Framing the Revolution: David Ramsay and the History of the American Revolution

This article was originally published in The Daily Pulp on January 15, 2015.

Despite two centuries of historical writing, scholars still debate the causes and legacy of the American Revolutionary War. Was independence a teleological (i.e., inevitable) outgrowth of the colonies’ isolation from Britain, as Jack Greene argues,[i] or was the conflict caused by a sudden collapse of royal affection, as in Brendan McConville’s telling?[ii] Similarly, did the war inspire a triumphant rise of democracy, as Gordon Wood argues,[iii] or did the revolution cause communities to lose their role in governing, as Barbara Clark Smith describes?[iv] Then again, does the truth of the war lie in a pluralistic interpretation that does not reduce the conflict to single causes and effects?

Seeking a new – or, rather, old – perspective on this issue, I decided to take a look at Dr. David Ramsay’s 1789 “History of the American Revolution,” one of the first histories of the war. Just over 225 years after its publication, Ramsay’s book deserves a new critical appraisal.[v]Ramsay’s proximity to the Founding Fathers does not guarantee that his understanding of the war is more accurate than modern histories. To say that Ramsay’s proximity to the war guarantees historical accuracy, as the historian Page Smith argued in 1960, is to romanticize past Americans and not analyze their actions critically.[vi] Nonetheless, Ramsay’s work, thanks to both its biases and insightful arguments, enables us to see how an eighteenth-century author and veteran of the Revolutionary War made sense of a tumultuous quarter-century.

I want to understand Ramsay’s assessment of colonial society, the intellectual currents that inspired American independence and the war’s final legacy, as well as Ramsay’s nationalistic writing style. To do so, I study Chapters One and Two of the book, plus Appendix Four, the book’s final pages and selected passages about Native Americans, rather than the entire 700-page narrative. I also consider the book’s usefulness as both a primary and secondary source, and I compare Ramsay’s book is compared to several contemporary books on the war.

An initial reading of “History” suggests that Ramsay believed a plurality of factors caused the American Revolution. No one modern book lines up with his argument, yet portions of several present-day books actually concur with him.

Rigorous education and commitment to civics defined the life of David Ramsay (1749-1815).[vii]Raised in his father’s “Presbyterian Calvinist persuasion,”[viii] the Pennsylvania-born Ramsay excelled at academics, studying only at Presbyterian institutions from lower school to college (at Princeton, then called the College of New Jersey).[ix] Next, Ramsay “studied medicine at the College of Philadelphia, where he met the physician, philosopher and philanthropist Benjamin Rush, who became his most influential mentor and friend.”[x] The young doctor relocated to Charleston, South Carolina; when the British retook the city from the rebels in 1780, Ramsay and other men active in wartime politics were imprisoned and exiled in Florida for ten months.[xi] After the war, Ramsay served in the Continental Congress.[xii] In 1785, he published his first book, “History of the Revolution of South Carolina,” which was “[l]ess a studied philosophical creation than a rapid summary of events” which “sought to preserve the minute details” of the South Carolina campaign.[xiii] As a Northerner, Ramsay still felt somewhat out of place in South Carolina and lost his 1788 Congressional election, yet he married into the slave-owning Laurens family and eventually grew accustomed to the state’s elite white society.[xiv] Despite financial difficulties later in life, Ramsay continued writing until his death in 1815, when he was murdered by a mentally ill man.[xv]

While Ramsay produced the first major U.S. historical synthesis with his 1789 “History of the American Revolution,”[xvi] he did not work alone. Lawrence J. Friedman and Arthur H. Shaffer have placed Ramsay in an active network of early American historians:

Jeremy Belknap, John Eliot, the members of the Massachusetts Historical Society, Hugh Williamson and Ebenezer Hazard in New York and Philadelphia, David Ramsay in Charleston, and William Gordon in England and America corresponded with each other and provided what assistance they could to scholars lacking the resources for extensive travel and research…. What united them was a passionate commitment to the Revolution, concern for the republic’s stability, and a desire to articulate a unique history that would help establish the New Nation’s intellectual reputation at home and abroad.[xvii]

Moreover, Peter C. Messer places Ramsay in conversation with other patriot writers who “embraced the Enlightenment vision of America as the place intended for the redemption of humanity.”[xviii] Informed by this community, Ramsay wrote his “History” to create a national heritage and intellectual tradition that validated the fledgling country.

