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Reed, Esther de Berdt

Esther De Berdt Reed

Born October 22, 1746
London, England
Died September 18, 1780
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Organization leader

Esther De Berdt Reed was a patriot and the head of a women's group that provided goods needed by the soldiers of the Continental army during the Revolutionary War (1775–83). Her involvement in public affairs and her often-criticized efforts to involve women in patriotic activities broadened the role of women in the new country.

Esther De Berdt, born in 1746 in London, England, was one of two children of Martha Symon De Berdt and Dennys De Berdt, an English businessman who traded with colonists in Delaware and Massachusetts. The fair-haired, attractive young Esther was a lively talker and a lover of books. Whether or not "Hette" or "Hettie," as she was known to her family, received any formal schooling outside her home is unknown.

In 1763, when Esther De Berdt was seventeen, she and Joseph Reed, an American from New Jersey, fell in love. Reed was in England studying law and tending to his family's business interests. Due to the young man's desire to build up his business in America and Dennys De Berdt's opposition to the match (he believed Reed was not worthy of his daughter), the couple did not marry until May 31, 1770.

Joseph Reed's friend Stephen Sayre wrote about Dennys De Berdt's opposition to the marriage: "You have one material comfort that the old codger must soon pop off and leave his fortune." But Sayre was mistaken. De Berdt did die shortly before the wedding but left his family with serious financial problems. In order to help Esther's mother escape public shame, the young couple brought her with them across the Atlantic Ocean and settled in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

Hosts patriots, flees war-torn Philadelphia

In time, Joseph Reed gained success as a lawyer and a businessman. He also became one of the leaders of the cause of American independence. He was a member of the First Continental Congress, a meeting of representatives of the American colonies that met in Philadelphia in the fall of 1774 to decide what to do about America's ongoing problems with England. During the congress the Reeds entertained its representatives, including George Washington, John Adams (see entries), and Silas Deane, who wrote to his wife about Esther Reed, that she had "a most elegant figure and countenance" (face), and that she was "a Daughter of Liberty."

The Reeds had six children; five lived to adulthood. Esther Reed took care of them on her own from July 1775 to January 1777, while her husband served as George Washington's military aide.

From 1777 through 1778 Joseph Reed served in the Continental Congress. On three occasions during the revolutionary turmoil, his wife and children were forced to flee Philadelphia to escape the fighting in the streets. From September 1777 to January 1778 they lived in Norristown, Pennsylvania, and Flemington, New Jersey. Perhaps because she was British, Esther Reed's life there was made miserable by British soldiers and roving bands of Loyalists (colonists who remained loyal to England). In February 1778, while living in Pennsylvania near Washington's headquarters, Reed described her situation in a letter to her close friend, Mrs. John Cox. "I am easiest [most relaxed] when [my husband] is [away] from home, as his being here brings danger with it. There are so many disloyal to the cause of this country, that they lay in wait for those who are active in it."

Starts fund raising campaign

Joseph Reed was elected president of the Pennsylvania government, and he held the position from December 1778 until 1781. At that time, the Reed family once again settled in Philadelphia, and Esther De Berdt Reed was known as "Mrs. President."

By 1780, the fifth year of the Revolutionary War, the soldiers of General George Washington's Continental army were living under horrible conditions. Their clothing was ragged, and their shoes and boots were full of holes. Food supplied them was scarce and sometimes not fit to eat, and they suffered from a variety of diseases. At the same time, Esther Reed was having her own problems dealing with smallpox, a contagious disease that causes fever, vomiting, skin eruptions, and sometimes death. Upon her recovery, she came up with an idea to help the suffering Continental soldiers. Reed began the Association of Philadelphia, then the largest women's organization in America. Reed's organization began a campaign among the women of the Philadelphia area to raise funds to help the soldiers of the Continental army.

Because it was uncommon for women of that time to assert themselves in money matters, Reed was very careful as to how she went about the campaign. First, she published a large poster explaining why women should help the army. She stressed that in difficult times true patriots—both male and female—should help the American soldiers in their time of need. She ended by asking for money for her cause.

Reed and her group seek support

Reed helped write "Sentiments of an American Woman," a well-thought-out argument about why women should participate in public affairs. In the essay, the authors cited numerous examples of women throughout history who had done so and called on colonial women to sacrifice any luxuries and contribute their money to the Continental army.

The essay was distributed door to door by members of Reed's organization as they went about contacting every household in Philadelphia. The women, disregarding normal rules of polite behavior, asked for money not only from middle- and upper-class people; they also approached immigrants, the poor, and servants to collect even the smallest of contributions. The women hoped the gift of money would show how dedicated American women were to the cause of patriotism.

