American Women: The Wife of President Reed


                                                Mightier far
Than strength of nerve or sinew, or the sway
Of magic potent over sun and star,
Is love, though oft to agony distrest,
And though his favorite seat be feeble woman’s breast.

Undaunted by the tempest, wild and chill,
That pours its restless and disastrous roll,
O’er all that blooms below.
                                                           Sands’ Yamoyden

Prominent among the ladies of Philadelphia who, in the summer and fall of 1780, were active in assisting the sufferers in the American army, was Esther Reed, the wife of President Reed. She stood at the head of the Association till her death, which occurred on the eighteenth of September of that year. She was succeeded by Mrs. Sarah Bache, Mrs. Francis, Mrs. Clarkson, Mrs. Blair and Mrs. Hillegas, who were constituted an Executive Committee.

The maiden name of Mrs. Reed was De Berdt. She was born in London on the twenty-second of October, 1746. There, about the year 1763, she became acquainted with Mr. Joseph Reed, of New Jersey, then a student at the Temple. She had fond parents and lived in affluence, but from these she at length turned, and, being married in May, 1770, “followed the lover of her youth to these wild Colonies.” Philadelphia became the home of the happy couple. The wife of an American, she imbibed the sentiments and manifested the spirit of an American, and to the day of her death showed herself worthy to be the wife of an American soldier. “During five years of war, more than half the time her family was broken up, and for a long period the young wife, with her little children and an aged mother, was driven to seek a distant and precarious refuge.” Her husband was an Adjutant-General, and was in the camp much of the time, till he was chosen President–or, as we now say, Governor–of Pennsylvania, in 1778. Her letters written to him, breathe a patriotic and submissive spirit, and a cheerful trust in that “presiding Power” from whom all solace is derived in seasons of danger, disappointment and affliction.

She was placed at the head of the voluntary association of Philadelphia ladies at its formation in May, and as early as the twentieth of the following month, it will be seen, by an extract from a letter written by Mr. Reed to General Washington, the business of the society was progressing admirably: “The ladies have caught the happy contagion and in a few days Mrs. Reed will have the honor of writing to you on the subject. It is expected she will have a sum equal to £100,000, to be laid out according to your Excellency’s direction, in such a way as may be thought most honorable and gratifying to the brave old soldiers who have borne so great a share of the burden of this war. I thought it best to mention it in this way to your Excellency for your consideration, as it may tend to forward the benevolent scheme of the donors with dispatch. I must observe that the ladies have excepted such articles of necessity, as clothing, which the states are bound to provide.”

The following letter, written the next month, explains itself:

                        “Philadelphia, July 4th, 1780.

“SIR, – The subscription set on foot by the ladies of this city for the use of the soldiery, is so far completed as to induce me to transmit to your Excellency an account of the money I have received, and which, although it has answered our expectations, does not equal our wishes, but I am persuaded will be received as a proof of our zeal for the great cause of America, and our esteem and gratitude for those who so bravely defend it.

“The amount of the subscription is 200,580 dollars, and £625 6s. Sd. in specie, which makes in the whole, in paper money, 300,684 dollars.

“The ladies are anxious for the soldiers to receive the benefit of it, and wait your directions how it can best be disposed of. We expect some considerable addition from the country, and have also wrote to the other States in hopes the ladies there will adopt similar plans, to render it more general and beneficial.

“With the utmost pleasure I offer any further attention and care in my power to complete the execution of the design, and shall be happy to accomplish it agreeable to the intention of the donors and your wishes on the subject.

“The ladies of my family join me in their respectful compliments and sincerest prayer for your health, safety, and success.

            “I have the honor to be,
                        “With the highest respect,
                                    “Your obedient humble servant,
                                                                        “E. Reed.”

During the months of July and August, though in feeble health, Mrs. Reed held frequent correspondence with General Washington on the best mode of administering relief to the destitute soldiers. Her desire to make herself useful may be inferred from the tone of a letter addressed to her husband from the banks of the Schuylkill, on the twenty-second of August. Among other things, she says, “I received this morning a letter from the General, and he still continues his opinion that the money in my hands should be laid out in linen; he says, no supplies he has at present or has a prospect of are any way adequate to the wants of the army. His letter is, I think, a little formal, as if he was hurt by our asking his opinion a second time, and our not following his directions, after desiring him to give them. The letter is very complaisant, and I shall now endeavor to get the shirts made as soon as possible. This is another circumstance to urge my return to town, as I can do little towards it here.”

The responsible and onerous duties of Mrs. Reed during the summer of 1780, were no doubt injurious to her already poor health, and hastened the approach of death. Early in September she was laid upon a bed of fatal illness, and before the month had closed, as before mentioned, she was in the “mysterious realm.” The Council and Assembly adjourned to pay their last respect to her exalted virtues. Her remains were deposited in the Presbyterian burying-ground in Arch Street, and the following epitaph was inscribed on her tomb:

“In memory of Esther, the beloved wife of Joseph Reed,
President of this State, who departed this life
On the 18th of September, A. D. 1780, aged 34 years
Reader! If the possession of those virtues of the heart
Which make life valuable, or those personal endowments which
Command esteem and love, may claim respectful and affectionate
Remembrance, venerate the ashes here entombed.
If to have the cup of temporal blessings dashed
In the period and station of life in which temporal blessings
May be best enjoyed, demands our sorrow, drop a tear, and
Think how slender is that thread on which the joys
And hopes of life depend.”

*The facts embodied in this notice of Mrs. Reed, are mainly obtained from the Life and Correspondence of President Reed. Vid Volume II., chapter XII.


Excerpted from Noble Deeds of American Women
(Patriotic Series for Boys and Girls)
Edited by J. Clement
With an Introduction by Mrs. L. H. Sigourney
BOSTON: Lee and Shepard, Publishers
Entered by Act of Congress, in the year of 1851,
by E. H. Derby and Co., in the Clerk’s Office of the Northern District of New York


The book this sketch refers to in the footnote is available from various sources today, but is entitled “Life and Correspondence of Joseph Reed,” presumably to avoid confusion between his status and the office of President of the United States that was created later.

Celebrating Jesus!
Tammy C

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