Ramsay’s History of the American Revolution

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Source: Editor's Foreword to Ramsay's The History of the American Revolution, Foreword by Lester H. Cohen (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund 1990). Vol. 1.

Foreword by Lester Cohen

David Ramsay’sThe History of the American Revolution appeared in 1789, during an enthusiastic celebration of American nationhood. “Nationhood,” moreover, was beginning to take on new cultural and intellectual connotations. The United States had declared its political independence more than a decade earlier, and a rising group of “cultural nationalists” was asserting that it was now time to declare cultural independence as well. The American people would never be truly autonomous otherwise. “However they may boast of Independence, and the freedom of their government,” wrote Noah Webster, lexicographer, historian, and the nationalists’ most brilliant spokesman, “yet their opinions are not sufficiently independent.” Instead of liberating themselves from the influences of English culture, as they had from England’s arms and government, the Americans were continuing to manifest “an astonishing respect for the arts and literature of their parent country, and a blind imitation of its manners.” While such “habitual respect” for England was once understandable, even laudable, it had become an impediment to creating an independent American character and therefore posed dangers for the future.1

Cultural nationalism was almost inevitable in the aftermath of a revolution that seemed to require Americans to define not only their political identity, but their spiritual identity as well. Such nationalism manifested itself in a variety of ways in literature and the arts, science, and education. In its superficial manifestations, it testified to an American inferiority complex, consisting mainly of defensive protests against the notion, common in eighteenth-century Europe, that the New World was a physically and morally debased version of the Old, and of mushy effusions of patriotic sentiment over any product of American literature, art, or science. Thus one commentator gushed over Ramsay’s The History of the Revolution of South-Carolina (1785), saying that it “reflects honour on this country, and gives room for hope that her literary will in time equal her military reputation,” and Rev. James Madison enthused that the work’s “Dress is altogether American.” Another reviewer, praising The History of the American Resolution, observed that it is a “necessity that the history of the American revolution be written in our own country, by a person of suitable abilities, who has witnessed the incidents attendant on that great event.”2 Thus did patriotism pass for culture, and Ramsay’s work obviously measured up.

On a more sophisticated level, some cultural nationalists—Ramsay among them—developed greater insight into the idea of American cultural identity. These nationalists recognized that, along with the richly deserved celebration and self-congratulation, the new nation needed a strong unifying culture. Without a culture that articulated the fundamental tenets of liberty, constitutionalism, virtue, and simplicity, the principles of the American Revolution would soon become corrupted. Such corruption could come from without, through the people’s continued reliance on English cultural values; it could also come from within, through the disintegrating forces already operating to dissolve the new nation into a multitude of disparate fragments. This realization prompted the nationalists anxiously to develop a notion of American identity that rested on two major premises: that politics, culture, and society were inextricably intertwined, so that a change in any one would subtly alter the others; and that culture was a significant force in shaping human consciousness, an idea which offered a powerful incentive to use literature as a means of exhortation.

Like all the historians of the Revolutionary era, Ramsay saw historical writing as a vehicle for fostering nationhood, an instrument for promoting the kind of unity, even homogeneity, that the cultural nationalists desired.3 Almost all the leading cultural nationalists were also political nationalists, the surest sign of which was that they saw the Constitution as the great vehicle for both creating and preserving American unity. And, although it was possible to be a nationalist culturally while opposing the Constitution for political reasons (as the historian, poet, and playwright Mercy Otis Warren made clear), Ramsay’s reasons for writing a peculiarly consensual or national history were intimately tied to his Federalist political views.

Those reasons were motivated by Ramsay’s perception that the new nation faced two sorts of danger: on the one hand, the danger of political divisions between the states and within each state, divisions which had already given rise to factions with competing economic interests; and on the other, the threat of social and cultural divisions among the people of the several states and regions, which could readily lead to insularity and hostility.

Thus, for example, he wrote in political terms about his fellow South Carolinians who put local interests ahead of national unity and opposed ratification of the Constitution. “To write, to speak, or even to think of a separation of the states is political blasphemy,” he wrote to Jedidiah Morse. “ ‘One Indivisible’ is my motto.”4 He even postponed publication of his history of the Revolution until the fate of the Constitution had been decided, for “The revolution cannot be said to be completed till that or something equivalent is established.”5 But Ramsay continued to fear the potential for disunity even after the Constitution had been operating for years. “We should, above all things, study to promote the union and harmony of the different states,” he cautioned in 1794. “We should consider the people of this country … as forming one whole, the interest of which should be preferred to that of every part.”6

