The Causes of the American Revolution

By John C. Wahlke | Go to book overview

Page Smith:


DAVID RAMSAY AND THE CAUSES OF THE AMERICAN REVOLUTION

Author of a biography of James Wilson, one of the "Founding Fathers," Page Smith is a specialist in American history of the Revolutionary period. The article from which the following selection is taken urges the merit of David Ramsay's eighteenth-century interpretation of the Revolution and surveys the various schools of thought that have, since Ramsay's day, interpreted and reinterpreted the Revolution. Professor Smith teaches history at the University of California at Los Angeles.

MUCH attention has been given recently to the changes that have taken place since the late eighteenth century in historians' interpretations of the causes of the American Revolution.1

. . . . The thesis of this essay is 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, 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.

Among the generation of historians who themselves lived through the era of the American Revolution, David Ramsay is pre-eminent, though by no means atypical. Ramsay ( 1749-1815) was born in Pennsylvania of Scottish Presbyterian parents and attended the College of New Jersey where his friend Benjamin Rush said of him that he was "far superior to any person we ever graduated at our college . . . I can promise more for him, in every thing, than I could for myself."2 After graduating from Princeton, Ramsay moved to Charleston, South Carolina, where he began the practice of medicine. He was a prominent patriot, serving in the Continental Congress and taking an active part in the political life of his state.

By all reasonable standards Ramsay, as an actor in those violent times, should have written in an extreme and partisan spirit: caught up in the excitement and emotionalism of the Revolutionary crisis in which England appeared as tyrant

____________________

Reprinted from the William and Mary Quarterly: A Magazine of Early American History, XVII ( 1960), pp. 50-77.

1
Edmund S. Morgan, "The American Revolution: Revisions in Need of Revising," William and Mary Quarterly, 3d Ser., XIV ( 1957), 3-15.
2
Letters of Benjamin Rush, ed. Lyman Butterfield ( Princeton, 1951), I, 220.

-113-

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