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.
Unhappily for all parties involved, on an occasion when Reed was absent from headquarters Washington opened a communication from Lee to Reed, and it was all that was needed to make him realize that Reed—the member of his official family on whom he relied most—had turned against him. The aftermath of this was an awkwardness between the two that could not be repaired; and regrettably for Washington, who had been so well served by Reed, the easygoing, intimate relationship they had once enjoyed was gone for good. Reed’s service to the commander in chief was by no means at an end, however. As a former resident of Trenton he supplied Washington with vital information before and during the battles of Trenton and Princeton, and largely on the strength of Reed’s intelligence reports Washington decided where and how to attack the latter place. Within three weeks of the victory at Princeton, Reed resigned as Adjutant General. Washington magnanimously offered him command of the cavalry, which Reed declined (largely, it appears, because Congress was slow to confirm him as a brigadier general). And then, curiously, he volunteered as an aide without pay in time to serve Washington admirably at the battles of Brandywine, Germantown, and Monmouth. That same year he was offered the position of chief justice of Pennsylvania (he refused); he was elected to Congress (he accepted); and in 1778 he became president of the Supreme Executive Council of Pennsylvania. As the state’s chief officer Reed was responsible for pressing charges of misconduct against the American commander in Philadelphia, Benedict Arnold (charges that were virtually dismissed, although it turned out later that Arnold’s dishonesty was even worse than Reed had suspected), and in January of 1781 he had the onerous and unhappy task of putting down the mutiny of the Pennsylvania Line. By then not much time remained to Joseph Reed, even though he was still a young man. After the war he returned to his law practice and made a journey to England, but his health had failed. He died in 1785 at the age of forty-four, leaving us to wonder what he might have achieved had he lived longer. Would he have come into his own, fulfilling at last the promise of his natural abilities? Or would he have shown, yet again, that he was not quite sure how to make use of them?