Offering of the Ladies: Esther Reed’s Sentiments, Washington’s Objections

Portrait of Esther de Berdt Reed by Charles Willson Peale over The Sentiments of an American Woman broadside, printed in Philadelphia in 1780. (Library of Congress)

Washington, Jefferson, Adams, Madison, Franklin and, to a much greater extent, lesser notables such as Reed, Rush, Morris and dozens more profoundly understood what it would take to keep an army together, but it may well be that their wives and daughters knew something that they did not. A group of ‘knotty matrons’ proposed a most remarkable plan, but the Commander-in-Chief, a man of his time, would not – could not—let it happen. But they found a way, one almost now forgotten.

In March of 1776, Abigail Adams wrote to her husband:

I long to hear that you have declared an independency … and by the way in the new Code of Laws which I suppose it will be necessary for you to make I desire you would Remember the Ladies, and be more generous and favorable to them than your ancestors. Do not put such unlimited power into the hands of the Husbands. Remember all Men would be tyrants if they could. If particular care and attention is not paid to the Ladies we are determined to foment a Rebellion …[1]

The Fall of Charleston, South Carolina in May of 1780 was the event needed to accelerate the “fomentation” process in Abigail Adams’ determined rebellion. The loss of a major Southern port, and equally, the total elimination of an entire army, stirred places like Philadelphia into action. Among the many who understood how deep was the loss of optimism, not only in the South, but among Northern troops, was Esther Reed, and her elite social circle. Young, frail, feeble, delicate, nursing a child and fairly new to America, Esther Reed had a number of things going for her that might serve to propel her into a position of leadership. She was the wife of Joseph Reed, Washington’s trusted aide, military secretary, and at the time president (governor) of Pennsylvania. She was also, as were most of the women about her, highly intelligent, supremely perceptive, well informed, knowing the inner thoughts of men such as her husband and the namesake of one of her sons, George Washington. She was likewise wonderfully audacious. On balance, however, it would be an interesting effort to find a more unlikely individual to lead a rebellion. Within a month of the disaster at Charleston, she had the courage to write one of the most effective publications of the American Revolution, The Sentiments of An American Woman, 1780.[2]

This was a broadside, a kind of publication cheaply printed, usually one big page, and intended to be discarded or passed on after reading. Often displayed in storefront widows, it was the mass media of the era. Broadsides were intended to hit certain readers hard, to be a call to engage.[3] In this case, Esther Reed wanted to stir women to a new kind of patriotism, to help the American soldier in a way never before done by women, outside the home and beyond the delicate feminine arts of spinning, weaving and sewing. [4]

In my estimate, having pondered Sentiments often, I have come to realize that as a document designed to inspire, reassure and comfort, it has no peer. Reed wrote as if she were sending a personal letter to every soldier: “… 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 … surrounded with my children, I myself nourish the youngest, and press it to my bosom, without being afraid … it is to you that we owe it.”[5] Then, in a manner astonishing, bold and beyond the pale of appropriate behavior for a colonial woman, she proposed sending money directly to each soldier in order “… 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”[6] (emphasis in the original).

The Sentiments of an American Woman ends with what I view as one of the most powerful messages in the revolution, an emotional invitation intended to lift one weary, broken army and bind it softly to another, an army that at the start of the revolution had “spun the flax” and “prepared the linen intended for the use of our soldiers.”[7] Now it was time for women to do more, wrote this young wife and mother: “… let us be engaged to offer the homage of our gratitude … and you, our brave deliverers … receive with a free hand our offering, the purest which can be presented to your virtue.”[8] How would it, I ask, have been possible to compose a more compelling message?

The reaction, among women and a few influential men, came quickly. A “knot of matrons,”[9] about thirty-six, after reading Sentiments, met three days later to talk, and presumably knit, about the best way to express their now-in-the-open radical political activism, one that would take them out of their houses. What came from this meeting was said to be “the first large scale women’s association in American history.”[10] (It is important to note that “large scale” does not mean “first.”)

