Early Life of Colonel Joseph Reed – Washington’s First Adjunct General and Secretary During the American Revolutionary War

Colonel Joseph Reed (1741-1785)

Long jaw, prominent nose, strong features with an air of aristocracy, Joseph Reed was very charming if not intensely astute in all things business and politics. No wonder he and his lovely wife Esther caught the eye of the newly appointed supreme commander of American forces.  He would hold the title of His Excellency’s Secretary, the nation’s Adjunct General and upon returning to Philadelphia he would serve Pennsylvania as delegate to the Continental Congress and later three terms as President of Pennsylvania’s Supreme Executive Council similar to modern day office of Governor. Controversy and change of heart defined Reed’s military and political tenure, however that will be discussed in detail in a later article.

Reed was born in Trenton, New Jersey to Andrew Reed and Theodosia Bowes on August 27, 1741.  Little is known of his ancestry except that his grandfather emigrated from Carrickfergus and that his father was a successful storekeeper or merchant.  Soon after Joseph’s birth, Andrew moved the family to Philadelphia where they resided until returning to Trenton in 1752.

College of New Jersey (later Princeton Univ.) Nassau Hall. Built in 1746.

At that time Andrew was “a man of consideration,” meaning wealthy.  He spared no expenses for the education of Joseph.  While in Philadelphia the boy attended the Philadelphia Academy (now the Univ. of Pennsylvania) under the tutelage of David James Dove, a Quaker and celebrated teacher of classics.  He later attended The College of New Jersey (Princeton) graduating in 1757 at the age of 16. After college, he studied law with Richard Stockton, one of the most eminent lawyers in the Pennsylvania providence.  In May 1763 he was admitted to the bar.

Colonial Philadelphia

Thus for having followed the path of many leaders of the Revolution who were, as a general rule, men of high classical education with many opportunities of varied cultivation, the time was ripe in 1763 for the young lawyer to expand his provincial experiences into the world.  And as all of us seem committed on a journey of perpetual experiences and turn of events, Reed was no exception to how circumstances can carve one’s life.

In 1763 upon acceptance to the bar at the age of twenty-two, his father Andrew decided to send him to London where he would continue his education at the famous Middle Temple pursuing studies in law.

Esther de Berdt Reed

Reed made many personal contacts, but most importantly was with Dennys DeBerdt, a wealthy owner of a mercantile house who had long done business with Reed’s father in Philadelphia.  Dennys (or Dennis) de Berdt, was a descendant of the French Huguenots. Originally from Ipres (or Ypres) in Flanders, his family left the country for religious reasons where they were persecuted by Duke Alva.

Reed soon moved into the family’s town house in Artillery Court and was not long before a romance blossomed between him and DeBerdt’s daughter Esther.   Raised in a humble, yet strict religious manner, she was a beautiful woman with long sincere face and high forehead with  intense intelligent eyes.  The two lovers were content to keep their engagement secret as Esther’s father hinted that he did not favor the young “American” as a potential husband.

The elder DeBerdt’s  “devotional turn of mind” can see it in his portrait; large tired eyes sunken in a long sad face with drooping jowls that framed a long sculptured nose which pointed to thin lips hovering over a prominent double chin.  Dressed in black “Quaker attire,” he seemed the perfect image of early Dutch immigrants to the Americas.

Dennys de Berdt

Reed resided with the DeBerdt’s for nearly two years and had not his father’s illness and business reverses forced Joseph to return to Philadelphia, the young lawyer no doubt would have stayed in England permanently.

In the fall of that year, 1765, Dennys DeBerdt was appointed colonial agent for the Massachusetts and Lower Counties (Delaware).  Interestingly, DeBerdt’s relationship with the Americas continued to develop more and more with the colonists’ sentiments.  As a member of the House of Representatives for his district, a post he held from 1765 till his death, he argued intently in 1767 for the repeal of the stamp act. More importantly for Reed, in this position, he gained the ear of the Earl of Dartmouth, then President of the Board of Trade.

During Reed’s absence from London, DeBerdt’s position towards him must have softened.   Twice, in 1766 and again in 1768, when Dartmouth’s appointment as Secretary of State for the colonies seemed imminent, DeBerdt tried to gain a position for the youthful lawyer as the Earl’s Under-Secretary.  The appointment never materialized, however he was able to use his status in the mercantile trade to get Reed’s appointment in 1767 as Deputy Secretary and Deputy Chief Clerk of New Jersey.

18th century London. St. Paul’s Cathedral from St.Martin’sle Grand by Thomas Girtin.

At this time, the love struck youth was determined to return to England, marry Esther and settle down practicing law in London.  But his father’s lingering illness hindered any such plans.  Five years passed in which he and Esther kept their long distance engagement alive through the post.   On March 14, 1770, three months after his father’s death, Reed finally boarded a ship to England where he would finally claim the life he had been cherishing ever since his separation from Esther.

