Academic journal article South Carolina Historical Magazine

"To Be a Member of Congress Hereafter Will Be like a Profession": New Letters from David Ramsay, 1785-1793

Academic journal article South Carolina Historical Magazine

"To Be a Member of Congress Hereafter Will Be like a Profession": New Letters from David Ramsay, 1785-1793

Article excerpt

After more than two hundred years in private hands, a cache of newly discovered letters from Dr. David Ramsay to his friend John Kean sheds new light on South Carolina in the period of the early Republic. These letters are housed among the recently opened papers of John Kean at Kean University's Liberty Hall Museum in Union, New Jersey. Since this important manuscript collection became available for research in 2007, a few historians have mined some of its South Carolina-related material. J onathan Mercan tini employed Kean's notes and letters in an article in this journal in 2013, and The Documentary History of the Ratification of the Constitution contains eighteen previously unpublished items from the collection in the South Carolina volume, which is scheduled for publication in 2016.1 However, much more remains to be explored, including the correspondence of those who wrote to Kean. The Ramsay letters in the Kean collection, published here for the first time, offer incisive commentary on an array of politically and economically significant topics such as the election of South Carolina's delegation to the first three federal Congresses, political campaigns, the professionalization of politics, and the slave trade.2 In addition, Ramsay comments on critics of U.S. treasury secretary Alexander Hamilton, ongoing issues with public and private debt, the U.S. Constitution, the Santee Canal, and banking. Because the letters between close friends and allies were not intended for public consumption, they give us an intimate glimpse of "inside politics" in South Carolina. They also remind us of the contingency of decisions made in the first years after ratification of the U.S. Constitution.

John Kean (1756-1795) was a Beaufort-area merchant-planter who had served in the Commissary Department of the Continental Army and been held aboard a British prison ship after the capture of Charleston. Kean's time as a prisoner of were ruined his health, and this was likely when he contracted the tuberculosis that eventually killed him. After the war, Kean held seats in the South Carolina House of Representatives in 1785 and the Confederation Congress between 1785 and 1787. While attending the Confederation Congress in New York City, he met Susan Van Brugh Livingston, the niece of Governor William Livingston of New Jersey. After the couple married in 1786, Kean moved north in order to be near his wife's influential family. Kean also benefited from being named the executor of the estate of his stepfather's business partner, Peter Lavien, which brought him into contact with Lavien's half-brother Alexander Hamilton of New York. Historians refer to Kean as "the first of a new breed of energetic and ambitious national politicians."3 In 1789 Washington appointed him to the commission charged with settling accounts between the federal government and the states, and two years later, he became cashier (chief operating officer) of the Bank of the United States, a post he held until his death.

Best remembered as one of the first generation of historians of the United States, David Ramsay (1749-1815) authored books on the history of the American Revolution and South Carolina that gave him a national reputation in his day. He was born in Pennsylvania, received his undergraduate education at the College of New Jersey (later Princeton University), and studied medicine at the College of Philadelphia. Upon obtaining a medical degree, Ramsay moved to Charleston where he opened a successful practice and helped to found the South Carolina Medical Society in 1789. He served as a physician in the militia during the Revolutionary War, was arrested by the British at the capture of Charleston, and was exiled to Saint Augustine, Florida. Following the war, Ramsay became active in politics. He served in the state House of Representatives from 1782 to 1790 and was president of the state senate from 1791 to 1797. He also represented South Carolina for two terms in the Confederation Congress between 1782 and 1786. …

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