Ester De Berdt (1746-1780) (Mrs. Joseph Reed) depicted in classical republican dress by Charles Willson Peale (1741-1827).
Ester De Berdt Reed (1746-1780), leader of women’s relief work during the American Revolution, was born in London, England, one of 2 children & the only daughter of Dennys De Berdt, a devout Congregationalist descended from Flemish religious refugees, & Martha (Symons) De Berdt. Her father, a merchant in the colonial trade, later served as agent for the colonies of Massachusetts & Delaware & in that capacity helped secure repeal of the Stamp Act.
He was host to many American at his London home & his country house at Enfield. Several of these visitors courted his daughter, a studious, pious young woman, delicate in appearance yet animated in speech & manner. The one who won her love was Joseph reed, a young lawyer from New Jersey, whom she first met in 1763. But their marriage was delayed, first by the opposition of her father & then by Reed’s absence in America for 5 years. Reed returned to England in 1770, & the wedding took place in London on May 31. The couple had planned to remain in England, but De Berdt’s death 7 weeks before the wedding left his family financially distressed; & the Reeds, accompanied by Mrs. De Berdt, sailed to American & settled in Philadelphia.
Joseph Reed quickly became a leader of the patriot movement in the growing controversy with England, & his wife also identified herself fully with the American cause. During the meeting of the First Continental Congress in 1774, she was hostess to Washington, John & Samuel Adams, & other delegates. She was glowingly referred to by a Connecticut member as “a Daughter of Liberty, zealously affected in a good Cause.” Amid growing tension in early 1775, Mrs. Reed wrote to her brother, Dennis, in England that “if these great affairs must be brought to a crisis & decided, it had better be in our time than our childrens.” Her own children were then 3 in number: Martha, Joseph, & Esther. Three others were born during the Revolution: Theodosia, Dennis De Berdt, & George Washington; Theodosia died in infancy of smallpox in 1778.
During the first 3 years of the war, Esther Reed’s husband was often away with the army as Washington’s aide. The family itself was forced to flee Philadelphia on three different occasions, as the city became a military focal point. After the British left Philadelphia, & with the subsequent election of Joseph Reed as president (governor) of Pennsylvania, the Reeds settled again in that city.
At the height of the American Revolution in May 1780, General George Washington reported to the Congress in Philadelphia, that his troops were at the point of exhaustion. Without adequate food, clothing, & pay, they needed immediate relief.
Hearing the desperation of the plea & hoping “to render themselves more really useful,” the women of Philadelphia accepted the challenge. In May & June of 1780, Mrs. Reed, only recently recovered from an attack of smallpox, served with vigor as chairman of a campaign among the women of Philadelphia & Germantown to raise funds for Washington’s soldiers. Organizing a committee of 39 women, she was able to report to Washington on July 4, that the equivalent of $7,500 in specie had been contributed. When the General asked that the money be used for linen shirts for his men, the women’s committee purchased the linen & cut & sewed the shirts themselves. Over 2,000 shirts were delivered to the army at the year’s end. Mrs. Reed also tried with some success to spread the work elsewhere, but though her letters brought into being local committees of women in other Philadelphia towns, in Trenton, N.J., & in Maryland, the initial Philadelphia endeavor was nowhere equaled in extent & results. By Independence Day, July 4, 1780, Esther Reed wrote to Washington that the women had raised more than $300,000. The women's agressive, patriotic campaign received repeated praise in the local newspaper, the Pennsylvania Packet.
Esther Reed organized & led this women's relief effort in the weeks immediately following the birth in May of George Washington Reed, her 6th baby in 10 years of marriage. She died suddenly in Philadelphia in September 1780, at the age of 33, the victim of an acute dysentery. The relief committee was carried forward under the direction of Sarah Franklin Bache, daughter of Benjamin Franklin. Mrs. Reed was buried at Philadelphia’s Second Presbyterian Church. In 1868, her remains, together with those of her husband, were moved to Laurel Hill Cemetery. Her husband would die 5 years later.
Just before she died in the late summer of 1780, Philadelphia printer John Dunlap published an anonymous broadside called the Sentiments of an American Woman, which was probably written by Esther Reed.
"THE SENTIMENTS of an AMERICAN WOMAN.
"ON the commencement of actual war, the Women of America manifested a firm resolution to contribute as much as could depend on them, to the deliverance of their country.
"Animated by the purest patriotism, they are sensible of sorrow at this day, in not offering more than barren wishes for the success of so glorious a Revolution. They aspire to render themselves more really useful; and this sentiment is universal from the north to the south of the Thirteen United States.
