There is just one woman whose name appears on an official copy of the Declaration of Independence— Mary Katharine Goddard.
Goddard, a 38-year-old publisher and patriot, was printing the Maryland Journal when the Second Continental Congress evacuated Philadelphia in the face of British forces and reconvened in a tavern near her offices in Baltimore from December 1776 to January 1777.
She had distinguished herself by running printing and publishing services almost without interruption in the early Revolutionary years and printed a plea for colonial unity at John Hancock’s request in December, as things looked increasingly dim for Gen. George Washington’s forces.
So on January 18, 1777, when Congress decided “an authenticated copy of the Declaration of Independence, with the names of the members of Congress subscribing the same, be sent to each of the United States,” Goddard was given the job. It wasn’t the first printed version of the Declaration— that honor goes to the Dunlap broadside in 1776— but it was the first with signatures included.
This is notable because signing the Declaration was an act of treason, and its signatories subject to execution for it. Never before had their pledge of their lives, fortunes, and sacred honor been quite so explicit, and Goddard added her full name to it, unmistakeable at the bottom of the page.
Baltimore, in Maryland: Printed by Mary Katharine Goddard
Goddard prepared the Goddard Broadside, as it came to be known, within two weeks. John Hancock, president of the Congress, sent it to the colonies, to be preserved as “a Part of the Archives of your State, and remain a lasting Testimony of your approbation of that necessary & important Measure.”
Her printing of the Declaration bears 55 names. It is missing only Thomas McKean, who signed the document later in 1777. There are still 11 of the broadsides in existence, most in public institutions and one in a private collection.
The Goddard family had an outsized impact on the communications of colonial and early America, founding newspapers in three colonies and participating in the founding of what would become the U.S. Postal Service.
Goddard and her brother William were educated by their mother, Sarah Updike Goddard. Their father, Giles Goddard, died when Mary Katharine was in her late teens, leaving an inheritance to Sarah. William apprenticed in printing and borrowed money from his mother to start his first printing business. But he quickly lost interest in each business endeavor, leaving most of the operations to his mother, and to Mary Katharine after Sarah died in 1770.
William and Mary Katharine were both active in the Revolutionary cause. Under Mary Katharine’s and her mother’s operation, the Providence Journal ran many pieces in favor of the colonies and a special issue critical of the Stamp Act in 1765. William created the colonial postal service in partnership with Ben Franklin in 1775, when the Crown-controlled post started thwarting colonial communications in the run-up to revolution.
Mary Katharine became the new post’s first female postmistress. Her position as both postmistress and newswoman “often enabled her to publish news more quickly than her competitors.” Goddard got an early account of the fighting at Lexington and Concord to press a week after the “shot heard round the world,” and then released an extra the same day when an updated account arrived, according to a biography of her bother by Miner Ward.
A longtime entrepreneur, Mary Katharine ran newspapers in three colonies, following her brother’s ambitions and follies as they took him from Connecticut to Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, and Maryland. She often supplemented William’s businesses with bookbinding and other services, keeping them afloat during her brother’s financial troubles and occasional jailings. William had a reputation as a hot-head, which often led to dramatic disputes playing out in the pages of his newspapers. Mary Katharine, on the other hand, “refused to be drawn into the disputes her brother could never avoid,” according to William’s biographer.
In 1776, a member of a local political club showed up at Mary Katharine’s office in Baltimore and “abused her with threats and indecent language on account of a late publication in her paper,” as she described the incident to the Baltimore Committee of Safety. The committee decided in Mary Katharine’s favor and reprimanded the man. William later escalated the dispute with the Whig Club until he was almost literally tarred and feathered and was literally run out of town.
This was a pattern that defined their relationship and business ventures until William eventually turned on his sister, too, ousting her from the masthead of the paper she had run for years, and attacking her in print when the two of them published competing almanacs. He called hers a “spurious, double-faced almanack…[printed] by a hypocritical character for the dirty and mean purpose of fraud and deception.”
Mary Katharine left the Maryland Journal, but remained postmistress and maintained a bookstore in town. During her time as postmistress, she was known for her punctuality and dedication, often paying out of her pocket to keep the operation running in unsettled times.
But in 1789, as the new country’s government was being established under President Washington, she was abruptly told to vacate her position for a political appointee. The reason given was it would require more travel than a woman could handle.
Mary Katharine publicized her removal in her own paper and over 200 Baltimore businessmen petitioned the postal service to keep her in place, but were ignored. Mary Katharine, ever spirited, wrote to the President and the Senate to protest her removal. Washington responded, but declined intervene in the local matter.
Mary Katharine lived quietly in Baltimore until her death in 1816. She never married, and her short will mentions only one person— a slave named Belinda Starling, to whom she willed her freedom and “all the property of which I may die possessed, all which I do to recompense the faithful performance of duties to me.”
An artist and printer named Mindy Beloff recreated Goddard’s printing in 2009, painstakingly studying the original broadside and matching its paper weight, color, font (Caslon), and original printing techniques.
“Setting the Declaration in type was enlightening in many ways, as my thoughts throughout the process were of Mary Katharine in her print shop during the cold month of January, not having 21st century amenities,” Beloff wrote. “Mary Katharine was an incredibly brave woman for her time. By her actions, she was clearly a pioneer for women’s rights and freedom of the press.”