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  • Emmanuel Mehr

Mary K. Goddard: Late-Eighteenth Century Baltimore’s Newspaper Publisher, Printer, and Postmaster

BHW 13: April 29, 2023


 

This is a cropped scan of Mary Goddard's printed version of the Declaration of Independence. Above John Hancock's signature he has written "A True Copy." Below this is printed: "BALTIMORE, in MARYLAND: Printed by MARY KATHARINE GODDARD."
Figure 1. Mary K. Goddard, “In Congress, July 4, 1776. The unanimous declaration of the thirteen United States of America,” 1777, Library of Congress, open access [1]

 

Printer, newspaper mogul, and federal official Mary K. Goddard achieved great personal and financial success in late-eighteenth century Baltimore Town. Baltimore was still a small town for much of her time there, and would not become a city until December 31, 1796. [2] In 1775, she was appointed Baltimore’s postmaster, becoming the first woman appointed to federal office in American history. [3] In 1777, she printed the first copy of the Declaration of Independence to include the names of the signers. [4] She then fully monopolized Baltimore’s newspaper industry between July 1779 and May 1783. [5] Through publication of her Maryland Journal, she kept Baltimoreans informed of notable events in the Early American Republic. Mary eagerly seized this role when her brother William, the founder of the paper, left the city to pursue other career objectives. He started papers in numerous cities and on multiple occasions abandoned them to be run by his sister and their mother. [6] He spent the period of Mary’s time in Baltimore creating what would become the United States Postal Service. [7] William receives plenty of attention in public history and scholarship, yet Mary deserves more credit for her own accomplishments. Above and beyond holding the fort while her brother was away, she played a key role in late-eighteenth century Baltimore.


When Mary K. Goddard took over the Maryland Journal, she did so with a wealth of experience in the printing and newspaper industries. The year 1775 brought both her official postmaster appointment and the public recognition of her leadership of the Maryland Journal. This was the culmination of thirteen consecutive years in and around printing and postal work. [8] She had taken charge of the Journal in early 1774, but it was in 1775 that her name finally replaced her brother on the colophon. [9] Perhaps the delay related to public hesitancy about a woman holding such a position of public and federal prominence in this era. [10] She proved wrong anyone who misogynistically doubted her abilities, displaying excellence and reliability as both postmaster and newspaper operator. In the process, she won over public opinion in Baltimore. This is clear from the enthusiastic opposition from city power brokers to her eventual demotion from her role as postmaster. Influential Baltimoreans rallied behind her with a petition and an uproar. Indeed, the petition was signed by more than two hundred local business professionals. [11]


Mary deeply invested herself both personally and financially in her Maryland Journal work. During the economic challenges of the Revolutionary War she paid for the paper’s postal distribution significantly out of her own pocket. [12] Many papers ceased publication in this wartime context, Mary ensured that hers did not. [13] She cited this committed investment in the paper and her postal role when filing complaints to both President George Washington and the U.S. Senate regarding her removal as postmaster in favor of a nepotism-motivated replacement. [14] As she wrote to President Washington, she “advanced hard money to defray the Charges of Post Riders for many years, when they were not to be procured on any other terms; and . . . during this period, the whole of her Labour & Industry in establishing the [Post] Office was necessarily unrewarded.” [15] Mary made significant sacrifices for the patriot cause and expected to be treated accordingly. She also cited her dedicated contributions to the Maryland Journal as making it unfair that her brother returned to Baltimore and claimed back operational management of the paper after his national post office establishment activities. [16] Rightfully so, as she was the reason the newspaper still existed. Far more than just being kept alive, it was a highly successful publication when William returned.


It appears Mary’s brother William was more an obstacle in the way of her professional success than he was helpful, and the U.S. government did not provide her much support either. William left her in charge of papers in both Philadelphia and Baltimore when he got distracted by other endeavors. Before she could move to Baltimore, she had to coordinate the sale of his Philadelphia paper to mitigate financial losses. Thus, she was deeply involved in the industry’s business dealings from early on. The wealth she accumulated and used to advance these publications was almost entirely her own, separate from her brother and from her public office. She allegedly received “only forty odd pounds” per year from the government for her postmaster role, this public sector work had minimal financial reward. [17] As historian Ward L. Miner asserts, when William wanted to re-enter the Baltimore business, “she [Mary] did not feel any necessity of allowing William’s desires to interfere with her own hard-earned prosperity.” [18] She accumulated significant wealth and was not about to let her brother take it away from her. [19] While he was away, she greatly expanded her business operations beyond her brother’s ambitions to include bookbinding, bookselling, dry goods sales, and more. [20] When he returned to Baltimore, he had fallen into such financial mismanagement that he served time in prison for defaulting on his debts. He hoped to receive a government or military position through which he could recoup his assets but was unsuccessful. [21] William also did not have the capital to resume operating the Maryland Journal. He had to wait a few years before he had the financial means to take back control of the paper. When he did so, the ensuing sibling conflict was so harsh that Mary and William seemingly never spoke again. [22]


