Born in New Jersey in 1741, Joseph Reed was relocated as a toddler to Philadelphia with his family. The town was then a booming colonial town of the British Empire in North America, as were Boston and New York.

In 1763, at the age of 22, after a brief apprenticeship with Trenton, New Jersey lawyer Richard Stockton, and admission to the New jersey Bar in 1762, Reed sailed from London where he pursued legal studies at the Middle Temple.

Upon his return to Trenton in 1765, he was faced with his father's bankruptcy. Fortunately, Joseph Reed's law firm was fabulously successful, first in New Jersey, later in Philadelphia. He boasted in 1767 that he was making £1,000 a year.1

While in London, he had fallen in love with Esther de Berdt, whom he returned to marry in May 1770, and brought back to Philadelphia where he then transfered his law firm.

Reed, like George Washington and other Americans, had two "negro" slaves.

His law practice was doing extremely well when he received an urgent and heartfelt request from his close personal friend, George Washington to become his war secretary, as the colonialist commanding general was at the head of a rag-tag army, waging war on their British masters.

Joseph ReedReed gave up his law practice. What he anticipated to be a temporary secondment turned into a long commitment. Even during the war, he occasionally returned to Philadelphia not just to raise troops and money, but also to tend to his law practice.

Reed followed Washington through the early and almost catastrophic failures of the initial months of the American Revolution, including the capture of Boston, the loss of New York and the British approach through New Jersey towards Philadelphia.

Reed's loyalty was never in doubt as he was a prominent member of the Continental Congress which, on July 2, 1776, even as the British guns were booming only 100 miles to the northeast, defiantly declared independence.

On October 11, 1776, Reed wrote to his wife of the lack of leadership by American officers:

"Where the principles of democracy so universally prevail, where so great an equality and so thorough a leveling spirit predominates, either no discipline can be established, or he who attempts it must become odious and detestable, a position which no one will choose. You may form some notion of it when I tell you that yesterday morning a captain of horse, who attends the General from Connecticut, was seen shaving one of his men on the parade near the house."

In December of 1776, George Washington accidentally opened a private letter addressed to Reed from another of Washington's officers. In it, Washington was made aware of Reed's loss of confidence and criticism in him. Washington later reproached Reed not on the indiscretions and concerns but only in the manner of not delivering his thoughts and opinions directly to Washington.

Reed was present at most of the major battles and he saw limited action. For the most part, his responsibilities included supporting his commanding general.

He took the then-controversial step of pursuing court-martial of Connecticutan Benedict Arnold, who had not yet turned British spy but who was at that time, a pompous and pretentious, but also successful military officer for the Americans. The charges were unsuccessful. Arnold later secretly planned to surrender an American Fort to the British but it was thwarted at the last minute. Opinion of Reed's judgment was enhanced.

Even as the long war continued, Reed was a delegate from the State of Pennsylvania to sign the Articles of American Confederation in 1778 and was elected President of Pennsylvania in that same year. He is considered by American historians to of been the mastermind of Pennsylvania politics during the revolutionary war and:

"... the most Pennsylvanian of the great leaders of the Revolution".2

Reed was also known for his hatred of the Loyalists many of whom had covertly aided the British throughout the American war of independence. In 1778, Reed was appointed to serve as prosecutor of two elderly Quaker loyalists, Abraham Carlisle and John Roberts, both of whom were convicted of treason and executed on November 4, 1778 at Philadelphia.

During Joseph Reed's tenure as politician, he was a proponent of a successful legislative initiative to abolish slavery in Pennsylvania.

His wife died at the age of 34 in 1780, born a British citizen, but a fully converted and enthusiastic American patriot.

In his last years, he successfully defeated  a claim made by John Cadwalader (1742-1786) who asserted that Reed was covertly trying to end the Revolution as early as 1776, even behind Washington's back.

A contemporary, William Rawle (1759-1836), wrote of him:

"The powers of Reed were of a higher order. His mind was perspicuous, his perceptions quick, his penetration great, his industry unremitted. Before the Revolution he had a considerable share of the current practice.

"His manner of speaking was not, I think, pleasing; his reasoning, however, was well-conducted, and seldom failed to bear upon the proper points of controversy. When he had the conclusion of a cause he was formidable; and I have heard an old practitioner say that there was no one at the bar whom he so little liked to be behind him as Joseph Reed."


  • Book Review, Life and Correspondence of Joseph Reed, published by his grandson in 1847 in two volumes. 6 Penn. L.. 449 (1847) - NOTE 2
  • Friedman, Nathan, The Early American Bar, 1 Legal Chatter 2 (1937)
  • McCullough, David, 1776 (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2005)
  • Roche, John Francis. Joseph Reed, A Moderate in the American Revolution (1957, reprint, New York: AMS Press, 1968)
  • Joseph Reed (1741-1785), University of Pennsylvania, retrieved from on Sept. 1, 2012