While it is impossible to separate his political from his cultural motives, Ramsay was at his best when he spoke of the importance of historical writing with his cultural concerns in mind. In fact, in his Federalist pamphlet, “An Address to the Freemen of South-Carolina (1788),” he cast one of his strongest political arguments for the Constitution in cultural terms. He called upon his fellow Carolinians to “consider the people of all the thirteen states, as a band of brethren, speaking the same language, professing the same religion, inhabiting one undivided country, and designed by heaven to be one people.”7 Ramsay was as sensitive as any intellectual of his era to the kinds of divisions, real and potential, that tended to separate Americans and undermine the unity he sought. Even ratification of the Constitution was less a culmination than a beginning, less a sign of unity than a foundation for it. “We are too widely disseminated over an extensive country & too much diversified by different customs & forms of government to feel as one people[,] which we are,” he confided to John Eliot in 1795. But through historical writings, such as Jeremy Belknap’s History of New Hampshire (1792), “we might become better acquainted with each other in that intimate familiar manner which would wear away prejudices—rub off asperities & mould us into a homogenous people.” Belknap’s achievement was all the more remarkable, for Belknap had written about a single state, yet his work breathed a national spirit.8 In short, even in ostensibly local history, it was possible—indeed, necessary—to write of the nation and its character, for such writings tended to unify the people. “I long to see Dr. [Hugh] Williamson’s history of North Carolina,” Ramsay wrote to Belknap in 1795. “Indeed I wish to see a history of every state in the Union written in the stile and manner of yours & Williams’s history of Vermont. We do not know half enough of each other. Enthusiastic as I am for the Unity of our republic[,] I wish for every thing that tends to unite us as one people who know[,] esteem & love each other.”9 In 1809, Ramsay’s own The History of South-Carolina would join the list of nationalistic state histories.

Ramsay’s passion for unity and his fear of fragmentation prompted him to invent a national past characterized by consensus. This is not to say that Ramsay was a dissembler or deceiver who created a past out of whole cloth. It is, rather, to emphasize that for Ramsay, as for all the historians of the Revolution, historical writing was not so much an end in itself as it was a means to cultivate the political and moral consciousness of the present and future generations. Sensitive to divisions within America—political, ethnic, racial, religious, economic—Ramsay genuinely feared chaos, and his experience in both state and confederation politics led him to believe that only by generating a constellation of commonly held values and principles could the nation resist the forces that tended to pull it apart. Ramsay did not invent those values and assumptions; he drew them out of the intellectual climate of Revolutionary America and found clues to them in America’s past. But he focused upon them and molded them into the story of the new nation, so that his version of the past appeared to be inevitable. Thus, when Ramsay spoke of using history as an instrument of national unity, he meant to incite future generations to commit themselves to the principles of revolutionary republicanism.10

Ramsay, even more than his contemporary historians, was experienced in politics, knowledgeable about world affairs, sensitive to the economic and political interests of his compatriots, and had access to a vast number of historical records. He knew that America’s past had been marked by tensions that from time to time had erupted into open conflict. Yet he purposefully created an image of the colonial past that diminished the importance of conflicts and portrayed the colonists as revolutionaries—an image of consensus, unity, and an unfaltering commitment to republican principles. In short, he attempted to create a national future by inventing a consensual past—to provide an instant tradition for a revolutionary people.

Ramsay’s principal strategy was to establish a republican lineage, an unbroken succession of American generations that were strenuously committed to the principles of revolutionary republicanism from the moment of settlement in the seventeenth century. The colonists’ chief characteristic was that they formed an intellectual, even spiritual, consensus on three major principles: they were politically dedicated to an ordered liberty within the context of law and balanced, representative government; they were ethically committed to the obligations of conscience and the public good, so that social life was simple and felicitous and individual conduct marked by industry and prudence; and they were convinced philosophically that people are free and efficacious beings who are responsible for their actions and for the consequences their actions bring about. It was this constellation of fundamental principles that constituted the American national character as Ramsay depicted it; and it was to this constellation that he pointed when he exhorted members of his own and future generations to develop cultural unity as a bulwark against division.

Again, Ramsay insisted that these principles were not new to the Revolutionary generation; the conflicts between the Americans and the British during the 1760s and ’70s had merely called forth the original settlers’ character. The complex coincidence of geography, politics, social arrangements, and values in colonial America had “produced a warm love for liberty, a high sense of the rights of human nature, and a predilection for independence.”11

“From their first settlement, the English Provinces received impressions favourable to democratic forms of government.” Colonization generally coincided with the struggles in England between Parliament and the crown, so that the issue of popular government based on consent, as contrasted with the divine rights of kings, was a current topic of debate. The colonists who emigrated to the New World consisted mainly of people who were “hostile to the claims of [monarchical] prerogative.” They “were from their first settlement in America, devoted to liberty, on English ideas, and English principles.” Crucially, these ideas were not mere abstractions. The colonists “not only conceived themselves to inherit the privileges of Englishmen, but though in a colonial situation, actually possessed them.”12

