Our Urban Heritage . . .
Christopher T. George

Mary Katherine Goddard and Freedom of the Press

M ary Katherine Goddard was a pioneer among women in Baltimore town in the era of the American Revolution. She was a newspaper editor determined to publish the truth as well as a fighter for the right of women to pursue a career. Born in Connecticut in 1738, she was the daughter of Dr. Giles Goddard and Sarah Updike Goddard, a woman unusually well educated for that era. Dr. Goddard was the postmaster of New London, explaining why son William and daughter Mary Katherine also had lifelong involvement with the postal system. William, a few years younger than his sister, served an apprenticeship in the printing trade. After the death of her husband, Sarah Goddard helped William, then aged 22, set up a printing press in Providence, Rhode Island, in 1762. The Goddards, mother, brother, and sister, published Providence's first newspaper, the Providence Gazette. William, a brilliant but erratic man, quit Rhode Island to start a newspaper in Philadelphia, leaving his sister and mother to run the printing company. After Mrs. Goddard died in 1770, Mary Katherine joined her brother in Philadelphia.

     In 1773, brother and sister came to Baltimore to start the Maryland Journal and Baltimore Advertiser, Baltimore's first newspaper. The paper gave Baltimoreans their first taste of a local newspaper. It charmed, informed, and educated. Among the best newspapers in the colonies, its entertainment and educational content were typified by the motto the Goddards adopted--a Latin couplet by Horace, which translated meant: "He carries every point who blends the useful with the agreeable, amusing the reader while he instructs him."

     William stayed in town long enough to set up the newspaper then wandered off to set up a new colonial postal system, leaving Mary Katherine in charge. The mail system helped spread the newspaper through the colonies and raise its reputation. Goddard continued in the postal service hoping to get the top job in the continental postal system of the new United States--but was bitterly disappointed when he failed to get the job when Benjamin Franklin retired.

     Mary Katherine's sole editorship of the Journal was announced May 10, 1775 when the colophon of the Journal was changed to read, "Published by M. K. Goddard, at the Printing-Office in Market-Street, next Door above Dr. John Stevenson's." She edited the newspaper singlehandedly for most of the period from 1775 to 1785.

     Under the able editorship of Mary Katherine Goddard, the newspaper openly expressed the Americans' yearning for freedom. Mary Katherine gave Baltimoreans news of the beginning of our war for independence, with reports of the momentous events in Massachusetts of April 19, 1775--the opening salvoes with the Battles of Concord and Lexington. An editorial of June 14, 1775 proclaimed, "The ever memorable 19th of April gave a conclusive answer to the questions of American freedom. What think ye of Congress now? That day. . . evidenced that Americans would rather die than live slaves!"

     However, trouble was brewing. In May 1776, Mary Katherine complained to the Baltimore Committee of Safety about threats and abuse she had received from George Somerville, who had objected to material in the Journal. The committee sided with her in defense of a free press. Miss Goddard again proved her patriotism by publishing in January 1777 the first printed copy of the Declaration of Independence to include the names of the signers. Still, troublemakers wanted to control what she printed. Prime among the patriotic organizations in Baltimore was the Whig Club, a radical group made up of local merchants and tradesmen. Members of the club raided the offices of the Maryland Journal twice, in 1777 and again in 1779.

     The first incident, in February 1777, was occasioned by the publication in the Journal of two articles by a writer calling himself "Tom Telltruth" and which dealt with an offer of peace from British commander General Sir William Howe. It was actually a two-part tongue-in-cheek satire written by patriot and signer of the Declaration of Independence Samuel Chase. The writer expressed gratitude "to the patriotic, virtuous King, the August, incorruptible Parliament, and wise disinterested ministry of Britain." On March 3, two members of the club called on William Goddard and demanded to know the author. The radicals were under the impression that William was the editor of the Journal at this time, although it seems the "Tom Telltruth" pieces were handed to Mary Katherine by her brother, who had received them from Chase. The club threatened to run Goddard out of state but the Goddards appealed to the state government in Annapolis and were backed by the legislators and the Whig Club censured.

     A similar incident took place in July 1779. The Goddards published criticisms of General George Washington by General Charles Lee which incensed the radicals and they again stormed into the printing office. An appeal by William Goddard to Governor Thomas Johnson led to banning of the Whig Club by the State Assembly, which came out forcefully in favor of freedom of the press and against anarchy.

     Relations between brother and sister deteriorated in the following years, possibly because of financial disagreements. In January 1784, William's name was added to the colophon of the newspaper and Mary Katherine's name dropped. William continued in charge of the newspaper and his sister remained in town as a publisher, bookseller, and postmistress. Late in 1784, brother and sister even published rival almanacs for 1785, which led to William attacking both her almanac and her character. In 1785, she sold her interest in the paper, severing her last ties with the newspaper she had helped found.

     Mary Katherine had been named postmistress of Baltimore in 1775. She held this position until 1789 when the Postmaster General decreed that the head of the Baltimore postal system must be a man. Two hundred Baltimore men supported her petition for reinstatement. A female was said to be unsuitable for the position because the job entailed travel beyond the capacity of a woman--seemingly a sexist statement unless we take into consideration the miserable condition of the roads of the day. Mary Katherine appealed to the U.S. Senate and to President George Washington himself, but to no avail.

     In 1792, William Goddard relinquished the editorship of the Journal and went back to Rhode Island, where he entered politics, but his sister stayed in Baltimore. She remained the proprietor of a bookstore until 1802, after which she retired from business. Mary Katherine Goddard died on August 12,1816, at the age of 78, a woman of achievement who had taken an important stand for freedom of speech and the rights of women in the young United States.

[Device] Mr. George is editor of the Journal of the War of 1812 and the Era 1800 to 1840.

Questions or comments about this article for Mr. George.

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