Historical Markers
Dr. David Ramsay Historical Marker
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Dr. David Ramsay

Hershey/Gettysburg/Dutch Country Region


Marker Location:
US 222 (E side) at Unicorn, East Drumore

Dedication Date:
September 17, 2001

Behind the Marker

Although David Ramsey left Pennsylvania before his twentieth birthday, the Commonwealth can proudly claim "the Father of American History" as a native son. Born in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, on April 2, 1749, Ramsay graduated from the College of New Jersey (later Princeton University) in 1765, then earned a degree in medicine from the College of Philadelphia, where markerDr. Benjamin Rush judged him "far superior to any person we ever graduated at our college."
Portrait of David Ramsay, head and shoulders.
David Ramsay by Rembrandt Peale, from life, 1796.

Settling in Charleston, South Carolina, he soon acquired celebrity first as a physician and then for his public writings on American independence. During the American Revolution, Ramsay was an active member of the South Carolina legislature and an outspoken member of the council of safety. He then took the field as a surgeon, serving during the siege of Savannah in 1779. Participation in both politics and the military allowed Ramsay to collect valuable material for writing a history of the Revolution. Possessing a fine memory and acquaintance with many of the actors in the contest, he was eminently qualified to write the first history of the great struggle.
Engraving and title page, frontpiece of <i>The History of the American Revolution</i> by David Ramsay, 1789.
Frontpiece, David Ramsay M.D, History of the American Revolution, Philadelphia:...

After the war, Ramsay served as a delegate to the Continental congress (1782-86) and for many years in the South Carolina senate. When the new federal government was installed in 1789, he ran for the U. S. Congress, but lost to William L. Smith. It was then that he turned his attention to recording the history of the fledgling United States. In 1789, Ramsay published his History of the American Revolution, the first comprehensive history of that movement.

In a complex interpretation, Ramsay attributed the Revolution to the fact that Britain, with few exceptions, had allowed the American colonies "full liberty to govern themselves by such laws as their local legislatures thought necessary," and "treated them as a judicious mother does her dutiful children." Over the years they came to believe that "their local assemblies stood in the same relation to them, as the Parliament of Great Britain to the inhabitants of that Island." After the French and Indian War, Ramsey argued, both Britain and the colonies were exhilarated by a new sense of power, and when the British attempted to tax and legislate for the colonies, they resisted. The colonies' Puritan heritage, reading habits - they were avid followers of "New Whig" Cato's Letters and "New Whig" writers who asserted that Britain's government was corrupt and endangered representative institutions - and love of liberty fueled this spirit.

Understanding the American Revolution as the outcome of challenges beyond the ability of well-meaning men to solve, Ramsay was sympathetic to both the British ministry and the loyal Americans who sided with their king. He noted that older men were seldom ardent revolutionaries, and that in the North wealthy men rarely were revolutionaries either. He explained how some merchants supported the because they wanted to Revolution to make money by importing goods the British considered illegal, and that many men joined the revolutionary army in the first two years of the war as continental money was plentiful and held its value.

Black and white, head and shoulders, side view.
Robert Proud, by William F. Cogswell, after William Williams, circa 1845.
As his volumes went through several editions in the 1790s, Ramsay's balanced historical judgments led him to reach an ambivalent stand about the Revolution itself. While he upheld the "right of the people to resist their rulers when invading their liberties," he conceded that "to overset an established government unhinges many of those principles which bind individuals to each other." Thus, for Ramsay, the disturbing issue about the right of revolution was that the principle, "though just in itself, is not favorable to the tranquility of present [republican] establishments." In this sentence Ramsey demonstrated his understanding of the tenuous balance between order, on one hand, and the right of people to challenge the government, on the other. Thus, he empathized with the loyalists, most of whom, he believed, rejected revolution not out of fear or personal interest, but due to a legitimate fear "of the mischievous consequences likely to follow."

Ramsay continued to write histories of the new nation for the rest of his life. His History of the Revolution of South Carolina from a British Province to an Independent State (1785), Life of George Washington (1807), and History of the United States, 1607-1808 (1815), demonstrated his same nuanced understanding of human events. Shot by a maniac in Charleston, South Carolina, Ramsay died on May 8, 1815.

How well has Ramsay's History of the American Revolution held up over the past two centuries? In 1960, historian Page Smith would write that "The best interpretation of the causes of the Revolution was made in the decade following the treaty of peace in 1783 and that thereafter, we have moved further in time from the dramatic events; we moved further and further from the truth about our Revolution's beginnings."
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