By showing that republican principles and practices had been deeply ingrained in the people for generations, Ramsay vivified the image of a revolutionary past so far as to suggest that the colonists had been independent from the beginning. “The circumstances under which New-England was planted, would a few centuries ago have entitled them, from their first settlement, to the privileges of independence.” The colonists had set out at their own expense, with no prospects other than hard work, to build homes and plant civilization in a wilderness. They purchased their lands from “the native proprietors” and exerted themselves to reap the bounties of nature. One hardly needed John Locke to make the argument that people who expended their own labor, paid for their own lands, and voluntarily formed their own governments owed no obligations to Britain except those that “resulted from their voluntary assent” as revealed in “express or implied compact.” And those were manifestly limited. The people knew that government rested upon contracts freely entered; that taxation and representation were indissolubly joined; that they held and alienated their property only by consent; that the end of government was the happiness of the people; that the people were free to assemble and petition the government for redress of grievances; and that, all proximate means failing, the people had the natural right to rebel against tyrannical rule.13 Thus did the colonizing generation consist of proto-revolutionaries.

The colonists were not only republicans in politics, they were also dedicated to personal and social practices that conduced to individual happiness and to the public good. “The state of society in the Colonies favoured a spirit of liberty and independence,” Ramsay wrote. Here, the “inhabitants were all of one rank. Kings, Nobles, and Bishops, were unknown to them.” The people were “unaccustomed to that distinction of ranks” which characterized European society, and they were “strongly impressed with an opinion, that all men are by nature equal.” The colonists’ religious practices “also nurtured a love for liberty.” The majority were Protestants, Ramsay noted, “and all protestantism is founded on a strong claim to natural liberty, and the right of private judgment.” There were, of course, numerous sects, but “they all agreed in the communion of liberty, and all reprobated the courtly doctrines of passive obedience, and non-resistance.” Nor were the colonists subjected to the pernicious effects of the luxury and opulence indulged in by the courts of Europe. Instead, “inured from their early years to the toils of a country life, they dwelled in the midst of rural plenty.”

Colonial American society, in short, was characterized by simplicity of manners, and habits of industry, prudence, and morality. The colonists’ experience thus “gave a cast of independence to the manners of the people” and diffused among them “the exalting sentiments” of liberty.14

Given the colonists’ ingrained political and social values and their commitment to the principles of liberty and democratic government, it was obvious that the American Revolution was not a sudden upsurge of resentment against particular acts of Parliament. Resistance and revolution were the inevitable and justifiable responses of a people long habituated to such values. “The genius of the Americans”—that is, their original “republican habits and sentiments”—had prepared them to resist encroachments on their rights and to form popular governments during the Revolutionary era. This was the final element in Ramsay’s message to future generations: confronted with arbitrary power, the colonists had established a tradition of showing the courage of their convictions, resisting inroads against their liberties, and taking responsibility for the future.15

But why should Ramsay have presented this manifestly one-dimensional image of the colonists as strenuous republicans, committed to simplicity, industry, prudence, equality, and natural rights? To some extent he actually did see them as American revolutionaries in the making, for so powerful was the “republican synthesis” in his own day that it shaped his ideas and experience and predisposed him to see all of history in its terms.16 Yet this will not entirely explain Ramsay’s over-simplifications, which seem drastic insofar as his history contains little or no intercolonial rivalry, popular uprisings against proprietary governors, political strife among competing interest groups, ethnic tensions, religious intolerances, or class divisions. Even slavery appears in Ramsay’s History as a mitigated evil, which, while manifestly wrong, at least had produced sentiments of liberty and independence among the masters.17 If for five or six generations the Americans had held the deeply ingrained political, social, moral, and philosophical principles that Ramsay described and if they had experienced a minimum of conflict, then why did Ramsay have to remind his readers of the American tradition above all else?

The answer contains three parts. First, as noted earlier, there were Ramsay’s apprehensions. He feared that disunity would rend the fabric of the new nation—indeed, that without shared assumptions, principles, and values, as well as a federal Constitution, America might even separate into thirteen autonomous states or into two or three regional governments. In either case, it would become prey to the great European powers, even if it did not destroy itself from within.18

Second, Ramsay feared that the great tradition, particularly its powerful moral elements, had been badly damaged by the war. Throughout the war years and into the 1780s, Ramsay expressed his doubts whether the people had sufficient moral courage to make a republican experiment work. Within a year of delivering his stirring vision of an American republican future in his “Oration on the Advantages of American Independence” (1778), he wrote to William Henry Drayton that “A spirit of money-making has eaten up our patriotism.” To Benjamin Rush he added: “I most devoutly wish for peace. Our morals are more depreciated than our currency, & that is bad enough.” By 1783 he was worried that “This revolution has introduced so much anarchy that it will take half a century to eradicate the licentiousness of the people. I wish for the honor of human nature that in these last ages of the world it may appear that mankind are capable of enjoying the blessings of freedom without the extravagancies that usually accompany it.” By 1785 the theme of internal corruption had become more insistent and urgent. “I feel with you the declension of our public virtue,” he wrote to John Eliot. “Liberty which ought to produce every generous principle has not in our republics been attended with its usual concomitants. Pride[,] Luxury[,] dissipation & a long train of unsuitable vices have overwhelmed our country.” And within a year he expressed the ultimate fear: “We have neither honesty nor knowledge enough for republican governments. … During the war we thought the termination of that would end all our troubles. It is now ended three years & our public situation is as bad as ever.”19 ~ ~

