By Caitlin Connelly
Robert Mayo is a curiously enigmatic figure. You may remember him from this earlier blog post. Bits and pieces of his life appear here and there, but as far as I can tell there’s been no effort to put it all together. The picture that appears is more interesting than you’d think, so I decided to share it.
Mayo was born in 1784 to a distinguished Virginia family. Little is known about his life until 1808, when he graduated from the University of Pennsylvania as a Doctor of Medicine.
Mayo was not greatly interested in being a physician. Though he practiced for 22 years, his letters from that time reveal his preference for literature, poetry, and philosophy. He wrote to Henry Lee IV describing his idea for “A Digest of what is curious & beautiful in literature” containing selected texts along with editorial comments. Mayo also published several volumes on history and mythology, but, notably, nothing on medicine, biology, or chemistry.
Almost twenty years after Lee’s 1821-22 scandal, Mayo became involved in a new controversy, which had its origins in the late 1820s. Mayo, like Lee, was an ardent supporter of Andrew Jackson, and edited the Jackson Democrat newspaper during the 1828 election year. In 1830 he quit his Richmond practice, got a job in the Treasury Department, and moved to Washington, D.C.
While staying in Washington, Mayo became acquainted with Sam Houston, who eventually revealed to Mayo his plan to liberate Texas from Mexico. With the hope that it would bring him into Jackson’s good graces and result in a more prestigious position, Mayo wrote a letter to Jackson concerning the plot. The President, who may have already known about Houston’s designs, wrote a letter to William Fulton, the Secretary of the Territory of Arkansas (where the conspirators planned to gather), saying that while Mayo’s information was probably erroneous, Fulton should be on the lookout for anything suspicious.
Despite Mayo’s warning, Houston led Texas to victory during the 1836 Texas Revolution. Mayo, meanwhile, continued to work in the Treasury, growing frustrated about his political frustrations and disillusionment with Jackson’s administration.
At the the end of his presidency, Jackson began disposing of old papers and returning letters to their senders. Mayo received a stack of such letters, but included among them by accident was a confidential copy of Jackson’s letter to Fulton. Interested, Mayo read it, and instead of returning it to the President he delivered it to the opposition party, lead by Jackson’s political enemy, John Quincy Adams.
Seeking to humiliate Jackson, Adams, a member of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, requested from the State Department all documents concerning American neutrality over the Texas Revolution, particularly the Fulton letter. When the State Department could not find it, Jackson wrote a letter to Fulton asking for the original. Fulton was unable to access his letters at the time, but replied that he recalled the contents and had found no evidence of any conspiracy at the time. Then, in an address to Congress, Adams introduced the Mayo-Jackson and Jackson-Fulton letters as proof that Jackson had, in fact, known about the plot. He thought that the Jackson-Fulton letter he possessed was the original, not a copy, and that Jackson had decided not to send it to avoid interfering with Houston’s plans. This would be particularly scandalous in light of the fact that shortly before writing the letter, Jackson delivered his annual address to Congress and spoke of his desire for peace and friendship with Mexico.
Though the original letter appeared later, the damage was done. Jackson furiously declared that Mayo had stolen the copy, a charge echoed by Jackson’s friend and Washington Globe editor Francis Preston Blair (who, by the way, was the father-in-law of Samuel Philips Lee) and his partner John Rives. Insulted, Mayo sued Blair and Rives for libel in 1840. The case was thrown out by the courts the next year, though Mayo won a similar case around the same time.
Perhaps as testament to his unpopularity with political giants such as Jackson and Blair, Mayo spent the rest of his life in relative obscurity, continuing to work at the Treasury Department until his death in 1864. In the 1860 work Life of Andrew Jackson, noted biographer James Parton called Mayo a “once a well known name, long ago forgotten.”
Lee Letter of the Week: The November 24, 1821 letter from Henry Lee IV’s wife Anne to her grandmother concerning Mayo’s proposal, and her grandmother’s answer. Grandma Rose very reasonably points out Mayo’s “piece of strange conduct” as a “total stranger.”