Like the classical historians of ancient Rome, Ramsay sought not only to construct a historical narrative, but also to propose a particular worldview and portray his subject in a laudatory manner. In the foreword to the 1990 edition of Ramsay’s “History,” Lester H. Cohen writes, “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 [who promoted liberty] desired.”[xix] This kind of unity, Ramsay and his cohort of historians believed, required “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.”[xx] Arthur H. Shaffer asserts that Ramsay was torn between his public praise of a unifying American culture and privately fearing that the diverse country actually lacked a central character.[xxi] To appreciate Ramsay’s narrative fully, the modern reader must recognize that devout nationalism and the need to construct and promulgate a national character (where one may not exist) drove Ramsay’s writing.

“History” is therefore a useful primary source regarding early American nationalism, specifically the Federalist conception of nationalism to which Ramsay subscribed in the 1780s.[xxii] Ramsay “[feared] for the future of the republic, [so] he became an ardent advocate of a strong national government and worked to that end in the Continental Congress.”[xxiii] However, the book’s interest in advancing a favorable portrait of America complicates its status as a secondary source for Cohen, who does not give the book much value as history.[xxiv] I disagree with Cohen: Ramsay’s “History” has merit as a secondary source, even if modern readers must carefully weigh Ramsay’s political sympathies against his research and arguments.

Dr. David Ramsay. Source:
Dr. David Ramsay. Source:

Another key premise of “History,” Cohen notes, is that “[Ramsay’s] version of the past appeared inevitable.”[xxv] In other words, Ramsay proposes a teleological (again, inevitable) model of history, with the advent of American republicanism as the endpoint (or telos, to use the classical Greek term). Ramsay’s teleology is not based on social science, like the structuralist continuities through time that Jack P. Greene explores in his writings, but rather on Christian theology. At the end of “History,” Ramsay reveals his religious teleology, addressing the (American) reader in a nondenominational manner, albeit one clearly influenced by his Presbyterian upbringing: “May the Almighty Ruler of the Universe, who has raised you to Independence, and given you a place among the nations of the earth, make the American Revolution an Era in the history of the world, remarkable for the progressive increase of human happiness!”[xxvi] Ramsay envisions his deity as an architect whose invisible hand guides history for specific purposes; history is predestined, to some extent.[xxvii] Moreover, Ramsay’s teleology implies that America enjoys God’s favor, and that the divine arc of history will produce even more blessings for America in the future. The Revolution was perhaps one telos, but more teloi lie ahead. Overall, Ramsay sees history as teleological, nationalistic, and religious – although his religion is defined broadly enough that it likely appealed to deists as well as orthodox Christians in the early republic.

Ramsay regards the Americans as an exceptional people driven by moral principles. Even though Ramsay privately wondered if America’s center would hold, the Ramsay that narrates “History” is supremely confident about the accuracy of his narrative. Colonists “nurtured a love for liberty,”[xxviii] beginning with the Puritans and other early settlers who traveled in search of religious freedom.[xxix] The Americans actively participated in the colonial judicial system,[xxx]yet preferred autonomy from clergy and were largely free from “the contagion of ministerial influence [i.e., political dominance] by their distance from the metropolis.”[xxxi] While not well read,[xxxii] the typical colonist genuinely subscribed to the beliefs of the Declaration of Independence: “He believed that God made all mankind originally equal: That he endowed them with the rights of life, property, and as much liberty as was consistent with the rights of others.”[xxxiii] This depiction of the Americans as a liberty-loving people, already free in many ways, echoes the nationalist historian Gordon S. Wood’s claim in “The Radicalism of the American Revolution”: “The crown always seemed to the colonists to be an extraneous overlaid power antagonistic to their local institutions, especially the provincial assemblies.”[xxxiv]Moreover, Wood’s glowing declarations of Americans’ innate democratic morality in the final pages of his book largely agree with Ramsay’s evocation of an American national character.[xxxv]However, Wood’s hyperbolic portrayal of an inherently independent America has fallen out of fashion among academic historians, so Ramsay’s portrayal seems similarly dated from a historiographic perspective.

