Margaret Brent (1601-1671)
Margaret Brent stands out in the history of early Maryland for her courage and independence. During a time when men outnumbered women by about six to one and most women looked to their husbands for support and protection, Margaret never married. Instead, she became a successful businesswoman, trading land and servants, and earned the respect of Governor Leonard Calvert, who entrusted her with managing his estate upon his death.
While these achievements were both unusual and significant, Margaret Brent is best known for being the first woman in America to request the right to vote.
The Brents were a wealthy Catholic English family with close ties to the Calverts, the Proprietors of Maryland. So when Margaret arrived in Maryland in 1638, accompanied by her sister Mary and her two brothers, Giles and Fulke, she was better off than most immigrants. The Brents came to Maryland for religious freedom and economic opportunity, and for a while they found both.
Giles settled on Kent Island and soon became a leader of the colony, but Margaret and Mary chose to live by themselves. Because the women had brought a number of servants with them, Lord Baltimore had generously granted her and her sister patents for 2000 acres of land, "as much Land in and about the Towne of St. Maries and elsewhere in that Province in as ample manner and with as large priviledges as any of the first adventurors have".
Margaret soon became skilled at business. She profited from lending money to new immigrants. Both women, but particularly Margaret, appeared in court to collect debts and manage their affairs. Although unusual, Margaret’s economic activities were not illegal or unprecedented. As long as she remained single, a woman could own and manage property. However, once a woman married, she lost the power to make contracts, and her husband assumed control of her property. Since most women in early Maryland married, Margaret stands out in the colony's history.
However Margaret is known for much more than her business activities. Events in England and Maryland thrust her into a position where she became the first woman to request a vote in the Maryland Assembly.
Civil war broke out in England in 1642, and rebellion spread to Maryland a few years later. In 1645 a Protestant ship captain, Richard Ingle, led a surprise attack on the Catholic settlers in Maryland. Margaret’s brother Giles was captured and taken to England, while Governor Calvert fled to Virginia, leaving the colony in disarray. A year later the governor returned with a group of hired soldiers from Virginia and successfully defeated Ingle and his supporters.
Unfortunately, Governor Calvert became ill shortly after his return. On his deathbed, he appointed Thomas Greene to replace him as governor and named Margaret Brent as his executrix, in charge of paying his debts and disposing of his estate. He instructed her to "take all and pay all."1 It was not uncommon for a woman, usually the dead man's wife, to be named executrix, but Margaret's situation was unique. She was not Calvert's wife she was not married at all and she was soon forced to deal with a problem which could impact the survival of the entire colony.
Not long after Leonard Calvert died, the soldiers whom he had hired to protect his colony began to demand their pay. Margaret had used the governor's money to pay his other debts and did not have enough left for the soldiers. They were becoming restless and threatening to mutiny. Margaret quickly took steps to prevent this.
Leonard Calvert had been serving as attorney in Maryland for his brother Cecil, the second Lord Baltimore. Margaret went to the Provincial Court and asked that she be named Lord Baltimore's attorney in Leonard's place. Her request was granted. Margaret then took the step for which she is most famous.
On January 21, 1648, she went before the all-male Assembly and asked for two votes one for herself as a landowner and one as Lord Baltimore's attorney. She probably hoped to convince the Assembly to pass a tax to help pay the disgruntled soldiers. However, the Assembly, particularly the new Governor, was not ready to give such power to a woman and turned down her request.
Barred from the assembly, Margaret did not give up. Using her authority as Lord Baltimore's attorney, she began selling some of his cattle to pay the soldiers and thus prevented an uprising. Her quick actions saved the day in Maryland, but they angered Lord Baltimore, who did not like having his cattle sold without his permission.
He wrote a letter expressing his disapproval of what Margaret had done, but the Assembly came to her defense. They wrote to Lord Baltimore, saying, "We do Verily Believe and in Conscience report that it was better for the Collonys safety at that time in her hands than in any mans else in the whole Province… for the Soldiers would never have treated any other with that Civility and respect and though they were even ready at several times to run into mutiny yet she still pacified them… She rather deserved favour and thanks from your Honour for her so much Concurring to the publick safety then to be justly liable to… bitter invectives."2
Unfortunately for Margaret, Lord Baltimore was not convinced by the Assembly's claims. Possibly because of Lord Baltimore's displeasure, in 1649 Margaret and her brother Giles, who had also fallen out of the Calvert's favor, moved to Virginia. She acquired a large tract of land, which she named "Peace" and lived there until her death in 1671.
Margaret Brent did not succeed in becoming the first woman in America to gain the right to vote, but she was a remarkable woman who helped protect the stability of Maryland and ensure the colony's survival. She deserves recognition for her independence and her brave actions in appearing before the Assembly and doing all in her power to preserve control of the colony for the Calvert family.
1 Deposition Regarding Leonard Calvert's Last Wishes, naming Margaret Brent as his Executrix to "Take all, & pay all" GOVERNOR AND COUNCIL (Proceedings), 1647-1651, liber A, folio 64, MSA S-1071-4
2 Transcription of Assmbly Letter Praising Margaret Brent, Archives of Maryland vol. 1, Proceedings of the General Assembly, Jan. 1637/8-Sept. 1664, p.239; orignial record: GENERAL ASSEMBLY (Upper House) Liber M.C., folio 342, MSA S977-1, 2/20/4/42)
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