Mary Katherine Goddard (1738-1816) was a trailblazing newspaper publisher, as well as the first female postmaster in colonial America. But what makes this independent and courageous woman truly extraordinary is that in 1777 she printed the very first copy of the Declaration of Independence that included all of the signers’ names.
Mary Katherine was born in 1738 in southern New England. Both she and her younger brother William were highly educated by their mother, Sarah Updike Goddard. Her father Dr. Giles Goddard, who was the postmaster of New London, died in 1757 leaving the family a fairly valuable estate. In 1762, Sarah and her children moved to Providence, Rhode Island, where William (age 22) started a printing business, the first in that colony, with a loan from his mom.
Although her younger brother was technically “in charge,” William traveled a lot, leaving the new shop in the capable hands of his mom and sister. So Sarah was the true publisher of their Providence Gazette and Country Journal, and Mary Katherine, just 24 at the time, was fully immersed in all aspects of the business, working as a typesetter, printer, and journalist, jobs that “ladies” didn’t typically do back then. Together, the dynamic mother/daughter duo made the press a hub of activity at a time when newspapers wielded serious political influence. They also expanded the business to include a bookbindery, and, in addition to the Gazette, started printing almanacs, pamphlets, and books.
In 1765, William left for Philadelphia to start another print shop and newspaper, again with the financial support of his mother. Sarah and Mary Katherine joined him in 1768 and helped run the Philadelphia Chronicle and Universal Advertiser. When Sarah died in 1770, Mary Katherine kept the business running, and singlehandedly grew the paper to be one of the largest in the colonies… William was a little too busy being jailed for all sort of infractions like public outbursts to be of any help.
A few years later, William went on the move again, and in May 1773 he started a new paper in Baltimore, Maryland. Mary Katherine stayed back to run the Philadelphia Chronicle until it was discontinued the following February. She then headed to Baltimore and, once again, took over her younger brother’s newspaper, while William busied himself with setting up an intercolonial postal system that was meant to rival the official British system.
Once there, Mary Katherine quickly assumed the title of publisher of the Maryland Journal and the Baltimore Advertiser and on May 10, 1775 ran “Published by M.K. Goddard” on her newspaper’s masthead. That same year, Mary Katherine also became the first female postmaster in colonial America. Being both postmaster and a newspaper publisher gave her a ton of power because it allowed her to print news faster than her competitors. Case in point, her paper was one of the first to report the skirmishes at Lexington and Concord that prompted the American Revolution.
During the war, the printing business suffered, so Mary Katherine, ever the industrious entrepreneur, ran a bookbindery to supplement her income and accepted food from those who couldn’t 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, and she also kept the mail going by occasionally paying post riders with her own money.
The Continental Congress calls on Mary Katherine…
Independence was declared in Philadelphia on July 4, 1776 when the Declaration was adopted. In signing the handwritten document, John Hancock and other members of the Continental Congress were committing an act of treason against the established British government, and they, like all revolutionaries, would have been executed had they been caught. So for the next six months, printed copies of the Declaration of Independence circulated throughout the new nation without the signers’ names. That was until January 1777, when the Continental Congress decided to print the Declaration of Independence with a complete list of signatures. They chose Mary Katherine Goddard to do the printing. It was big news with major political impact because the printing revealed all the signers’ identities, therefore forcing each of them to match their words with actions.
Not long after, things started to unravel for Mary Katherine…
The Founding Fathers went on to the fame that Mary Katherine literally thrust on them, while she sank into obscurity. Her name disappeared from the Maryland Journal in 1784 because, as historians agree, William likely forced her to quit (he was never able to become successful at anything he tried, and was jealous of his sister’s success; there is also record of her filing five lawsuits against him at that time). In 1789, the year that the U.S. Constitution was adopted, Mary Katherine also was forced out of her Baltimore postal position in favor of a man, after the new Postmaster General decreed that the head of the Baltimore postal system must be a man. Though she appealed the injustice to George Washington and Congress, asking them to reinstate her, supported by the petition signatures of over 200 Baltimore businessmen, nothing changed.
Mary Katherine Goddard spent the remaining years of her life running a bookstore in Baltimore, and died at the age of seventy-eight in 1816.
Source: National Women’s History Museum