Ramsay further details the Americans’ national character in Appendix IV, claiming that the war brought out the best in colonists: “When the war began, the Americans were a mass of husbandmen, merchants, mechanics and fishermen; but the necessities of the country gave a spring to the active powers of the inhabitants, and set them on thinking, speaking and acting, in a line far beyond that to which they had been accustomed.”[xxxvi] Ramsay acknowledges, “A few young men were exceptions to the rule,” but largely he praises Americans for becoming “self-made, industrious men” in the course of the war.[xxxvii] He also takes care to show national unity in this chapter, arguing that the army and Congress included “men from all the states, [who] by freely mixing together, were assimilated into one mass.”[xxxviii] Thanks to this blending of classes and populations, “Local prejudices abated. By frequent collision asperities were worn off, and a foundation was laid for the establishment of a nation, out of discordant materials.”[xxxix]

This portrayal of Americans as industrious, harmonious Protestant republicans reads like propaganda and glosses over many national divisions, reflecting Ramsay’s desire for a national mythology. Indeed, Ramsay often suggests that Americans were of like minds and shared a collective ethos, even as he describes different political factions at various points in his narrative.[xl] Ramsay subordinates the reality of political divisions to his goal of showing Americans as fundamentally united.[xli] Similarly, Friedman and Shaffer argue that Ramsay, concerned that America lacked unifying “traits,” stressed “republicanism of the national character” and a “special destiny” in his writing to create a new sense of American unity.[xlii]

However, even as Ramsay sympathizes with his countrymen, he does not render past Americans in a uniformly positive manner. He notes that Puritans forgot their “noble principles of liberty … soon after they got power into their hands.”[xliii] Ramsay criticizes the slave economy, although he does so because of slavery’s negative effects upon white laborers, not because he thinks slavery is particularly dire for African Americans.[xliv] Additionally, Ramsay feels that Americans do not give enough recognition to clergy for their contributions to the war effort: “From the diminution of [the clergy’s] number, and the penury to which they have been subjected, civil government has lost of the advantages it formerly derived from the public instructions of that useful order of men.”[xlv]

To analyze Ramsay’s “History” as a secondary source, the book must now be put into dialogue with modern academic monographs on the Revolution. Ramsay’s thesis, which he articulates in Chapters One and Two, is that American independence stemmed from both inevitable political differences between the colonies and motherland, and deliberate British actions. Let’s tackle the inevitable differences first.

Ramsay describes the first colonies of New England as isolated from Britain, so that “[t]he bulk of the people … knew little of the Mother Country,”[xlvi] and “inhabitants of the colonies from the beginning, especially in New-England, enjoyed a government, which was but little short of being independent.”[xlvii] This argument resembles that of Jack P. Greene, who contends that the colonies functioned as their own nation-states from an early time (although Greene thinks colonists still felt some attachment to Britain).[xlviii] For both Ramsay and Greene, continuities of self-governance made inevitable a rupture with Britain, which was trying to become a centralized empire.[xlix] Ramsay and Greene thus contradict Brendan McConville, who argues that colonists felt very much a part of the empire and venerated the king until immediately before hostilities in the 1770s.[l]

Ramsay’s book does not conclusively answer the historical question of whether independence was abrupt or the result of a continuous process of social development (even if that continuous process is not rendered in the teleological language of Jack Greene and David Ramsay). We have already established that Ramsay portrays his countrymen as fond of liberty and opposed to authoritarian rule (which is ironic because he socialized with slaveowners daily). Emphasizing geographic isolation and a teleological rupture from Britain therefore serves Ramsay’s nationalistic purpose in writing. Nonetheless, Ramsay’s view of the colonial disconnect from Britain may bear weight, since Ramsay grew up in colonial America and lived through the conflict. Perhaps there were a plurality of intellectual streams present in colonial America – some people who felt isolated and free from Britain, as Ramsay relates, and others who stayed devoted to Britain until very late, as McConville argues. Bearing in mind McConville’s objections, Ramsay’s description of proto-independence in the American colonies deserves further research.

