Martha Laurens Ramsay (1759-1811) was the daughter of Henry Laurens of Charleston, South Carolina. A merchant and plantation owner—he made a great deal of his money in the slave trade—Laurens served as president of the Continental Congress and was a commissioner appointed to assist in the negotiation of the Treaty of Paris; he could not take up the latter post in a timely fashion because he was captured by the British and imprisoned for a time in the Tower of London.
Martha early developed a passion for learning which her father encouraged, although he reminded her that she ought to turn her attention to the domestic matters which would stand her in good stead as a wife. He wrote in a letter to her when she was fifteen, “When you are measuring the surface of this world, remember you are to act a part on it, and think of a plumb pudding and other domestic duties.”
In 1787, Martha married David Ramsay, a Pennsylvania-born physician, patriot, and one of the first historians of the American Revolution. She bore him eleven children of whom eight survived. Martha died in 1811; in the following year her husband edited and published her memoir and portions of her diary, from which the following letter is taken.
You have doubtless heard, by this time, that I am fatherless, and will feel for me in proportion to the great love you have always shown me, and your intimate knowledge of my frame, and the love I had for my dear departed parent. Never was stroke to an affectionate child more awful and unexpected than this has been to me. I had heard from my dear father, that he was somewhat indisposed, but not confined even to the house; however, last Tuesday and Wednesday week I was seized with so inexpressible a desire to see him, that nothing could exceed it, and nothing could satisfy it, but the going to see him. Accordingly, on Wednesday noon, very much against my family and personal convenience, I set out with faithful Tira and little Kitty, and slept that night at Mrs. Loocock’s; the next morning it rained, but I could not be restrained. I proceeded to Mepkin, and arrived there at one o’clock, wet to the skin, I found my dear father indisposed, as I thought, but not ill. He conversed on indifferent matters; seemed very much delighted with my presence; told me I was a pleasant child to him; and God would bless me as long as I lived; and at twenty minutes before eight o’clock, retired to rest. The next morning, at seven o’clock, I went to his bedside, he again commended my tenderness to him, and told me he had passed a wakeful night; talked to me of Kitty and of you; had been up and given out the barn door key, as usual. At eight I went to breakfast. In about ten minutes I had despatched my meal, returned to him, and thought his speech thick. and that he wavered a little in his discourse. I asked him if I might send for Dr. M’Cormick; he told me if I desired a consultation, I might; but that he had all confidence in my skill, and was better. I asked him why his breathing was laborious; he said he did not know, and almost immediately fell into his last agony; and a bitter agony it was; though perhaps, he did not feel it. At ten o’clock, next day I closed his venerable eyes. Oh, my dear husband, you know how I have dreaded this stroke; how I have wished first to sleep in death, and therefore you can tell the sorrows of my spirit; indeed they have been, indeed they are very great. I have been, and I am still in the depths of affliction; but I have never felt one murmuring thought; I have never uttered one murmuring word. Who am I, a poor vile wretch, that I should oppose my will to the will of God, who is all wise and all gracious; on the contrary I have been greatly supported; and if I may but be following Christ, am willing to take up every cross, which may be necessary or profitable for me. I left Mepkin at one o’clock on Saturday, as soon as the body of my dear parent was decently laid out, and I was sufficiently composed for travelling. I know, by information, that the awful ceremony was performed last Tuesday. I have never been able to write till this day. Our dear children are well. Eleanor comes to my bedside, reads the Bible for me, and tells me of a heavenly country, where there is no trouble. Feeling more than ever my dependance on you for countenance, for support and kindness, and in the midst of sorrow, not forgetting to thank God that I have so valuable, so kind, and so tender a friend;
Your obliged and grateful wife,
Martha Laurens Ramsay
When Martha writes of “the awful ceremony,” she is referring to cremation, which was her father’s wish; she had known about this for some time but was resolved not to witness it. The responsibility for carrying out Laurens’ instruction was entrusted to his son. Martha’s husband and editor of her Memoir, believes that his decision was the result of a concern that he might be buried before he was actually dead. He also believed that Laurens considered fire, according to the Scriptures, to be purifying. Obviously Martha found it difficult to deal with her father’s cremation.