The third part of the answer is that historical writings, like Fourth of July orations, sermons, and “all the powers of Eloquence” had the capacity to shape thought, and thus historians, like ministers and politicians, had an obligation to use their writings “to counter-act that ruinous propensity we have for foreign superfluities & to excite us to the long neglected virtues of Industry & frugality.”20 History, in short, was a moral art. That was why Ramsay praised Belknap’s and Williams’s histories; that was why he believed that John Eliot’s Biographical Dictionary “rendered an essential service to the living by holding up so many excellent models for their imitation from the illustrious dead”; and that was why he deliberately omitted conflict and strife in the colonial past.21 Indeed, Ramsay once drew an instructive analogy between history and fiction: “Novelists take fiction & make it a vehicle of their opinions on a variety of subjects,” he observed. “I take truth & the facts of history for the same purpose.”22 Ramsay was well aware that he was using “art” in the service of history and history in the service of morality and national unity. “Had I a voice that could be heard from New Hampshire to Georgia,” he said in 1794, “it should be exerted in urging the necessity of disseminating virtue and knowledge among our citizens.” His histories represented that voice.

Ramsay’s voice was, in fact, heard all over America and over much of Europe as well.23 Between 1785, when he was thirty-six, and his death in 1815, he published three histories—two on South Carolina and TheHistory of the American Revolution—that remain significant after two hundred years. He also wrote numerous other works, ranging from an analysis of yellow fever and well water in Charleston, to a eulogy on the death of his friend and mentor, Benjamin Rush, to a memoir of his wife, Martha Laurens Ramsay, to two examples of that distinctively American genre, the Fourth of July oration.

Even in an age dominated by such philosophes as Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson, Ramsay is notable for his fertile and restless intellect. He entered the sophomore class of the College of New Jersey (later renamed Princeton) in 1762 and was graduated three years later at age sixteen. For the next five years he taught school in Maryland and Virginia. Deciding finally to pursue a career in medicine, he enrolled in the newly reorganized medical school of the College of Philadelphia, which boasted an excellent faculty that included the brilliant twenty-four-year-old Rush. Ramsay received his Bachelor of Physic in 1773. On Ramsay’s graduation Rush summarized the talents of his young friend, whom he esteemed as “far superior to any person we ever graduated at our college; his abilities are not only good, but great; his talents and knowledge are universal; I never saw so much strength of memory and imagination, united to so fine a judgment.”24

In 1774, after practicing medicine for a year in Cecil County, Maryland, Ramsay set out for Charleston, where he made his home for the rest of his life. Charleston was then a leading Southern city, with some 12,000 inhabitants, a growing commerce, and a well-defined social hierarchy that divided whites from one another along class lines and whites from blacks along racial lines—clear evidence of the divisions in society to which he was so sensitive and which he deemphasized in his History. Yet within a year of his arrival, this outsider from Pennsylvania, the son of immigrants and a Presbyterian in the midst of an Anglican elite, had married Sabina Ellis, daughter of a prominent merchant,25 and within three years, he was elected to the South Carolina assembly. By 1778 Ramsay had a seat on the state’s prestigious privy council. He served in the Continental Congress in 1785, returned to his seat in the state assembly in 1786, served as a delegate to the convention that ratified the South Carolina state constitution in 1788. From 1791 to 1797 Ramsay was president of the state senate. His only disappointment in politics was his resounding defeat by William Loughton Smith for a seat in the first federal congress.26

Neither his political nor his medical and scientific careers, however, seemed to satisfy his intellectual curiosity. Ramsay turned to historical writing, he explained to Thomas Jefferson, “when I was in confinement in St. Augustine in the year 1781 and [it] has employed my leisure hours ever since.”27 But Ramsay was drawn to history and to his national vision by his political experience, which convinced him that state government was, by turns, too timid and too wild to solve many of the problems that arose in the post-Revolutionary era. “There is a languor in the States that forebodes ruin,” he complained to Rush in 1786. He also noted the “temporising” of the Southern states in particular, and feared the disintegration of the United States if the Constitutional Convention did not produce “an efficient federal government.”28 Politics and government were no better in South Carolina; they may have been worse:

The eight years of war in Carolina were followed by eight years of disorganization, which produced such an amount of civil distress as diminished with some their respect for liberty and independence. Several apprehended that the same scenes which had taken place in England in the seventeenth century after a long and bloody civil war, would be acted over again in America by a fickle people who had neither the fortitude nor the wisdom to govern themselves. … Peace and liberty were found inadequate to promote public happiness without the aid of energetic government.