Let’s now consider the British actions that Ramsay believes triggered insurrection, although Ramsay “offers us no evil George III, no tyrannical ministers, no demons and oppressors, but simply well-meaning men caught in a situation too complex and demanding for their very average talents.”[li] Ramsay describes the British government’s efforts to centralize its power after the Seven Years’ War with new duties and taxes.[lii] Colonists balked not only at taxation without representation, but also at the violation of the colonies’ fundamental purpose – to provide Britain with trade, not taxes.[liii] Ramsay agrees with the colonists’ interpretation of events: “The English colonies were originally established, not for the sake of revenue, but on the principles of a commercial monopoly.”[liv] Ramsay’s argument calls to mind Edward G. Gray and Jane Kamensky’s assertion that “Efforts to reform the empire in the 1760s – through taxes and trade prohibitions – were understood by American patriots to be exceptional and punitive. In fact, they were acts of inclusion: attempts to bring the Americans into an increasingly well-fenced and carefully tended imperial fold.”[lv] Unfortunately, the reformers’ bid for including the peripheral colonies in a stronger government backfired. This account of imperial policy again puts Ramsay at odds with McConville, who thinks the empire largely failed to centralize power and reform dysfunctional institutions.[lvi] Moreover, Ramsay’s argument contradicts McConville’s claim that the collapse of popular support for the monarchy came only in 1774, rather than the earlier Stamp Act Crisis.[lvii]

Ramsay describes colonial resistance to British rule as a collective affair, which of course his unity narrative requires. Civil disobedience began during the Stamp Act Crisis, when colonists enforced boycotts of British goods.[lviii] This resistance largely derived from the colonists’ love of their proto-capitalist economy. Colonists resented Britain’s attempt “to cramp the commerce of her colonies,”[lix] viewed new British trade duties as “a complete circle of oppression,”[lx] and sought to subvert British authority, since in their view “the subject was at liberty to buy, or not buy, as he pleased.”[lxi] In this way, Ramsay also concurs with T.H. Breen, who argued that Americans sought to protect their new market economy from British encroachment.[lxii] Parallels also exist between the arguments of Ramsay and Pauline Maier. Ramsay describes how “assemblies [during the Stamp Crisis] generally passed resolutions, asserting their exclusive right, to lay taxes on their constituents,”[lxiii] much the way that Maier describes individual colonial governments producing their own declarations of independence.[lxiv] Both authors therefore stress how colonial assemblies manifested collective will and repeatedly denounced British hegemony. There is nuance to Ramsay’s portrayal of insurrection, though: Ramsay quotes a Virginia resolution that dubs those who support taxation without representation as enemies of the King.[lxv] In other words, the colonists who protested the British taxation plan initially saw themselves as loyal Britons. Ramsay’s mostly independent America thus corresponds slightly with the monarch-loving America described by McConville – America still had some feeling for the king, before years of British reforms completely wore loyalism away.[lxvi]

The final three pages of “History” – a sermon addressed to the reader – forcefully convey Ramsay’s vision for an enlightened republican citizenry as the country approaches the nineteenth century. Ramsay begins his address by praising the new Constitution as “an improvement on all republican forms of government heretofore established.”[lxvii] Despite expounding the virtues of the new national government, Ramsay implies that the Revolution is still underway.[lxviii] Ramsay exhorts Americans to work hard to develop the country,[lxix] since the country has more resources than debts, and he also urges the people to avoid wars, which “beget debt.”[lxx] He uses highly Protestant language to describe his idealized American ethos – “Practice industry, frugality, temperance, moderation and the whole lovely train of republican virtues” – and extols the virtues of both elite statesmen and common farmers.[lxxi] Indeed, Ramsay sees imperialism as anathema to American republicanism – he entreats Americans not to pursue incursions into Africa or raids against the Native Americans, since “There is territory enough for them and for you.”[lxxii] However, Ramsay shows that he is not completely free of the racial views of his era, using the patronizing phrase “the hapless African,” and proclaiming, “It would be more glorious to civilise [sic] one tribe of savages than to exterminate or expel a score.”[lxxiii] Finally, Ramsay invokes his teleology, saying that Americans still must “Perfect the good work [they] have begun.”[lxxiv] These last sentences, supplying what Ramsay wishes to be his book’s implications, perhaps constitute the most eloquent summation of Ramsay’s nationalist beliefs circa 1789.

The front page to the 1990 reprint of Ramsay’s book. Source:
The front page to the 1990 reprint of Ramsay’s book. Source:

How else should modern historians consider “History” as a primary source? The book retains its literary value thanks to Ramsay’s high level of detail about American society and the war. Ramsay’s expressions of tolerance toward Native Americans and his sadness at the destruction of whole nations are surprising for a writer of his era.[lxxv] With that said, Ramsay condemns slavery even as he says it is not a horrible experience for African Americans,[lxxvi] and he condemns attacks against Christianized Native Americans even as he speaks glowingly of American attacks against other native communities.[lxxvii] The text concerns male actors almost exclusively, too. “History” thus illuminates the complexities of prejudice and tolerance in the eighteenth century.

