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David Ramsay

David Ramsay

David Ramsay (1749-1815) was a second-line political figure of the American Revolution but a first-rate and most important contemporary historian of that epoch.

David Ramsay was born in Pennsylvania on April 2, 1749, of substantial landowning parents. He graduated from the College of New Jersey (now Princeton University) and, after teaching for a while, took a medical degree from the University of Pennsylvania in 1772.

Ramsay settled in Charleston, S.C., and made it his home for the remainder of his life. The beginning of his political career coincided with the outbreak of the American Revolution. Much of that career was spent in the legislature of his adopted state, but he also served for 2 years in the 1780s in the Continental Congress, where he emerged as an early supporter of a strong federal government. After the ratification of the Constitution, Ramsay served in the upper house of South Carolina and on three occasions was named president of that body.

In these years Ramsay earned his way rather precariously by practicing medicine. He also used his ample talent as a writer to turn out occasional first-rate essays on the history of medicine. These did not pay anything, though, and Ramsay was in chronic financial need. Despite his talents, he proved a poor businessman. He speculated in land with such disastrous consequences that even a steady medical practice could not recoup his losses. He went bankrupt in 1798, having opposed leniency to debtors throughout his political career. He died in Charleston on May 8, 1815.

Ramsay is best remembered as the author of the most objective and sophisticated contemporary account of the Revolution. His History of the American Revolution (1789) forms the basis today for most of the multicausation theories of that epoch. Like many historians writing at this time, he relied heavily for information on the Annual Register, a British publication that summarized events each year; like contemporary historians, too, Ramsay was not always careful with the truth. But his interpretations were his own, and he was the first—and for a century the only—historian to suggest that a variety of motives had induced men and governments to support independence first and the Constitution later.

Ramsay emphasized the key role of "independent men" in motivating American nationalism, creating changes in the social structure, and capitalizing on expanding economic opportunity in the young republic. In approaching his assessment of the era in this sophisticated way, Ramsay, as one historian has suggested, may have "penetrated further into the essential meaning of the Revolution than the more arduous researches of twentieth-century historians have done."

Further Reading

There is no book-length biography of Ramsay. For a brief biographical sketch and an excerpt from Ramsay's writings see Edmund S. Morgan, The American Revolution: Two Centuries of Interpretation (1965).

Additional Sources

Shaffer, Arthur H. To be an American: David Ramsay and the making of the American consciousness, Columbia, S.C.: University of South Carolina Press, 1991. □

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