Sentiments of a British-American Woman by Owen S. Ireland

Book Review presents reviews of recent publications on Pennsylvania subjects by noted scholars, historians and journalists.

Sentiments of a British-American Woman
Esther Deberdt Reed and The American Revolution
by Owen S. Ireland
Pennsylvania State University Press, 264 pp., cloth $89.95

Esther DeBerdt Reed led a remarkable and significant life. Born in 1746, this daughter of a prosperous London merchant fell in love with Joseph Reed, a young American law student with whom she sustained a years-long transatlantic romance before they married in 1770. Although they hoped to live in London, financial and family crises — mostly triggered by the death of Esther’s father — brought the newlyweds to America, where they prospered. Educated and competent, Esther played pivotal roles in her family’s mercantile business and in Joseph’s legal practice. But her most notable achievements, and greatest trials, came during the American Revolution, when Joseph attained success and fame on the battlefield and in politics and Esther — constantly moving, with her children, in search of safety — founded the Ladies Association of Philadelphia, which in 1780 raised some $300,000 in five states to support Continental Army soldiers. She died that September, eight months after her “Sentiments of an American Woman,” a broadside published in Philadelphia, spurred women to act and declared that they could, and should, take politics and patriotism seriously.

Owen S. Ireland draws on rich collections of DeBerdt and Reed family letters to produce this excellent biography. He argues perceptively that, while in some respects, the life of his subject was extraordinary, in others her experiences were much like those of other smart, politically engaged, and affluent wives and mothers in revolutionary America. Esther DeBerdt Reed was, at the time of her death, the best-known woman in the United States after Martha Washington. Historians generally acknowledge her pioneering effort to organize women for public action as a key turning point in American women’s history. As Ireland notes, she deserves to be remembered and welcomed “into a prominent position in the pantheon of our founders, male and female.” This engaging book is a major step in that direction.

Cynthia A. Kierner
George Mason University