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The Life and Times of Martha Laurens Ramsay, 1759–1811

Joanna Bowen Gillespie

Reveals a woman's view of the complex currents of early nationhood in Charleston

A member of a distinguished South Carolina family, Martha Laurens Ramsay was one of few eighteenth-century Southern women whose written records provide a window into her life—her experiences, convictions, and ambivalences during the crucial epoch of the nation's founding decades. Using Martha Laurens Ramsay's spiritual diary and correspondence and investigating contemporary magazines, novels, newspapers, sermons, and memoirs, Joanna Bowen Gillespie has crafted a contextual biography that reconstructs with compelling insights Ramsay's views on patriotism, daughterly duty, household management, wifely affection, motherly aspiration, and personal autonomy.

Young Martha's prominent mercantile and plantation family supported the Revolution's promises and struggled through its postwar uncertainties. During the American Revolution her father, Henry Laurens, was president of the Continental Congress and later, after capture at sea, languished in the Tower of London as Britain's highest-ranking American prisoner. Martha's brother, John Laurens, achieved legendary status for his military gallantry in the war and his controversial proposal that slaves be liberated and armed to help fight for American freedom from England. Married after the war, in 1787, to David Ramsay of Charleston, a Pennsylvania-born physician, patriot-politician, and one of the first historians of the American Revolution, Martha bore eleven children. After her death in 1811, her husband edited and published a memoir from her writings, including portions of her diary.

From childhood onward Martha was strongly loyal to those men shaping her life circumstances. At the same time she was inwardly determined to make her individual mark, intellectually and spiritually. Her writings articulate a deep religious consciousness in all her decisions. The beautiful if mystifying eighteenth-century language of Christian self-examination becomes the key element that decodes her life story. To her, Christianity was women's only vehicle of and arena for achievement and distinction. Her highest ambition was to embody its ideals through all crises, including death, a conviction that characterized her entire approach to life, domestic and political. In her biographical quest for the human Martha Laurens Ramsay, Gillespie reveals some of the complex currents of early nation building in Charleston, South Carolina. In this reconstruction, Gillespie reveals a prominent, well-educated woman constructing her own identity during the exciting time when the new America was building its own character and institutions.

Joanna Bowen Gillespie is an affiliated scholar at the University of Arizona, Tucson. She received her Ph.D. from New York University and her M.Mus. from Yale University. Gillespie's previous book Women Speak—of God, Congregations and Change was based on a Lilly Endowment research grant. In addition to extensive exploration of eighteenth-century libraries she divides her time between Rochester, Vermont, and Tucson, Arizona.



The Life and Times of Martha Laurens Ramsay, 1759–1811


6 x 9
345 pages
10 illustrations
ISBN 978-1-57003-373-5
cloth, $39.95s


    Copyright ©2018 The University of South Carolina Press