J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Thursday, July 30, 2015

Remembering Mary Katherine Goddard the Right Way

Earlier this month the Baltimore Sun reported on the installation of a historical plaque in a downtown Rite-Aid pharmacy.

That drugstore is on the probable site of the Goddard print shop in 1777. On 18 January of that year, Mary Katherine Goddard issued a broadside reprinting the Declaration of Independence with the names of all the Continental Congress delegates who had signed the document so far.

The Sun article has such headlines as “How a Baltimore woman defied the Redcoats” and “See how Mary Katherine Goddard helped win the Revolutionary War.”

It quotes Andrew Carroll, author of Here Is Where and promoter of this plaque, saying that her printing “was a total act of defiance. She was saying, ‘I’m stepping forward and I’m putting my life at risk in the expectation that other people will do the same. There's no turning back now.’”

Printing the Declaration, the article says, “put her life at risk.” An official at the Maryland Historical Society states of Goddard, “If the war had ended differently, the signers would have been convicted and hanged for treason, and she probably would have been hanged as well.”

For the record we should note that:
  • There were no redcoats in Baltimore to defy. The British army was no closer than Princeton, New Jersey, that month, and it never attacked or occupied Baltimore.
  • The British authorities had just held New Jersey signer Richard Stockton in custody and did not try or hang him.
  • There’s no example of the Crown executing an American printer for supporting independence or printing the Declaration. In fact, many British printers reprinted that text because it was significant news.  
  • While making the Declaration look nice for the Congress no doubt suggested support for its cause, Goddard’s status as a woman would have given her more insulation from political accusations—not that she was ever in British custody to be so accused.
Goddard’s work as both printer and postmaster was undoubtedly significant and deserves to be remembered. But the rhetoric around the installation of this plaque seems unduly sensational.


G. Lovely said...

While demonstrable facts are of critical importance, stirring the popular imagination has value too, since it is what gets people interested in history in the first place. Those who know history are not harmed, and those who don't might be intrigued. Is it better people know nothing about M.K.Goddard, or a sensationalized account? I for one suspect the only reason I know who Daniel Malcom was is because I once read a factually challenged poem by Longfellow.

J. L. Bell said...

In this case, Mary Katherine Goddard's career seems to have plenty of real drama on its own. It would also be justifiable to say that Goddard might well have feared punishment if the American cause had failed.

But the way the newspaper quotes its sources, they're saying the Crown would have hanged everyone involved in the Revolution down to a lady printer who hired her services to the Continental Congress in January 1777. That paints the British government and its officials in a much harsher light than historical facts suggest they deserve. It sensationalizes, and it presents the conflict as black and white.

H. W. Longfellow deliberately set out to create legends for America. He didn't claim to be a journalist or historian. And people are still being both inspired and confused by the details he added to historical tales.