"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. I call to mind with enthusiasm and with admiration, all those acts of courage, of constancy and patriotism, which history has transmitted to us: The people favoured by Heaven, preserved from destruction by the virtues, the zeal and the resolution of Deborah, of Judith, of Esther! The fortitude of the mother of the Massachabees, in giving up her sons to die before her eyes: Rome saved from the fury of a victorious enemy by the efforts of Volumnia, and other Roman Ladies: So many famous sieges where the Women have been seen forgeting the weakness of their sex, building new walls, digging trenches with their feeble hands, furnishing arms to their defenders, they themselves darting the missile weapons on the enemy, resigning the ornaments of their apparel, and their fortune, to fill the public treasury, and to hasten the deliverance of their country; burying themselves under its ruins, throwing themselves into the flames rather than submit to the disgrace of humiliation before a proud enemy.
"Born for liberty, disdaining to bear the irons of a tyrannic Government, we associate ourselves to the grandeur of those Sovereigns, cherished and revered, who have held with so much splendour the scepter of the greatest States, The Batildas, the Elizabeths, the Maries, the Catharines, who have extended the empire of liberty, and contented to reign by sweetness and justice, have broken the chains of slavery, forged by tryants in the times of ignorance and barbarity. The Spanish Women, do they not make, at this moment, the most patriotic sacrifices, to encrease the means of victory in the hands of their Sovereign. He is a friend to the French Nation. They are our allies. We call to mind, doubly interested, that it was a French Maid who kindled up amongst her fellow-citizens, the flame of patriotism buried under long misfortunes: It was the Maid of Orleans who drove from the kingdom of France the ancestors of those same British, whose odious yoke we have just shaken off; and whom it is necessary that we drive from this Continent.
"But I must limit myself to the recollection of this small number of achievements. Who knows if persons disposed to censure, and sometimes too severely with regard to us, may not disapprove our appearing acquainted even with the actions of which our sex boasts? We are at least certain, that he cannot be a good citizen who will not applaud our efforts for the relief of the armies which defend our lives, our possessions, our liberty? The situation of our soldiery has been represented to me; the evils inseparable from war, and the firm and generous spirit which has enabled them to support these.
"But it has been said, that they may apprehend, that, in the course of a long war, the view of their distresses may be lost, and their services be forgottten. Forgotten! never; I can answer in the name of all my sex. Brave Americans, your disinterestedness, your courage, and your constancy will always be dear to America, as long as she shall preserve her virtue.
"We know that at a distance from the theatre of war,if we enjoy any tranquility, it is the fruit of your watchings, your labours, your dangers. If I live happy in the midst of my family; if my husband cultivates his field, and reaps his harvest in peace; if, surrounded with my children, I myself nourish the youngest, and press it to my bosom, without being affraid of feeing myself separated from it, by a ferocious enemy; if the house in which we dwell; if our barns, our orchards are safe at the present time from the hands of those incendiaries, it is to you that we owe it. And shall we hesitate to evidence to you our gratitude? Shall we hesitate to wear a cloathing more simple; hair dressed less elegant, while at the price of this small privation, we shall deserve your benedictions.
"Who, amongst us, will not renounce with the highest pleasure, those vain ornaments, when-she shall consider that the valiant defenders of America will be able to draw some advantage from the money which she may have laid out in these; that they will be better defended from the rigours of the seasons, that after their painful toils, they will receive some extraordinary and unexpected relief; that these presents will perhaps be valued by them at a greater price, when they will have it in their power to say: "This is the offering of the Ladies. The time is arrived to display the same sentiments which animated us at the beginning of the Revolution, when we renounced the use of teas, however agreeable to our taste, rather than receive them from our persecutors; when we made it appear to them that we placed former necessaries in the rank of superfluities, when our liberty was interested; when our republican and laborious hands spun the flax, prepared the linen intended for the use of our soldiers; when exiles and fugitives we supported with courage all the evils which are the concomitants of war.
"Let us not lose a moment; let us be engaged to offer the homage of our gratitude at the altar of military valour, and you, our brave deliverers, while mercenary slaves combat to cause you to share with them, the irons with which they are loaded, receive with a free hand our offering, the purest which can be presented to your virtue,
By An AMERICAN WOMAN."
See: Letters of Delegates to Congress, 1774-1789, 26 vols. (Washington, Library of Congress, 1976-2000), 15:284, 287, 315-16, 329, 355; William B. Reed, Life and Correspondence of Joseph Reed, 2 vols. (Philadelphia: Lindsay and Blakiston, 1847), 2:260-71, 429-49; and Pennsylvania Packet (Philadelphia, John Dunlap), June 13, 17, 27; July 8; and November 4, 1780. This posting based, in part, on information from Notable American Women edited by Edward T James, Janet Wilson James, Paul S Boyer, The Belknap Press of Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts. 1971