At this point, I must take care not to veer too far from the theme of this article – that the women surrounding the male architects of the American Revolution understood better that most men the reasons why soldiers fight and what was needed to help them endure, and how much the morale of men close to shattering was tied to mothers, wives, sisters and sweethearts.

Almost universally, the Philadelphia Ladies Association is seen today as a thwarted first step toward women’s equality. The literature, much of it excellent, surrounding the Philadelphia Ladies Association has been co-opted by feminist and women’s studies. But hidden in this suffrage theme, as irresistible, strong as gravity, and prevalent everywhere as it is, may be another one: the remarkable understanding possessed by these highly intelligent women of how best to sustain men when they are at a breaking point.

John Adams expressed clearly why this “first large scale women’s association” could not be allowed to succeed. Reacting to Abigail’s request to remember the ladies, he wrote:

I cannot but laugh. We have been told that our Struggle has loosened the bands of Government everywhere. That Children and Apprentices were disobedient – that schools and Colledges were grown turbulent – that Indians slighted their Guardians and Negroes grew insolent to their Masters. But your Letter was the first Intimation that another Tribe more numerous and powerfull than all the rest were grown discontented. – This is rather too coarse a Compliment but you are so saucy, I wont blot it out. [11]

John probably meant “complement,” as in responding or adding to what Abigail had suggested, and not “compliment.” He then wrote with resolution: “Depend upon it, We know better than to repeal our Masculine systems.”[12] Historians often portray John Adams “compliment” as “flirtatious dismissal.”[13] If this was what it was, it had a bite to it.

This stepping out of houses, kitchens, sewing parlors, setting aside for the moment “natural” ordained domestic duties, into the streets of Philadelphia, by these knotty matrons to solicit “bounty money” for Washington’s troops is well known. The plan, given in another remarkable document put together by these same ladies, Ideas, relative to the manner of forwarding to the American Soldiers, the Presents of the American Women, was for all women in America to forego feminine luxuries – jewelry, lavish clothes, fashionable hairstyles—and to give the money saved to soldiers. This is a time when fashion was as essential to high society as it is, well, today. In addition, there would be a nationwide campaign of solicitation. In each state would be a “treasuress-general.” The money collected would eventually be sent to Martha Washington, presumably the Commanderess-in-chief of this new army, and a rather quiet, somewhat behind-the-scenes supporter of the plan. It was liberating, free-wheeling, and to use the words of John Adams, something of a “repeal” of “our masculine systems.”

Philadelphia women in pairs went street to street, house to house, tavern to tavern, unescorted by husbands or brothers. These elite ladies knocked unannounced on doors, and stopped men in the streets. Women with married names such as Franklin, Tench, Rush, Shippen, and Morris flirted, cajoled, threatened and pestered to the point that at least one less-than-enthusiastic Quaker woman wrote that these ladies of highest society were “so extremely importunate that people were obliged to give them something to get rid of them.”[14] Others called it extortion.

In this broadside of radical activity, only one condition was to be observed. The money collected could not be used to supplant the established, ordinary role of government. This was to be a direct, traceable gift from women to men, “an extraordinary bounty intended to render the condition of the solider more pleasant.” These funds were “not to hold place of the things which they [soldiers] ought to receive from the Congress, or from the states.” Enough money was raised to give each soldier two hard dollars[15] to carry, perhaps with an occasional jingle, a talisman of sorts, in unmended pockets, or even in their hands if there were no pockets, to send home or spend any way they saw fit. It was, in a word, a bond of indebtedness between one gender and another. I contend that this is understanding of need at the deepest level.

Six letters that passed between Esther Reed and George Washington tell what happened next. On July 4, 1780, Esther wrote the first: “The Subscription set on foot by the Ladies of this City for the use of the Soldiery … will be received as a proof of our Zeal for the great Cause of America & our Esteem & Gratitude for those who so bravely defend it.”[16] Here, in a written nutshell, was everything. There was not quite a challenge, but more like an encounter, to the traditional “natural” role of women, stepping outside their ordained domain, undertaken “on foot,” with clear purpose – “for the use of the Soldiery”; something meant to be an expression of “Gratitude.” There was also that irresistible eighteenth century vigor that came when a woman acknowledged men “who so bravely defend.” Here, as well, is that great theme written about so much today by many competent historians: the emergence of a new kind of women’s patriotism, “our Zeal for the Great Cause of America.

