Ramsay, David

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Ramsay, David (1749-1815): American Historian.

David Ramsay, doctor, political and historian, was born on April 2, 1749. Ramsay, a migrant to South Carolina via his home in Pennsylvania and medical studies in Pennsylvania, made his home in Charleston, South Carolina, until his death on May 8, 1815. He attended medical school in New Philadelphia, graduating in 1780. On July 4th 1778, he may have given in Charleston, South Carolina, the first Fourth of July oration in the United States.

His recognition in American history has a two-fold origin: medical and political. Having been trained under the illustrious Rush, Benjamin he moved to Charleston, South Carolina, a city constantly afflicted with diseases endemic to the region. Ramsay has been lauded for his abilities and research in medicine, as a result of which he contributed many scholarly works to his profession. His private life was witness to the conditions in which he lived; he had three wives and the first two died while young. His third marriage to Martha Laurens cemented his position in local society through his admission to the Laurens family.

Fortunately, for American historical scholarship Ramsay viewed medicine as an avocation for his vocation. Being a product of the post-Revolutionary generation, he witnessed the evolution of American political history with hindsight and his Whiggish approach to history and politics. Both his writings and involvement in politics, state and federal, illustrate his interest in the new nation. His works included The History of the Resolution of South Carolina (1785), History of the American Revolution (1789), The History of South Carolina (1809), and History of the United States. He believed order was necessary and viewed his federalist opponents as politicians playing to the crowd. Described as an ardent nationalist, he used his ability with the pen to produce a surfeit of works about the origins and development of the United States and state of South Carolina.

Some allege that Ramsay’s significance comes from his literary contributions to the new nation developing its identity. In his writings, he defended the need for the separation from the British Empire and justified colonial actions. His works, like other intellectual beneficiaries, guided and shaped American thought in defining the culture and ideology of the United States. Ramsay and others, by 1790 and the political battles engendered by the creation of active political parties that Washington abhorred, turned his intellectual pursuits to creating a united nation.

Ramsay represented Charleston, his state, and the nation in a multitude of political positions. He served in the state legislature, eventually being elected its president. While in politics, he opposed the issuance of paper of money, the easing of debtor’s obligations, and the reduction of legislative controls on the tidewater area. These issues are all reflective of his Federalist sentiments. He also opposed the continued importation of slaves, a stand that may have hindered him re-election. Unfortunately, many of Ramsay’s views changed after he incurred a large number of debts. His outlook evolved closer to the Democratic-Republicans.

Further Reading:

Richard James Hooker, The American Revolution; the search for meaning, 1970.

Arthur H Shaffer, To be an American : David Ramsay and the making of the American consciousness, 1991.

Arthur K. Steinberg

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