Today, I have the delightful pleasure of introducing the next author in my Women in History series is my son Nassem! Those who know Nassem understand that though he’s just 18, he’s quite the history prodigy, with a love for American History. Not to mention he’s an extraordinary author. His article below on Esther de Berdt, who formed the Ladies Association of Philadelphia and raised money to clothe the Continental Army in time of dire need by General George Washington, is well-researched and written. I know I learned something! If you liked the article or want to discuss please feel free to leave him comments below. Take the floor, Nassem!
Esther de Berdt Reed: An American Lady of Liberty
by Nassem Al-Mehairi
War had been raging on for five years by May of 1780. The Continental Army had just suffered the worst defeat of the war in Charleston, where, after six weeks of siege, Major General Benjamin Lincoln was forced to surrender his forces. General George Washington, taking stock of the present state of his army, worried that the patriots would not have the strength to fight on. Washington wrote to the Continental Congress near the end of May in 1780 that his soldiers were forced to sustain themselves on rotten and limited rations and were clothed in torn, dirty, and poorly-made clothing. Many men were eternally loyal to the Patriot cause, but some grew wary of enduring these conditions in the pursuit of a goal that eluded them and remained abstract. Washington knew something needed to be done to prevent mutiny among his men and continue the fight against the British.
The answer to this call to action came from an unlikely source. A broadside entitled Sentiments of an American Woman appeared on the doorsteps of Philadelphia’s war-weary citizens. The broadside proclaimed that it was time for women to be “really useful” like “those heroines of antiquity” and act on “our love for the public good.” The author of this broadside, Esther de Berdt Reed, just having recovered from a bout of smallpox, founded the Ladies Association of Philadelphia and saved the Continental Army.
Esther de Berdt was born in October of 1746 in London to English businessman Dennis de Berdt and Martha Symon de Berdt. Esther, a charismatic girl who loved books, grew up near the Houses of Parliament. At the age of seventeen, Esther met Joseph Reed of Philadelphia while he was in London to continue his education in law. The duo, by now in love, sought to marry but Dennis refused to consent. Dennis, though partial to Joseph, was not enthusiastic about his daughter moving to Philadelphia with him if they married. Over the next five years, Esther and Joseph, separated by the great Atlantic, nevertheless remained in contact and did not break their engagement. In 1769, Joseph returned to London and reconciled with Esther. Dennis de Berdt had died, leaving his family with substantial debts. Joseph dedicated himself to settling the family’s finances before marrying Esther in May of 1770 at Saint Luke’s Church. The couple decided, then, to move back to Philadelphia together, bringing Martha with them to ensure her financial stability.
Esther and Joseph quickly moved up the social ladder. Joseph became a successful lawyer and political leader. The political uproar that had lingered as a whisper over the colonies soon grew to grip every facet of life. As a native Englander, Esther was initially wary of rebellion against her birth nation. Her views resembled that of many in the colonies, dismayed by the actions taken by the British and the lack of representation in decision-making but also afraid of what open rebellion may cause. Her husband, on the other hand, was an ardent patriot. After the conflict at Lexington and Concord in April of 1775, Joseph facilitated the sending of sums of money to the rebellious colonists in New England. He was elected as a member of the First Continental Congress and he and Esther became close friends with the likes of George Washington and John Adams. Esther, during this time, came to see the revolution as one seeking to reaffirm the right of liberty for all in the colonies. In July, she wrote to her brother that “every person [is] willing to sacrifice his private interest in this glorious contest” and that the revolution was about “virtue, honor, unanimity” and “bravery.” With both Reeds united in the Patriot cause, they soon were forced to separate.
In 1775, Joseph left his law practice in Philadelphia to join his friend, the newly appointed General George Washington. Washington personally requested the industrious and honorable Reed join his staff as an aide and a military secretary, appointing him to the rank of colonel. Esther during this time cared for her family, which would eventually grow to include six children, and handled the affairs of the family. Esther was forced many times during the war to leave Philadelphia with her family and always had an escape plan in her back pocket. When the British took over Philadelphia in September 1777, Esther had evacuated her family to Norristown. Joseph spent that cold and bitter winter of 1777-1778 in Valley Forge working with General Washington.
Throughout this winter that tried many souls, Esther, her mother, and her children endured both the separation from Joseph and one of the most dangerous periods for the Patriots. By the time the Battle of Monmouth proved that Washington had built a disciplined and determined army at Valley Forge, Esther’s young daughter Theodosia had died of smallpox.
The spirits of the Reeds soon changed when Joseph was elected as President of Pennsylvania and the family reunited in Philadelphia. Esther, known now as Mrs. President in Pennsylvania, had gained the position she needed to make a real impact on the war effort. She simply needed her chance.
