Reed, Joseph

views updated

Reed, Joseph

REED, JOSEPH. (1741–1785). Patriot statesman and soldier. New Jersey and Pennsylvania. Born in Trenton, New Jersey, on 27 August 1741, Joseph Reed was the son of a wealthy merchant. He graduated from the College of New Jersey (now Princeton) in 1757, continuing to study law over the next three years with Richard Stockton, a future signer of the Declaration of Independence. Reed also earned a master's degree, then went to study English law at the Middle Temple in London. Reed returned to Trenton in 1765 to find that his father had gone bankrupt and his studies were at an end.

After practicing law in Trenton and developing an extensive business that brought him into contact with important leaders in other colonies, Reed established his law practice in Philadelphia in 1770. In November 1774 he became a member of the committee of correspondence, and in the following year he was president of the Second Provincial Congress. Cosmopolitan, intellectual, and of a courteous nature, he reluctantly abandoned the cause of conciliation with Britain, but was often accused of lacking enthusiasm for the Patriot cause and of being too cautious in military affairs.

At the outbreak of hostilities the 34-year-old Reed was appointed lieutenant colonel of the militia, and on 19 June he agreed to join General George Washington as a temporary staff officer. With the rank of lieutenant colonel in the Continental army, he served as Washington's military secretary from 4 July 1775–16 May 1776. During this period he took an extended leave to serve in the Continental Congress. In March 1776 Washington was able to offer him the post of adjutant general, but Reed accepted only after considerable urging. His appointment, which carried the rank of colonel and gave him the equivalent of £700 a year, was dated 5 June 1776. The income apparently was an important consideration in his acceptance.

The shift of military operations from Boston to New York presented difficult problems that made Washington particularly anxious to regain the services of Reed, whose character, exceptional intelligence, legal experience, and skill as a writer the commander in chief valued highly. Reed played an important role in the military and political features of the New York campaign. He advocated that New York City be abandoned and destroyed to keep the British from using it for a base. He also advocated that Fort Washington be abandoned. When subsequent events bore out his judgment on Fort Washington, Reed wrote to Charles Lee criticizing Washington's direction of the campaign, an exchange which Washington stumbled upon but was able to overlook.

Reed was a key figure in the Trenton-Princeton operations, furnishing valuable information for the surprise attack on Trenton and the succeeding campaign. On the night of 28-29 December 1776, Reed hid in a house in Bordentown and received reports of Donop's movements that led him to recommend that Washington further advance into New Jersey. On the 29th he reported to Washington on the situation he found in Trenton, and this reinforced Washington's decision to cross back over the Delaware that day. With a dozen light horsemen, Reed pushed on to the outposts of Princeton on 2 January, and sent back the report that British reserves were moving toward that place.

Reed resigned from the army on 22 January 1777. Named brigadier general but denied command of the cavalry he had expected, Reed declined the appointment but served as an unpaid, volunteer aide-de-camp for Washington at Brandywine, Germantown, and Monmouth. He also declined the position of chief justice under the new constitution of Pennsylvania, accepting the advice of friends that he should not be associated with this radical government, but he accepted election to Congress, and in 1778 sat on many important committees.

In 1778 Reed prevented scandal by reporting directly to Congress on efforts by Lord Carlisle's peace commission to bribe him to support reconciliation with Britain. Through much of that year he proved his loyalty by prosecuting a series of treason trials, including several against Quakers who opposed the war on religious grounds. From December 1778 until 1781 he was president of the Supreme Executive Council of Pennsylvania. In this capacity he led the state's attack on Benedict Arnold and had the key role in settling the mutiny of the Pennsylvania Line in January 1781.

After losing an election to the assembly in 1781, Reed resumed his law practice. The following year he failed in his bid to become Chief Justice of Pennsylvania. Despite this rebuff, he successfully defended Pennsylvania before a special court empanelled by Congress to resolve the dispute with Connecticut over their competing claims to the Wyoming Valley. Also in 1782, Reed and General John Cadwalader of the Pennsylvania militia launched a nasty public feud after the latter accused Reed of lacking support for American independence and accused him of a weak military performance. While most contemporaries sided with Reed, who devoted a great deal of energy to the patriot cause, historians continue to debate his loyalty. Reed visited England in 1784 and was elected to Congress on his return. But his declining health prevented him from serving and Reed died the next year, at the age of 44.

SEE ALSO Arnold, Benedict; Peace Commission of Carlisle; Peace Commission of the Howes.


Reed, William B. Life and Correspondence of Joseph Reed. 2 vols. Philadelphia: Lindsay and Blakiston, 1847.

Reed Papers. New York: New York Historical Society.

Roche, John F. Joseph Reed: A Moderate in the American Revolution. New York: Columbia University Press, 1957.

                           revised by Michael Bellesiles