Mary Katherine Goddard (1738-1816)
A newspaper publisher and postmaster of Baltimore, Maryland, Mary Katherine Goddard is famous for printing of the first copy of the Declaration of Independence that included the signers’ names.
She was born in 1738 in southern New England; her exact birthplace is unknown. Like her younger brother William, she was educated by their mother, Sarah Updike Goddard, who taught them Latin, French, and the literary classics. The family was living in New London, Connecticut when Giles Goddard died in 1757, leaving a fairly valuable estate. When William came of age, they moved to Providence, Rhode Island, where Sarah Goddard lent her son the money to begin a printing business – the first in that colony.
This was in 1762, when Mary Katherine was age 24. Although the younger William was ostensibly in charge, he traveled a great deal, and it was Sarah Updike Goddard who was the true publisher of the Providence Gazette and Country Journal. Mary Katherine took a great interest in the business and forewent many of the usual activities for young ladies to work as a typesetter, printer, and journalist. The mother/daughter team made their print shop a hub of activity at a time when newspapers exerted great political influence. They added a bookbindery, and in addition to the Gazette, printed almanacs, pamphlets, and occasionally books.
William left for Philadelphia in 1765, where he began another print shop and newspaper, again with financial assistance from his mother. The women joined him there in 1768 and helped run the Philadelphia Chronicle and Universal Advertiser. After Sarah Goddard’s 1770 death, Mary Katherine kept the business running, as William was frequently jailed for public outbursts and rabble-rousing articles in the paper. His sister’s contrasting business ability is clear in that, according to William Goddard’s biographer, Ward L. Miner, “the shop [became] one of the largest in the colonies.”
Again, however, William departed. In May 1773, he started a paper in Baltimore, while Mary Katherine ran the Philadelphia business until the following February, when the Philadelphia Chronicle was discontinued. Moving to Baltimore, she once more took over her younger brother’s newspaper -- while, according to historian Miner, “William busied himself in setting up an intercolonial postal system in opposition to the official British one.”
With her mother dead and her brother prioritizing his political inclinations, Mary Katherine Goddard finally assumed the title of publisher of the Maryland Journal and the Baltimore Advertiser. She put “Published by M.K. Goddard” on the masthead on May 10, 1775 -- and it remained there even when William returned from his New Hampshire-to-Georgia travels in 1776.
The year 1775 brought a second milestone, as Goddard became the first female postmaster in colonial America. Being both postmistress and a newspaper printer made her the “center of the information exchange.”(1) Her dual position often enabled her to publish news more quickly than her competitors. For example, the Journal was one of the first newspapers to report the skirmishes at Lexington and Concord that prompted the Revolution.
Newspapers were becoming essential forms of communication, and their numbers quickly doubled as colonists turned to them to spread revolutionary ideas and keep up with the quickly developing conflict. Unlike her brother, who used the paper to promote his own opinions, Mary Katherine Goddard used a more objective, impersonal, and professional tone. During the war, inflation hurt the printing business and so she ran a bookbindery to supplement her income and accepted food products from those who could not afford to pay their subscription to the paper.
She never missed an edition of the paper between 1775 and 1784 -- when many other papers did during these years of the American Revolution, while the country was in such turmoil. During times of confusion about whether the colonial or the revolutionary government was in control of Baltimore, she also kept the mail going by occasionally paying post riders with her own money.
As every American learns, independence was declared in Philadelphia on July 4, 1776, and John Hancock famously led other members of the Continental Congress in signing the handwritten document. By doing so, of course, these men were declaring their treason against the established government, and like all revolutionaries, they would have been executed had they been caught. Not all signers were as courageous as Hancock, however, and not all colonies were as rebellious as Massachusetts. Thus, for the next six months, printed copies of the Declaration of Independence circulated throughout the new nation without the signers’ names. Finally, in January 1777, Mary Katherine Goddard -- an independent and courageous woman -- published the first copy of the Declaration with the identities revealed. It not only was a big news scoop, it also had political impact in forcing all signers to match their words with deeds.
While the Founding Fathers went on to the fame she literally thrust on them, Mary Katherine Goddard sank into obscurity. William was never able to become successful at any occupation (after trying to work in the postal system he tried his hand at politics) and was jealous of his sister's success. In 1784, Mary Katherine's name disappeared from the Journal, and historians agree that William most likely forced his sister to quit - there is record of her filing five lawsuits against him at that time.
In 1789, the year that the U.S. Constitution was adopted, Mary Katherine Goddard also was forced out of her Baltimore postal position in favor of a male appointee. Women in some colonies lost some rights with the new federal government, but women continued to run post offices in other places. But Baltimore was a big city and this was a patronage position. The only reason that she was given was that, being that a female, she could not handle the traveling the job would soon demand. She appealed to George Washington and Congress about the injustice, and over 200 Baltimore businessmen endorsed her petition, but nothing changed. Mary Katherine Goddard spent the remaining years of her life running a bookstore in Baltimore. She died in 1816, having been a trailblazer in both printing and postal service.Goddard’s petition to Postmaster General Samuel Osgood is in the National Archives, along with other records of her tenure as head of Baltimore’s post office A copy of the Declaration of Independence printed by her is at the Maryland Hall of Records.
- Library of Congress
- Maryland Women's Hall of Fame
- National Archives (Goddard's petition to Congress), via the George Washington University's Web site
- National Postal Museum
- Brigham, Clarence S. Journals and Journeymen: A Contribution to the History of Early American Newspapers (Philadelphia: Univ. of Pennsylvania Press, 1950).
- Hudak, Leona M. Early American Women Printers and Publishers 1639-1820. (Metuchen: The Scarecrow Press, Inc. 1978).
- James, Edward T. Notable American Women 1607-1950. Vol. II (Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1971).
- Miner, Ward L. William Goddard, Newspaperman. (Durham: Duke University Press, 1962).
- Wroth, Lawrence C. A History of Printing in Colonial Maryland. (Baltimore: Typothetae of Baltimore, 1922).
- Young, Christopher J. “Mary K. Goddard: A Classical Republican in a Revolutionary Age,” Maryland Historical Magazine, vol. 96, no. 1 (spring 2001).
- Wroth, Lawrence C. The Colonial Printer (Portland, Maine: Southworth-Anthoensen, 1938).
(1) Quote from Christopher Young, Ph.D., a history professor at MacMurry College in Jacksonville, IL, as quoted in Emily McMackin, “Mary Katherine Goddard: Pioneer Printer, Revolutionary Editor,” American Spirit (March/April 2006): 30.
- “Mary Katharine Goddard,” Enterprising Women: 250 Years of American Business, n.d., http://www.enterprisingwomenexhibit.org/publish/goddard.html (8 May 2006).
- McMackin, Emily. “Mary Katherine Goddard: Pioneer Printer, Revolutionary Editor,” American Spirit (March/April 2006): 29-32.
- Miner, Ward L. “Goddard, Mary Katherine” and “Goddard, Sarah Updike” in Notable American Women: A Biographical Dictionary, volume II. Edited by Edward. T. James, Janet Wilson James, and Paul S. Boyer. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1971.
A special thanks to women's historian Doris Weatherford for her input and edits.