General Joseph Reed

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General Joseph Reed

Birthplace: Trenton, Mercer County, New Jersey, United States
Death: March 05, 1785 (43)
Philadelphia, Philadelphia County, Pennsylvania, United States
Place of Burial: (Now at Laurel Hill Cemetery), Philadelphia, Philadelphia County, Pennsylvania, United States
Immediate Family:

Son of Andrew Reed and Theodosia Reed
Husband of Mary Reed and Esther Reed
Father of Martha Reed; Joseph Reed; Esther Reed; Theodosia Reed; Dennis De Berdt Reed and 1 other
Brother of Bowes Reed; Ann Reed; Sgt John Andrew Reed; Mary Reed; Anthony Reed and 2 others
Half brother of Margaret Reed; Sarah Pettit; Elizabeth Montgomery; John Reed and Andrew Reed

Occupation: Served in Rev. War on Gen. Washington Staff, lawyer, military officer and statesman of the Revolutionary Era
Managed by: Private User
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Immediate Family

About General Joseph Reed

A Patriot of the American Revolution for PENNSYLVANIA with the rank of GENERAL. DAR Ancestor #: A094557

Joseph Reed (August 27, 1741– March 5, 1785) was a Pennsylvania lawyer, jurist, and politician of the Revolutionary Era. He served as Military Secretary and Aide de Camp to General George Washington, who became a life long friend. Joseph also served as Adjutant General of the Continental army. As a delegate to the Continental Congress and while in Congress signed the Articles of Confederation. He served as President of Pennsylvania's Supreme Executive Council, a position analogous to the modern office of Governor.


Reed was born in Trenton, New Jersey, the son of Andrew Reed, a shopkeeper and merchant, and Theodosia Bowes. The family moved to Philadelphia shortly after his birth. The early education of Joseph was of particular importance to his father, who enrolled the boy at Philadelphia Academy, later to be known as the University of Pennsylvania. He received his bachelor's degree from Princeton University (graduating in 1757, at the age of sixteen) and soon after began his professional education under Richard Stockton (one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence). (Joseph was admitted to the bar in May 1763.) In the summer of 1763 he sailed for England, ( and entered the Inns of Court where he remained till the Spring of 1765) )where for two years he continued his studies in law at Middle Temple in London. During the course of his studies, he became romantically attached to Esther de Berdt, the daughter of the Agent for the Province of Massachusetts Bay, Dennis de Berdt. De Berdt, though very fond of Joseph, initially refused his consent for Esther to marry, knowing of Reed's intention to return to Philadelphia. Reed returned to the Colonies with only a tenuous engagement to Esther, with the understanding that he would soon return to settle permanently in Great Britain. After the death of his father, Reed finally returned to London, to find that Esther's father had died during his crossing. They married in May 1770 at Saint Luke's Church in London. Finding the de Berdt family in financial difficulties, Reed remained in London long enough to help in settling Mr. de Berdt's affairs. Esther and Joseph sailed for America in October of that year, along with the widowed Mrs. de Berdt.


At the beginning of the Revolutionary War, Reed had a successful Philadelphia law practice, which he resigned at the request of George Washington in order to serve the General in the capacity of secretary and aide-de-camp. In 1775, he held the rank of Colonel, and, in 1776, that of Adjutant-General of the American army. In 1777, Reed was offered the positions of Brigadier General and Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania—both of which he declined. He continued to serve in the army without pay until the close of the war. Though he took part in many military engagements in the northern and eastern sections of the war, he was never wounded. He was elected to Congress in 1778. When offered a bribe of £10,000 sterling, and the most valuable office in the colonies to promote the cause of colonial reconciliation with the British crown, Reed's reply was, "I am not worth purchasing; but, such as I am, the King of Great Britain is not rich enough to do it."

In 1778, Reed was one of the five delegates from Pennsylvania to sign the Articles of Confederation. On 1 December 1778, he was elected President of the Supreme Executive Council of Pennsylvania, a position analogous to the modern office of Governor. He received sixty one of the sixty three votes cast and took office immediately. George Bryan, Acting President since the death of Thomas Wharton on 23 May, received only one vote for President but was re-elected to the Vice-Presidency in similarly one-sided voting. Reed was reelected to the Presidency twice—on 11 November 1779 and 14 November 1780—each time defeating William Moore, the second time by a vote of fifty-nine to one. Reed's third and final term came to a close 15 November 1781, when he was succeeded by William Moore.

Reed is credited with being the first to detect the treason of Benedict Arnold. As a delegate to the Continental Congress, Reed tried Arnold for mal-practices of his military duties while in command at Philadelphia, though the trial was strongly opposed by other members of Congress.

Reed's antipathy to Pennsylvania's Loyalist residents has been well attested by historic sources. While in Congress, he advocated seizure of Loyalist properties and trying those aligned with Great Britain for treason. Reed and his family themselves lived in a confiscated Loyalist home. Congress as a whole had a much more tolerant outlook regarding Loyalist citizens. While President of Pennsylvania he oversaw numerous trials of suspected Loyalists.


Joseph Reed died 5 March 1785, after a long debilitating illness that had first manifested around the time of his wife's death in 1780. He died in his home in Philadelphia, aged forty-three years, survived by five of his children, the youngest of whom was only five years old. In his will he appointed his three friends William Bradford, Jared Ingersoll, and Charles Pettit as executors and as guardians of his children. He was buried at the Arch Street Presbyterian Church Cemetery next to his wife, Esther de Berdt. His tomb is thus inscribed:

In Memory

Of the virtues, talents, and eminent services of

General Joseph Reed,

Born in the State of New Jersey

On the 27th of August, 1741,

He devoted himself to the pursuit of knowledge,

And early engaged in the study of the law;

By he erudition, learning, and eloquence,

He soon rose to the highest eminence at the bar;

But at the call of his country,

Forsaking all private pursuits, he followed her

Standard to the field of battle,

And by his wisdom in council and conduct in action

Essentially promoted the Revolution in America.

Distinguished by his many public virtues,

He was, on the 1st of December, 1778, unanimously elected

President of this State.

Amidst the most difficult and trying scenes, his Administration

Exhibited disinterested zeal, firmness and decision.

In private life,

Accomplished in his manners, pure in his morals,

Fervent and faithful in all his attachments,

He was beloved and admired.

On the 5th of March, 1785,

Too soon for his country and his friends, he closed

A life, active useful and glorious.

Stryker says of him:

“No man was more freely admitted to the counsel of General Washington than his friend Reed and to no man did he more frequently refer for advice. To him Washington always wrote with a familiarity and frankness which he never used toward any other officer. Colonel Reed was always energetic and brave, a model staff officer, a wonderfully quick penetrating genius and an accomplished gentleman. Who has not heard the indignant answer which he made to George Johnston, the English diplomatist, who had tried to bribe him to return to the support of the English Crown: ‘I am not worth purchasing, but such as I am, the King of Great Britain is not rich enough to do it.’ “

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General Joseph Reed's Timeline

August 27, 1741
Trenton, Mercer County, New Jersey, United States
May 12, 1771
July 11, 1772
July 21, 1775
October 2, 1776
May 12, 1778
May 26, 1780
March 5, 1785
Age 43
Philadelphia, Philadelphia County, Pennsylvania, United States