Ramsay, Martha Laurens (1759–1811)

views updated

Ramsay, Martha Laurens (1759–1811)

American diarist. Born on November 3, 1759, in Charleston, South Carolina; died on June 10, 1811, in Charleston; daughter of Henry Laurens (a plantation owner, patriot, and later president of the Continental Congress) and Eleanor (Ball) Laurens; well educated but no record of formal schooling; married David Ramsay (a physician and member of the Continental Congress), on January 23, 1787; children: Eleanor (b. 1787); Martha (b. 1789); Frances (b. 1790); Katharine (b. 1792); Sabine Elliot (b. 1794); David (b. 1795); Jane Montgomery (b. 1796); James (b. 1797); a second Jane Montgomery (b. 1799); Nathaniel (b. 1801); William (b. 1802).

Martha Laurens Ramsay, born in Charleston, South Carolina, on November 3, 1759, was the eighth of thirteen children of Eleanor Ball Laurens , the daughter of a planter, and Henry Laurens, who would accumulate a large fortune by 1762 through the rice and slave trades and use this money to buy plantations, at one time owning some 20,000 acres. During a bout of smallpox as a baby, Martha was thought dead and laid out for burial, at which point she revived. An extremely bright child, she was able to read at age three and soon learned French, English grammar, geography, arithmetic and some geometry, although there is no record of any formal schooling. While he did not discourage her studies, her father reminded her that "housewifery" was the most important part of a girl's education. Her mother died in 1770 (eight of her children had predeceased her; one who did not, John Laurens, would go on to become George Washington's confidential secretary), and soon thereafter, around the age of twelve, Martha began taking a serious interest in religion.

She was brought up after her mother's death mainly by an aunt and uncle, James and Mary Laurens . Martha lived with them for 11 years, first in Charleston, then in England (1775–78), and then at Vigan in southern France, spending much of the time nursing her uncle. She was an avid reader, interested mainly in education and religion; after she received money from her uncle's will, she spent it on Bibles which she distributed to the locals in Vigan and also set up a school, paying the cost of the teacher's salary. In 1782, her father Henry, who had spent the intervening years as president of the Continental Congress (1777–78), a diplomat, and then a prisoner of war in the Tower of London, joined her in France. In obedience to his wishes, she gave up plans to marry a French suitor, and instead spent most of 1783 and 1784 nursing Henry, who had just participated in the negotiations leading to the Treaty of Paris that ended the Revolutionary War, and who was ill with gout. In 1784, he returned to Charleston, and a year later Martha followed.

At home again, she met her father's physician, David Ramsay, a former member of the Continental Congress who was 10 years her senior and had been married twice before. They were married on January 23, 1787, and over the next 16 years she gave birth to 11 children, 8 of whom survived childhood. In 1791, Ramsay also began keeping a diary, the entries in which are concerned primarily with her inner religious life and family life. She was deeply concerned about and oversaw the moral and secular education of her children, teaching them to read the Bible and later learning Latin and Greek herself in order to instruct her sons in these languages. She provided her daughters with an education equal to what was then obtained in boarding schools. Ramsay believed that her primary duty was to the men in her life, many of whom were involved in public service. She also saw to the training of young slaves.

Ramsay's commitment to religion was of great importance to her. She was raised in the Anglican Church, and eventually became and remained a member of the Congregational Church, but it is interesting to note that for most of her life she did not belong to any one denomination. She knew a number of English evangelicals, including Selina Hastings , the countess of Huntington, and embraced some of their views, but believed with her husband, as he later put it in her Memoirs: "The experimental part of religion has generally a greater influence than its theory." Ramsay died in Charleston on June 10, 1811, at the age of 51. The following year, her husband published her diary as Memoirs of the Life of Martha Laurens Ramsay. The Memoirs became quite popular, and she was seen as the essence of a proper woman, devoted to her religion and her family, well educated but not spoiled from it, and content with her subordinate place as a woman. The diary was written as a record of religious life interspersed with family life, however, not as a record of her personal feelings and thoughts, and so her innermost thoughts on those issues can never be known. It remains a valuable depiction of one woman's religious life in the early years of the newly established United States.


Buck, Claire, ed. The Bloomsbury Guide to Women's Literature. NY: Prentice Hall, 1992.

James, Edward T., ed. Notable American Women, 1607–1950. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University, 1971.

Jo Anne Meginnes , freelance writer, Brookfield, Vermont

About this article

Ramsay, Martha Laurens (1759–1811)

Updated About encyclopedia.com content Print Article