Ramsay, David

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David Ramsay

Born April 2, 1749
Lancaster County, Pennsylvania
Died May 8, 1815
Charleston, South Carolina

Physician, politician, historian

David Ramsay was a man of many talents. He was born into humble circumstances and lacked family connections. But he became a wealthy and successful physician in an America that had freed itself from the type of European social system in which this would not have been possible. Ramsay became the foremost American historian of Revolutionary times and a spokesman for the revolutionary generation's politicians and thinkers.

David Ramsay was born in Drumore Township, Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. His parents had come to America from Ireland and were the owners of a small farm. Ramsay's older brother, Nathaniel, went on to become an officer in the Continental army (formed during the American Revolution) and a Maryland politician.

David Ramsay graduated from what is now Princeton University in New Jersey in 1765. After teaching for a short time, he went on to receive a medical degree in 1772 from what is now the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. There he studied under the esteemed physician Benjamin Rush see entry.

Ramsay was a very ambitious young man. After he completed his education, he worked as a doctor for one year in Maryland, near the home of his brother. Then in 1773 Ramsay moved to Charleston, South Carolina, where he was to remain for the rest of his life.

The Charleston in which Ramsay arrived was a thriving community that provided a fine opportunity for a young physician to make his mark. Ramsay found success there within a mere two years. Physician Benjamin Rush had given the young doctor a recommendation that referred to Ramsay as "far superior to any person we ever graduated at our college." Ramsay became a respected member of an important local church, gained election to the state legislature (where laws are made), and started a medical practice that soon began to flourish.

Marries, begins political career

In 1775 Ramsay married his first wife, Sabina Ellis, the daughter of a wealthy family of merchants. But the young woman died within a year, after giving birth to the couple's daughter. The money Ramsay inherited from his wife, coupled with his earnings as a physician, made him a wealthy man.

Beginning in his college years, Ramsay had opposed policies of Great Britain that seemed to him unfair to the colonists. He developed a belief in extreme republicanism. This is a system in which voters hold the power and carry out government policies through elected representatives. Ramsay expressed his political beliefs to his fellow colonists by way of pamphlets and public speeches and through his involvement in government service and the military.

While continuing his medical practice, Ramsay began a political career in Charleston in 1776, near the start of the Revolutionary War (1775–83). He was elected as a representative to the South Carolina legislature, where he was to serve on and off for twenty-one years.

Serves militia, joins Congress, remarries

During the middle of the Revolutionary War, when the British threatened to attack Charleston, Ramsay served as surgeon in the Charleston militia (a volunteer group of soldiers.) He was captured by the British and held for eleven months at a military prison in St. Augustine, Florida, until his release in June 1781.

From 1782 to 1786 Ramsay was a member of the South Carolina delegation to the Continental Congress, then America's governing body. At the Congress, Ramsay was an early supporter of a strong central government, rather than a type of government in which the individual states held greater power. He also became known for supporting a move to allow black men to join the American militia.

In 1783 Ramsay, age thirty-four, married for the second time, to Frances Witherspoon, the twenty-four-year-old daughter of John Witherspoon, a signer of the Declaration of Independence. Her father was the president of Princeton University, and although he was not wealthy, he was well known. The marriage brought Ramsay a lot of attention in the community, but he soon faced heartache once again when his second wife and infant son died fifteen months after the wedding.

Developments in political and personal life

From 1784 to 1790 Ramsay again served in the South Carolina House of Representatives. He was elected to the temporary position of Chairman of the Continental Congress in 1775 and held the position until Congress chose a permanent president in 1786.

In 1787 Ramsay took as his third wife Martha Laurens, daughter of Henry Laurens, one of the wealthiest merchants in South Carolina and president of the Continental Congress. The marriage introduced Ramsay into Charleston high society. Now he had both wealth and social position. It was also a love match; Martha Ramsay once wrote in her diary that her husband was "the spring of all my earthly happiness." Over sixteen years, the Ramsays produced eleven children; all but two survived to adulthood. The couple enjoyed a happy marriage until Martha Ramsay's death in 1811 at age fifty-one.

In 1788 Ramsay lost his bid to be elected to the U.S. House of Representatives. South Carolina voters suspected him of favoring the abolition of slavery, and the state's economy depended on slave labor. He was also known to have connecections with northern abolitionists, such as Benjamin Rush. Abolitionists wanted to see the end of slavery in the United States. Ramsay was defeated in the election by a pro-slavery candidate.

Ramsay remained active in state and national politics, and took an active role in Charleston's cultural, charitable, and medical affairs. He helped form the Medical Society of South Carolina in 1789 and served as its first treasurer.