Reed cleverly made sure that the wives of influential men were asked to be part of the effort. These included Sally McKean, wife of the chief justice of Pennsylvania, and Ben jamin Franklin's daughter, Sarah Franklin Bache, the wife of a well-known businessman.

Not all the people of Philadelphia supported Reed's efforts. Many Loyalist women found the whole campaign disgusting. Women were not expected to have any concern about financial matters, and the Loyalists thought the women involved in Reed's campaign were very rude. Loyalist Anna Rawle wrote: "Of all absurdities [foolish acts], the ladies going about for money exceeded everything; they were so [annoyingly persistent] that people were obliged to give them something to get rid of them."

Campaign succeeds, women make shirts

By July 4, 1780, Reed and her thirty-eight female helpers were able to raise thousands of dollars for the cause. Esther Reed wrote to George Washington that the women wished to give each Continental soldier $2 "to be entirely at his own disposal." Reed said: "The money … will be as proof of our [devotion] for the great Cause of America, and of our Esteem and Gratitude for those who so bravely defend it."

Washington feared that some men would use the money to gamble or buy liquor and asked that it be used to produce linen shirts for the soldiers. So Reed's group purchased enough cloth to sew more than 2,000 shirts.

Reed's work continues after her death

In September 1780, only two weeks after the linen was purchased, Esther De Berdt Reed died unexpectedly in Philadelphia at age thirty-three of an intestinal disease. She was buried at Philadelphia's Second Presbyterian Church. Joseph Reed's sister came to live with him to help raise the couple's five children. After Reed's death, George Washington wrote to her husband that he regretted "the loss of your amiable [pleasant] lady."

Sarah Franklin Bache (see box) carried forward the work of the Association of Philadelphia. Due to the efforts of Reed, Bache, and other women, fund-raising groups were begun in a number of Pennsylvania, Maryland, and New Jersey towns, though none was as productive as the Philadelphia campaign.

In a tribute written about Reed after her death, she was honored as being "received into the paradise of female patriotism with [great] distinction…. She sacrificed her ease, her health, and it may be her life, for her country." In 1868 the remains of Reed and her husband were removed to Philadelphia's Laurel Hill Cemetery.

For More Information

Alden, John. Stephen Sayre, American Revolutionary Adventurer. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1983, pp. 9–13, 16–17, 19, 20–25, 28.

Allison, Robert J. American Eras: The Revolutionary Era, 1754–1783. Detroit: Gale, 1998, pp. 257–58.

Claghorn, Charles E. Women Patriots of the American Revolution. Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow Press, 1991, pp. 160–61.

Kerber, Linda K. Women of the Republic: Intellect & Ideology in Revolutionary America. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1980, pp. 99, 102, 278.

Meyer, Edith Patterson. Petticoat Patriots of the American Revolution. New York: Vanguard Press, 1976, pp. 133–35.

Roche, John F. Joseph Reed: A Moderate in the American Revolution. New York: AMS Press, 1968, p. 127.

Roche, John F. "Reed, Esther De Berdt."Notable American Women 1607–1950, A Biographical Dictionary, Vol.3. Edited by Edward T. James. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1971, pp. 123–24.

Ward, Harry M. "Reed, Esther De Berdt." American National Biography. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999, pp. 263–65.

Zeinert, Karen. Those Remarkable Women of the American Revolution. Brookfield, CT: Millbrook Press, 1996, pp. 50–55.

Sarah Franklin Bache

Sarah Franklin Bache (pronounced BEECH; 1743–1808) was the daughter of Benjamin Franklin and Deborah Read Franklin (see entries). In 1767 she married Richard Bache, an English-born merchant who served on the Pennsylvania Board of War during the American Revolution. The couple had eight children. As a young married woman, Bache worked closely with Esther De Berdt Reed as a member of the Association of Philadelphia, an organization of thirty-eight women who went door to door to the homes of Philadelphia colonists asking them to contribute money to help the Continental soldiers.

Esther Reed died in 1780, just when the group had purchased enough cloth to sew 2,000 shirts for the soldiers camped at Valley Forge. Bache took over as leader of the Association of Philadelphia. Much of the cutting of the cloth for the shirts was done at her house. Bache not only continued to raise funds and do volunteer work with injured soldiers but also supervised the sewing of the shirts.

Like Reed, Bache hoped that colonial women would follow the example of the Philadelphians and make some effort to help the American army. She and other group members wrote letters to friends to help spread the movement. In the end, similar committees of women were set up in New Jersey and Maryland as well as in other Pennsylvania towns.

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