Several avenues exist for further research about David Ramsay and his historical writings. Ramsay’s books and essays could be approached from a literary perspective, allowing for a consideration of how historical writing changed during Ramsay’s lifetime. Another option would be to analyze all of Ramsay’s histories, not only “The History of the American Revolution,” and trace the evolution of Ramsay’s views on American history. The books could be read through a political lens to see how Ramsay’s writing reflected the politics of the early republic and the first party system. Eve Kornfeld has argued that Ramsay became a classical liberal by the end of his life, as he developed tolerance for the Southern slave economy, although he still feared civil war and valued national unity.[lxxviii] Shaffer also describes the decline of Ramsay’s Federalist nationalism, as a Pennsylvanian became a Southern slave holder: “After 1790, Ramsay’s dreams of a cohesive republic gave way to the reality of localism within a nationalist framework.” Ramsay’s shift from pure Federalist republicanism to a nuanced liberalism, as reflected in the prose of his books, merits further research. Moreover, an extensive analysis of the Ramsay corpus would detail how, according to Peter C. Messer, Ramsay “removed from his [later “History of the United States”] events that raised questions about the legitimacy of the social, political, and economic foundations of [the] United States.”[lxxix] In other words, how and why did Ramsay take up “the search for stability and order that defined early nineteenth-century nationalism,”[lxxx]instead of his earlier call in “History of the American Revolution” to continue the Revolution’s work?[lxxxi]

Modern historical discussions about David Ramsay offer more research opportunities. For instance, according to Friedman and Shaffer, “Although Ramsay personally supported the Federalist party, when he completed coverage of the ratification of the Constitution, he abruptly switched [in his later works] to a bland recitation of events that side-stepped the divisive party issues of the late 1790s and early 1800s.”[lxxxii] What were the implications of Ramsay’s “deliberate non-partisanship” in the early republic, given the ongoing political war between Federalists and Anti-Federalists?[lxxxiii] Was his non-partisanship an attempt to balance republican nationalism with a more liberal conception of regional autonomy?[lxxxiv] Additionally, Shaffer contends that Ramsay’s “History of the United States,” published in 1816-17, abandoned Ramsay’s portrayal of a unitary America and instead treated the colonies as separate polities, as well as giving “the colonial era … little relationship to the Revolution.”[lxxxv] The content of this later book undermined Ramsay’s prior attempt to build a unifying American identity! Drawing from Friedman and Shaffer’s observations, historians might explore further the link between Ramsay’s non-partisanship and his later works’ failure to provide America with the singular origin he supplied in the 1789 “History.” To go further, how did liberalism and Ramsay’s fear of civil war weigh on his mind as he failed, in his later histories, to portray an American character? Research combining textual analysis and political biography would trace the fragmentation of Ramsey’s national mythology over twenty-five years.

Setting aside these research questions, “The History of the American Revolution” has potential as a teaching tool. History teachers might use the book as an example of early American nationalism and discuss with students how Ramsay, a veteran, memorialized and perhaps reimagined the conflict through his writing. Educators working with more advanced students, especially at the college level, could use “History” to show the nuances of early modern historical literature. For example, since Ramsay does not use footnotes or cite most of his sources, as historians do today, the text could be used for seminar discussions about the meaning and production of historical truth, as well as the importance of citation when writing history. Ramsay’s “History” might also be read alongside other key works of history from that era, such as Edward Gibbon’s “Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire,” and thus help to illustrate in a comparative manner the emergence of the modern historical profession.

Ultimately, David Ramsay lacks the twenty-first century’s social values, and he privileges teleology and political history in his “History of the American Revolution” to a greater degree than modern historians. It is important also to realize that Ramsay was not some infallible philosopher – a deified Founding Father, if you will – but rather a normal man who tried to create a unifying culture in his 1789 “History” and later in life struggled to convey that same unity of national purpose. Indeed, based on the historical debate outlined in this paper, Ramsay seems to have never fully reconciled partisanship, liberalism and republican nationalism. However, Ramsay as a historian avoids a simplistic understanding of why the American Revolution happened. His reconstruction of the conflict hinges both on long-term continuities and fast-developing economic concerns and collective actions, which were inspired by a British government that implemented new policies ineffectively. Ramsay portrays the American people as united and moral to an unrealistic degree, but his “History” still proposes a plurality of causes for independence, encouraging his reader not to reduce the Revolution to a simplistic narrative. In this regard, Ramsay’s “History” remains relevant today, as academic historians start to abandon uni-causal explanations of the Revolutionary War.