The state legislature either languished and did nothing or legislated too much. The best and most courageous act performed by state officials, finally, was to agree to the Constitution that would constrain some of their own power! 29

With first-hand experience of the inefficiencies and vacillations of state government and an urge to cultivate eloquence, Ramsay began writing history. He announced optimistically in his “Oration on the Advantages of American Independence” (1778) that the very presence of free, republican institutions was bound to produce an exalted literature. In an oppressive regime, “ignorance,” after all, “was better than knowledge,” whereas “Eloquence is the child of a free state.” America, he predicted, “will produce poets, orators, criticks, and historians, equal to the most celebrated of the ancient commonwealths of Greece and Italy.”30

Despite his optimism about the prospects of culture in the new nation, Ramsay soon faced a grim reality. Although he became known as America’s “Tacitus” and “Polybius,” he learned all too quickly that “the trade of an author is a very poor one in our new world.” Concerning The History of the Revolution of South-Carolina, he lamented to fellow historian William Gordon: “My advances will not be replaced till I have sold 500 copies & my debts contracted and yet unpaid will require the sale of 700 more. The edition has cost me 5,000 dollars. The printers bill is 2500 dollars. The engravings 800[,] the binding 4/ 10 a copy. In short I have no brilliant pecuniary prospects before me.”31

Yet despite the financial failure of his South Carolina history, Ramsay immersed himself in TheHistory of the American Revolution during his tenure in the Continental Congress. Here he had access to people prominent on a national level and to an enormous archive. He predicted to Rush that “I can write the general history of the revolution with more ease than I have wrote a part of it. Indeed, I have got the facts already collected.” He had ready to hand, he said, a great many documents: “from my access to papers … and the regularity of records in the offices of Congress[,] I have been enabled to do a great deal in a little time.”32 His facts may have been substantially collected, but Ramsay made the effort to pose numerous detailed questions to several people about various aspects of the Revolution. He wrote to Rush on several occasions; to Elias Boudinot (commissary general of prisoners for the Continental Army and a member of Congress for five years); to Gouverneur Morris (member of the New York provincial congress and for four years an assistant minister of finance under Robert Morris); to Charles Thomson (secretary of the Continental Congress from 1774 to 1789); and to John Adams. He also sent his manuscript to Charles Thomson, who read it, made comments on it, and promised to circulate it among other knowledgeable readers.33

No doubt these inquiries made for a better history. But Ramsay fared almost as poorly on this work as he had on the previous one. He had problems with his printer, Robert Aitken, whose work, said Ramsay, “offends against every principle of good printing. The printing[,] the spelling[,] the ink[,] the form of the lines are in many cases execrable.” In addition, asked the outraged Ramsay, “What think you of his stopping the work on the pretence of want of money[,] though 760 dollars were advanced in the time of the work[,] the whole of which was only to cost 1200 dollars?”34 He also complained that he had been “cheated by booksellers & printers,” who were taking far too much of the proceeds of the sales in advertising. Ramsay was eventually reduced to barter: “If my books that are unsold could be exchanged for a copy of your state laws or of the laws of the neighboring states,” he wrote to John Eliot, “I would be most pleased. I would exchange them for any good books rather than [that] they should remain on hand.” Finally, Ramsay had to swallow the fact that his History had been pirated by John Stockdale in London. It was bad enough that “The errors & blunders of Aitkens edition are many and cannot be corrected,” he wrote to John Eliot. Worse yet, “Stockdale has printed one in London without my consent & many of the copies of Aitkens edition are yet on hand.” Ramsay had not yet seen the London edition in April 1793, nor had he “any knowledge of it till it was nearly executed.” Needless to say, he realized no profit on Stockdale’s editions or on the several that were based on it .35

Ramsay’s reputation as a historian was excellent throughout his life and for decades afterwards. The History of the American Resolution has enjoyed a resurgence of interest in the last twenty-five years. The only significant dissenting voice in the last two centuries was that of Orrin Grant Libby, who showed that Ramsay had plagiarized portions of both it and The History of the Revolution of South-Carolina from the Annual Register.36 Each issue of the AnnualRegister, published continuously from 1758, contained a superb “History of Europe” section which for some years was written by Edmund Burke. This section contained a narrative of the most important events in contemporary English history. Thus, during the years between 1765 and 1783, it was filled with news of American affairs—political, military, economic. Along with the sections known as “State Papers” and “Appendix to the Chronicle,” both of which contained the texts of contemporary documents, the “History of Europe” was a comprehensive, beautifully written narrative that had the additional merit of being written from an English Whig (and, therefore, an anti-war or pro-American) standpoint. Each issue of the Annual Register went through numerous editions and circulated widely in America.37

