Story by George Newman
Margaret Brent, a key figure in Maryland colonial history, has been much honored in the 330 years since her death, but not always for the right reasons. She has been called America's first suffragette and first woman lawyer, claims that some historians question. Yet relatively little recognition has come to her most important role: She was nothing less than the woman who saved the Maryland colony.
Brent appeared before the all-male Maryland Colonial Assembly in St. Mary's City in 1648 and asked to cast a vote, or rather two votes - one for herself as a landowner and one as representative of Lord Baltimore. But to call her a suffragette, says Henry Miller, director of research at Historic St. Mary's City, "is applying a 20th-century mindset to a 17th-century person." No evidence exists that Brent sought to obtain the vote - then limited to male white landowners - for all women.
A stronger case can be made for Brent as the first woman lawyer, even though she had no formal legal training. She did represent herself in her successful business affairs, and when she made her famous appearance before the Assembly it was as the executor for the estate of Leonard Calvert, the recently deceased colonial governor. The American Bar Association calls her America's first woman lawyer and gives an award in her name. Still, she didn't practice law, as did others (all men) in the colony.
Much more important than her request for a vote was her reason for appearing before the Assembly. Three years earlier, a Protestant rebellion - an offshoot of the English civil war - had arisen against the Catholic settlers of Maryland. Governor Calvert fled to Virginia and returned in 1646, having recruited soldiers to fight the rebels. The troops succeeded in pacifying the colony, but Calvert became fatally ill and died the following year, leaving the victorious soldiers unpaid, unfed and threatening mutiny. On his deathbed, Calvert named as his executor Brent, who had shown great courage and resourcefulness in helping to recruit the troops. He asked Brent to "take all and pay all," a charge she brought before the Assembly, asking for authority not only over Calvert's estate but also the property of his brother, Lord Baltimore, who remained in England.
Although they denied her a vote, the delegates approved her request to liquidate assets to pay the soldiers, stating that it "was better for the Colony's safety at that time in her hands than in any man's … for the soldiers never would have treated any others with that civility and respect."
"That is a truly remarkable statement," says Miller, "and certainly not typical 17th-century perspective." It testifies "that there had to be something about her bearing, her knowledge, her persuasive powers" that impressed both legislators and soldiers.
Miller has to speculate on that point because aside from the Assembly records, none of Brent's writing or speaking has survived. Nor have any drawings or paintings of her been discovered, so we don't know what she looked like. What we do know is that Leonard Calvert's assets apparently were not sufficient to cover his debts to the troops. To make up the deficit, Brent sold cattle belonging to Lord Baltimore. Separated by an ocean in an age of slow communication, Baltimore was angry at the loss of his property and apparently didn't understand, says Miller, that Brent had avoided a mutiny that could have destroyed the colony. Brent never regained favor with Baltimore, and in 1851 she moved to Virginia, where she and her sister, neither of whom had ever married, acquired land near what is now Alexandria. There she died in 1871, with her heroism - then as now - not fully appreciated.
Although Brent owned land in St. Mary's County and lived much of her life in St. Mary's City, little evidence of her presence survives. Her house stood on property now occupied by the Architectural Laboratory of Historic St. Mary's City. Not far away stands the Margaret Brent Garden and Gazebo. A number of schools, in Southern Maryland and elsewhere, have been named for her, and the campus of St. Mary's College includes a Margaret Brent Way.