Through her wartime work, Mary advanced strong support of the patriot side while also being a staunch advocate of the freedom of the press. As journalism historians Maurine H. Beasley and Sheila J. Gibbons write, “she made the Maryland Journal one of the most vigorous voices of the rebellious colonies.” [23] The commitment to the patriot cause she exuded through her own work, with no partner or children, is a bold example of female independence, strength, and empowerment in this era. [24] She never hesitated to make clear her patriot stance, editorializing against British actions, extensively amplifying congressional calls to action, and reprinting patriot texts such as Thomas Paine’s Common Sense. [25] When the British tried to censor her coverage, she persisted as a firm advocate of the freedom of the press. [26] She ensured Baltimore would receive her patriot message. In sharp contrast to the gendered language used in public scrutiny of her achievements, she employed the language of revolutionary patriotism to defend herself. [27] She would also go on to defend the freedom of the press in court, holding firmly to her beliefs. [28]


Of all Mary’s accomplishments, her printing of the Declaration of Independence is the most historically significant. Her role suggests a rethinking of the male-dominated American founding, as she stood at the center of the document’s very printing. Her name is right there alongside those of the American founders on the first copy of the Declaration to include signed names (Figure 1). [29] This was also a distinctly Baltimore document. The Continental Congress was in Baltimore in January 1777 when they ordered, “That an authenticated copy of the Declaration of Independency with the names of the members of Congress subscribing the same, be sent to each of the United States, and that they be desired to have the same put on record.” [30] As the city’s most-established printer, Mary was the natural choice for the task. Prior to this, the Congress moved to Baltimore from Philadelphia out of concerns about a potential British attack. Baltimorean Henry Fite rented his house to the Congress for three months. They operated from these Baltimore headquarters until returning to Philadelphia in late-February and early-March of 1777. [31] Historian Robert G. Parkinson argues that Mary directly contributed to the Congress choosing Baltimore through her role in building local support for the patriot cause. [32] This connection further cements her impact on Baltimore and on the version of the version of the Declaration she printed. Indeed, that she contributed to the very presence of the Congress in Baltimore shows an active role in creating her own opportunity to print the document.


After losing her postmaster role, Mary remained in Baltimore for the remainder of her life, living with a Black woman named Belinda Starling whom she enslaved. This despicable enslavement sheds important light on Mary’s role in history as do her laudable contributions. While the 1790 census records her as enslaving four people, it appears by the later years of life Belinda was her one remaining enslaved asset. Mary gave all her assets along with freedom to Belinda in her will. [33] While she likely saw this gift to Belinda as a form of recompense for a life of enslaved service, it should not take away from the historical importance of Mary’s inhumane role as an enslaver. She worked, dealt in, and possessed human capital in addition to other forms of monetary assets. That wealth in enslaved people represents her success as America’s first female public official speaks to the entrenchment of slavery in late-eighteenth century American life along with the complexities of intersectional experiences.


Mary continued to work for most of her later years, operating a bookstore and selling dry goods. After retiring in 1810, she spent the remaining six years of her life in relative isolation. [34] This led historian Lawrence C. Wroth, in one of the first histories of printing in colonial Maryland, to write that, “in spite of her activity in public affairs, she had worked, lived, and died a lonely woman.” Wroth published this in 1922 and it exemplifies the misogyny of that period. It appears fairer to conclude that her self-empowering independence enabled her great accomplishments in the press and the postal service. In a highly patriarchal era, her chances of such remarkable achievements would likely be much more circumscribed if she had a family of her own. She also took an uncommon route to business authority. Indeed, most women who operated printing businesses in this era assumed such roles due to the death of their husband. [35] Mary did so because her brother was unreliable, a sharp contrast to her own hard-earned proven reliability.


Mary K. Goddard greatly impacted the early history of what would become Baltimore City. She operated its only newspaper in the early years of the American Republic, printed one of the most important versions of the Declaration of Independence, became Baltimore’s postmaster, and built significant personal wealth. She overcame difficult situations created by her noncommittal brother and independently built a highly regarded professional reputation. The first woman in American history appointed to federal office, she vigorously advocated for herself when this office was taken away. She also played a strong role in the Revolutionary War, demonstrating support for the patriot cause through deep commitment to maintaining information flows. The people of Baltimore relied on her work as a printer and publisher to stay informed throughout the conflict as well as the years that followed, in which the town became a city. Mary defended freedom of the press while prioritizing the dissemination of truth. She was so committed to accurate professional publication that one historian complains the fact-focused impersonality in her work left little archival record to help understand her character. [36] However, from what we do know of her story it is clear she was not only brilliant but also possessed a nuanced understanding of economics, politics, and early Baltimore. This case demonstrates that women’s empowerment is a core feature of Baltimore history, going back to the eighteenth century.