Faces political ups and downs

In 1792 Ramsay began serving the first of his three two-year terms in the South Carolina Senate; each time he was also elected president of the Senate. As a senator, Ramsay favored the state's wealthy class. During his time in office, he voted against sympathetic treatment toward people in debt, but he opposed the importation of black slaves. The voters and his fellow legislators recognized him as being honest and able.

In 1794 Ramsay failed in his run for a U.S. Senate seat. Historians say he lost the election primarily because of his anti-slavery stand.

History as a writer

Ramsay was a multitalented man who is best remembered for his contributions as a writer of history. He wrote some excellent articles on the history of medicine, and his two-volume History of the Revolution of South Carolina was published in 1785.

Ramsay is most widely recognized for his History of the American Revolution, a two-volume set published in 1789. Like many other American historians of his time, Ramsay borrowed heavily from the writings of British historian Edmund Burke see entry.

With the publication of his History, Ramsay became the most respected historian in America and one of its best known writers. Six editions of his History were published between 1789 and 1865; several foreign-language editions were also published.

While his knowledgeable interpretations of events of his time are very valuable, history has shown that Ramsay was not always careful to write the entire truth. But for nearly one hundred years after the publication of his History, he remained the only historian to discuss the many different motives that led people to support the Revolution and the American Constitution. It was Ramsay's idea that a group of strong-minded men brought about American independence, changed the existing social structure, and made the most of the young nation's expanding economy.

Later life

In 1807 Ramsay published The Life of George Washington, a popular early study of the life of the first U.S. president. After the death of his third wife in 1811, Ramsay published Memoirs of the Life of Martha Laurens Ramsay, a tribute to the spouse he greatly missed.

In Ramsay's later years, he became the "grand old man" of Charleston thinkers, and prominent people often came to visit him. He also enjoyed frequent contact with his large, close family.

In his 1815 memoirs, Ramsay's friend Robert Y. Hayne wrote: Ramsay "was a most agreeable companion; his memory was stored with an infinite fund of interesting or amusing anecdotes, which gave great sprightliness and zest to his conversation. He never assumed any superiority over those with whom he conversed, and always took … pleasure in the society of young men of intelligence or [loyalty to their principles]."

Throughout his life, Ramsay faced constant financial problems. His writings earned little money and he proved to be a poor businessman. Ramsay made a disastrous investment when he bought land in hopes of reselling it for a profit. He lost so much money that he could not pay his debts, despite his thriving medical practice.

Ramsay was forced into bankruptcy in 1798 and struggled with major debts for the rest of his life. It is interesting to note that throughout his career as a lawmaker, Ramsay had shown no sympathy for the plight of people in debt.

Final work published after death

Ramsay met a violent death. On the afternoon of May 6, 1815, he was walking home from downtown Charleston when he passed by William Linnen, a tailor. Some time before, Ramsay had testified in a courtroom case that Linnen showed signs of insanity. On this occasion, Linnen shot Ramsay in the back with a large pistol. Ramsay was carried home by friends, but the wounds were fatal.

On his deathbed, Ramsay said he was not afraid to die. He declared, "I call on all present to bear witness, that I consider the unfortunate perpetrator [doer] of this deed a lunatic, and free from guilt." After two days of suffering, Ramsay died at the age of sixty-six. He was buried on the grounds of his beloved Congregational Church.

A few years after Ramsay's death, his ambitious nine-volume Universal History Americanized was published through the efforts of his friends and family. The book received mixed reviews and did not sell well. But Ramsay's reputation had already been well established, especially by the second volume of his History of the United States. About that book, historian and reviewer Abiel Holmes said in 1818, "[It] will always hold a distinguished rank in the historical productions of our country."

History student James K. Polk (1795–1849), who served as the eleventh president of the United States, once compared David Ramsay to Tacitus, a famous historian of ancient Rome. Polk described Ramsay as transmitting to those who followed in the New World "in the unpolished language of truth, the spirit of liberty which [called to action] the first founders of the republic."

For More Information

Boatner, Mark M., III. "Ramsay, David." Encyclopedia of the American Revolution. Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole Books, 1994, pp. 911-12.

Bourgoin, Suzanne M. and Paula K. Byers, eds. "Ramsay, David." Encyclopedia of World Biography. Detroit, MI: Gale, 1999, vol. 13, p. 21.

Dolan, J.P. "Ramsay, David." Dictionary of American Medical Biography.

Martin Kaufman, Stuart Galishoff, and Todd L. Savitt, eds. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1984, vol. 2, pp. 622-23.

Dolan, J.P. To Be an American: David Ramsay and the Making of the American Consciousness. Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press, 1991.

Purcell, L. Edward. "Ramsay, David." Who Was Who in the American Revolution. New York: Facts on File, 1993, p. 398.

Whitney, David C. "David Ramsay." The Colonial Spirit of '76: The People of the Revolution. Broadview, IL: J.G. Ferguson Publishing Co., 1974, p. 343.