Ten days later the Commander-in-Chief replied,[17] “This fresh mark [emphasis mine] of the patriotism of the Ladies entitles them to the highest applause of their Country.” Washington must have crushed Esther and many of the ladies with what he next wrote: “If I am happy in having the concurrence of the Ladies, I would propose the purchasing of course Linnen, to be made into Shirts, with the whole amount of their subscription.” This letter is intended to end discussion and to eliminate any possibility of maneuver. What else could be the intended message of “with the whole amount?” The ladies would have understood, and dismissed with having little real sentiment, the statement, “If I am happy in having the concurrence of the Ladies. Washington told Mrs. Reed that a shirt would be better for the health of his men than anything else the ladies could do. He assured the ladies that none of the shirts coming from them would take the place of what Congress and each state should be doing. By using this money to buy linen, General Washington observed, women in other states would soon follow suit. About the same time Washington wrote this letter to Esther Reed, Abigail Adams wrote John Thaxter, “… the fair daughters” have banded together “to reward the Patriotick, to stimulate the brave, to alleviate the burden of war … Read the Pensilvania papers, and see the Spirit catching from state to state.”[18] Washington was attempting to do his own catching, and cage this spirit. His own wife, Martha, had sent a copy of the Philadelphia Ladies plan to another Martha, the sick wife of Thomas Jefferson. She, in turn, wrote to Eleanor Madison, mother of a future president, that she supported “with cheerfulness” her “countrywomen.”

All three women are seen today as quietly assisting the Philadelphia Ladies, urging the establishment of a similar Ladies’ Association in Virginia. Part of the reason we know so little about what happened in Virginia is that written records no longer exist; another part was the expressed opposition of men like Thomas Jefferson to any degree of participation by a woman in anything having to do with politics or public affairs.[19] Almost three decades later, President Jefferson remained adamant in his view that “appointment of a woman to office is an innovation for which the public is not prepared,” and then brutally, “nor am I.”[20] He would have, as historian Carol Berkin points out, have been completely shocked by these suppressed views, from him, of his sick wife.

In his first response, Washington wrote to Esther Reed what was a seemingly harmless comment. “Let me congratulate our benefactors on the arrival of the French fleet off the harbor of New-Port on the afternoon of the 10th. It is this moment announced, but without any particulars as an interchange of Signals had only taken place.” At first, I thought this was nothing more than a softening of the blow, a complement to the French heritage of Esther De Berdt, but more was going on here than light politeness.

Before Esther could respond, Washington wrote again. On July 20, 1780, after advising the women to make shirts, he told Esther “An idea has occurred to me … perfectly consistent with the views of the female patriots.” The general proposed to take the money raised by the ladies and put it in a brand-new bank, the Bank of Philadelphia. In a delicious irony, at the same time this “knott” of ladies went about extorting their money, a cabal of ninety-nine men, many with easy casual access to Washington, had raised an almost identical amount. Their plan was to establish what really wasn’t a bank, but more of a way to sell something akin to war bonds. This became an emergency fund for supplies such as flour, rum, and salt, the very provisions that should already have been supplied by Congress and the states. How Washington saw this as “perfectly consistent” with the views of the Philadelphia Ladies’ Association escapes me, and probably them also.

