David Ramsay

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David Ramsay

David Ramsay (April 2, 1749 – May 8, 1815) was an American historian from Charleston, South Carolina, and a Founding Father of the United States. He served as a South Carolina delegate to the Continental Congress in 1782–1783 and again in 1785–1786. He was one of the first major historians of the American Revolution because of his accurate research, his narrative flair, and his commitment to the goals of republicanism.

He was killed at Charleston on May 8, 1815 by a lunatic.

Early life

The son of an Irish emigrant, he was born in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. He graduated at the College of New Jersey (Princeton) in 1765, received his medicine degree at the University of Pennsylvania in 1773, and settled as a physician at Charleston, where he had a large practice.

His older brother Nathaniel Ramsey[1] was brother-in-law to well known revolutionary artist Charles Willson Peale.[2]


During the American Revolution he served as a field-surgeon (1780–1781), and from 1776 to 1783 he was a member of the South Carolina General Assembly. Having acted as one of the council of safety at Charleston, he was, on the capture of that city in 1780. seized by the British as a hostage, and for nearly a year was kept in prison at St. Augustine, Florida. From 1782 to 1786 he served in the Continental Congress, and from 1801 to 1815 in the state Senate, of which he was long president.


In his own day, Ramsay was better known as a historian and author than as a politician. In 1785 he published in two volumes History of the Revolution of South Carolina, in 1789 in two volumes History of the American Revolution, in 1807 a Life of Washington, and in 1809 in two volumes a History of South Carolina. Ramsay was also the author of several minor works, including a memoir (1812) of his third wife Martha Laurens Ramsay, a well-educated woman who had served as a political hostess for her father, Henry Laurens, during the 1780s.

Messer (2002) examines the transition in Ramsay's republican perspective from his History of the American Revolution (1789) to his more conservative History of the United States (1816–17). His works went from a call for active citizens to reform and improve societal institutions to a warning of the dangers of an overzealous population and the need to preserve existing institutions. In his discussion of the treatment of Indians and African American slaves he became less critical of whites and changed to reflect the views of society at large. Ramsay's increasing involvement in South Carolina's economic and political institutions and the need for stability that defined early-19th century nationalism influenced this transformation. O'Brien (1994) argues his 1789 History of the American Revolution was one of the first and most accomplished histories to appear in the aftermath of that event. She says it challenges American exceptionalist literary frameworks by presenting itself within the European Enlightenment historical tradition, reflecting Ramsay's belief that the United States would have no historical destiny beyond typical patterns of European political and cultural development. Epic portrayals of American history in the 19th century were more the product of New England's historiographic traditions coupled with German historical thought, treating national character as a historical agent, rather than a historical result, as Ramsay suggests. Ramsay's history, then, is better considered the last of the European Enlightenment tradition than the first of American historical epics. Ramsay's History of South Carolina: From Its First Settlement in 1670 to the Year 1808 was a pioneer in state history, providing much more sophisticated analysis that was usual.

His History of the United States in three volumes was published posthumously in 1816–1817, and forms the first three volumes of his Universal History Americanized, published in twelve volumes in 1819.


Main Works

  • Ramsay, David. The History of the American Revolution. 2 vols. Philadelphia: R. Aitken and Son, 1789. Online excerpt Reprint edition [with original paging], with a foreword by Lester H. Cohen. Indianapolis: Liberty Press, 1990. Online edition
  • Ramsay, David. Ramsay's History of South Carolina: From Its First Settlement in 1670 to the Year 1808 (1858) online edition
  • Ramsay, David. Memoirs of the Life of Martha Laurens Ramsay (1812) online edition
  • Ramsay, David. The Life of George Washington: Commander in Chief of the Armies of the United States of America (1811) online edition

Secondary sources

  • Cohen, Lester H. The Revolutionary Histories: Contemporary Narratives of the American Revolution. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1980.
  • Cohen, Lester H. "Creating a Usable Future: The Revolutionary Historians and the National Past." In The American Revolution: Its Character and Limits, 309–30. Ed. by Jack P. Greene. New York: New York University Press, 1987.
  • Messer, Peter C. "From a Revolutionary History to a History of Revolution: David Ramsay and the American Revolution." Journal of the Early Republic 22, no. 2 (2002):205-233. ISSN: 0275-1275 in JSTOR
  • O'Brien, Karen. "David Ramsay and the Delayed Americanization of American History." Early American Literature 29, no. 1 (1994):1-18. ISSN: 0012–8163 in EBSCO
  • Shaffer, Arthur. To Be an American: David Ramsay and the Making of the American Consciousness. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1991.
  • Smith, Page. "David Ramsay and the Causes of the American Revolution." William and Mary Quarterly, 17, no. 1 (Jan. 1960):51-77. in JSTOR
  • Smith, William Raymond. History as Argument: Three Patriot Historians of the American Revolution. The Hague: Mouton, 1966. (On Ramsay, Warren and Marshall.)


External links