Esther De Berdt Reed (1746-1780)
Esther de Berdt Reed led the largest women’s organization of the American Revolution.
She was born October 22, 1746, in London, England. Her father, Dennis de Berdt, was a descendent of the French Huguenots and he educated Esther in a humble, yet strict, religious manner.
Esther De Berdt and Joseph Reed met around 1763 when Reed was staying with the de Berdts. He was an American who was studying law in London at the time. They were engaged, but soon afterwards, Reed returned to his home in the American colonies, and the couple endured a five year separation. Reed made a trip back to England in 1769, and they were married on May 31st, 1770 in London. Soon after their marriage the couple, along with Esther’s mother, moved to Philadelphia, where the now Esther de Berdt Reed adjusted to colonial life. With her husband working hard and becoming a rather prosperous and prominent lawyer, Esther hosted many political figures in her home, mingling with some of the most influential individuals of the time – including General George Washington.
During this unstable period in which America was on the brink of war with Britain, she understandably was conflicted between her native home and her adopted home, America. As time went on, she became more disillusioned by England’s behavior toward America, and eventually grew to champion the American cause of independence. After the news of the battles of Lexington and Concord, her husband was summoned to join General George Washington as an aide and military secretary. Joseph Reed quickly moved up the military ranks and soon became a general in the Continental Army. Esther Reed stayed in Philadelphia raising the couple’s six young children.
As the British got closer to Philadelphia, it was no longer safe for Reed and her family to stay at their home. They retreated to Burlington, and later to Evesham, to avoid the invaders. Life was uncertain and dangerous – as it was for countless other women whose husbands joined in the Revolution against the established government. Reed also had other reasons to fear for her family’s safety: Philadelphia was divided between those supporting the new government and those loyal to the old. Local loyalists rioted and threatened anyone associated with the leadership of the new government. Reed once again changed locations and moved her family to Flemington. She moved back to Philadelphia only after the British had evacuated the city. In this way, she was more fortunate than other women; several wives of men who signed the Declaration of Independence had their homes and crops destroyed by Tory mobs.
In the fall of 1778, when the revolution had been underway for two years, Joseph Reed won election president, or governor, of Pennsylvania. Esther Reed used this elevated position to show her patriotism by forming the Ladies of Philadelphia – an organization through which women could raise funds to assist General Washington’s army. She wrote “The Sentiments of an American Woman,” which was published in local papers and called women to action. She said: “Our ambition is kindled by the same of those heroines of antiquity, who have rendered their sex illustrious, and have proved to the universe, that, if the weakness of our Constitution, if opinion and manners did not forbid us to march to glory by the same paths as the Men, we should at least equal, and sometimes surpass them in our love for the public good. I glory in all that which my sex has done great and commendable.” Although women from North Carolina to Boston had formed earlier supportive organizations, the Philadelphia group would raise the most money.
The Ladies of Philadelphia, headed by Reed, worked to raise the incredible amount of “three hundred thousand continental (paper) dollars, or approximately seventy-five hundred dollars in specie (precious-metal coin)” by walking door to door requesting donations from over 1,600 contributors. This amount of money was extraordinary in this time period. In response to all of Reed’s efforts the French Secretary of Legation, M. de Marbois, wrote a letter to Reed commending her work. He wrote that Reed was “the best patriot, the most zealous and active, and the most attached to the interests of her country.”
Reed believed that the government should pay for the soldiers’ food and supplies, and she anticipated that the money the Ladies of Philadelphia raised would go directly to the soldiers “to render the condition of the Soldier more pleasant.” She wrote General Washington and told him of her plan to give the money to the soldiers, but Washington suggested that instead of giving the money directly to the men, clothing would be a better idea. He explained, “A few provident Soldiers will, probably, avail themselves of the advantages which may result from the generous bounty of two dollars in Specie, but it is equally probable that it will be the means of bringing punishment on a number of others whose [propensity] to drink overcoming all other considerations too frequently leads them into irregularities and disorders.” Washington left the decision up to Reed, however, and concluded: “It was not my intention to divert the benevolent donation of the Ladies from the channel they wished it to flow in.” With this advice, the women used the money to buy linen and began to sew shirts for soldiers.
Unfortunately, Reed did not live to see her efforts fully realized. Esther de Berdt Reed died on September 18, 1780, at the young age of 34. Sarah Franklin Bache, the daughter of Benjamin Franklin, took over Reed’s position and finished the patriotic project.
Although she did not see the project finished, Reed’s efforts did not go unacknowledged. All of Philadelphia mourned her early death, and a moving obituary praised Reed for her efforts and patriotism. Women in several states, including Maryland, New Jersey, and Virginia, followed her example by starting similar fundraising organizations. Her commitment to the Revolution is especially noteworthy because she was British - she had lived in America only a few years before the war against her homeland began. In writing about her reasons for this unusual action, Esther Reed made it clear that freedom was her motivation and that women also were capable of publishing political thought.
- Berkin, Carol. Revolutionary Mothers: Women in the Struggle for America’s Independence. (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2005).
- Diamant, Lincoln, Ed. Revolutionary Women: In the War For American Independence. (Westport: Praeger, 1998).
- Resmond, Shirley Raye. Patriots in Petticoats: Heroines of the American Revolution. (New York: Random House Children’s Books, 2004).
- Roberts, Cokie. Founding Mothers: The Women Who Raised Our Nation. (New York: HarperCollins Publishers Inc., 2004).
- Weatherford, Doris L. American Women's History: An A-Z. (Prentice Hall, 1994).
(1) Reed, Esther de Berdt. “The Sentiments of an American Woman.” (Philadelphia: John Dunlap, 1780).
(2) Weatherford, Doris L. American Women's History: An A-Z. (Prentice Hall, 1994).
(3) Diamant, Lincoln, Ed. Revolutionary Women: In the War For American Independence. (Westport: Praeger, 1998).
(4) Berkin, Carol. Revolutionary Mothers: Women in the Struggle for America’s Independence. (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2005).
(5) Berkin, Carol. Revolutionary Mothers: Women in the Struggle for America’s Independence. (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2005).
Image from "American Revolution," http://www.americanrevolution.org/