David Ramsay (historian)

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David Ramsay, M.D.
David Ramsay (1749-1815).jpg
Member of the United States Continental Congress from South Carolina
In office
November 23, 1785 – May 12, 1786
President of the South Carolina Senate
In office
Personal details
Born(1749-04-02)April 2, 1749
Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, U.S.
DiedMay 8, 1815(1815-05-08) (aged 66)
Charleston, South Carolina, U.S.
  • Sabina Ellis
    (m. 1775; died 1776)
  • Frances Witherspoon
    (m. 1783; died 1784)
  • Martha Laurens Ramsay
    (m. 1787; died 1811)
  • Physician
  • historian

David Ramsay (April 2, 1749 – May 8, 1815) was an American physician, public official, and historian from Charleston, South Carolina. He was one of the first major historians of the American Revolutionary War. During the Revolution he served in the South Carolina legislature until he was captured by the British. After his release he served as a delegate to the Continental Congress in 1782–1783 and again in 1785–1786. Afterwards he served in the state House and Senate until retiring from public service. He was murdered in 1815 by a mentally ill man whom Ramsay had examined as a physician.

Early life and family[edit]

David Ramsay was born in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, the son of an Irish emigrant. His brother was Nathaniel Ramsey, a Congressman and a brother-in-law of painter Charles Willson Peale.

He attended college at Princeton, and graduated in 1765. In 1773, he received his medical degree from the University of Pennsylvania. Ramsay settled in Charleston, South Carolina, where he built a large practice as a physician.[2][3]

Ramsay's first two marriages were brief, both ending with the death of his wife after one year. In 1775, he married Sabina Ellis (b. 1753), and in 1783, he married Frances Witherspoon (b. 1759). His second wife was the daughter of John Witherspoon, a signer of the Declaration of Independence and president of Princeton (then the College of New Jersey).[1]

On January 28, 1787, Ramsay married Martha Laurens (1759–1811), daughter of Henry Laurens, a wealthy Charleston planter and Revolutionary War statesman who had been president of the Second Continental Congress. Through this marriage, Ramsay also became related to South Carolina governor Charles Pinckney, Ralph Izard, John Rutledge, Arthur Middleton, Daniel Huger, and Lewis Morris. David and Martha Laurens Ramsay had eleven children, eight of whom survived to adulthood.

Military and political service[edit]

Portrait by Charles Willson Peale, 1771

During the American Revolutionary War, Ramsay served from 1776 to 1783 as a member of the South Carolina legislature.

During the Siege of Charleston in 1780, when Charleston was attacked by the British, Ramsay served with the South Carolina militia as a field surgeon. He was captured when the British occupied Charleston, and was imprisoned for nearly a year at St. Augustine, Florida, until he was exchanged.

Ramsay served as a delegate to the Continental Congress from 1782 to 1786. In the absence of its chairman, John Hancock, Ramsay served as chairman of the Congress of the Confederation from November 23, 1785 to May 12, 1786.

In the 1790s, Ramsay served three terms in the South Carolina Senate, and was its president.[2]

Historical writing[edit]

Portrait by Rembrandt Peale, 1796

In his own day, Ramsay was better known as a historian and author than as a politician. He was one of the American Revolution's first major historians, who wrote with knowledge and insights acquired by being personally involved in the events of the American Revolution.

His major historical works included:

  • History of the Revolution of South Carolina (1785, two volumes)[4]
  • History of the American Revolution (1789, two volumes)[5]
  • A Dissertation on the Manners of Acquiring the Character and Privileges of a Citizen (1789)
  • Life of Washington (1807)
  • History of South Carolina (1809, two volumes)[2]
  • History of the United States (1816–1817, three volumes) – published posthumously
  • Universal History Americanized (1819, twelve volumes, including History of the United States as the first 3 volumes)[2]

In 1812, six weeks after the death of his wife Martha Laurens Ramsay, he published her diary and private letters under the title Memoirs of the Life of Martha Laurens Ramsay.[6] Her memoirs remain historically valuable as a chronicle of the life of a well-educated Southern woman during the American Revolutionary War and the early years of the nation, including while she took her mother's place as hostess for her father's political gatherings in the 1780s.[7][8][9]

Critical response[edit]

Ramsay's History of the American Revolution was one of the first and most accomplished histories to appear in the aftermath of that event, according to Karen O'Brien in 1994. O'Brien wrote that Ramsay's history 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.