Some of Washington’s thought process can be found in another letter written one day earlier to Nathaniel Greene. General Washington, as he mentioned to Esther, was musing over the “particulars” surrounding the arrival of the French fleet. “Should a superiority at sea be established,” he wrote to General Greene, then it would be time to start “an operation against New York.” Washington then wrote Greene, “In making your estimates” of the “requisite supply of provision, Forage and Military stores” needed for the campaign, be aware that the “Bank of Philadelphia” will “deliver upwards of two month’s supply of flour.”[21]

If anything of the original plan of the Philadelphia Ladies’ Association now remained, I fail to see what it might be. An idea to give two hard coins to every soldier to do with as he pleased had been completely disassembled, evolving from a mildly unhappy compromise to make shirts into one in in which bankers, totally in control, would buy flour, rum, salt and payed teamsters to transport forage and other military supplies, with subscribers to the bank making a profit here and there.[22]

On July 31, 1780, what had to be a shocked, demoralized Esther Reed wrote Washington: “I have been inform’d of some circumstances, perhaps the necessity for shirts may have ceased.”[23] The informant was Gov. Joseph Reed, who had written to Washington what even he admitted was one of his long tedious letters. At the very end he told Washington, “2000 excellent shirts” would arrive next week, with “… all kinds of clothing for officers and 6000 men” to soon follow from Europe. He rather awkwardly tied this with what was taking place between Washington and his wife: “Mrs. Reed received your kind favor [letter] a few days ago and is exerting herself to comply, but there is at present a very great difficulty in procuring the articles [coarse linen] even for money.”[24]

Then a most rare event occurred: the Philadelphia ladies’ Association questioned the decision of the commander-in-chief: “… an Idea prevails among the Ladies, that the Soldiers will not be so much gratified, by bestowing an Article to which they are entitled from the Public, as in some other method, which will convey more fully the Idea of a Reward for past Services, & an incitement for future Duty—those who are of this Opinion propose the whole of the Money to be changed into hard Dollars, & giving each Soldier two, to be entirely at his own disposal [underlining in the original].”[25] Rare indeed, if any, were the occasions in which anyone, male or female, debated a decision by the commander-in-chief.[26] This is a letter best read in the handwriting of Esther Reed. The transcription does not do justice to the turmoil Esther must have experienced. As if hit by a reciprocal broadside, Esther was shattered. There were sentence fragments, missing verbs,[27] incomplete words.

What Esther wrote next would have made Machiavelli blush. Turf quarrels were constant among the colonies, factions continually fighting like dogs over a bone, each trying to keep or get something from one another. Esther proposed, in a manner only one sophisticated person could communicate to another equally intelligent, that since there was no longer a need for shirts among the Pennsylvania line, perhaps the general might want Philadelphia ladies to take the linen they had, buy more and make shirts for “other parts of the Army.” They could do this with “the hard money I have until I your reply.”[28] Esther was so upset, perhaps even mad, that she failed to write “receive.” This, for me, is a difficult, oblique paragraph to interpret. I have come to see it as a kind of razor sharp reminder, wrapped in a warning[29] of what would have happened if the general agreed to this suggestion, written by someone who could not directly defy a man, and certainly not George Washington. If the commander-in-chief had taken Pennsylvania “hard money,” as opposed to almost worthless Continental script, and used it to benefit another state, this could have well been among the last straws that broke a general’s back. Esther was, in my opinion, trying to back Washington into a corner so the only viable option left would be what the Pennsylvania women really wanted: to give two dollars “hard money” to each soldier of the Pennsylvania line.

But General Washington was not a man without some cunning. His “idea” of putting the money into the new Bank of Pennsylvania seemed to catch Esther and the ladies without a clever defense. Esther wrote, much too inadequately for her, “I would reply that if the Scheme to give the Soldiers hard Money shoud be tho’t proper, of course the putting the Money I have into the Bank coud not be done & I find on enquiry that considerable Advantage may be had by laying out hard Money in Linnen or any other Article.”[30] Willing to reluctantly meet the general half-way, buy linen and make shirts, the Pennsylvania Ladies Association balked at being part of a new banking scheme.

