This Day in History: A little-known Founding Mother, Esther de Berdt Reed
On this day in 1746, Esther de Berdt Reed is born. Some say that she worked so hard to support the Revolution that she literally worked herself into an early grave. She was just shy of 34 years old when she passed away.
Esther was the wife of Joseph Reed, the military secretary to George Washington. Esther had moved to America with her new husband only a few years before the war began. You can imagine that she initially felt torn between loyalty to the country of her birth and her newly adopted home in America. In time, however, she became quite upset with the manner in which England was treating its colonies. She threw her lot in with the Patriots—and she did so wholeheartedly!
During the course of the war, Esther was forced to be separated from her husband for long periods of time. She lived in Philadelphia, which meant that she had to flee her home on multiple occasions. Yet she was still able to write Joseph, supporting his efforts and urging him not to worry about her:
“[T]he reflection,” she wrote on one occasion, “how much I pain you by my want of resolution, and the double distress I occasion you, when I ought to make your duty light as possible, would tend to distress my spirits, did I not consider, that the best and only amends is to endeavour to resume my former cheerfulness, and regain my usual spirits. I wish you to know, my dearest friend, that I have done this, as much as possible, and would beg you would free your mind from every care on this head.”
Esther worked hard to get women across the country involved in supporting the war. She wrote a broadside that was published in 1780: The Sentiments of an American Woman. She also founded and ran Philadelphia Ladies Association. These women were dedicated to raising money to support the Continental Army, and they literally walked door-to-door, requesting donations.
Remember: Women weren’t “supposed” to do that sort of thing back then.
Once the money was collected, Esther reported to Washington that the Ladies had raised “in Paper Money 300,634 Dolrs.” She asked Washington how it might best be put to use. Some of the ladies had an idea that “the whole of the Money [should] be changed into hard Dollars, & giving each Soldier two, to be entirely at his own disposal.”
Esther had long been working towards something along those lines: It would be an “offering of the Ladies,” she’d explained in her 1780 broadside.
She had to have been really disappointed when Washington quashed the idea. The General didn’t want to give money directly to the soldiers. Some soldiers might use the money well, he thought, but”it is equally probable that it will be the means of bringing punishment on a number of others.”
In short? Washington thought the soldiers might use the money to drink instead! I guess some problems are as old as time, huh?!
In the end, Esther indicated that she would take the money to purchase linen and make shirts, one idea that had been suggested by Washington. The organization sewed and delivered more than 2,000 shirts. Unfortunately, Esther died of dysentery as the project was being wrapped up in September 1780.
Thus, she did not live to see America finally achieve its independence, for which she had given so much.
Carol Berkin, Revolutionary Mothers: Women in the Struggle for America’s Independence (2006)
Conner Runyan, Offering of the Ladies: Esther Reed’s Sentiments, Washington’s Objections (Journal of the American Revolution; July 12, 2017)
Elizabeth F. Ellet, The Women of the American Revolution (1850) (volume I)
Letter from Esther De Berdt Reed to George Washington (July 4, 1780)
Letter from George Washington to Esther De Berdt Reed (July 14, 1780),
Letter from Esther De Berdt Reed to George Washington (July 31, 1780)
Letter from George Washington to Esther De Berdt Reed (August 10, 1780)
Letter to George Washington from Esther De Berdt Reed (August 10, 1780)
William Bradford Reed, Life and Correspondence of Joseph Reed: Military Secretary of Washington (1847)
Owen S. Ireland, Sentiments of a British-American Woman: Esther DeBerdt Reed and the American Revolution (2017).