Ramsay did, in fact, lift passages verbatim from the Annual Register, though Libby certainly exaggerated in suggesting that Ramsay “plagiarized a large part” of his book on the American Revolution either from it or from William Gordon’s work.38 But even if all the examples are conceded, they amount to a very small part of the seven hundred pages. More important, the plagiarism has no substantial impact on its value to modern readers; there is no reason for us to agree with Libby’s conclusion that, because of the plagiarism, the History is “well-nigh worthless.”39

First, scholarly citation as we know it was not an issue for eighteenth-century writers, who honored the practice, if at all, only in the most irregular and idiosyncratic manner. Second, eighteenth-century American histories were performances, not proofs; they more nearly resemble sermons, which inspire by enunciating principles and applying them to human situations, than scientific or legal discourses, which depend for their cogency and persuasiveness on their marshalling of evidence. Finally, and most importantly, Libby’s criticism, which spoke to the advocates of “scientific” historicism at the start of the twentieth century, has become largely irrelevant to most modern readers. While we still learn factual information from some of our “ancient” histories—Cotton Mather’s Magnalia ChristiAmericana (1702), incredibly rich with detail, leaps to mind—we do not similarly value the factual nature of Ramsay’s histories with the possible exception of TheHistory of South-Carolina (1809). Hence, we are less concerned with having precise information about Ramsay’s sources.

Instead, we learn from Ramsay the interpreter of his present and his past. We learn about the intellectual predilections of the eighteenth-century historian: the values, assumptions, principles, and expectations of one who lived and wrote amidst the events he narrated. We learn from the ways in which he shaped history: his use of language, his sense of the significance of people and events, his narrative style, his use of history as propaganda, as exhortation, and as fiction. We do not, in short, rely on Ramsay to tell us what happened during the Revolution, any more than we rely on him for medical advice, which included Benjamin Rush’s recommended practice: bleeding. In most respects we know a great deal more about what happened than he did, particularly since we are now the arbiters of what is significant. We rely on Ramsay not for information, but for the ways in which he reveals the sensibility through which the events of his era were filtered.

Lester H. Cohen

  • Indianapolis, Indiana

April 1989

Lester H. Cohen received M. Phil. and Ph.D. degrees from Yale University and a J.D. degree from Indiana University School of Law, Indianapolis. He taught intellectual history and American studies for fourteen years at Purdue University. He currently practices law with the firm of Barnes & Thornburg in Indianapolis.

[1.]Noah Webster, Dissertations on the English Language (Boston, 1789), pp. 397–398. See Lawrence J. Friedman, Inventors of the Promised Land (New York, 1975) and Richard M. Rollins, The Long Journey of Noah Webster (Philadelphia, 1980).

[2.]Columbian Magazine, or Monthly Miscellany, 1 (1786): 22–25; Rev. James Madison to Thomas Jefferson, March 27, 1786, in Robert H. Brunhouse, ed., David Ramsay, 1749–1815: Selections from His Writings, American Philosophical Society, Transactions, New Series, 55 (1965), Part IV, p. 226; Columbian Magazine, 4 (1790): 373–377.

[3.]See Arthur H. Shaffer, The Politics of History: Writing the History of the American Revolution, 1783–1815 (Chicago, 1975); Lester H. Cohen, The Revolutionary Histories: Contemporary Narratives of the American Revolution (Ithaca, 1980), Chapter 6.

[4.]Ramsay to Jedidiah Morse, May 5, 1813, in Brunhouse, pp. 118–119, 174. See Ramsay to Benjamin Lincoln, January 29, 1788.

[5.]Ramsay to Benjamin Rush, February 17, 1788, in Brunhouse, p. 119. Ramsay was a staunch Federalist delegate to his state’s constitution-ratifying convention; he wrote to Rush, April 21, 1788, exulting: “I hope in my next [letter] to congratulate you on South Carolina being the 7th pillar of the new Government.” Ibid., p. 120.

[6.]Ramsay’s “An Oration,” for July 4, 1794. Ibid., p. 195. However, Ramsay’s was not a naive vision of homogeneity, for he also thought that “Even the prejudices, peculiarities, and local habits of the different states, should be respected and tenderly dealt with.” Ibid. He emphasized unity of vision—an intellectual consensus—rather than a bland uniformity of customs or conduct.

[7.]“An Address to the Freemen of South-Carolina, on the Subject of the Federal Constitution,” (Charleston, S.C., 1788), p. 13; rpt. Paul Leicester Ford, ed., Pamphlets on the Constitution of the United States, Published During Its Discussion by the People, 1787–1788 (Brooklyn, 1888), p. 379.

[8.]Ramsay to Eliot, March 11, 1795, in Brunhouse, p. 139.

[9.]Ramsay to Belknap, March 11, 1795, in Brunhouse, pp. 139–140.

[10.]See Lester H. Cohen, “Creating a Useable Future: The Revolutionary Historians and the National Past,” in Jack P. Greene, ed., The American Revolution: Its Character and Limits (New York, 1987), pp. 309–330.

