Physician, legislator, historian. Ramsay was born on April 2, 1749, in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, the son of the Irish immigrant James Ramsay, a farmer, and Jane Montgomery. Intellectually precocious, Ramsay learned to read at an early age. As a youth, he tutored boys much older than himself. He graduated from the College of New Jersey (Princeton) in 1765 and received a bachelor of physic degree from the College of Philadelphia in 1773. He was later awarded an honorary doctor of medicine degree from Yale in 1803. After a brief practice in Maryland, Ramsay moved to Charleston in 1773 on the recommendation of his close friend and confidant Dr. Benjamin Rush. A Presbyterian, Ramsay quickly associated himself with the Independent Congregational Church in Charleston.
Ramsay’s rise to position and influence in Charleston was rapid, and it was soon apparent that his activities would not be confined to medicine. He was an ardent supporter of the American Revolution and delivered a stirring speech in support of the American cause on July 4, 1778, at an anniversary celebration of the Declaration of Independence. Ramsay served as a military surgeon early in the war and was imprisoned in St. Augustine, Florida, by the British for eleven months with other patriots after the fall of Charleston in May 1780.
First elected to the South Carolina legislature by St. Philip’s and St. Michael’s Parishes in 1776, Ramsay was active in colonial and state politics during and after the war, eventually serving a total of twenty-three years in the South Carolina legislature, including six years as president of the Senate from 1791 to 1797. He was elected to the Confederation Congress in 1782 and served until 1786, serving as president pro tempore during his final term. He strongly supported the ratification of the U.S. Constitution and was morally opposed to slavery, but he saw no practical solution in the political, economic, and social climate of the times. His liberal views on slavery and his well-known friendship with northern abolitionists such as Benjamin Rush contributed to his failed bids for election to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1788 and the U.S. Senate in 1794.
In 1789 Ramsay was among the founders of the Medical Society of South Carolina, and he was elected its president in 1797. He was one of the first advocates of formal medical education in South Carolina, which came to fruition with the first graduating class of the Medical College of South Carolina ten years after his death. He was also the originator of many innovative measures for the improvement of the public health, including the successful introduction of a smallpox vaccination in South Carolina.
Ramsay’s most lasting legacy, however, was as a historian, in which role he gained national and international renown. He produced six major works of history, including History of the American Revolution (1789), which went through six American editions by 1865 and was also published in English, French, Irish, German, and Dutch editions. Ramsay’s History is recognized as a pioneering scholarly treatise on the war and has secured his place as one of the originators of the American historical consciousness. His other significant works include History of the Revolution of South Carolina (2 vols., 1785), Review of the Improvements, Progress and the State of Medicine in the XVIIITH Century (1801), Life of George Washington (1807), History of South Carolina from Its First Settlement in 1670 to 1808 (2 vols., 1809), and a posthumously published three-volume History of the United States (1816–1817) and a twelve-volume Universal History Americanized (1819).
Ramsay’s successes as a physician, legislator, and historian contrasted sharply with his lack of financial success. He was a visionary with little aptitude for business, and his investments almost never produced the expected return. He nevertheless figured prominently in such commercial and financial institutions as the Santee Canal, the Reciprocal Insurance Company, the Bank of the United States, the Catawba Company, the South Carolina Homespun Company, and the Hamilton Steamship Company.
Ramsay was married and widowed three times. He married Sabina Ellis on February 9, 1775. After her death in 1776, Ramsay on March 18, 1783, married Frances Witherspoon, the daughter of John Witherspoon, a signer of the Declaration of Independence and president of the College of New Jersey. She died in 1784 after giving birth to a son. His third marriage, on January 28, 1787, was to Martha Laurens, daughter of Henry Laurens. The couple had eleven children, eight of whom survived infancy, before Martha’s death in 1811. Ramsay died on May 8, 1815, from gunshot wounds inflicted by a deranged patient. He was buried in the Circular Congregational Churchyard in Charleston.
Shaffer, Arthur H. To Be an American: David Ramsay and the Making of the American Consciousness. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1991.
Waring, Joseph I. A History of Medicine in South Carolina. Vol. 1, 1670–1825. Columbia: South Carolina Medical Association, 1964.