A Woman Told the World Who Signed the Declaration of Independence

July 1, 2019 by Hristina Byrnes

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The names of the signers of the Declaration of Independence were revealed to the world in 1777 by a woman — Mary Katherine Goddard, printer and postmaster to the Second Continental Congress in Baltimore.

Delegates to the Congress agreed on the final wording of the Declaration on July 4th, 1776, and that night a large single-page version of it — a broadside — was printed by one John Dunlap in Philadelphia. The only name at the bottom was that of John Hancock, the Congress president.

The iconic parchment version of the Declaration — now on display at the National Archives in Washington, D.C. — was completed only on August 2nd, and while a handful of delegates added their names in the coming months, that’s the one that almost everyone signed. The occasion certainly qualifies as Pennsylvania’s entry in a listing of the most important historical event in every state.  

Only people who had seen the parchment Declaration would have known the names of the signers at that point. All that changed as of January 31st, 1777, thanks to Goddard.

According to an article about this important woman in American history published by Harvard University’s Declaration Resources Project, Goddard was born in Connecticut in 1739, the daughter of a doctor and postmaster. As a young woman, she joined her brother William’s printing and newspaper business in Providence, Rhode Island, later moving with him to Philadelphia and then on to Baltimore, where William established the city’s first newspaper.

William also set up a “Constitutional Post,” a mail delivery service promoted as an alternative to the British colonial postal system, and named his sister as Baltimore postmaster. That made her the first female postmaster in the colonies, and eventually the first one in the United States — these are some of the other coolest women’s firsts in history

She also took over publication of the newspaper from William — and when the Continental Congress fled from Philadelphia to Baltimore as the British advanced, she became their de facto official printer.

On January 18th, 1777, the Continental Congress issued an order “That an authenticated copy of the Declaration of Independency [sic], with the names of the members of Congress subscribing the same, be sent to each of the United States….”

Less than two weeks later, Goddard published what has become known as the Goddard Broadside — the first printed version of the Declaration specifically intended for preservation, and the first to list the names of all but one of the 56 people who signed the Declaration of Independence. (The missing name was that of Thomas McKean, who hadn’t yet appended his signature.) 

It her own name as well. Across the bottom of the broadside were the words “Baltimore, in Maryland: Printed by Mary Katherine Goddard.” With its publication, her name, as well as those of the signers, became known to the world.