The final letter from Washington intrigues because it opens for debate what is the proper ratio between real reason and excuse, as in a need to put a lid on this “fresh mark” of exploding public involvement by women. The general wrote to Esther about his “apprehension” that “… a taste of hard money” would do more harm than good among the soldiers. There would be drunkenness, and many other “irregularities, & disorders which must be corrected.”[31] But what the Philadelphia Ladies Association proposed was more than just a “taste of hard money.” Two hard dollars was equivalent to eighty dollars of Continental script. This was equal to a year’s pay for a private in the Pennsylvania Line.[32]

Esther Reed sensed in this last letter a different tone, and wrote to her husband that the general was “a little formal as if he was hurt by our asking his Opinion a second time & our not following his Directions after desiring him to give them.”[33]

At this point, Esther Reed and the Philadelphia Ladies Association gently yielded. “I shall now endeavour to get the Shirts made as soon as possible.”[34] Within a few weeks, having never gotten her wish to see a soldiers’ encampment, she died a loathsome death common to soldiers, from dysentery.

John Hoppner’s portrait of Sarah Franklin Bache, circa 1793. (Metropolitan Museum of Art)

A new treasuress-general took command of the Philadelphia Ladies Association, Sarah Franklin Bache. In December 1780 a visitor to Sarah Bache’s home was

conducted into a room filled with works lately finished by the ladies of Philadelphia. This work consisted neither of embroidered tambour waistcoats, nor net-work edgings, nor of gold and silver brocade—it was a quantity of shirts for the soldiers of Pennsylvania … On each shirt was the name of the married or unmarried lady who made it, and they amounted to twenty-two hundred.[35]

Soon after this visit, this daughter of Benjamin Franklin wrote General Washington that the Pennsylvania Ladies Association hoped the shirts would be “worn with as much pleasure as they were made.”[36] If not hard coins, then the bond of loyalty, devotion and pride must be found in a name stitched on each shirt.

On the first day of January 1781, elements of the Pennsylvania Continental Line mutinied. Chief among their three major grievances was they had not been paid in over a year.[37]

 

[1] Abigail Adams to John Adams, March 31, 1776, Adams Family Papers, https://www.masshist.org/digitaladams/archive/doc?id=L17760331aa.

[2] Esther Reed, Sentiments of An American Woman, 1780, http://www-personal.umd.umich.edu/~ppennock/doc-Sentiments%20of%20An%20American%20Woman.htm. Most historians accept that Esther Reed wrote Sentiments. A greater magnitude of historical accuracy would include “probably” when asserting that Esther Reed and the author, “By an American Woman” are one and the same.

[3] Dunlap wass the printer of Sentiments of An American Woman. Perhaps the most famous, cheaply and quickly printed of Dunlap’s broadsides was his publication, on the night of July 4, 1776, of the Declaration of Independence. One of the twenty-six known copies of this low-cost, disposable publication sold for $2,420,000 in 1991.

[4] Samuel F Haven, A Brief History of Broadsides, http://blog.tavbooks.com/?p=212.

[5] Reed, Sentiments.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Anne S Macdonald, No Idle Hands: The Social History of American Knitting (New York, NY: Ballantine Books, 1988), 33. This is not a casual phrase, it is a colloquialism: “A Knot of matrons talked Servants,” Rudyard Kipling, A Diversity of Creatures, 1917, and “… in the other front chamber, the quest-chamber, a knot of matrons,” Cuesta Benberry and Carol Pinney Crabb, Love of Quilts (Voyageur Press, 2010).

[10] Mary Beth Norton, Liberty’s Daughters: The Revolutionary Experience of American Women, 1750-1780 (New York, NY: Cornell University Press, 1996), 178.

[11] John Adams, “John Adams Answers Abigail’s Plea to “Remember the Ladies”,” https://herb.ashp.cuny.edu/items/show/676.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Mary Beth Norton, “The Philadelphia Ladies Association,” American Heritage, Volume 31, Issue 3, 1980, http://www.americanheritage.com/content/philadelphia-ladies-association

[15] Ibid.

[16] Esther Reed to George Washington, July 4, 1780, https://founders.archives.gov/?q=%20Author%3A%22Washington%2C%20George%22%20Period%3A%22Revolutionary%20War%22%20Recipient%3A%22Reed%2C%20Esther%20De%20Berdt%22&s=1111211111&r=1&sr=Reed.

[17] Washington to Esther Reed, July 14, 1780, Ibid.

[18] Abigail Adams to John Thaxter, July 21, 1780, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Adams/04-03-02-0282.

