by Professor James Henretta
In 1647 the new Maryland colony was in crisis. Protestants had revolted against the Catholic government and seized control of the colony. To preserve Maryland as a refuge for Catholics and safeguard his family’s interests, Governor Leonard Calvert hired mercenary soldiers from Virginia. Lacking hard currency to pay them, he pledged his estate and that of his brother, Cecilius Calvert (Lord Baltimore, the proprietor of Maryland), as security for their wages. But just as his soldiers put down the revolt, Governor Calvert died, plunging the government into disarray, without authority or funds to pay the restless mercenaries. On his deathbed Leonard Calvert named Thomas Green to succeed him as governor but entrusted his personal estate to a prominent landowner, Margaret Brent. Telling her “I make you my sole Exequtrix. Take all, pay all,” he left the resolution of the crisis in her hands.
The woman who accepted this challenge was born around 1601 in Gloucestershire, England, into a substantial gentry family. But as Catholics, the Brent’s religious freedom and fortune were increasingly precarious. Since the death of Queen Mary in 1557, English Catholics had endured almost continuous religious persecution, and the growing power of militant Puritans during the 1630s promised new hardships for the Brents and other Catholics. The family faced a troubled financial future as well. With thirteen children, Margaret Brent’s parents had done their utmost to propagate their Catholic faith, but their fruitfulness threatened the next generation with economic decline. In migrating to Maryland, the Brent children hoped to use the modest funds provided by their parents and their ties with the Calverts to maintain their gentry status.
Margaret Brent, her sister Mary, and their brothers Giles and Fulke arrived in Maryland in 1638. They carried a letter from their coreligionist Lord Baltimore recommending that they be granted land on favorable terms, and the grant was made. Margaret and Mary took up the “Sisters Freehold” of 70 acres in St. Mary’s City, the capitol of the colony. Four years later Margaret acquired another 1,000 acres on Kent Island from her brother Giles. Margaret soon won the trust and favor of Governor Calvert, sharing with him the guardianship of Mary Kitomaquund, the daughter of a Piscataway chief, who was being educated among the English.
The governor’s death during the 1647 crisis threatened the Brents’ ambitions, which depended on Catholic rule and access to the governing family and its allies in the assembly. To preserve her family’s religious freedom and its wealth and influence Margaret Brent would have to save the colony from the mutinous soldiers. Now a mature woman of forty-six, Brent was unusually well qualified for this task. Like many women of gentle birth, she had received some preparation for public affairs; she had enjoyed a basic education in England and had watched her father conduct the business of his estate. But, almost unheard of for a woman, she also had considerable experience in the public arena. As a single woman of property in Maryland, she had appeared frequently before the Provincial Court to file suits against her debtors. In addition, she had occasionally acted as an attorney, pleading the cases of her brother Giles and various women before the court.
Brent did not hesitate to use the power and authority Calvert had assigned to her. First, since food was in short supply and the soldiers camped in St. Mary’s City were demanding bread, she arranged for corn to be imported from Virginia. Then, to pay the soldiers, she spent all of Leonard Calvert’s personal estate. When that proved inadequate, she adroitly exploited her position as the governor’s legal executor to draw on the resources of the Lord Proprietor. Using the power of attorney Governor Calvert had held as Baltimore’s representative, Brent sold the proprietor’s cattle to pay the troops. Once paid, the soldiers promptly dispersed, some becoming settlers, allowing Governor Green to restore order to the increasingly Protestant colony. To preserve Maryland as a refuge for Catholics, Lord Baltimore had the assembly pass a Toleration Act (1649), which allowed the free exercise of religion by all Christians.
Margaret Brent’s vigorous advocacy of the interests of her family and the Calverts did not go unchallenged. In January 1648 she demanded two votes in the assembly, one for herself as a freeholder and one in her role as the proprietor’s attorney. For reasons that do not appear on the record, the Provincial Court opposed her claim: it “denyed that the said Mrs. Brent should have any vote in the house.” From England, Lord Baltimore launched a “bitter invective” against Brent, protesting against the sale of his cattle and accusing her of wasting his estate. Baltimore’s attack was partly designed to convince the Puritan Parliament, which had just defeated the king in the English Civil War, that he did not favor Catholics. He also hoped to recover some of his property, which he suspected had fallen into the hands of the Brent family. Although the Maryland assembly declined to grant Margaret Brent a vote, it did defend her stewardship of Baltimore’s estate, advising him that it “was better for the Collonys safety at that time in her hands than in any mans . . . for the Soldiers would never have treated any others with that Civility and respect. . . .”
No longer assured of the proprietor’s favor, the Brents turned to new strategies to advance their interests. Giles Brent married Mary Kitomaquund, the Piscataway Indian, perhaps hoping to gain land or power from her influential father, and moved with her to Virginia in 1650. The next year Margaret and Mary Brent also took up lands in Virginia, on the Northern Neck, gradually settling their estate with migrants from England. Margaret Brent never married, making her one of the very few English women in the early Chesapeake not to do so. She died on her Virginia plantation, named “Peace,” in 1671, bequeathing extensive property in Virginia and Maryland, mostly to her brother Giles and his children.
Margaret Brent is often hailed as an early feminist and woman lawyer, but viewed in the context of the time, her actions and achievements were essentially those of an “adventurer” and an assertive woman of property. Born into privileged circumstances and determined to maintain that status, she had struck out on her own, settling in the wilderness of Maryland, defending her interests before the Provincial Court, asserting her rights as a property owner in the assembly, and helping to save the colony, and her family’s fragile stake in America in a time of crisis.
REPRINTED FROM James A. Henretta, Elliot Brownlee, David Brody, Susan Ware, and Marilynn Johnson, America’s History, Third Edition, Worth Publishers Inc., 1997 Copyright: Worth Publishers Inc. (Available now: Call: 1-800-321-9299 for order; 1-800-446-8923 for desk copies; a compact edition, America: A Concise History, available in December 1997). For Personal Use of Subscribers of Early American Review; for permission to reprint or duplicate, contact Jennifer Sutherland, Worth Pub. 1-212-475-6000 or firstname.lastname@example.org.