September 19, 2022 at 8:31 a.m.

It's Constitution Week

It's Constitution Week
It's Constitution Week

It passed quietly with little fanfare (well, actually none). Most of the world (including the US) was focused on the passing of Queen Elizabeth II. But Saturday was Constitution Day, the anniversary of the signing of the US Constitution in Philadelphia on September 17, 1787. Almost everybody is aware of the importance of July 4, 1776. We celebrate that date every year as America's birthday. But the Declaration of Independence from Great Britain didn't create a nation. The adoption of our Constitution by the 13 former colonies did. We have been posting these articles from the SAR (Sons of the American Revolution) and DAR (Daughters of the American Revolution) as a preface to the celebration of America's 250th birthday in 2026. We would be amiss if we failed to acknowledge the importance of September 17th, the date on which representatives signed the document that became the foundation for our nation--a nation ruled by law and not by a king or emperor. It is what made us the United States of America.

September 18th, 1780, was the day an unsung heroine of the American Revolution passed. Her name was Ester de Berdt, and in this, the 61st of our DAR & SAR articles, Jennifer Baker tells her story.

Revolutionary Crowdsourcing

Compiled by Jennifer Baker, DAR Vesuvius Furnace Chapter

Crowdsourcing is something that seems relatively modern, but did you know crowdsourcing helped to fund the American Revolution? Many individuals donated funds, goods, and services to support the cause for freedom – one small project at a time. While many of the revolutionary heroes we learned about were men, the women made their voices heard. While sometimes in subtle ways, several women stand out in their support of freedom and liberty.

Esther de Berdt was born in London, England on October 22, 1746, into a family descended of Protestant refugees from Ypres (Belgian city in the province of West Flanders), who had fled the "Spanish Fury" led by the Duke of Alba. Her family (including her younger brother) called her Hette or Hettie and she loved books very much. At the age of twenty-three, Esther married Joseph Reed, an American who had studied law in London. Thereafter, she and her widowed mother followed him to Philadelphia in the American colonies. Joseph Reed became a prosperous lawyer and a local political leader, and the couple entertained members of the Continental Congress, including George Washington and John Adams. Joseph Reed later served as Washington's secretary and aide-de-camp.

Though she was English by birth, Reed was exceptionally devoted to the revolutionary cause. During the Revolutionary War, she helped organize the Ladies Association of Philadelphia which raised more than $300,000 in support of the war. At the suggestion of General Washington, the group then used the funds to purchase linen and sew clothing for American troops. Reed had wanted to give the men gold or silver coins, something above and beyond what they would normally receive, but Washington feared the money would be used for liquor. He also had each volunteer seamstress, whether married or unmarried, sew her name into the clothing she made. More than 2,200 shirts for the soldiers were created from the funds and the labor of these women.

Unfortunately, Reed did not live to see her efforts fully realized. She died on September 18, 1780, at the young age of 34. Sarah Franklin Bache, daughter of Benjamin Franklin, took over Reed's position and finished the patriotic project. Though she did not see the project finished, Reed's efforts did not go unacknowledged. She was recognized as a Daughter of Liberty, and women in several colonies, 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.

During an evacuation of Philadelphia, she fled with her six children to Flemington, New Jersey. She was initially buried in the Arch Street Presbyterian Church cemetery in Philadelphia but presently resides in Laurel Hill Cemetery. Her epitaph reads:

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. 

At the time of her death in 1780, British-born Esther DeBerdt Reed was one of the most politically important women in America. Her treatise “The Sentiments of an American Woman” articulated the aspirations of female patriots. The Ladies Association of Philadelphia taught generations of women how to translate their political responsibilities into action. Her social connections and political sophistication helped transform her husband, Joseph Reed, from a military leader into the president of the Supreme Executive Council of Pennsylvania (equal to the modern office of governor).

Esther DeBerdt Reed’s life yields remarkable insight into the scope of women’s political influence in an age ruled by the strict social norms structured by religion and motherhood. The story of her courtship, marriage, and political career sheds light both on the private and political lives of women during the Revolution and on how society, religion, and gender interacted as a new nation struggled to build its own identity.


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