooper enhanced his political standing, and he ran successfully for governor in 1938. Overcoming competition from seven opponents in the Democratic primary, Maybank defeated Wyndham M. Manning in a controversial run-off election, in which a huge majority in Charleston County tipped the election in Maybank’s favor. Serving from 1938 to 1941, Maybank found his tenure as governor a frustrating interlude between his service as mayor and his career in the U.S. Senate. In a political system dominated by the legislature, Maybank accomplished little from the governor’s chair. Calls to restrict the governor’s pardoning power, to create a state police force, to establish a merit system for state employment, and to limit the financial independence of the state highway commission were ignored or defeated by the General Assembly. Maybank gained public approval, if not legislative success, by portraying himself as a populist defender of the public interest against the “Barnwell Ring” of legislative leaders Edgar Brown and Solomon Blatt.
When Byrnes resigned from the U.S. Senate to serve on the U.S. Supreme Court, Maybank defeated former governor Olin D. Johnston in a special election to fill the vacancy. Maybank entered the Senate on November 5, 1941, where he exercised a quiet but potent influence in national affairs. He gained the chairmanship of the Senate Banking Committee and helped shape the post–World War II economy. He championed the development of federal housing policy, provided a solid vote for defense appropriations in the early cold-war era, and supported Democratic presidents on most issues except the repeal of the Taft-Hartley law.
After his reelection in 1942 and again in 1948, Maybank had no opposition in the primary election of 1954 and planned on returning to Washington after the legislative recess. However, while vacationing at his home in Flat Rock, North Carolina, Maybank died of a heart attack on September 1, 1954. He was buried in Magnolia Cemetery.
Cann, Marvin L. “Burnet Rhett Maybank and the New Deal in South Carolina, 1931–1941.” Ph.D. diss., University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, 1967.
———. “The End of a Political Myth: The South Carolina Gubernatorial Campaign of 1938.” South Carolina Historical Magazine 72 ( July 1971): 139–49.