David Ramsay (April 2, 1749 May 8, 1815) was an American physician and historian from Charleston, South Carolina. He served as a South Carolina delegate to the Continental Congress in 1782–1783 and again in 1785–1786. He was one of the first major historians of the American Revolution.
The son of an Irish emigrant, he was born in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. He graduated at Princeton University in 1765, received his medical degree at the University of Pennsylvania in 1773, and settled as a physician at Charleston, where he had a large practice.
During the American Revolutionary War he was, from 1776 to 1783, a member of the South Carolina legislature. When Charleston was threatened by the British in 1780, he served with the South Carolina militia as a field surgeon. After the city was captured in 1780, Ramsay was imprisoned for nearly a year at St. Augustine, Florida, until he was exchanged. From 1782 to 1786 he served in the Continental Congress, and from 1801 to 1815 in the state Senate, of which he was long president.
In his own day, Ramsay was better known as a historian and author than as a politician. In 1785 he published in two volumes History of the Revolution of South Carolina, in 1789 in two volumes History of the American Revolution, in 1807 a Life of Washington, and in 1809 in two volumes a History of South Carolina. Ramsay was also the author of several minor works, including a memoir (1812) of his third wife Martha Laurens Ramsay, a well-educated woman who had served as a political hostess for her father, Henry Laurens, during the 1780s.
Messer (2002) examines the transition in Ramsay's republican perspective from his History of the American Revolution (1789) to his more conservative History of the United States (1816-17). His works went from a call for active citizens to reform and improve societal institutions to a warning of the dangers of an overzealous population and the need to preserve existing institutions. In his discussion of the treatment of Indians and African American slaves he became less critical of whites and changed to reflect the views of society at large. Ramsay's increasing involvement in South Carolina's economic and political institutions and the need for stability that defined early-19th-century nationalism influenced this transformation. O'Brien (1994) argues his 1789 History of the American Revolution was one of the first and most accomplished histories to appear in the aftermath of that event. She says it challenges American exceptionalist literary frameworks by presenting itself within the European Enlightenment historical tradition, reflecting Ramsay's belief that the United States would have no historical destiny beyond typical patterns of European political and cultural development. Epic portrayals of American history in the 19th century were more the product of New England's historiographic traditions coupled with German historical thought, treating national character as a historical agent, rather than a historical result, as Ramsay suggests. Ramsay's history, then, is better considered the last of the European Enlightenment tradition than the first of American historical epics.
He was killed at Charleston on May 8, 1815 by a lunatic. His History of the United States in three volumes was published posthumously in 1816–1817, and forms the first three volumes of his Universal History Americanized, published in twelve volumes in 1819.
Ramsay married three times. He was the son-in-law of John Witherspoon and Henry Laurens, and thus was also related (by marriage) to South Carolina Governor Charles Pinckney, Ralph Izard, John Rutledge, Arthur Middleton, Daniel Huger, and Lewis Morris.
Ramsay, David, The History of the American Revolution, Ed. and Ann. by Lester H. Cohen (2 vols) Liberty Classics, 1990 (modern reprinting of the orig. 1789 edition). online edition