[i] Jack P. Greene, “Colonial History and National History: Reflections on a Continuing Problem,” The William and Mary Quarterly, Third Series, 64, no. 2 (April 2007): 241-242.

[ii] Brendan McConville, The King’s Three Faces: The Rise & Fall of Royal America, 1688-1776 (Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina Press, for the Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture, 2006), 286-311.

[iii] Gordon Wood, The Radicalism of the American Revolution (1991; New York: Vintage Books, 1993), 343, 348, 366-369.

[iv] Barbara Clark Smith, The Freedoms We Lost: Consent and Resistance in Revolutionary America (New York: The New Press, for the Smithsonian Institution, 2010), 204, 207-208.

[v] David Ramsay, The History of the American Revolution, edited by Lester H. Cohen, 2 vols. (1789; Indianapolis: LibertyClassics, 1990). 2014 marks the book’s 225th anniversary, which seems as good a reason as any for giving the book a new close reading.

[vi] In 1960, Smith contended that Ramsay and his peers, writing immediately after the war’s conclusion, were more accurate than later historians: “… the best interpretation of the causes of the Revolution was made in the decade following the treaty of peace in 1783 and that thereafter, as we moved further in time from the dramatic events of the Revolution and brought to bear on the problem all the vast resources of modern scholarship, we moved further and further from the truth about our Revolutionary beginnings” (Page Smith, “David Ramsay and the Causes of the American Revolution,” The William and Mary Quarterly 17, no. 1 (January 1960): 51). Smith’s opinion, as well as the cranky tone he expresses on pg. 51 in regard to revisionist history, seems extremely dated when read in 2014. Smith also errs by criticizing later historians for “[making] the Revolution prove something about [their] own society or about the society which [they wish] to see evolve in the future,” yet not recognizing that Ramsay’s support for “unitary history” is itself a form of using the past to prove a point (Smith, “Causes, 74).

[vii] Arthur H. Shaffer, To Be an American: David Ramsay and the Making of the American Consciousness (Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press, 1991), 1.

[viii] Shaffer, To Be an American, 10.

[ix] Shaffer, To Be an American, 11-13.

[x] Karen O’Brien, “David Ramsay and the Delayed Americanization of American History,” Early American Literature 29, no. 1, p. 1 (March 1994): 2.

[xi] Shaffer, To Be an American, 54-60.

[xii] O’Brien, “Delayed Americanization,” 3.

[xiii] Eve Kornfeld, “From Republicanism to Liberalism: The Intellectual Journey of David Ramsay,” Journal of the Early Republic 9, no. 3 (Fall 1989): 292.

[xiv] Kornfeld, “Republicanism,” 306-309. See also: Peter C. Messer, “From a Revolutionary History to a History of Revolution: David Ramsay and the American Revolution,” Journal of the Early Republic 22, no. 2 (University of Pennsylvania Press, Summer 2002): 219: “His marriage to Martha Laurens in 1787 gave him a material stake in the community, at least in part in the form of the ownership of slaves. Perhaps more importantly, he sought acceptance n a community that, though tolerant of outsiders, demanded a degree of conformity in its members.”

[xv] Shaffer, To Be an American, 248-253.

[xvi] Lawrence J. Friedman and Arthur H. Shaffer, “David Ramsay and the Quest for an American Historical Identity,” Southern Quarterly 14, no. 4 (Summer 1976): 353.

[xvii] Friedman and Shaffer, “Quest,” 352.

[xviii] Messer, “Revolutionary History,” 209.

[xix] Lester H. Cohen, Foreword to The History of the American Revolution, by David Ramsay, edited by Cohen, 2 vols (Indianapolis: LibertyClassics, 1990), xv. See also: Messer, “Revolutionary History,” 208: “… between 1783 and 1818, the genre of history, and its interpretation of the colonial and revolutionary heritage of the United States, was regularly presented as absolutely necessary for the dissemination of both a spirit of nationalism and the proper republican virtues.”

[xx] Cohen, Foreword, xv.

