In late May 1780, General George Washington reported to Congress that serious and prolonged shortages of rations, clothing, and pay had nearly exhausted his troops. Immediate relief was needed. Aspiring “to render themselves more really useful,” the women of Philadelphia, who had observed that government measures were usually slow and inadequate, took on this challenge.
Led by Esther De Berdt Reed (1747-1780), first lady of Pennsylvania, the ladies quickly organized a systematic plan for canvassing the city and suburbs. In mid-June, at least three dozen women went from house to house soliciting funds. The efforts of this “resistless force” were so successful that in her July 4, 1780, letter to Washington, Esther Reed could report that the women had raised more than $300,000 in paper currency.
Subscription papers for this pioneering charity drive, later published by Reed's grandson, list 1,645 contributors by name and amount. Although most contributions were in depreciated paper currency, more than a third of the funds were in specie. One pair of leather breeches was donated. Both the countess de La Luzerne, wife of the French minister, and the marquise de Lafayette, through the marquis, contributed generously. The ladies' campaign received repeated praise in the Pennsylvania Packet, where the amount the women raised was shown to rival the sum pledged by men to establish a bank—and these subscriptions from the men were expected to be returned to them with interest.
Sentiments of an American Woman—probably written by Esther Reed—sets out historical examples of aggressive female patriotism as inspiration and justification for a call to political action. Professing women's “love for the public good” to be at least equal to that of men, the writer encourages women actively to make personal sacrifices to give soldiers “extraordinary and unexpected” presents of gratitude and remembrance.
Esther Reed's patriotism is particularly noteworthy. She had come to America only a decade earlier as the bride of Joseph Reed. The conditions of war had effectively separated her from her family and friends in England. Furthermore, Esther undertook leadership of the women's relief efforts in the weeks immediately following the birth in May of her sixth child, George Washington Reed, at a time when most women would have restricted their physical and social activities severely.
On the verso of this broadsheet is a detailed plan for collecting and forwarding funds. Virginia Congressman John Walker, in his June 13, 1780, letter to Governor Thomas Jefferson, suggests that it was drawn up by François, marquis de Barbé-Marbois, secretary to the French legation, who was known to have encouraged the women's relief activities. This broadsheet, which, according to the June 13 Pennsylvania Packet, was published on June 10, 1780, was undoubtedly the plan enclosed by several congressional delegates with their June correspondence home.
With encouragement from Esther Reed and Martha Washington, similar fund drives were organized in Maryland, New Jersey, and Virginia. As in Philadelphia, women in these three states adapted their fundraising efforts to meet local conditions. Before year's end, the results of their collective efforts also were forwarded to General Washington.
Although the Philadelphia ladies had hoped that their contributions could be used to provide “an extraordinary bounty” beyond the food and clothing due to soldiers by the government, Washington insisted that it was shirts that would provide the greatest comfort to his men. So in late August, Esther Reed began purchasing linen. Its transformation into shirts unfortunately fell to other hands, for Esther Reed died suddenly on September 18, 1780, of a fever.
After an autumn of “general sickness” in the city, the Philadelphia women, wanting to stretch their funds as far as possible, began making the shirts themselves. On December 26, 1780, Sarah Franklin Bache forwarded more than two thousand shirts to Washington, with the wish that they “be worn with as much pleasure as they were made.”
This early episode of American women's collective patriotism can be traced by consulting the following sources found in the Library of Congress Online Catalog: