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The Woman Who Stood Up To George Washington

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb
The Truth Network Radio
April 19, 2024 3:00 am

The Woman Who Stood Up To George Washington

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb

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April 19, 2024 3:00 am

On this episode of Our American Stories, during the Revolutionary War, Esther Reed decided the Patriot troops needed a morale boost. Reed, along with other Patriot Women, began a campaign to raise money for the cause. When she brought her idea to General Washington, he had another idea.

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Our American Stories
Lee Habeeb
Our American Stories
Lee Habeeb

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Not obligations of Navy Federal and may lose value. This is Lee Habib and this is our American Stories, the show where America is the star and the American people. And to find and search for the Our American Stories podcast, go to the iHeartRadio app or wherever you get your podcasts. Today we have the story of Esther Reed, a woman whom during the Revolutionary War went to great lengths to support the Continental Army. Professor Woody Holton of the University of South Carolina will be sharing with us her story.

Here's Professor Holton. One of my favorite discoveries researching a book on the Revolution was Esther Reed, the woman who stood up to George Washington and after she died was plagiarized by Thomas Jefferson, but in a good way. She was born in Britain in 1746 and when she was in her early 20s, she met a young man who was in Britain for a legal education. His name was Joseph Reed and he was from America and they too fell in love. The two of them married and they moved back to America together in 1770. And so one of the amazing things about Esther Reed is just four years after moving to America, we have the first Continental Congress meeting in Philadelphia and a bunch of the delegates had dinner with Esther and Joseph Reed and one of them pronounced her a daughter of liberty.

That is, she had already become a solid enthusiastic patriot for the American cause, even though she'd only lived in America for four years. Her husband, Joseph, was also a great patriot. He became a secretary to George Washington and then Adjutant General in the Continental Army. But that's also what got Joseph in trouble because in 1776, George Washington, as Commander-in-Chief, made a mistake. He should have evacuated a fort called Fort Washington on the Hudson River in what's now New York City. And Washington didn't and the fort was captured with 6,000 men in it. Reed wrote a letter criticizing his Commander-in-Chief, George Washington, and to his great chagrin, George Washington, accidentally on purpose, opened this letter and saw that George Washington was criticizing him.

And it really put a real pall in their relationship. They continued to work together, Washington and Joseph Reed. In 1779, Joseph Reed became the President of Pennsylvania. That was the highest office in this new state of Pennsylvania during the American Revolution. But I want to take you to the spring of 1780, which was the real low point of the Revolutionary War. Near where I live, down in Charleston, South Carolina, the British captured not only the town of Charleston, but of 6,000-man Continental soldiers.

And that was the first time in the world that the British captured not only the town of Charleston, but of 6,000-man Continental Army. And there were problems internal to America, too. The soldiers hadn't been paid and they weren't getting their required amount of food or proper uniforms. And so, as George Washington put it, there was a mutiny and dissension throughout the Army. I mean, one of the most important incidents of desertion was a bunch of Continental soldiers.

Here they are fighting for liberty, but they've just had enough. And so, they mass deserted and were going to, this was in upstate New York, and they were going to go to a British fort up near Canada and desert to the other side. And their commanding officer had to resort to sending Oneida Indians, they're one of the six nations of the Iroquois, to go capture these Americans who had tried to desert to the British. And the Oneidas did catch up with them and killed 13 of them.

Some escaped, some were brought back to face justice. It was dark days. And in one sense, it was literally dark days because there was a weird thing that happened in the heavens in May of 1780. In the middle of the day, the sky went dark and people knew from their almanacs when there was going to be an eclipse, and this was not an eclipse. It just suddenly went dark and the whippoorwills sounded and the cocks crowed and all that. And many people believed, oh my God, we're having darkness in the middle of the day.

