Born in Charleston, South Carolina into one of Charleston's most prominent families, Maybank attended the public schools and graduated from the Porter Military Academy, now the exclusive Porter-Gaud School. He received a degree from the College of Charleston. He served in the United States Navy during World War I, and engaged in the cotton export business from 1920 to 1938.
Maybank was an alderman of Charleston from 1927 to 1931, and mayor of Charleston from 1931 to 1938. He is rarely credited for creating a successful, but personal, party machine unique to the South. As mayor, his Charleston based, patron-client structure beat political enemies, faced down the Great Depression, and propelled him to state and national prominence.
In addition, he was a member of the South Carolina State Advisory Board of the Federal Administration of Public Works from 1933 to 1934, and chairman of the South Carolina Public Service Authority from 1934 to 1939. He was also a member of the Board of Bank Control from 1933 to 1934. Maybank became the governor of South Carolina from 1939 to 1941.
Maybank was elected governor of the Palmetto State in 1939. During his brief tenure in the state's highest office, Maybank confronted the Ku Klux Klan, instituted reforms of the South Carolina criminal justice system, and initiated programs to improve the utility infrastructure of the state. Maybank was a staunch New Dealer, and a vocal supporter of President Franklin D. Roosevelt and a close associate of Harry Hopkins.
On September 30 1941, Maybank was elected as a Democrat to the United States Senate to fill the vacancy caused by the resignation of James F. Byrnes. He was re-elected in 1942 and 1948, and served from November 5 1941 until his death in 1954.
Maybank was a powerful senator. Maybank served as chairman of the Committee on Banking and Currency and as co-chairman of the Joint Committee on Defense Production. As chair of the Subcommittee on Independent Offices, under the Appropriations Committee, Maybank provided critical support to continue the U.S. nuclear weapons program in the early 1950s. Shortly before his death, he was voted as one of "Fortune Magazine's 20 Most Influential Americans".
He died of a heart attack at his summer home in Flat Rock, North Carolina in 1954, and is interred in Magnolia Cemetery in Charleston. Future Presidents Richard Nixon and Lyndon Johnson, along with numerous political dignitaries attended his funeral in Charleston.
Maybank is a famous and influential figure in South Carolina, most notably in Charleston. He has many points of interest named for him throughout Charleston and the state. Some notable examples are Maybank Highway, Maybank Bridge (over the Wappoo Cut), Maybank Hall at the College of Charleston, and the Burnet R. Maybank Scholarship at the University of South Carolina Law School.