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Margaret Brent ~ Maryland

 

Not long after King Charles made the grant of land to his friend, Lord Baltimore, a woman of queenly daring and republican courage found her way to the new colony and into the councils of its leading men, and her name, Margaret Brent, stands for the most vigorous force in the early history of Maryland. She was born in England, about 1600, and died at Saint Mary's, Maryland, about 1661. A writer of this time has said about her, "Had she been born a queen she would have been as brilliant and daring as Elizabeth; had she been born a man she would have been a Cromwell in her courage and audacity."

However, she might not have exerted quite so much influence over these first Maryland colonies had she not stood in the relationship she did to the Governor of Maryland, Leonard Calvert, the brother of Lord Baltimore. There are some who think that Margaret Brent was an intimate friend or kinswoman of Leonard Calvert, and there are others who believe that she was his sweetheart. But at any rate an atmosphere of doubt and mystery still lingers about the names of Margaret Brent and Leonard Calvert and their old-time relationship.

It was in the year 1634, that Leonard Calvert came to America bringing over three hundred colonists, some twenty of them men of wealth and position. These three hundred English colonists sailed into wide Chesapeake Bay and up that broad river, the Potomac, till they reached the place where a little river joins the waters of the larger, and there they founded their city, calling both city and river Saint Mary's.

Four years after the coming of Leonard Calvert, Margaret Brent arrived in the city of Saint Mary's. It was in November, that Mistress Margaret first saw Maryland, then brilliant in the beauty of Indian Summer. The orioles were still singing in the forests, the red wild flowers were blooming in the crevices of the rocks and the trees still kept their foliage of red and gold, and the English woman is said to have remarked that the air of her new home was "Like the breath of Heaven;" that she had entered "Paradise."

Margaret, with her brothers and sisters, seem always to have had a prominent part in the affairs of the colony. Immediately after their arrival they took up land in the town and on Kent Island built themselves a Manor House and carried on a prosperous business. Margaret became as wise as her brothers or even wiser in the intricacy of the English law. We hear of her registering cattle marks, buying and selling property and signing herself "Attorney for My Brother." The early records of the American Colony afford rare glimpses of Mistress Margaret Brent as a person of influence and power. She was indeed a woman of pronounced courage and executive ability. She knew people and was able to manage them and their affairs with remarkable tact. Moreover, although she was no longer very young, she could still please and fascinate, and so it is not surprising that she became in effect if not in fact the woman ruler of Maryland. She is supposed to have shared the exile of Governor Calvert when rebellion drove him from the colony, but with fearlessness and daring she seems to have appeared in the colony at the time when her home was threatened by raids under Clayborne, the claimant of Kent Island. Two years passed before Governor Calvert was able to put down the rebellion and return to his colony and he did not live long to enjoy the peace that followed. He died in the summer of 1647, and there was wondering as to whom he would appoint his heir. Thomas Green, with a few others of the Governor's council, and Margaret Brent were with him just before he died. He named Thomas Green as his successor as Governor. Then his eyes rested upon Margaret Brent, perhaps with love, perhaps with confidence and admiration. There was no one in the colony so wise, so able, so loyal as she. Leonard Calvert had always known that. Pointing to her, so that all might see and understand, he made the will that has come down to us as the shortest one on record: "I make you my sole executrix,'' he said, "Take all, and pay all." And after he had spoken those words of laconic instruction, he asked that all would leave him except Mistress Margaret. One cannot know what passed between Leonard Calvert and Margaret Brent in this last interview, nor what they said, for Margaret Brent never told.

But, 'Take all and pay all,'' he had said, and Margaret Brent determined to carry out his command to the letter. The first thing that she took was his house. There was some dispute as to her title to it, but Mistress Margaret did not wait for this dispute to close; she at once established herself in the Governor's mansion, for she was well acquainted with the old letter by which possession is nine points. Then having secured the house she collected all of Governor Calvert's property and took it under her care and management.

This would have been enough for most women but Mistress Margaret was not so easily satisfied. She was determined to have all that was implied in the phrase, 'Take all and pay all," so we soon find her making claim that since she had been appointed "Executrix" of Leonard Calvert, she had the right to succeed Leonard Calvert as Lord Baltimore's attorney and in that character to receive all the profits and to pay all the debts of his lordship's estate and to attend to the state's reservation.

Her next step was more daring than all those that had gone before, being no less than a demand for vote and representation. This demand was made two centuries and a half ago, when talk of Woman's Rights was as unheard of as the steam engine or electricity. Certainly Margaret Brent was far in advance of her times. She might be known to history as the Original Suffragette. Her audacity carried her even further. She was Leonard Calvert's executrix, she told herself, and was entitled to vote in that capacity and so she concluded she had the right to two votes in the general assembly. No one but Margaret Brent would have meditated those two votes, one for a foreign Lord, who had never authorized her to act for him, and the other for a dead man whose only instruction to her had been, "Take all and pay all." We can only wonder at her ingenious reasoning, as did that biographer of hers who was moved to exclaim in admiration of her daring, "What woman would ever have dreamed of such a thing!"

