There are certain ingredients necessary to create an independent, self-governing, stable commonwealth. A thriving economy always helps. Strong, healthy community institutions like religious congregations and schools and colleges help, as do economic engines like banks and insurance societies. But a vital key to unlocking the participation of the public is the role of the press. Just as banks circulate money, the press circulates ideas. Ideas are the currency of the mind.
By the middle decades of the eighteenth century there were a lot of ideas in Rhode Island, relating to trade and government. Rhode Island’s relationship to England raised questions of home rule, but these were also questions as to who would rule at home.
For nearly half a century political leadership and power had centered in Newport around a clique of powerful merchants and their offspring who had migrated to South County, where they elected representatives in league with the island towns of Aquidneck and Conanicut (Jamestown). Now, under the leadership of Stephen Hopkins, Nicholas Cooke, and the Browns, Providence was beginning to challenge the domination of Newport and its ideas on how to run Rhode Island. Central to their efforts to persuade the freemen of Rhode Island–the male property owners who were eligible to make decisions in town meetings–was the creation of a Providence newspaper. Interestingly enough, the ally of the emergent Providence politicos was someone who could not vote because she was a woman: Sarah Updike Goddard (1700-1770).
Sarah Updike was born to wealth at Cocumscussoc plantation at the turn of the eighteenth century, the daughter of Ludowick and Abigail Newton Updike. Her great-grandfather was Richard Smith, a friend and associate of Roger Williams. Her education, in the fashion of the day, was by a tutor who lived in her home and also instructed her four sisters and her brother, Daniel, who would serve as Rhode Island’s attorney general for a total of twenty-five years.
In 1735 Sarah married Dr. Giles Goddard of New London. Two of their four children survived into adulthood. After Dr. Goddard died of gout in 1757, their son, William, who had been an apprentice printer in New Haven and New York, set up a print shop in Providence with his mother’s financial assistance, and on October 20, 1762, he began printing the Providence Gazette and Country Journal, the town’s first newspaper. He suspended publication in the spring of 1765 and left the shop to be run by his mother and sister, Mary Katherine.
The suspension of the Gazette coincided with the Stamp Act crisis, so on August 24, 1765, the Gazette appeared again under the auspices of Sarah Goddard, who devoted a special issue to the Stamp Act, one of the defining factors at the basis of the American Revolutionary movement. Although William Goddard returned briefly in 1766, he once again departed, leaving the press in the hands of his mother and sister, who continued to print the Providence Gazette on a weekly basis, providing Providence with a public forum which helped to further the cause of American independence and the political career of Stephen Hopkins. In September 1767 Sarah Goddard took on John Carter as a partner; and a year later sold the shop to Carter. She then moved to join her son in Philadelphia, where fourteen months later this pioneering printer and journalist died on January 5, 1770.
An anonymous letter appearing in the New York Gazette on January 22, 1770, and reprinted by her successor John Carter on February 11 suffices for her epitaph. It concludes with these sentiments:
Her uncommon attainments in literature were the least valuable parts of her character. Her conduct through all the changing trying scenes of life, was not only unblameable, but even exemplary–a sincere piety, an unaffected humility, an easy agreeable cheerfulness and affability, an entertaining, sensible and edifying conversation, and a prudent attention to all the duties of domestic life, endeared her to all her acquaintances, especially in the relations of wife, parent, friend and neighbor. The death of such a person is a public loss, an irreparable one to her children.
Those children honored her memory by excelling in the fields of journalism and printing. William became the editor of the large and prominent Pennsylvania Chronicle and the Maryland Journal. Each newspaper in turn had the largest circulation in the new nation. In addition, he was a founder of the American postal system. Daughter Mary Katherine (1738-1816) was a noted printer, newspaper publisher, bookseller, and postmaster in Pennsylvania and Maryland, whose credits included the Pennsylvania Chronicle, the Maryland Journal, and a highly-regarded print shop.