[11.]David Ramsay, The History of the American Revolution (hereafter HAR), I, p. 26.

[12.]HAR, I, pp. 31, 27.

[13.]HAR, I, pp. 334–337, 27–33.

[14.]HAR, I, pp. 29–33. Even the colonists’ readings, though few in number, “generally favoured the cause of liberty.” They included Cato’s Letters, the Independent Whig, and, in New England, histories of the Puritans, which “kept alive the remembrance of the sufferings of their forefathers, and inspired a warm attachment, both to the civil and the religious rights of human nature.” Ibid., p. 30. Ramsay, who wrote of the powerful unifying force exerted by New England histories, was no doubt influenced by them in his own writings.

[15.]HAR, I, p. 350.

[16.]The major sources are Bernard Bailyn, The Ideological Origins ofthe American Revolution (Cambridge, Mass., 1967) and The Originsof American Politics (New York, 1971); Gordon S. Wood, The Creation of the American Republic, 1776–1787 (Chapel Hill, N.C., 1969); and J.G.A. Pocock, The Machiavellian Moment: Florentine Political Thought and the Atlantic Republican Tradition (Princeton, N.J., 1975). Three excellent historiographical essays are Robert Shalhope, “Toward a Republican Synthesis: The Emergence of an Understanding of Republicanism in American Historiography,” William and Mary Quarterly, 3d Series, 29 (1972): 49–80, and “Republicanism and Early American Historiography,” ibid., 39 (1982): 334–356; and Linda K. Kerber, “The Republican Ideology of the Revolutionary Generation,” American Quarterly, 37 (1985): 474–495. I have discussed the impact of republicanism on one historian in “Mercy Otis Warren: The Politics of Language and the Aesthetics of Self,” American Quarterly, 35 (1983): 481–498.

[17.]In fact, Ramsay publicly opposed slavery and branded the slave trade an “infamous traffic.” [See Ramsay to Rush, August 22, 1783, September 9, 1783, January 31, 1785, December 14, 1785, April 12, 1786, in Brunhouse, pp. 76, 77, 86–87, 94, 99.] According to Winthrop Jordan, moreover, Ramsay was the only Southerner who, upon receipt of a copy of Thomas Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia, wrote that he thought Jefferson had “depressed the negroes too low.” Ramsay was as strong a proponent of the Lockean principle that environment shapes human nature as one could find in eighteenth-century America. He believed that “all mankind [is] originally the same & only diversified by accidental circumstances.” [Ramsay to Jefferson, May 3, 1786, in Brunhouse, p. 101. Jordan, White Over Black: American Attitudes Toward the Negro, 1550–1812 (Chapel Hill, N.C., 1968), p. 456.] While Ramsay’s attitudes toward slavery are beyond the scope of this essay, it is useful to note that his failure to condemn slavery more vehemently in his History was integral to his strategy of diminishing the importance of the forces that could tear the nation apart. For a fine discussion of Ramsay and slavery, see Arthur H. Shaffer, “Between Two Worlds: David Ramsay and the Politics of Slavery,” Journalof Southern History, 50 (1984): 175–196.

[18.]See Ramsay to Jefferson, April 7, 1787, in Brunhouse, p. 110; “An Oration” for July 4, 1794, Ibid., p. 195.

[19.]Ramsay to Drayton, September 1, 1779; to Rush, July 18, 1779; to Rush, July 11, 1783; to Eliot, August 6, 1785; to Rush, August 6, 1786; in Brunhouse, pp. 64, 62, 75, 90, 105.

[20.]Ramsay to Eliot, August 6, 1785, in Brunhouse, pp. 90–91.

[21.]Ramsay to Eliot, April 7, 1810, in Brunhouse, p. 166.

[22.]Ramsay to John Coakley Lettsom, October 29, 1808, in Brunhouse, p. 163. This analogy raises the issue of “truth” in historical writing, which I have addressed in “Creating a Useable Future,” and TheRevolutionary Histories, particularly chapters 6 and 8.

[23.]The History of the Revolution of South-Carolina was, thanks to Jefferson’s brokering, translated into French. The fascinating story of Jefferson’s efforts is contained in several letters: Ramsay to Jefferson, June 15, 1785; Ramsay to Jefferson, July 13, 1785; Ramsay to Jefferson, August 8, 1785; Jefferson to Ramsay, August 31, 1785; Jefferson to Ramsay, October 12, 1785; Ramsay to Jefferson, December 10, 1785; Jefferson to Ramsay, January 26, 1786; Jefferson to Ramsay, January 27, 1786; Ramsay to Jefferson, May 3, 1786; Jefferson to Ramsay, July 10, 1786; Ramsay to Jefferson, November 8, 1786; Jefferson to Ramsay, August 4, 1786; Jefferson to Ramsay, May 7, 1788; Ramsay to Jefferson, October 8, 1788, in Brunhouse, pp. 88–94, 97, 101, 104, 107, 112–113, 121, 123. The History of the American Revolution was translated into Dutch and German, and The Life of George Washington was translated into French and Spanish.