This is the end of the world. And it sort of made sense given how bad things were going for the patriot side. It eventually went away and historians think that what really had happened was forest fires up in Maine had put so much smoke into the air that it blackened the sky farther south. It really sort of symbolizes that these were dark days for the Americans. And this is where Esther Reed becomes part of the story. She wanted to do something to improve the morale of the soldiers that were already enlisted. And so she came up with this idea of getting the women of Philadelphia to go door to door and raise money and then divide it up among the troops as a special gift among the soldiers. And it just is a way of telling them that they had not been forgotten. That was her great fear was that, you know, and this happens a lot in our country and as well as other countries, people who are not having to go fight the war, forget about the troops. And she really wanted them to know that they were remembered. But she had a problem in organizing this effort. And that was that women in those or at least ladies in those days weren't supposed to go out knocking on strangers doors. They really weren't supposed to be in the street alone. And you've been listening to Woody Houlton of the University of South Carolina. Share with us the story of Esther Reed.

And he's setting the table. And people who think we're facing hard times today just don't understand what hard times were and how what our troops were going through. Well, we could have lost it. They could have just left. And efforts like this from Esther Reed changed the game, changed the calculus, the morale of the troops. Think about it. They weren't paid.

And indeed, they were deserting en masse. When we come back, more of this remarkable story of Esther Reed, the story of the founding of our country and our first war and our first civil war here on Our American Stories. Folks, if you love the stories we tell about this great country and especially the stories of America's rich past, know that all of our stories about American history from war to innovation, culture and faith are brought to us by the great folks at Hillsdale College, a place where students study all the things that are beautiful in life and all the things that are good in life. And if you can't get to Hillsdale, Hillsdale will come to you with their free and terrific online courses.

Go to to learn more. This show is sponsored by Better Help. Hi, Lee Habib here, host of Our American Stories. I want to talk to you about your social battery. If you're feeling drained or spread too thin, your social battery might just need a recharge or an adjustment. It's easy to ignore that feeling something isn't quite right with your social battery. As our ever-connected world makes setting social boundaries harder and spreads us thinner, it can feel like there just isn't enough of us to go around. Therapy is a great way to build self-awareness and a better social life.

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Go find it now and hit follow. And we continue with our American stories. We've been listening to Professor Woody Houlton of the University of South Carolina share with us the story of Esther Reed. Esther was born British, but moved to America after marrying her Patriot husband, Joseph Reed, who had, by the way, become the president of Pennsylvania. The Patriots had experienced some devastating losses in the war, and Esther had begun to worry about the morale of our troops. So she decided to raise money for them and was encouraging other women to do the same back again as women back when women did not knock on doors.

Let's return to Woody. She had to sell them on the idea of doing this. So she published this extraordinary thing in the newspaper called Sentiments of an American Lady, where she made the case that American women, just like American men, were born for liberty. And she also cited examples of role models, you could say, of women in history who had stepped out and made serious changes. And she mentioned, for instance, Elizabeth, who was one of those powerful monarchs that England had ever had. The example of Catherine the Great of Russia, another powerful woman. And she used an interesting expression in her essay, Esther Reed did, to describe what Catherine the Great and what Elizabeth I had done. And that was, she said they had extended the empire of liberty. She, Esther Reed, was the first person ever to use that phrase empire of liberty for an earthly matter. That is, people had used empire of liberty as a euphemism, an expression for heaven. So she published this essay and got a lot of other women involved in it.

They had a committee of 39, that is three, representing each of the 13 states. And they raised a ton of money. Everything's going pretty well with the fundraising until Esther Reed wrote Commander in Chief George Washington saying, OK, we've raised all this money.

We need to figure out the practical matter. We'd like to involve Martha Washington in distributing the money to the troops. And George Washington wrote back saying, hold on. I know my men.

These are mostly guys in their 20s, some younger than that. And if you give them cash money, they're going to go out and blow it on liquor. And so not only will they not have anything of value for that, but I'll have a drunken army to confront the British with. And so I don't want direct gifts of cash to the soldiers.

Here's what I want you to do instead. I want you to go out and buy a bunch of cloth, linen cloth, and you women use that cloth to sew shirts for the soldiers. And Esther Reed wrote back saying, well, we don't want to do it that way because we don't want to give the soldiers something they need. We want to give them something they want. That is, the soldiers and the army owes uniforms, including shirts, to its soldiers. And so it's your job, George Washington, she was saying as tactfully as she could.

He was a very intimidating guy even then. It's your job to provide the clothing for the soldiers. So we don't want to give them something they're supposed to be getting anyway.

We want to give them something nice. Well, George Washington wrote back saying, shirts, it should really be shirts. So she did give in and said, okay, we'll give in on the shirts.

