St. Philip’s very own Jo Gillespie has written an eloquent and elegant biography about an 18th-century southern woman, actually in many ways a heroine, set in Charleston, South Carolina during and after the Revolutionary War. Dr. Gillespie’s contribution is not only a fascinating story of a highly placed southern woman, Martha Laurens Ramsay, but also an important social history of that section of the country during turbulent times.
The author notes right at the beginning, “Why place is such a pivotal element in this study is that it single handedly demonstrates the universality of the Anglo-American religious culture in which Martha Laurens Ramsay participated.” (preface xvii). Martha Ramsay, whose father, Henry Laurens, was a plantation owner, slave holder, President of the first Continental Congress, later captured by the British, is the centerpiece of this story. Gillespie’s major contribution in her book, I believe, is this story of what it was like to live as a upper-class woman in southern society.
The portrait reveals a woman of high education, independent spirit, deeply religious, who is willing to live out her life within the confines of a traditional and dominant male society. “Duality and conformity were the virtues she had been taught to wear, the demeanor for which she was expected to strive” (pg 73). Her religion, a mixture of Calvinism and Anglicanism, is what framed Martha’s every thought and action. “She was indeed one of the rare American women whose record reveals a conscious determination to shape her life around a formal religious covenant” (preface vii).
With that framework, Martha Ramsay met life head on. She had eleven children, spent much of the Revolution in France and England, suffered depression “the dark night of the soul,” married a doctor from Pennsylvania, and lived close to penury throughout the marriage in Charleston. Martha fell from her early life of wealth and privilege to live the latter part of her life just barely managing. Her brother John was killed in the Revolution. She died at 41. Yet amidst this swirl a fine courageous woman is carefully revealed. Gillespie notes about Martha’s marriage: “Martha’s religiously encoded selfhood, invisible within her ideal marriage, stands as an analogue for the importance secretly lamented by many intelligent, ambitious women in a male defined adult world.”
Jo Gillespie is also focused on “the times” that Martha Ramsay lives in. The economic and political effects of the Revolution on the south are sharply drawn. Slavery at the family level — the Laurens and the Ramsays — reveals much about the south, where personal piety and morals are sharply separated from social and economic justice. The beginnings of erosion of the right to hold slaves is aptly told within inner family conflicts between father, son, and son in law about the right to own human beings. Jo wisely dedicates one chapter on the whole issue of slavery, and sharpens the issue through anecdote. For example, when the landed white plantation owners had meals prepared and served by blacks, whenever a slave/server came into the dining room all conversation would stop, especially if discussing politics. The undergirding fear of slave revolt was omnipresent. That anecdote is just one of many that captures the scholarship of Dr. Gillespie who, as a fine historian, went to the primary sources of letters, in particular Martha Laurens Ramsay’s own Memoir, and documents of the era to tell the tale.
This book will especially capture the attention of American history buffs, and I think women in our Parish. There are three copies of Martha Ramsay in the St. Philip’s library. No excuses now.
—The Rev. Paul Buckwalter