Margaret Brent

c.1601–c.1671

First Colonial female Landowner
First Sufragette? (probably)
First Woman Lawyer? (maybe)

 

Margaret Brent,a colonial landowner and business agent, executor for the governor of Maryland at a time of crisis in the colony's affairs, was one of 13 children, five of them sons, of Richard and Elizabeth (Reed) Brent. Her father was Lord of Admington and Lark Stoke in the county of Gloucester, England; her mother's line descended from Edward III. Nothing is known of Margaret Brent's early life except that she was reared a Roman Catholic, but she evidently received some education.

On November 22,1638-four years after the colony's founding-she arrived in Maryland with her sister Mary, her brothers Giles and Fulke (Fulke returned the following March), and a group of servants. They came armed with a letter from Cecilius Calvert (Lord Baltimore), the proprietor of the colony, recommending that they be granted land on the same terms as had been allowed the first "adventurers" or settlers. Margaret and Mary together took up 70½ acres-called "Sisters Freehold"-in St. Mary's City, the capital of the young colony, and in 1642 Margaret acquired from her brother Giles a thousand acres on Kent Island in payment of debts he owed her and members of the Reed family. We know this property included a mill and a house and that she raised much livestock there. She evidently lent from her capital, for the Provincial Court records disclose that she filed frequent suits to collect debts.

Although only fragmentary evidence is available about the Brents, it is clear that the family was influential during the early years of Maryland settlement. It has been often stated, although never confirmed, that Leonard Calvert, brother of Lord Baltimore and the colony's Governor, married Anne Brent, another sister of Margaret; if true this might explain their favored position. Whatever the reason, Giles Brent was at various times a member of the council, acting governor, and commander of Kent Island. Margaret occasionally appeared before the Provincial Court to plead for herself and sometimes for others. With Governor Calvert she shared guardianship of Mary Kitomaquund, the daughter of the chief of the Piscataway Indians who had been sent to be educated among the whites. She so won the confidence of the Governor that, as he lay dying in May 1647, he declared her, in an oral will, his executor.

this was a time of crisis in the colony's affairs. Governor Calvert had just regained control of Maryland after the two-year Ingle's rebellion, a revolt of Protestants against the Catholic government of the colony. To put down this revolt Calvert had brought soldiers from Virginia, and he had pledged his own estate and, if necessary, that of his brother the Proprietor as security for their pay. Whether he would have made Margaret his executor had Giles Brent been available we cannot know; Ingle had taken Giles prisoner to England, and Giles did not arrive back in Maryland until a few days after Calvert's death. Calvert, in his death bed testament, named Thomas Green as governor, but in giving Margaret Brent charge of his estate he told her to the "Take all, pay all," thus entrusting to her the important power to avert mutiny and other disorders.

Margaret Brent proved a wise choice. She may possibly have been guided by her brother, but his own career exhibited no outstanding leadership to explain her success. Diplomacy and patience as well as courage were necessary to keep the soldiers quiet until they could be paid. A severe corn shortage forced her to import corn from Virginia to feed them, and Leonard Calvert's personal estate proved inadequate to cover the costs of their food and pay. She finally acquired, as executor for Governor Calvert, the power of attorney he had held to act for the Lord Proprietor; she then drew on the Proprietor's cattle, and sold enough to raise the balance of the needed funds. The soldiers, once paid, evidently dispersed-some became settlers-and meantime Governor Green and the council had gained the time they needed to re-establish government and order.

A byproduct of these events was the action for which Margaret Brent is today best-known, but which presumably had no special significance at the time. On Jan. 211647/8, she demanded two votes in the assembly, one for herself as a freeholder-to which she would have been entitled had she been a man-and the other for herself as the Proprietor's attorney. The cryptic record, which gives no hint of her motivation in making this demand, tells that "The Gour denyed that the s.d Mrs Brent should have any uote in the howse. And the said Mrs Brent protested agst all proceedings in this pñt Assembly, unlesse shee may be pñt. and have vote asafores
.d"
(Archives of Maryland, I, 215).

Lord Baltimore, in England, angrily protested the sale of his theproperty, but the assembly defended Mistress Brent in terms that reveal how important her steady hand had been during a serious crisis."As for Mrs Brents undertaking and medling with your Lordships estate here...it was better for the Collonys safety at that time in her hands then in any mans else in the whole Province after your Brothers death for the Soldiers would never have treated any others with civility and respect...she rather desrved favour and thanks from your Honour for her so much Concurring to the publick safety then to be justly liable to all those bitter invectives you have been pleased to Express against her."

Baltimore's concern undoubtedly rested on more than pique. The triumph of a Protestant Parliament in England placed his charter in danger, and he could not afford the appearance of favoring Roman Catholics. Giles Brent may not have helped Margaret's case; he was a partisan of the Jesuits, who had contributed heavily in settlers and capital to the establishment of the colony, but wose presence there was now a threat; and he has married the Indian Princess Mary Kitomaquund and may have hoped through her to gain land and independent power. Lord Baltimore clearly suspected the Brents of bad faith in dealing with his estate, for his instruction to the governor confirming the sale of his cattle to pay the soldiers explicitly exempted any property of his acquired by any of the Brents.

Not long thereafter the Brents left Maryland, whether voluntarily or not the record does not make clear. by 1650 Giles had moved to Virginia and by 1651 Margaret and Mary had followed him. Here they took up lands in the Northern Neck, imported large numbers of settlers, and contributed substantially to the development of this part of Virginia. Margaret Brent named her Virginia plantation "Peace," and so far as we know her years in Virginia lived up to the name. The date of her death is not known, but her will was probated in May 1671. In her lifetime and by will she gave away her extensive rights to land in Maryland.

In the twentieth century much has been made of Margaret Brent as an early woman "lawyer" and feminist. It should be remembered, however, that many well-educated Englishmen of the seventeeth century knew enough law to conduct affairs of business without being considered members of the legal profession, and the early Maryland courts did not set professional standards or swear attorneys as officers of the court. In Mararet Brent's day most Maryland litigants appeared
in propria persona. Whether she or anyone who appeared for others was considered to be more than an attorny-in-fact is uncertain. Equally uncertain are her motives for demanding double voice in the Assembly. Probably foremost was not concern for the rights of her sex but a desire to push action and to protect Lord Baltimore's interests. On the other hand, had she done nothing beyond coming to a wilderness as an independent householder (not a member of any man's establishment), able to stand alone, manage her affairs, and appear for herself in court, Margaret Brent would be an unusual woman. Events placed her suddenly in a position where her firm action and right judgement were critical to the fortunes of the Maryland colony. Her brief public career has more importance in the history of Maryland than in the history of women; nevertheless, the men who served with her evidently felt that it was not only her strength but also her womanliness that inspired "Civility and respect" and saved the day.


Article published in "Notable American Women" Volume I
written by Lois Green Carr and ©1971 by Radcliffe College
Buy the 3 volume series of "Notable American Women"

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