[24.]Rush quoted in Robert Y. Hayne, “Biographical Memoir of David Ramsay, M.D.,” Analectic Magazine, 6 (1815): 206. I have relied on Brunhouse, pp. 12–48 for biographical material.

[25.]Ramsay was married three times: first, in February 1775, to Sabina Ellis, who died in June 1776; then in March 1783 to Frances Witherspoon—daughter of John Witherspoon, president of the College of New Jersey (Princeton)—who died while delivering their child December 9, 1784; and finally in January 1787 to Martha Laurens—daughter of Henry Laurens, one of the giants of South Carolina politics and commerce; this marriage lasted some twenty-five years.

[26.]Ramsay’s loss to Smith was almost certainly related to his anti-slavery sentiments. See Shaffer, “Between Two Worlds”; George C. Rogers, Jr., Evolution of a Federalist: William Loughton Smith of Charleston (1758–1812) (Columbia, S.C., 1962), especially pp. 162–171.

[27.]Ramsay to Jefferson, June 15, 1785, in Brunhouse, p. 88. Ramsay, along with other prominent Charlestonians, was arrested by the British on May 12, 1780, upon the capitulation of the city. On August 27 he was exiled to St. Augustine; a year later he was released.

[28.]Ramsay to Rush, February 11, 1786 and Ramsay to Jefferson, April 7, 1787, in Brunhouse, pp. 98, 110.

[29.]David Ramsay, The History of South-Carolina, II, pp. 238–240, 83–84.

[30.]“An Oration on the Advantages of American Independence … ,” in Brunhouse, pp. 184–185.

[31.]Ramsay was referred to as the “Tacitus” of America by J. Kingston, in The New American Biographic Dictionary (Baltimore, 1810), and as America’s “Polybius” in Niles’ Weekly Register, 11 (October 5, 1816), both quoted in Brunhouse, p. 220; Ramsay to Gordon, January 18, 1786, in Brunhouse, p. 96.

[32.]Ramsay to Rush, May 3, 1786, in Brunhouse, pp. 101–102. He added: “For some months past I have spent from five to 8 hours every day at this work. The drudery is nearly done. I have got my facts & I shall put them together in Carolina.”

[33.]Ramsay to Rush, April 13, 1786, September 26, 1786, May 1, 1787, and August 18, 1787, in Brunhouse, pp. 99–100, 105–106, 112, 113–114; Ramsay to Boudinot, April 13, 1786, to Morris, May 12, 1786, to Thomson, November 4, 1786, to Adams, September 20, 1787, in Brunhouse, pp. 100, 102, 107, 114. Thomson’s lengthy letter responding to Ramsay’s manuscript has been reprinted by Paul H. Smith, Quarterly Journal of the Library of Congress, 28 (1971): 158–172.

[34.]Ramsay to Ashbel Green, October 4, 1791, in Brunhouse, p. 130. Aitken had a very good reputation, and he attempted to explain his procedures to the irate author. See Brunhouse’s index for several references to Aitken; Isaiah Thomas, The History of Printing in America (1810), rev. ed., by Marcus A. McCorison (New York, 1970).~ ~~~~~~

[35.]Ramsay to Eliot, October 19, 1789, April 13, 1792, April 7, 1810, and April 12, 1793, in Brunhouse, pp. 126, 131, 166, 135.

[36.]Orrin Grant Libby, “Ramsay as a Plagiarist,” American Historical Review 7 (1901–02): 697–703. Libby also demonstrated that William Gordon had plagiarized from the same source in “A Critical Examination of William Gordon’s History of the American Revolution,” American Historical Association, Annual Report (1899), I: 367–388. Brunhouse has pointed out that two other historians followed Libby’s lead: Josephine Fitts, “David Ramsay . . .” (Unpub. M.A. thesis, Columbia University, 1936); and Elmer D. Johnson, “David Ramsay: Historian or Plagiarist?” South Carolina Historical Magazine, 57 (1956).

[37.]Burke’s role on the Annual Register is still, apparently, a matter of controversy. See Thomas W. Copeland, “Burke and Dodsley’s Annual Register,” PMLA, 54 (1939): 223–245; Bertram D. Sarason, “Edmund Burke and the Two Annual Registers,” PMLA, 68 (1953): 496–508.

[38.]Libby adduced eight examples of plagiarism in Ramsay’s The History of the American Revolution. Fitts added ten more, Brunhouse six. Ironically, Libby searched only the Annual Register, whereas Ramsay himself mentioned that the Remembrancer, another English periodical, also was available to him. See Ramsay to Rush, May 3, 1786, in Brunhouse, p. 102. Brunhouse lists the examples of plagiarism at p. 219.

[39.]Libby, “Ramsay as a Plagiarist,” p. 703.