[xxi] Shaffer, To Be an American, 106.

[xxii] Cohen, Foreword, xv: “Ramsay’s reasons for writing … were intimately tied to his Federalist political views.” See also: Cohen, Foreword, xvi: “… 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.”

[xxiii] Friedman and Shaffer, “Quest,” 354. See also: Shaffer, To Be an American, 105: “He genuinely feared disunion.”

[xxiv] Cohen, Foreword, xxxii: “We do not … 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.”

[xxv] Cohen, Foreword, xvii.

[xxvi] Ramsay, History, 667.

[xxvii] See: O’Brien, “Delayed Americanization,” 5 for additional context on theological teleology in the period: “Puritan historical thinking encompassed the notion that God occasionally makes certain people instrumental to his purpose and that New England Congregationalists were one such people. This had acquired wider currency in the eighteenth-century colonies in the modified formulation that the Protestant province had a special place as the exemplar and bearer of Christian values.” O’Brien and I disagree, though, in that she reads Ramsay as emphasizing “centralized government and sound finance” over providence (5), whereas I see religion as a major part of Ramsay’s argument. We also disagree in that O’Brien believes that an influx of German history caused American “national character [to acquire] the status of historical agency instead of remaining, as in Ramsay’s account, the result of historical experience” (15). My reading of Ramsay’s text suggested that Ramsay saw America’s character as equally defined by historical experience as by an enduring, innate love of liberty that gave fuel to the revolutionary movement.

[xxviii] Ramsay, History, 28.

[xxix] Ramsay, History, 8-13.

[xxx] Ramsay, History, 28-29.

[xxxi] Ramsay, History, 28; quoted words from Ramsay, History, 31.

[xxxii] Ramsay, History, 29.

[xxxiii] Ramsay, History, 30.

[xxxiv] Wood, Radicalism, 111.

[xxxv] Wood, Radicalism, 364-369. To be fair, Wood describes the anti-democratic impulses of the Framers (180), yet his book ends on such a triumphant nationalistic note as to make those earlier qualifications somewhat irrelevant.

[xxxvi] Ramsay, History, 630.

[xxxvii] Ramsay, History, 630.

[xxxviii] Ramsay, History, 631.

[xxxix] Ramsay, History, 631.

[xl] This self-contradictory pattern is especially apparent in Appendix IV. On 625, Ramsay asserts, “Previous to the American Revolution, the inhabitants of the British colonies were universally loyal. That three millions of such subjects should break through all former attachments, and unanimously adopt new ones, could not be reasonably expected.” (Added emphasis my own.) Ramsay then spends 626-629 outlining popular divisions over independence.

[xli] The contradiction, as Eve Kornfeld notes, is that the unity-loving David Ramsay writes about Tories and moderate versus radical patriots – clear divisions in America’s character (Kornfeld, “Republicanism,” 296-298). Shaffer, To Be an American, 124 also notes, “By relegating Loyalists from the narrative of The History of the American Revolution to an appendix, Ramsey left undisturbed the impression of a high degree of American consensus.”

[xlii] Friedman and Shaffer, “Quest,” 358. The authors speak again to this dissonance on pg. 360: “Though in print Ramsay exuded optimism, privately he expressed a sense of disappointment.”

[xliii] Ramsay, History, 10.

[xliv] Ramsay, History, 14. See also: Friedman and Shaffer, “Quest,” 357: “Though Ramsay had married into the slaveholding Laurens family and never perceived himself as an abolitionist, some years earlier he expressed the hope that the Revolutionary struggle might end in freeing the slaves. This hope had been expressed in private and Ramsay never entirely departed from it. During the Revolutionary War, he had been foremost in the South Carolina legislature at urging the arming of the slaves and had supported the ban on further importation of slaves…” Finally, see: Kornfeld, “Republicanism,” 298-301, 310.

[xlv] Ramsay, History, 638. This particular appeal to the worth of clergy in the war indicates that Ramsay, despite his broadly religious language, still subscribed to somewhat orthodox Christian beliefs.

[xlvi] Ramsay, History, 27-28, with quoted words coming from 28.

[xlvii] Ramsay, History, 32.

[xlviii] Greene, “Colonial History,” 240-242.

[xlix] Greene, “Colonial History,” 242; Ramsay, History, 39.

[l] McConville, King’s Three Faces, 9-11, 311.

[li] Smith, “Causes,” 56.