Her astonishing stand for woman's rights was made on the 21st of January, 1648. At the first beat of the drum, that was used to call the assemblymen together in the early days of the Maryland colony. Mistress Margaret started on her way for Fort Saint John's, where the general assembly was to meet. We may well believe there was determination in her eye and in her attitude as she sat erect upon her horse and rode over the four miles of snow-covered roads to the fort, for she was. determined that at least she would have her say before the crowd and show the justice of her suit Mistress Margaret would not let herself be disturbed by the cool reception with which she was met; for, although the court tried to hedge her about with rules and orders to keep her quiet, she remained firm in her intentions to speak. And finally when her opportunity came she rose and put forward for the first time in America the claims of a woman's right to seat and vote in a legislative assembly.

We can only imagine the scene that followed that brief and dangerous speech of hers in the court room at Fort Saint John's. A wave of startled wonder and amazement passed over the whole assembly and preposterous as her demand was to those first Maryland planters, there were some among them who moved by her persuasive eloquence would have been willing to grant her request. But Governor Green, who had always regarded Margaret Brent as his most dangerous rival, braced himself for prompt and autocratic action and promptly refused. The Maryland records attest, "The said Mistress Brent should have no vote in the house." The "said Mistress Brent" did not take her defeat without protest. She objected vehemently to the proceedings of the assembly and departed from the court room in anger and dignity. She had failed in her purpose but by her bold stand she had made for herself the signal record as the first woman in America to advocate her right to vote. It is to be noted, moreover, that the Governor Green who had denied her this right was the Governor who turned to her for help whenever an emergency arose.

Soon after the death of Leonard Calvert there threatened to be a mutiny in the army. The soldiers who had fought for Governor Calvert when he was an exile in Virginia had been promised that they should be paid in full ''out of the stock and personal property of his Lordship's plantation." Governor Calvert was dead, the pay was not forthcoming and the only course left to the soldiers seemed to be insurrection. Governor Green could think of nothing to appease the half-starved indignant troops, so he went to Margaret Brent for aid. As soon as Mistress Margaret heard of the trouble, she recalled the instructions which Leonard Calvert had given her to "pay all" so without hesitation she sold the cattle belonging to Lord Baltimore and paid off all the hungry soldiers. News traveled slowly in those early Colonial days and it was some time before Lord Baltimore heard of all that Margaret Brent was claiming and doing as his own attorney and executrix of his brother. And not really knowing Mistress Margaret he was inclined to lode upon her as a person who had been "meddling" in his affairs and he wrote "tartly" and with "bitter invectives" concerning her to the general assembly. But the general assembly understood Margaret Brent better than Lord Baltimore did and they sent a spirited reply to him in gallant praise of Margaret Brent and her wise conduct. So we find the Maryland Assembly which could not give Mistress Margaret the right to vote defending her even against the Lord of their own colony and declaring her "the ablest man among them."

To the end of her days Margaret Brent continued to lead a life of ability and energetic action. There are occasional glimpses of her latter history as she flashes across the records of the Maryland colony, always a clear-cut, fearless, vigorous personality. At one time she appears before the assembly claiming that the tenements belonging to Lord Calvert's manor should be under her guard and management. Again she comes pleading her cause against one Thomas Gerard for five thousand pounds of tobacco. At another time she figures as an offender accused of stealing and selling cattle only to retort indignantly that the cattle were her own, and to demand a trial by jury. In all of these cases and many others she seems to have had her own way. The General Assembly never denied her anything but the right to vote. She had only to express a wish in her clear persuasive fashion and it was granted. In point of view Margaret Brent ruled the colony.

When she came for the last time before the General Assembly her hair must have been gray, but her speech no less eloquent, and her manner no less charming, than in the days of Leonard Calvert. We can imagine her in the presence of the court stating with dignity and frankness that she was the heir to Thomas White, a Maryland gentleman, who, dying, left her his whole estate as a proof of ''his love and affection and of his constant wish to marry her." One would like to know more about this Thomas, but he appears only in the one role, that of Margaret Brent's lover. It has been suggested that possibly if Mr. White had lived, Mistress Margaret might have been induced at last to resign her independent state; that she had grown weary of her land operations and her duties as executrix and attorney and was willing to settle down to a life of domestic calm. But it is almost impossible to think of Margaret Brent as changing her business-like, self-reliant nature and meditating matrimony. It is more likely that this interesting and unusual Colonial dame died as she had lived, loving nothing but the public good and the management of her own and other people's affairs.

Women of America

Source: The Part Taken by Women in American History, By Mrs. John A. Logan, Published by The Perry-Nalle Publishing Company, Wilmington, Delaware, 1912.

 

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