Sunday, May 20, 2018

1648 Margaret Brent - Maryland Attorney Who Owns Land Is Denied Right to Vote

Margaret Brent was an unusual woman for her time. In 17C America, she was unmarried, a business-person, a Catholic, & a prominent figure in the Maryland settlement, which she emigrated to from England with two brothers & a sister in 1638. She owned land, grew tobacco and made loans to other settlers in Maryland.
Margaret Brent speaking to the Maryland Assembly in colonial St. Mary's City. By Edwin Tunis (c. 1934)

Brent appeared in the Maryland court to argue for herself & her brothers in business matters & to settle debts. In 1647, she was appointed the executor of the late Gov. Leonard Calvert’s estate & given power of attorney for his older brother, Cecil Calvert, the second Lord Baltimore. (The first Lord Baltimore was their father, George.)
Leonard Calvert’s death came at a turbulent time for the Maryland settlement, & Brent’s careful management of his estate helped secure the settlement’s survival. By selling some of Cecil Calvert’s cattle without his knowledge or consent to pay off debts, she achieved peace for the colony—but earned his lifelong enmity. 
In 1648, the first woman appointed attorney-in-fact in the colonies, Margaret Brent (1601-1671) of Maryland, seeks & is denied the right to vote in the assembly. The unmarried Brent, owning about 70 acres in Maryland, asks the Maryland Assembly for two votes, one for herself & another as her distant cousin Leonard Calvert's administrator & Lord Baltimore's attorney. Her request was denied.

Jan. 21, 1647[/8]. "Came Mrs Margaret Brent and requested to have vote in the howse for herselfe and voyce allso for that att the last Court 3d Jan: it was ordered that the said Mrs Brent was to be lookd uppon and received as his Lps Attorney. The Govr denyed that the sd Mrs Brent should have any vote in the howse And the sd Mrs Brent protested agst all proceedings in this pnt Assembly unlesse shee may have vote as aforesd."

Later Margaret Brent acts as attorny at law. Nov. 6, 1648. Margaret Brent as His Lordshhip's attorney complains and proves that Edward Commins has defied an order of the Governor and said that there was no law in the province. The court fined him 2,500 pounds of tobacco for contempt.

Although she was denied any vote, the Assembly did defend her when Lord Baltimore, deceased Lord Calvert's brother, complains about her use of revenue from his estate to pay off his soldiers, who had recently put down a Protestant rebellion. The Assembly believes that her actions saved the colony from an open revolt.

They write a letter to Lord Baltimore. "As for Mistress Brent's undertaking and meddling with your Lordship's estate here...we do Verily Believe and in Conscience report that it was better for the Colony's saftety at that time she rather deserved favour and thanks from your Honour for her so much Concurring to the public safety, than to be justly liable to all those bitter invectives you have been pleased to Express against her."

Born in 1601, she was the 7th child of Sir Richard Brent (1573-1652) & Lady Elizabeth Willoughby de Broke.  When Margaret landed in 1638 at St. Mary’s City in Maryland, she was no common immigrant, as she came with 4 maidservants, 5 male servants, and 2 letters from Cecil Calvert, Lord Baltimore, granting all the lands she could manage.  By any measure, she could manage quite a bit:  administering her own & sister Mary’s affairs; as executrix for deceased governor Leonard Calvert; & representing her brother Giles’ legal interests.  She appeared before Provincial Court at least 124 times between 1642-1650.  Her own estate was “Sisters Freehold,” and she managed “Trinity,” “St. Gabriel,” and “Fort Kent.”

Probably one of the largest landowners and among the most influential person in the Maryland colony, she shocked the Maryland Council in 1648 by confronting them with legal requests and demanding the vote (actually 2 votes) on the council.  While the Assembly had refused to give Margaret Brent a vote, it defended her stewardship of Lord Baltimore's estate, writing to him on April 21, 1649, that it "was better for the Colony's safety at that time in her hands than in any man's ... for the soldiers would never have treated any others with that civility and respect ..."

However, Lord Baltimore was furious with Margaret's independence. Brent moved to Virginia to escape Calvert’s ire regarding his lost cows. She, her brother Giles, & sister Mary moved to the Northern Neck of Virginia by the spring of 1650, where she died in 1670.

Brent’s brother Giles had married Piscataway's Mary Kittamaquund & began to acquire property in Virginia. He settled a plantation on the north bank of the Aquia Creek, in present day Fauquier County. Margaret & their sister Mary joined him at the new plantation, which Giles named “Peace.”

Margaret continued to buy property, & 2 of those property purchases seem particularly shrewd. The 1st was 1,000 on the south side of the Rappahannock, a quarter mile above the falls of the river, in what is present day Fredericksburg.  The other was a 700-acre tract north of Great Hunting Creek, now the site of Alexandria.  Giles, Margaret & Mary Brent are recognized as the first English Catholic Settlers in Virginia on a large crucifix on Route 1, near Aquia Creek.  Plaques honoring Margaret Brent were also placed at Jones Point in Alexandria & at St. Mary’s City, Maryland.

Neither she nor her sister Mary ever married; they were among the very few unmarried English women of the time in the Chesapeake, when men outnumbered women there by 6:1 (but most were lower class indentured workers). Historian Lois Greene Carr believed the 2 sisters had taken vows of celibacy under Mary Ward's Catholic Institute in England. In 1658 Mary Brent died, leaving her entire estate of 1000 acres to her sister.  In 1663 Margaret Brent wrote her will.  In 1670, she assigned one half of her 2,000 acres in Maryland to her nephew, James Clifton. Most of the remainder went to her brother Giles and his children. She died at "Peace," in the newly created Stafford County, Virginia in 1670-71. Her will was admitted into probate on May 19, 1671.  She died a wealthy woman at about age 70, and she is considered the 1st female lawyer in the New World.