Arriving in Dublin in mid April, while en route to London, he got word of DeBerdt’s death. He hurried on and discovered the family in a “melancholy state.” Instead of turning to DeBerdt for guidance in obtaining a position in court and local legal affairs, it was thrust upon Reed to handle the business failings of DeBerdt’s mercantile house. With the family now dependent upon him, he set straight to work assuming the burden. Meanwhile the couple wasted no time in getting married exchanging vows on May 22. After many months of trying to salvage what was left of the DeBerdt estate, Reed gathered his wife and DeBerdt’s widow, leaving behind Esther’s brother Dennis who would later play an important role in Reed’s continued connection to England, and set sail for America.

Port of Philadelphia

They arrived in Philadelphia late in October 1770 and Reed set straight off to find employment.  He had resigned his office in New Jersey before leaving for England so decided to remain in Philadelphia and practice law.   Three years later he became an important figure in the Pennsylvania bar and soon thereafter abandoned all thoughts of returning to England.

When Lord Dartmouth did receive the long sought after Secretaryship of State for the colonies in the summer of 1772, Reed had no desire to claim the Under Secretary’s position that DeBerdt worked so hard to obtain for him. It was this time that he began a correspondence with Lord Dartmouth that later disputed his true loyalties as the war progressed. This was due to advice from Dennis, Esther’s brother in London who still held out hope his family would return home, and Reed’s concern for the mounting tensions between his native home and England. An England he still held fondly in memory.

Lord Dartmouth, William Legge, 2nd Earl of Dartmouth.

The first letter was dated December 22, 1773 and the twelfth and last on February 14, 1775.  Reed thought that with the appointment of Dartmouth, relations between the two countries had a better chance of improving.  He was convinced that news received in England from America “generally flowed through such corrupt channels as would expose any Minister to danger.”  He commented to those close to him that he continued to write to the Secretary to present the rebel position in a way “of mutual advantage to both countries.”

Reed, at this time of early sentiment by many activists for separation, did not desire a break from England. He sought to use his position and influence to try and prevent it. However,  he did succumb to local sentiment to never submit to England’s draconian rule that he thought would “virtually and necessarily imply a surrender both for myself and my children of the blessings of liberty.” Three points he emphasized again and again in his letters to Dartmouth:

  1.  The Earl should take caution of the opinions of “designing interested” officials in the colonies.
  2. Discontent is not propagated by some rabble of lower classes, but is manifested in general discontent.  “The most considerable gentlemen in this city [Philadelphia], both in fortune and ability, as well in office as out…” express their deep concern.
  3. Any force enacted by England towards the colonies would bring about civil war.
De Berdt’s family crest.

Soon after the last letter was posted, Reed never again contacted Dartmouth, though urged to do so by his brother-in-law.  Fighting soon broke out around Boston.  He soon after accepted the rank of Lt. Colonel in the local militia and in June, 1775, he was chosen as part of an honorary escort for Washington who was on his way to Boston to accept command of the American armed forces.  Only intent on riding as far as New York, the young lawyer was soon enamored by this new supreme commander and in his words, “I thought myself bound by every tie of duty and honor to comply with his request to help him through the sea of difficulties.”  Reed accepted the role as secretary and continued on past New York to Cambridge to start his official military career in a nation yet to proclaim its independence.

Read the first installment of A Black Man’s Destiny (Shades of Liberty) here.


Shades of Liberty is the exciting new action-packed series that chronicles African Americans who fought in the American Revolutionary War. Click above for a preview and link to Amazon Books and follow the adventures of Josiah, Book 1 of the Shades of Liberty Series. Josiah is a runaway slave and patriot soldier in Washington’s army. He faces death and discrimination from both a deadly enemy and soldiers in his own army. Josiah and fellow black patriots fight for America’s freedom, believing in a new nation that claims all men are created equal. They hope, they suffer, and many die striving for their rightful share of that promise – a promise disguised in many shades of liberty.


“Letters of Dennys DeBerdt, 1757-1770,” edited by Albert Matthews.  1971 Colonial Society Of Massachusetts Vol. XIII, Books for Libraries Press Freeport, NY.

“Life and Correspondence of Joseph Reed,” by William Bradford Reed.  1847 Lindsay & Blakiston.  2006 Replica by Elibron Classics.

“My Leigh Hunt Library,” by Luther A. Brewer.  1932  Burt Franklin.

“Was Joseph Reed Disloyal?” by John F. Roche.  July 1951  William & Mary Quarterly, 3rd Ser., vol. 8

“The Life of Esther DeBerdt, Afterward Esther Reed of Pennsylvania,”  by William Bradford Reed.  1853  New York Historical Society.

The Original Letters from Washington to Joseph Reed during the American Revolution,” By William Bradford Reed.  1852  A. Hart, Philadelphia.

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