Historian Peter C. Messer, in 2002, examined 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.


Ramsay was appointed by a court to examine one William Linnen, a tailor known for serial litigation and nuisance suits, after Linnen had attempted to murder his attorney. Ramsay reported to the court that Linnen was "deranged" and that it would be "dangerous to let him go at large." After apparently regaining his sanity, Linnen was released; though he threatened Ramsay, the latter did not take the threat seriously.

On May 6, 1815, at 1:00 p.m., Ramsay passed Linnen on Broad Street in Charleston. Linnen took out a "horseman's pistol" that he had concealed in a handkerchief, and shot Ramsay twice, in the back and hip. According to a contemporary source:[10]

Having been carried home, and being surrounded by a crowd of anxious citizens, after first calling their attention to what he was about to utter, he said "I know not if these wounds be mortal; I am not afraid to die; but should that be my fate, I call on all here present to bear witness, that I consider the unfortunate perpetrator of this deed a lunatic, and free from guilt."

Ramsay died at 7 a.m. on May 8, 1815.[10] He was buried at the Circular Congregational Church in Charleston.

Selected works in medicine and science[edit]


  • Hostetler, Michael J. "David Ramsay and Louisiana: Time and Space in the Adolescent Rhetoric of America." Western Journal of Communication 70 (2) (April 2006): 134-146.
  • Kornfeld, Eve. "From Republicanism to Liberalism: The Intellectual Journey of David Ramsay." Journal of the Early Republic 1989 9(1): 289-313.
  • Messer, Peter C. "From a Revolutionary History to a History of Revolution: David Ramsay and the American Revolution." : Journal of the Early Republic 2002 22(2): 205-233. Jstor
  • O'Brien, Karen. "David Ramsay and the Delayed Americanization of American History." Early American Literature 1994 29(1): 1-18. ISSN 0012-8163 Fulltext: in Ebsco
  • Shaffer, Arthur. To Be an American: David Ramsay and the Making of the American Consciousness. (University of South Carolina Press, 1991).


  1. ^ a b Worthington, W. Curtis (June 20, 2016). "Ramsay, David". South Carolina Encyclopedia. University of South Carolina, Institute for Southern Studies. Archived from the original on 2017-10-04.
  2. ^ a b c d Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). "Ramsay, David" . Encyclopædia Britannica. 22 (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press. p. 879.
  3. ^ Wikisource-logo.svg Kelly, Howard A.; Burrage, Walter L., eds. (1920). "Ramsay, David" . American Medical Biographies . Baltimore: The Norman, Remington Company.
  4. ^ Ramsay, David, The History of the American Revolution, 1789. Two volumes. (Volume I at Google Books)
  5. ^ Gillespie, Joanna Bowen (2001). The Life and Times of Martha Laurens Ramsay, 1759–1811. Univ of South Carolina Press. ISBN 978-1-57003-373-5.
  6. ^ Gillespie, Joanna Bowen (January 1991). "1795: Martha Laurens Ramsay's "Dark Night of the Soul"". The William and Mary Quarterly, Third Series. Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture. 48 (1): 68–92. JSTOR 2937998.
  7. ^ Gillespie, Joanna Bowen (September 1989). "Many Gracious Providences: The Religious Cosmos of Martha Laurens Ramsay (1759–1811)". Colby Library Quarterly. XXV (3 – Women and Religion): 199–212.
  8. ^ Middleton, Margaret Simons (1971). David and Martha Laurens Ramsay. Carlton Press.
  9. ^ a b Hayne, Robert Y. (September 1815). "Biographical Memoir of David Ramsay, M.D.". The Analectic Magazine. 6: 224. Collected in Brunhouse, Robert L., ed. (August 1965). "David Ramsay, 1749-1815: Selections from His Writings". Transactions of the American Philosophical Society. 55 (4): 27.

External links[edit]