David Ramsay (congressman)

David Ramsay (congressman)
David Ramsay
Acting President of the United States in Congress Assembled
In office
November 23, 1785 – May 12, 1786
President John Hancock
Preceded by None
Succeeded by Nathaniel Gorham
Personal details
Born April 2, 1749(1749-04-02)
Lancaster County, Pennsylvania
Died May 8, 1815(1815-05-08) (aged 66)
Charleston, South Carolina
Alma mater Princeton University
University of Pennsylvania
Occupation Physician

David Ramsay (April 2, 1749 – May 8, 1815) was an American physician and historian from Charleston, South Carolina. He served as a South Carolina delegate to the Continental Congress in 1782–1783 and again in 1785–1786. He was one of the first major historians of the American Revolution.

The son of an Irish emigrant, he was born in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. He graduated at Princeton University in 1765, received his medical degree at the University of Pennsylvania in 1773, and settled as a physician at Charleston, where he had a large practice.

During the American Revolutionary War he was, from 1776 to 1783, a member of the South Carolina legislature. When Charleston was threatened by the British in 1780, he served with the South Carolina militia as a field surgeon. After the city was captured in 1780, Ramsay was imprisoned for nearly a year at St. Augustine, Florida, until he was exchanged. From 1782 to 1786 he served in the Continental Congress, and from 1801 to 1815 in the state Senate, of which he was long president.

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. Ramsay writes with the knowledge and insights acquired by being personally involved in the events of the American Revolution. In 1785 he published in two volumes History of the Revolution of South Carolina, in 1789 in two volumes History of the American Revolution, in 1807 a Life of Washington, and in 1809 in two volumes a History of South Carolina. In 1789 he also wrote A Dissertation on the Manners of Acquiring the Character and Privileges of a Citizen. Ramsay was also the author of several minor works, including a memoir (1812) of his third wife Martha Laurens Ramsay, a well-educated woman who had served as a political hostess for her father, Henry Laurens, during the 1780s.

Messer (2002) examines 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. O'Brien (1994) argues his 1789 History of the American Revolution was one of the first and most accomplished histories to appear in the aftermath of that event. She says it 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.

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." Eventually, after apparently regaining his sanity, Linnen was released; though he threatened Ramsay, the latter did not take the threat seriously. At 1 p.m. on May 6, 1815, Ramsay passed Linnen on Broad Street in Charleston and was shot twice in the back and hip after Linnen removed a "horseman's pistol" he had concealed in a handkerchief. According to a contemporary source: "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, two days later.[1]

Ramsay's History of the United States in three volumes was published posthumously in 1816–1817, and forms the first three volumes of his Universal History Americanized, published in twelve volumes in 1819.

His brother was Congressman Nathaniel Ramsey, a brother-in-law of Charles Willson Peale.

Ramsay married three times. He was the son-in-law of John Witherspoon and Henry Laurens, and thus was also related (by marriage) to South Carolina Governor Charles Pinckney, Ralph Izard, John Rutledge, Arthur Middleton, Daniel Huger and Lewis Morris.


Selected works


  • 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. Issn: 0275-1275 Fulltext: in 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. Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press, 1991.


  1. ^ The Analectic Magazine, September 1815 (collected in Volume 6), "Biographical Memoir of David Ramsay, M.D." (by Robert Y. Hayne, but uncredited in source), p. 224. Transactions, American Philosophical Society, vol. 55, Part 4, August 1965, "David Ramsay 1749-1815: Selections from His Writings," Edited with an Introduction and Notes by Robert L. Brunhouse, p.27.

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