American National Biography Online
Maybank, Burnet Rhett (7 Mar. 1899-1 Sept. 1954), politician
and businessman, was born in Charleston, South Carolina, the
son of Joseph Maybank, a physician, and Harriet Lowndes Rhett.
By birth, Maybank was a member of Charleston's aristocracy and
inherited a place in two of South Carolina's oldest and most
distinguished families. The Maybanks were an integral part of
the Low Country plantation life in South Carolina, and the Rhetts
were among the earliest settlers in Charleston. Robert Barnwell
Rhett, Maybank's great-grandfather, was the architect of South
Carolina's secession from the Union in 1861, and Maybank was
also related to five governors of the state.
Maybank received his preparatory education at Porter Military
Academy in Charleston and graduated with a B.S. from the College
of Charleston in 1919. His college education was interrupted
in 1917, when he enlisted as an air cadet in the U.S. Naval Reserve.
His brief military career consisted primarily of training exercises,
and when World War I ended he returned to finish his senior year
in college. In 1923 he married Elizabeth de Rossett Myers; they
had three children. His first wife died in 1947, and he married
Mary Randolph Pelzer Cecil in 1948; they had no children. Upon
graduating from college, Maybank worked as a cotton broker and
exporter for a cotton export firm owned by his uncle. He later
served as general manager of the firm, working in this profession until 1938.
Although successful in business, Maybank became captivated by
public service. A lifelong Democrat, he entered politics for
the first time in 1927, when he was elected to a four-year term
as alderman in Charleston. He rose to mayor pro tempore in 1930
and, with the support of prominent businessmen in the city, was
elected mayor of Charleston in 1931, serving until 1938. As mayor,
Maybank brought order to the city's finances and balanced the
budget. He cut his own salary from $6,000 to $3,600, reduced
taxes, and got federal support for slum clearance, public housing,
and unemployment. He was effective in guiding work relief and
funds for civic improvements. He used a Works Progress Administration
grant to restore the historic Dock Street Theater, and other
grants went to such improvements as the city docks and a city
incinerator. During this period Maybank was a member of the State
Board of Bank Control (1932-1933) and was chairman of the South
Carolina Public Service Authority (1935-1939), a state-sponsored
power project on the Santee River. This project, known as the
"little TVA," successfully controlled floods and provided hydroelectric power for the state. He was a conservative supporter of President Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal, favoring public works and job
programs. A personal friend of Roosevelt and Harry Hopkins, Maybank
was an occasional guest at the White House, and Roosevelt visited
Charleston on several occasions between 1935 and 1940.
With the favorable publicity from the Santee project, a strong
political base in Charleston, and support from his mentor, U.S.
senator James F. "Jimmy" Byrnes, Maybank announced for governor
and won election in 1938. As governor, Maybank tried unsuccessfully
to create an adequate state police force, but he did supervise
a vigorous prosecution of the criminal element in the state.
He strictly enforced liquor and gambling statutes and, in a courageous
move, used all his power to fight the revived Ku Klux Klan. He
nonetheless was a firm believer in white supremacy and opposed
any federal intervention in racial matters, including a federal
antilynching law. He did, however, favor some expanded economic
opportunities for blacks and tried to improve the quality of
black schools in the state.
In January 1941 President Roosevelt appointed Byrnes to the
U.S. Supreme Court. Maybank won a special election to fill Byrnes's
Senate seat in September 1941, defeating former governor Olin
D. Johnston with 56.6 percent of the vote. In 1942 Maybank was
elected to the full six-year term, and in 1948 he was reelected
In the Senate Maybank considered himself an "interventionist"
in foreign policy. He supported legislation providing for the
prosecution of World War II and favored U.S. participation in
the United Nations and the International Bank. In domestic policies
he generally supported the goals of the Democratic party and
in the Seventy-ninth Congress voted with the party majority 82
percent of the time. He adhered to his racial views by joining
southerners in fighting the anti-poll tax bill and the Fair Employment
Practices Commission. When the U.S. Supreme Court gave blacks
the right to vote in South Carolina Democratic primary elections,
Maybank campaigned to have the ruling reversed. In 1946 he voted
for abolition of the Office of Price Administration and supported
the Taft-Hartley Labor Law, voting to override President Harry
Truman's veto. Maybank was chairman of the Banking and Currency
Committee during 1949-1952. He piloted through the Senate the
1949 Banking and Currency Housing Act, which stimulated home
construction and included slum clearance and public housing projects.
The New York Times quoted Maybank as saying, "If there ever was
a bipartisan housing bill for the good of the poor people of
this country, this is that bill" (26 Feb. 1949). Maybank was
also chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee (1951-1954)
and served on the Armed Services Committee (1944-1954).
In addition to his senatorial duties, Maybank, who sponsored
the bill making Fort Sumter a national monument, was a member
of the American Battle Monuments Commission and a member of the
Board of Visitors to the U.S. Naval Academy. From 1940 to 1944
he was a member of the Democratic National Committee. Maybank
died unexpectedly of a heart attack at his summer home in Flat
Rock, North Carolina. Byrnes told the New York Times, "The state
has lost an able public servant and I have lost a dear friend"
(2 Sept. 1954).
Extensive manuscript holdings are in the Maybank collection
at the College of Charleston, Charleston, S.C. His gubernatorial
and senatorial papers, some 12 volumes and 50,000 items, are
at the South Carolina Department of Archives in Columbia, S.C.
Marvin L. Cann, "Burnet Rhett Maybank and the New Deal in South
Carolina, 1931-1941" (Ph.D. diss., Univ. of North Carolina, 1967),
covers his terms as mayor and governor but not his Senate career.
Memorial Services for Senator Maybank (1955) consists of tributes
to his life and career by those who knew him well. Articles on
Maybank include Edward B. Talty, "A New Leader in the New South:
South Carolina's Governor Burnet Rhett Maybank Emerges from a
Background of Charleston Aristocracy as the Champion of Liberal
Political Philosophy," Christian Science Monitor, 30 Mar. 1940,
p. 2; "Production: Arms--Sooner or Later," Newsweek, 17 Dec.
1951, p. 22; and "The Southern Delegation: Portraits of the Reluctant
Rebels Who Hold Harry Truman in Political Hostage," Fortune,
Feb. 1952, pp. 85-87. Another useful source is Roy Glashan, American
Governors and Gubernatorial Elections, 1775-1975 (1975). Obituaries
are in the New York Times, 2 Sept. 1954, and Newsweek, 13 Sept. 1954.
Julian M. Pleasants
Julian M. Pleasants. "Maybank, Burnet Rhett";
American National Biography Online Feb. 2000.
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