 

[1] Mary K. Goddard, “In Congress, July 4, 1776. The unanimous declaration of the thirteen United States of America,” 1777, Library of Congress, open access, https://www.loc.gov/resource/bdsdcc.02101/?sp=1.

[2] John Carroll Byrnes, “Commemorative Histories of the Bench and Bar: In Celebration of the Bicentennial of Baltimore City 1797-1997,” University of Baltimore Law Forum 27, no. 2 (Spring 1997): 27.2 U. Balt. L. F. 8, https://scholarworks.law.ubalt.edu/lf/vol27/iss2/2/.

[3] Maurine H. Beasley and Sheila J. Gibbons, Taking Their Place: A Documentary History of Women and Journalism (Washington, DC: The American University Press, 1993), 51-52, https://archive.org/details/takingtheirplace0000beas.

[4] This is a point of scholarly consensus, see Ward L. Miner, William Goddard, Newspaperman (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1962), 166-167, https://archive.org/details/williamgoddard00ward; Danielle Skeehan, “Texts and Textiles: Commercial Poetics and Material Economies in the Early Atlantic,” Journal of the Early Republic 36, no. 4 (Winter 2016): 688, https://www.jstor.org/stable/jearlyrepublic.36.4.681; Joseph M. Adelman, Revolutionary Networks: The Business and Politics of Printing the News, 1763-1789 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2019), 145, Kindle edition.

[5] Madelon Golden Schilpp and Sharon M. Murphy, Great Women of the Press (Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press, 1983), 16, https://archive.org/details/greatwomenofpres0000schi.

[6] Gay Walker, “Women Printers in Early American Printing History,” The Yale University Library Gazette 61, no. 3/4 (April 1987): 121, https://www.jstor.org/stable/40858912.

[7] Lawrence C. Wroth, A History of Printing in Colonial Maryland, 1686-1776 (Baltimore: Thypthetae of Baltimore, 1922), 129, https://archive.org/details/historyofprintin00wrotuoft.

[8] Christopher J. Young, “Mary K. Goddard: A Classical Republican in the Age of Revolution,” Maryland Historical Magazine 96, no. 1 (Spring 2001): 8, https://msa.maryland.gov/megafile/msa/speccol/sc5800/sc5881/000001/000000/000382/pdf/msa_sc_5881_1_382.pdf.

[9] Robert G. Parkinson, The Common Cause: Creating Race and Nation in the American Revolution (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2016), 691-692.

[10] Beasley and Gibbons, Taking Their Place, 51-52.

[11] Miner, William Goddard, Newspaperman, 193.

[12] Schilpp and Murphy, Great Women of the Press, 12.

[13] Wroth, A History of Printing in Colonial Maryland, 144.

[14] Adelman, Revolutionary Networks, 148.

[15] Mary K. Goddard, “To George Washington from Mary K. Goddard, 23 December 1789,” Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/05-04-02-0302.

[16] Miner, William Goddard, Newspaperman, 180-181.

[17] Wroth, A History of Printing in Colonial Maryland, 133.

[18] Miner, William Goddard, Newspaperman, 178.

[19] Miner, William Goddard, Newspaperman, 180-181.

[20] Miner, William Goddard, Newspaperman, 167.

[21] Wroth, A History of Printing in Colonial Maryland, 135.

[22] Erick Trickey, “Mary Katharine Goddard, the Woman who Signed the Declaration of Independence,” Smithsonian Magazine, November 14, 2018, https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/mary-katharine-goddard-woman-who-signed-declaration-independence-180970816/.

[23] Beasley and Gibbons, Taking Their Place, 51-52.

[24] Young, “Mary K. Goddard: A Classical Republican in the Age of Revolution,” 7.

[25] Trickey, “Mary Katharine Goddard, the Woman who Signed the Declaration of Independence,” Smithsonian Magazine, November 14, 2018.

[26] Beasley and Gibbons, Taking Their Place, 52.

[27] Young, “Mary K. Goddard: A Classical Republican in the Age of Revolution,” 12.

[28] Schilpp and Murphy, Great Women of the Press, 12.

[29] Trickey, “Mary Katharine Goddard, the Woman who Signed the Declaration of Independence,” Smithsonian Magazine, November 14, 2018.

[30] Wilfred J. Ritz, “The Authentication of the Engrossed Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776,” Law and History Review 4, no. 1 (Spring 1986): 193, https://www.jstor.org/stable/743719.

[31] Office of the Historian, “Henry Fite's House, Baltimore, Dec. 20, 1776—Feb. 27, 1777,” U.S. Department of State, accessed April 18, 2023, https://history.state.gov/departmenthistory/buildings/section4.

[32] Parkinson, The Common Cause, 691-692.

[33] Miner, William Goddard, Newspaperman, 194.

[34] Schilpp and Murphy, Great Women of the Press, 19.

[35] Walker, “Women Printers in Early American Printing History,” 116.

[36] Miner, William Goddard, Newspaperman, 194.

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