[lii] Ramsay, History, 42, 45-46.

[liii] Ramsay, History, 43, 46-47.

[liv] Ramsay, History, 53.

[lv] Edward G. Gray and Jane Kamensky, “Introduction: American Revolutions,” in The Oxford Handbook of the American Revolution, edited by Gray and Kamensky (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013), 3.

[lvi] McConville, King’s Three Faces, 220-245; see especially 222 and 238.

[lvii] McConville, King’s Three Faces, 288.

[lviii] Ramsay, History, 57, 66, 75.

[lix] Ramsay, History, 46.

[lx] Ramsay, History, 71.

[lxi] Ramsay, History, 66.

[lxii] T.H. Breen, The Marketplace of Revolution: How Consumer Politics Shaped American Independence (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004), xiv-xvii, 21-26, 202, 237-239. Breen actually discusses Ramsay on 330-331.

[lxiii] Ramsay, History, 63.

[lxiv] Pauline Maier, American Scripture: Making the Declaration of Independence (1997; New York: Vintage Books, 1998), 162-167.

[lxv] Ramsay, History, 57.

[lxvi] Ramsay, History, 87 describes how a tentative truce between Britain and America in the 1770s was too precarious to last. Repeated British insults made colonists “[determined] to resist all encroachments on … British liberty” (87).

[lxvii] Ramsay, History, 665.

[lxviii] Peter C. Messer agrees: “The Revolution, quite simply, was not yet over” (Messer, “Revolutionary History,” 216).

[lxix] Messer, “Revolutionary History,” 216: “Complacency and acceptance were simply not allowable. Consequently, the memory of the Revolution needed to remind the people of the United States of the need to continue to reform themselves and their communities if they hoped to achieve the peculiar destiny envisioned by Ramsay and other nationalist authors.”

[lxx] Ramsay, History, 665-666; quoted words from 666.

[lxxi] Ramsay, History, 666. One must wonder if early Americans explicitly identified such rhetoric as Protestant a century before the writings of Max Weber, but when read today Ramsay’s rhetoric very much carries connotations of the (American) Protestant work ethic that Weber described.

[lxxii] Ramsay, History, 667.

[lxxiii] Ramsay, History, 667.

[lxxiv] Ramsay, History, 667.

[lxxv] Ramsay, History, 4, 15, 463-464, 474-475, 667. Ramsay on 667 seeks to “civilise” the natives, not kill them.

[lxxvi] Ramsay, History, 14.

[lxxvii] Ramsay, History, 473-475.

[lxxviii] Kornfeld, “Republicanism,” 311-312.

[lxxix] Messer, “Revolutionary History,” 223.

[lxxx] Messer, “Revolutionary History,”219.

[lxxxi] Messer, “Revolutionary History,” 223: “History had become a reference point that affirmed the security or superiority of the current generation of readers, rather than a shared set of problems highlighting continuing weaknesses and defects within the community. It had, as Michael Kammen suggested, become a tool to liberate the present from the past, and in the process it no longer established a continuity between the two that directed the actions of readers in their daily lives.”

[lxxxii] Friedman and Shaffer, “Quest,” 369.

[lxxxiii] Quoted words taken from: Friedman and Shaffer, “Quest,” 370. Refer also to Messer, “Revolutionary History,” 220 for more discussion of a non-partisan stance: “He did not abandon his great visions for the United States, but now insisted that they could only be achieved with caution as those blessed with the ability to reason soundly and think deeply took the helm of the state. Individuals, he insisted, should work toward improving themselves, and accepting not only the differences that had arisen among the various regions of the new nation, but also its more dynamic economy.”

[lxxxiv] See also: Kornfeld, “Republicanism,” 312-313: “Ramsay’s intellectual career seems to illustrate the way in which regional cultures could subtly overwhelm and defeat the attempt of revolutionary intellectuals to create a single republican American culture. It suggests that the emerging regional allegiances of American intellectuals may have helped to mediate between American republicanism and liberalism, by fostering intellectual toleration for heterogeneous cultural sources, local economic interests, and cultural diversity. But the complexity and painfulness of Ramsay’s intellectual journey from republicanism to liberalism also eloquently attest to the fundamental dissonance of these two cultural systems, and to the strength of republicanism in the minds of revolutionary intellectuals.”

[lxxxv] Shaffer, To Be an American, 253.



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