One of the things I discovered was, yes, she gave in on the shirts, but she didn't give in on another matter. And that involves knowing that Pennsylvania politics was very divided. It wasn't Republicans and Democrats then, it was Republicans and constitutionalists, a very different Republican party from the one we have today. Those were her husband's enemy.

The constitutionalist party. Anyway, Washington had said, hey, I want you to buy cloth with this money, but I want you to put the money in this new bank, a private bank started by a bunch of these Republican politicians in Pennsylvania. And she wrote back basically saying, but this thing was started by my husband's enemies.

And if I put the money in there, they're going to give me bank notes and returns of IOUs and that money will be worth less than the money that I put in. And that's going to hurt my cause. And so she stood up to George Washington. She said, no, that makes her a very rare person. You know, she was only 33 years old standing up to George Washington and ladies were not supposed to do that, but they collect all this money. They spent it on cloth and then did comply with what Washington desired about the shirts. And the women ended up making 2000 shirts to give to Continental soldiers. And one of the fun little flourishes is that each woman sewed her name into the back of the shirt.

So the soldier would know if there was one particular woman who had done this for him. And again, her whole point was to show that they were remembered. The saddest part of this story comes on September 18th, 1780 when they're right in the middle of sewing these shirts. And when she suddenly came down with a pack of dysentery and died on September 18th of 1780 at the age of only 33. The campaign continued without her. One of the things to say about Esther Reed's death is that generally when women died in those days, if they were famous like her, she's the wife of the highest official in the state, they'll put an obituary, but they're always very general and really interchangeable. Oh, she was wonderful wife, wonderful mother, but nothing specific about them. But when she died, they did do the generic obituary, but then they also specifically talked about this amazing effort that she had done on behalf of the soldiers.

And in fact, the newspaper speculated that one reason for her death was imposing on herself too great a part of the task. Like 7,000 soldiers who died of British bullets and another 20,000 soldiers who died of disease during the war. In a sense, she had given her life for the cause. As I said, the effort continued and it's a good thing it did too, because on January 1st, 1781, just a couple months after she died, there was a mutiny among the Pennsylvania soldiers of the Continental Army over all these issues, like not getting their pay and not getting proper clothing and food that had been promised to them. And they actually marched towards Philadelphia. The most interesting thing they did to appease the soldiers was they gave each of them a shirt. And so many of these mutinying soldiers was brought back to being a loyal soldier again by being given one of these shirts that Esther Reed and these other women had produced.

So that's one thing that happened after her death. Another thing is that Thomas Jefferson wrote one of his most famous letters. He, of course, is most famous for writing the Declaration of Independence, but he's also coined some of the best known phrases that we use when we talk about the American Revolution today.

So one of those was empire of liberty. He was the first person to describe the United States as an empire of liberty. And it's an interesting expression because we don't always associate liberty with empire, but he was hoping that the United States could become an empire of liberty. But you might remember that when I was talking about the essay that Esther Reed wrote in June of 1780 called Sentiments of an American Woman, in that essay, she became the first person to use the phrase empire of liberty for anything other than as a phrase for heaven. And she sent that essay to Martha Jefferson, the wife of Thomas Jefferson, the governor of Virginia. So I can't prove this, but I'm pretty sure that Thomas Jefferson got that phrase empire of liberty, not out of his amazingly creative brain, but he borrowed that idea from the late Esther Reed. And a terrific job on the production by Faith Buchanan, and a special thanks to Professor Woody Holton, professor at the University of South Carolina, and his book, Liberty is Sweet, the Hidden History of the American Revolution. And by the way, the role women played, we talk a lot about that here on the show and will continue to do so. American women were born for liberty, Esther Reed said.

Those words would make it to Jefferson's pen and change the world. The story of Esther Reed here on Our American Stories. With dozens of streaming services, box office films and content to choose from, people are spending over two and a half years of their lives searching for what to watch. But The Hollywood Reporter brings you THR Charts, one place for you, your family and friends to find the most watched TV shows and movies every week. THR Charts is a guide to help you spend less time scrolling through platforms so that you can spend more time watching and binging the content everyone is talking about, all supported by data and trusted sources like Nielsen Comscore and Para Analytics.

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