This Day in History: The Woman who signed the Declaration of Independence
On this day in 1738, a publisher of the Declaration of Independence is born. Did you know that the Declaration, including the names of all the signers, was first printed by a woman?
Mary Katherine Goddard was the daughter of a physician and postmaster. After her father’s death, the family moved around a bit. With each move, Mary’s brother opened and ran printing presses and newspapers. But the females in the family ultimately shouldered the burden of running these publications.
To some degree, they had to. William was always engaged in some other pursuit. For instance, he helped to establish an intercolonial postal system, intended to replace the old British one.
In the meantime, the Goddard women were left behind to run the printing businesses. In 1770, Mary’s mom passed away. Mary was left to perform these duties alone.
She did a great job of it. Mary was a good business woman who worked hard to stay afloat during difficult times. Indeed, she managed to stay in business during the Revolution, when many other publishers were floundering. She opened up a book shop on the side to help bring in money. Her name soon appeared on the masthead for the Maryland Journal and Baltimore Advertiser. (You’ll remember that women’s names didn’t usually appear on publication mastheads in those days.) She also became the postmaster of Baltimore—most likely the first female to hold such a position in the colonies.
In 1777, her printing shop printed the first copies of the Declaration of Independence, complete with the name of every signer. It had been a long time coming. For many months, the names of all the signatories were not known. Signing that document was considered treason by the British, and the action was punishable by death.
Maybe that makes it even more interesting that Mary’s full name appeared immediately underneath? She was making a statement—a statement that could get her hanged! Goddard’s usual tagline was: “Printed by M.K. Goddard.”
During the first year of George Washington’s presidency, Mary was unfortunately the victim of patronage or sexism (or both). Despite 14 successful years as postmaster, she was forced to step down. The new postmaster general wanted to appoint a political ally for her position. Mary protested and even had a petition signed by more than 200 local businessmen, but to no avail.
William had, by then, returned to run his printing business. Apparently, his return was not an entirely amicable affair. Mary was left with only a book shop to run, which she did, until shortly before her death in 1816.
Another little-known woman working and sacrificing behind the scenes so that we might have freedom.
Behind the Badge: William Goddard (Smithsonian National Postal Museum website)
Exhibits: Mary Katherine Goddard (1738-1816) (Smithsonian National Postal Museum website)
Letter from Mary Katherine Goddard to George Washington (Dec. 23, 1789)
Mary Katherine Goddard (1738 – 1816) (Maryland Women’s Hall of Fame)
Notable American Women: A Biographical Dictionary (Edward T. James et al. eds. 1971)
Susan Casey, Women Heroes of the American Revolution: 20 Stories of Espionage, Sabotage, Defiance, and Rescue (2017)
Virginia G. Drachman, Enterprising Women: 250 Years of American Business (2002)
Women in Postal History: Mary Katherine Goddard (Smithsonian National Postal Museum website)