Women’s History Month: Margaret Mercer, Free-Thinker and Educator

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Margaret Mercer lived at Cedar Park, an estate near Galesville in Anne Arundel County. Margaret wrote letters and tracts but did not leave a diary. The information here comes from an 1848 memoir (available online through Google Scholar) written by Caspar Morris, a neighbor of hers, and from an article in the Winter 2011 issue of Maryland Historical Society magazine, “Reformers and Role Models: Women Educators in the Early Nineteenth Century Upper South” by Mary Carroll Johansen.

Margaret Mercer was born in 1791. Her father, John Francis Mercer, a Virginian, fought in the Revolutionary War, participated in the Constitutional Convention, and was a friend to many of the nation’s founders, including Jefferson and Madison. He married Sophia Sprigg and moved to Annapolis. After he served as governor of Maryland from 1801 to 1803, the family moved to Sophia’s family home, Cedar Park, on the West River in Maryland. This was a large estate with many enslaved men and women.

Margaret grew up surrounded by the elite of the new republic and on the beautiful estate at Cedar Park. She was well-educated, primarily by her father. Rich and popular, she went to balls, entertained suitors, and lived the life of the belle in Annapolis, Baltimore, Washington, and Alexandria.

Sometime in her early 20s Margaret experienced a religious awakening. She regularly visited a local fisherman’s family; the wife was crippled with arthritis and her husband beat her. Getting to know the woman, Margaret recognized her strength of character. This downtrodden woman was thankful for what she had and attributed her endurance to God’s mercy. With Margaret’s newfound understanding of faith, she wrote to her cousin, “I do not think I was ever made for a married woman; I feel as if I was not intended to take so great a share in worldly things. If I did, I should forget my God, perhaps…” Her cousin wrote of her that “her mind and heart were always awake” and that “she was able to encourage others to intellectual effort and kindness in their hearts.” These qualities were well suited to life as an educator, and that is what Margaret became.

When her father died in 1821, Margaret moved to Virginia and worked at Mrs. Garnett’s School in Essex County. She also taught Sunday school and cared for the sick. The Sunday school was devoted to children who would not otherwise attend school and taught simple academics and “the testaments.”

A few years after her father’s death, Margaret moved back to Cedar Park. By then she had inherited his property and his slaves, numbering more than 50. She wanted to free them but first had to settle her father’s debts, which were substantial. So in 1824 she started Miss Mercer’s School, an academy for young women, which she ran until 1834. By the early 1830s she had paid off the debt and freed many of the enslaved; she paid the passage to Liberia for six of these enslaved men and women. She was an active participant in the American Colonization Society. Another enslaved man, William Taylor, helped her to nurse the sick and so impressed her that she arranged for him to study medicine in Washington.

The school enabled her to focus on two aims: educating women to encourage them to a life of service, and also training teachers who could then teach at the Sunday schools she ran for free blacks and enslaved children. There are references in her letters and in the memoir to serious criticism of her work with the Sunday schools by surrounding neighbors. Nonetheless, she continued her efforts in Galesville for several years, then moved back to Virginia, where she established yet another school for girls. Margaret died at 55 of tuberculosis. She seems to have been a remarkable woman, not only for her good works and devotion to education, but for her success at unbinding herself from the slave-holding society. The emphasis on the American Colonization Society is offputting to us today, but the idea held interest for some influential pre-Civil War opponents of slavery.

By Barbara Goyette, Hammond- Harwood House Executive Director.




Posted on Mar 1, 2023 in , , , by Hammond-Harwood House



Hammond-Harwood House

The mission of the Hammond-Harwood House Association is to preserve and to interpret the architecturally significant Hammond-Harwood House Museum and its collection of fine and decorative arts, and to explore the diverse social history associated with its occupants, both free and enslaved, for the purposes of education and appreciation.
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