[19] Carol Berkin, Revolutionary Mothers: Women in the Struggle for America’s Independence, (New York, NY: Vintage Books of Random House, 2007), 47.

[20] Thomas Jefferson to Albert Gallatin, January 13, 1807, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Jefferson/99-01-02-4862.

[21] Washington to Nanthaniel Greene, July 19, 1780, https://founders.archives.gov/?q=%20Author%3A%22Washington%2C%20George%22%20Recipient%3A%22Greene%2C%20Nathanael%22%20Period%3A%22Revolutionary%20War%22&s=1111311111&sa=&r=115&sr=Green

[22] Ibid.

[23] Esther Reed to Washington, July 31, 1780, https://founders.archives.gov/?q=%20Author%3A%22Reed%2C%20Esther%20De%20Berdt%22%20Recipient%3A%22Washington%2C%20George%22%20Period%3A%22Revolutionary%20War%22&s=1111312111&sa=Ree&r=2&sr=Reed.

[24] Joseph Reed to Washington, July 15, 1780, https://founders.archives.gov/?q=%20Recipient%3A%22Washington%2C%20George%22%20Period%3A%22Revolutionary%20War%22%20Author%3A%22Reed%2C%20Joseph%22&s=1211311113&sa=Reed&r=20

[25] Esther Reed to Washington, July 31, 1780.

[26] Paul Engle, Women in the American Revolution (Chicago, Illinois: Follett, 1976), 44.

[27] Norton, “Philidelphia Ladies Association,” unnumbered page.

[28] Esther Reed to Washington, July 31, 1780.

[29] “The Revolutionary Years: US Army Center of Military History,” history.army.mil/books/RevWar/ss/revdoc.htm. Congress directed as early as 1776 that every state provide arms, cloathing and every necessary for its quota of troops, a system that caused never ending squabble.

[30] Ibid.

[31] Washington to Esther Reed, August 10, 1780.

[32] “Pay, Bounties, and Rations,” Encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedic-almanaces-transcripts-and-maps/pay. “In 1778, a private earned between $6.67 and $8.33 … in paper money. There the rates remained for the rest of the war.” One “hard dollar” was equivalent to $40 in Continental script.

[33] Norton, “Philadelphia Ladies Association,” unnumbered page.

[34] Ibid.

[35] Benson J. Lossing, The Pictorical Field-book of the Revolution, Vol II (New York, NY: Harper Brothers, 1860), 106.

[36] Norton, “Philadelphia Ladies Association,” unnumbered page.

[37] Michael Schellhammer, “Mutiny of the Pennsylvania Line” Journal of the American Revolution, January 14, 2014. https://allthingsliberty.com/2014/01/mutiny-pennsylvania-line/

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2 Comments

  • Conner: thank you for helping to fill a great gap in my distant grandfather’s Journal; what was his wife Lydia thinking for the six years her husband Simon served with the Continental Army? She and her mother had 3 babies to tend, a farm, and his spinning wheel clients. His pay was never enough and never on time. The women of Wethersfield, CT regularly forwarded wagons of clothing, leather, vegetables, and a steady stream of letters. Simon received as many as 3 letters in one day, but he never mentions the contents. For that I have been reading the work of Lynne Withey and Carol Berkin as you suggest. To that I would add an extraordinary book, “The way of duty: a woman and her family in Revolutionary America’ by Joy Day and Richard Buel Jr. (Norton, 1984). This should be required reading in both history and literature classes. Thanks again. Phil

  • Phil
    Your comment is what makes JAR unique and worthwhile, plus never use a five dollar word when a twenty-five cent one does the same thing.

    The interaction between writer and reader can often lead to greater understanding. Your comment about “his spinning wheel clients” got me to thinking and links nicely with a forthcoming article now being edited — The Widow’s Apron. Who made her spinning wheels? Who kept them in repair?

    As with your favored “The Way of Duty,” this is a tale about what the Buels cite as someone who did not deviate “from the expectations of their duty.” Look forward to your future observations.

    Thanks again. Conner.

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