Anyone who has ever dabbled in genealogy knows that as you go back into family history, the answers to one question always lead to several more—more questions, that is. Genealogy may be the only area of study in which (excuse the joke) “Everything is relative.” Frustrating, too.
Using a popular, online ancestry service, I submitted to a DNA test and learned that I am 49 percent Scottish, 28 percent “Germanic Europe,” 8 percent Irish, 8 percent English and 7 percent Norwegian. No big surprises there, based on what I heard from family and relatives over the years. The frustrating part is that I’ve hit a brick wall in the early 1800s. So far, I can’t identify anybody on the Reed family tree further back than that.
Two people I really want to be related to are Joseph and Esther Reed. They lived and died in the 18th Century, resided in my native state of Pennsylvania, and were notable for their contributions to the cause of liberty in the American Revolution. Whether or not I discover a blood connection to them, I’m proud to at least share similar world views and the same last name.
Answering Freedom’s Call
Joseph was 33 when war broke out between Great Britain and the colonies in 1775. At the personal request of General George Washington, he departed his successful law practice in Philadelphia to become a colonel in the Continental Army and an aide-de-camp to Washington himself. Barely two years later, he declined two prestigious job offers to stay at Washington’s side: brigadier general in the Army and Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania.
The following year, 1778, proved extraordinary in Joseph Reed’s life. He was elected both to Congress and to the high post of President of Pennsylvania (the latter making him, in effect, the first Governor of the State). He was one of five delegates from the state to sign the Articles of Confederation in 1778. His tenure as the highest elected official in Pennsylvania saw American troops stave off complete disaster at Valley Forge, the abolition of slavery in the state, and the ultimate American victory at Yorktown, Virginia in 1781 (in which he played a key role).
Highly regarded for his personal character, Joseph was once offered a huge bribe to get the colonies to reconcile with the mother country. He reportedly responded, “I am not worth purchasing; but such as I am, the King of Great Britain is not rich enough to do it.”
Under the pressures of war-time expenditures, Pennsylvania went bankrupt during Reed’s governorship in 1780. To his credit, he supported financier Robert Morris’s proposals of free markets and sound money to resolve the fiscal dilemma.
A Revolutionary Mother
Joseph Reed’s British-born wife Esther, whom he married in 1770, was every bit as fascinating as he was. Before her death only a decade later, the Reeds would bring six children into the world. Esther’s London upbringing did not prevent her from blossoming into one of the most revered female patriots of the American cause. Carol Berkin in her fascinating book, Revolutionary Mothers, identifies her as one of the most notable women “who were eager to declare their loyalties” regardless of the risks. Berkin writes,
That October , several months before Tom Paine’s Common Sense broke the last bonds of loyalty to the king for many Americans, Reed wrote proudly to her brother in England that her cause, and her husband’s cause, was “liberty and virtue, how much soever it may be branded by the names of rebellion and treason.” Beneath her strong and determined tone, however, lay a fear of what the future held in store. “We have a powerful enemy to contend with,” she conceded, adding, “Everything that is dear to us is at stake.” In the coming months, Reed would discover how right she was.
For the Reeds, the war meant long periods of separation. Esther and their growing brood of children fled the family home several times when the British threatened Philadelphia. The hardship she endured, however, paled in comparison to that of the soldiers in the Continental Army. She was well aware of that fact. She resolved in 1780 to do something about it.
Esther teamed up with Benjamin Franklin’s daughter, Sarah Bache, and formed the Ladies Association of Philadelphia to support the troops. It proved to be the largest private fundraising campaign of the war.
The kick-off for the effort was the publication in January 1780 of a broadside written substantially by Esther herself. Titled Sentiments of a British-American Woman, it appealed to the patriotic instincts of all women who loved liberty. Writes Berkin,
She cited a long list of historical heroines who were “Born for Liberty”—naming biblical figures such as Deborah and Queen Esther and, later, saints such as Joan of Arc, but also including all the anonymous women who in wartime had ignored “the weakness of their sex” and built fortifications, dug trenches with their bare hands, and sacrificed their jewels, fine clothing, and money to save their country.
Esther and Sarah called for every female in Pennsylvania to come forth with “offerings” of money to help the war effort. Nothing, they declared, would be too small and everything would be put to good use. They would get the money to the troops through General Washington’s wife, Martha.
Letters between Esther Reed and General Washington (which you can read here) indicate that Esther initially wanted to give the money directly to the soldiers in the sum of two dollars each. But Washington, concerned that the men might spend it on liquor, urged her to use it instead to buy linen and cloth, and then enlist volunteers to sew it into clothes.
In short order, the Ladies Association raised more than $300,000 (more than $6 million in 2021 dollars) from over 1,600 Pennsylvanians, an astonishing sum. So that each man would know of the “offering of the Ladies,” Reed had each volunteer embroider her own name into the shirts and pants she sewed.
The Ladies Association engendered huge enthusiasm among Philadelphia women, who not only sewed the clothing but also knocked on doors to raise the money. The effort was an inspiration across the colonies, leading to the formation of similar groups from New England to the South.
A Day to Celebrate?
Sadly, Esther did not live to see America achieve the independence for which she had worked so hard, but she lived long enough that she may well have surmised on her deathbed that it was imminent. She died of dysentery in September 1780, at the age of 34. She was eulogized as a hero for the cause of American liberty.
Joseph outlived Esther, but not by much. When his term as president of Pennsylvania ended in November 1781, he returned to his legal practice. And though he once again was elected to Congress in 1784, he declined because of poor health. He died in March 1785 at the age of 43.
It will be a day I’ll celebrate for the rest of my life if I discover that, in fact, I am related to these two fine Americans, Joseph and Esther Reed.
For additional information, see:
Revolutionary Mothers: Women in the Struggle for American Independence by Carol Berkin
A Little-Known Founding Mother, Esther De Berdt Reed by Tara Ross
Esther De Berdt Reed by American Battlefield Trust
Sentiments of a British-American Woman: Esther De Berdt Reed and the American Revolution by Owen S. Ireland
The Life of Esther De Berdt Reed of Pennsylvania by William B. Reed
Joseph Reed; a Historical Essay by George Bancroft
Correspondence between Esther De Berdt Reed and George Washington – National Archives’ Founders Online
Joseph Reed, George Washington's First Military Secretary, John Fabiano, May 22, 2021 —