General Washington soon provided that chance in 1780 after the British captured Charleston in South Carolina. Washington reported to Congress in May of 1780 that the men in his army had long sustained themselves on rotten food and were forced to wear ragged clothing. He warned Congress that at this rate his men would not be able to fight on long enough to drive the British from the colonies. Esther, having just recovered from smallpox herself, seized the chance and founded the Ladies Association of Philadelphia. Because of her position as Mrs. President, she had gained the trust and friendship of many of the wives of influential men and women powerful in their own right in Philadelphia, including Benjamin Franklin’s daughter Sarah Franklin Bache.
Now that Esther had built the Ladies Association into a group of illustrious and influential women, she needed something to unify and focus the group’s efforts. She went to work soon writing a broadside to persuade more women to join the cause of liberty. Sentiments of an American Woman was published on June 10, 1780. The broadside warned women that their “barren wishes” for success were no longer enough and, in the spirit of “those heroines of antiquity,” the women of the colonies must fight to reaffirm that all are “born for liberty.” She assured that their “courage” and “constancy will always be dear to America.” She finished by asking women if any material possessions mattered if they did not truly live with their liberty unviolated and issued a call to duty for all Patriot women to donate what they could to ensure Continental soldiers had the supplies they needed.
A team of thirty-nine women canvassed door-to-door to every household in Philadelphia, distributing Esther’s (anonymously-published) broadside and soliciting donations to the cause. These women broke almost every social convention of the time but did not think twice. They were willing to do whatever it took to affirm their natural right to liberty.
The efforts of Esther and her Ladies Association of Philadelphia exceeded all expectations. Esther, no doubt proud of her fellow women of Philadelphia, reported to General Washington that they had raised over $300,000 continental dollars. When this amount was converted to hard coinage, it stood at the large-for-era amount of $7,500.
Esther believed that the money should go directly to the soldiers, but General Washington thought differently. Washington worried that soldiers might use their money for unnecessary luxuries and responded to Esther asking for the money to go directly to more useful items. Washington wrote on July 14th asking Esther if he is “happy in having the concurrence of the Ladies” he would ask that the much-needed donations go to “purchasing course Linnen, to be made into Shirts.” He wrote that “A Shirt extraordinary to the Soldier will be of more service, and do more to preserve his health than any other thing that could be procured him.” After a series of letters, Washington persuaded Esther to the prudence of his request and she enthusiastically moved to the next phase of her efforts.
The Ladies Association of Philadelphia, having purchased the linen, quickly went to work sewing shirts for the soldiers of the Continental Army. Esther, wanting the contribution of each woman not forgotten, had each seamstress sew their name into the shirts they made. Esther by this point juggled being away from her husband once again, who was back with the army, raising her children, caring for her aging mother, and running the operations of the Ladies Association. When she was struck with acute dysentery when an epidemic swept through Philadelphia in 1780, she no longer possessed the health to recover.
Esther de Berdt Reed died on September 18, 1780, a month before her thirty-fourth birthday. All the citizens of Philadelphia mourned the death of the woman who had organized a grassroots effort to save the Patriot cause but her efforts did not die with her. Sarah Franklin Bache, a pioneering and powerful woman in her own right, assumed Esther’s position and the Ladies Association finished what Esther had started. By Christmas of 1780, over two-thousand shirts were delivered to the Continental Army, supplying them with a necessity they had lacked for a long time. Newly-clothed and with the alliance with the French formalized, the Continental Army was ready to drive the British from the colonies forever.
Joseph Reed returned to Philadelphia after Esther’s death to serve his final term as President of Pennsylvania. During his tenure, while wearing the shirts made by Esther and her Ladies Association, the Continental Army emerged victorious at the Battle of Yorktown in October of 1781. After the war, Joseph returned to England for his health but died in 1785, at the young age of forty-three.
Esther de Berdt Reed’s journey from British subject to passionate Patriot in the course of a decade demonstrates the power of liberty for all people. Esther saw the fight for the Republic as an affirmation for the inviolable and inherent rights the new government would protect. She refused to abide by societal customs when the fate of her cause was on the line and organized a major association of illustrious women in Philadelphia to save the war effort. Esther persuaded women of all ages in the era that they had the right and the responsibility of being equal to men in patriotism. She forged a new path of passionate patriotism not only for women but for all citizens no matter their position. Her life was dedicated to that fundamental idea of a republic: liberty.
Nassem Al-Mehairi, Biography –
Nassem Al-Mehairi is a senior at Ashland High School. Born and raised in Ashland, Ohio, he has a deep love of history and America, with plans to further his studies in college and run for political office one day. He’s an honors student, voracious reader, enjoys writing, and serves in various ways in his community.
Volunteering with and on substantial political and awareness campaigns since he was 12, he appeared in the video introducing President Bill Clinton at the 2016 Democratic National Convention, and went on to serve as a Fellow for the Hillary for Ohio campaign in 2016. Besides being passionate about historical stewardship, liberty, and patriotism, he’s also an advocate for women’s liberation and educational opportunity.
Thank you for joining us for this installment of the Women in History (or Making History) series. Watch for more articles to come! If you’d like to participate, please let me know.