Men of the Revolution: 17. Joseph Reed

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Like many another well-to-do young man of his day, Joseph Reed seems an unlikely revolutionist. His background, money, education, marriage—all these, one would suppose, would have placed him firmly on the side of the status quo, kept him loyal to the Crown. It did not turn out that way, of course; yet Reed was something of an enigma even to his contemporaries. Political radicals thought him insufficiently radical; many fellow officers considered him a reluctant soldier.

Reed’s ancestors had come to America from Northern Ireland, and the family was well established in these parts by the time Joseph was born in 1741. His father prospered as a merchant in Trenton, and Joseph attended the College of New Jersey at Princeton before reading law with Richard Stockton, the able, eloquent Princetonian who was generally acknowledged as one of the best lawyers in the province. Young Reed went to London for two years at the Middle Temple—during which time he regularly attended the debates in the House of Commons—and by the time he returned to America he was about as well prepared for public service as a colonial could be.

He married an Englishwoman and—back in Trenton—practiced law and engaged in the iron trade and real estate. He was sniffing around the edges of politics, too; in 1767 he was appointed deputy secretary of the colony of New Jersey. Trenton must have seemed small potatoes after London; certainly, bigger things were going on in Philadelphia; and Reed decided to move his law practice to the capital city of Pennsylvania, where, after several years’ residence, he became a leading member of the local committee of correspondence. In January, 1775, at the age of thirty-four, he was named president of Pennsylvania’s Second Provincial Congress. During this period of heightened political tension Reed’s views concerning the mother country had undergone a slow but definite shift: from a belief that reconciliation with Britain was both desirable and possible, he came to feel that independence was the only course for the colonies to take.

Those were desperately busy times for men who possessed unusual ability, and Reed, who had talent in abundance, suddenly found himself sought after as a military man. He was appointed a lieutenant colonel, and on June 19, 1775—four days after George Washington was elected commander in chief—he was invited to join the Virginian’s staff. In the course of the war Washington was to have thirty-two aides in his military “family,” and Reed was one of the best, setting a standard for those who followed. He had exceptional intelligence and sound military instincts, and he was a gifted writer. Yet for all his abilities, there was a curious in-and-out quality about Reed; it was as though some other voice were always calling, preventing him from devoting his entire attention to the task at hand. Three months after becoming Washington’s secretary—which, given the volume of correspondence the commander in chief was obliged to carry on, was easily the most demanding post at headquarters—Reed departed, pleading the press of cases pending in his law practice. And for all Washington’s requests that he return, he was in no hurry to do so, though during this absence he sat with the Continental Congress in Philadelphia and even served with a militia regiment that was ordered to New York. Finally, in March, 1776, Washington offered him the job of Adjutant General, which carried the rank of colonel and paid £700 a year. Reed accepted, but reluctantly. As he explained the decision to his wife, the money would help support them “until these calamitous times are at an end.” Also, he told her, the post was “honorable”: if the rebel cause succeeded, holding the position of Adjutant General “must put me on a respectable scale.” Should the Americans lose, on the other hand, “I have done enough to expose myself to ruin.”

Reed’s judgment in military matters was consistently good, his advice to Washington excellent; but when it came to decisions of a personal nature, he seemed irresolute, wavering, a Piscean character swimming back and forth, wondering which current would become the mainstream. He even vacillated in his loyalty to the commander in chief who placed such faith in him, an act that was his undoing with Washington. After the loss of Fort Washington, the last outpost remaining to the rebels on Manhattan Island, Reed wrote to Major General Charles Lee, who was known to be hankering after Washington’s job. “I do not mean to flatter nor praise you at the expense of another,” said Reed, doing both, “but I confess I do think that it is entirely owing to you that this Army, the Liberties of America, so far as they are dependent on it, are not totally cut off. You have Decision, a Quality often wanting in minds otherwise valuable. …” Reed did not have to spell out for Lee the name of the man with whom he was being contrasted.