Ramsay, David

Ramsay, David 1765 (1749-1815), physician, patriot, and historian, delivered what was probably the first Fourth of July oration ever given in America.

The son of a Scotch-Irish Pennsylvania farmer, Ramsay graduated from Princeton at the age of sixteen, and taught school for five years before undertaking the study of medicine at the College of Philadelphia. After receiving his bachelor of physic degree, he went to Charlestown, South Carolina, bearing a letter from his friend and medical teacher, Benjamin Rush 1760, who said he was ``far superior to any person we ever graduated at our college.'' His practice in Charlestown was successful and his permanent contributions to medicine were recognized in 1789 when Yale granted him an honorary M.D. He was also active in politics, serving in the assembly and senate of South Carolina and the Continental Congress.

It was as an historian, however, that Ramsay made his most notable contribution. His works included The History of the Resolution of South Carolina (1785), History of the American Revolution (1789), The History of South Carolina (1809), and History of the United States, which remained unfinished at his death and was completed by his brother-in-law, S. Stanhope Smith. (The second of Ramsay's three wives, all of whom predeceased him, was -- like Mrs. Smith -- a daughter of John Witherspoon.)

Modern historical scholarship has tended to dismiss the histories of the Revolution written by Ramsay, William Gordon, and others, but some historians have insisted on the importance of these early histories nevertheless. ``What matters,'' Professor Frank Craven has said, ``is that they were written and read, and that they present the first attempts by Americans to deal comprehensively with an important segment of our common history.''

In 1965 Professor Page Smith of the University of California at Los Angeles published an extensive study of Ramsay's History of the American Revolution in which he stressed the advantage that accrued to Ramsay through his involvement in the events of which he wrote and the wisdom he exercised in availing himself of this opportunity. ``The generosity of mind and spirit which marks his pages, his critical sense, his balanced judgment and compassion,'' Professor Smith concluded, ``are gifts that were uniquely his own and that clearly entitle him to an honorable position in the front rank of American historians.''

The Independence Day oration believed to be the first delivered in the United States was given by Ramsay on July 4, 1778. A century later it was asserted by some that William Gordon had delivered the first such oration in Boston in 1777. But the Reverend Mr. Gordon's discourse was a sermon, on a text from the third book of Kings in the Old Testament, preached before the General Court of Massachusetts, whereas Dr. Ramsay's was an oration on ``the Advantages of American Independence'' delivered to ``a Publick Assembly of the Inhabitants of Charlestown in South Carolina'' -- a more likely forerunner of the Fourth of July orations that became a part of the American tradition.


From Alexander Leitch, A Princeton Companion, copyright Princeton University Press (1978).

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