David Ramsay, the eighteenth-century American historian, popped up in my dissertation the other day. Ramsay, attributed by historiographers to the “Whig School of History,” is best known for his books on the American Revolution. To my surprise, Ramsay had much to say about the central figure in my dissertation, Admiral John Byng. In his 1779 book, Military Memoirs of Great Britain: or, A History of the War, 1755-1763, Ramsay wrote something incredibly interesting: notably, that the king of Britain, George II, had participated in the calumny levied at Byng:

The ministry used every endeavour to foment this animosity, and to avert the danger which threatened themselves. They [the ministry] aggravated his [Byng] misconduct, exposed his folly, and expatiated on his cowardice. The public prints abounded with the most virulent invectives against him, and mobs were hired to hang and burn him in effigy, at different parts of the capital [London]. Even majesty itself is said to have taken part in the cruel persecution of this unhappy man.”

Ramsay wrote of the Byng Affair in this publication.

Ramsay wrote of the Byng Affair in this publication.

Two things: first, the book was printed in Edinburgh; after all, the American Revolution was in full swing at the time. Ramsay resided in South Carolina and thus his completed work was unlikely to receive a printing in London. That his book was printed in Scotland is a bit surprising (given the war), it is nonetheless more probable. Second: the last sentence; “Even majesty itself is said to have taken part in the cruel persecution of this unhappy man.” a literal interpretation of this would have the heavens and earth – all of majesty itself – involved in attacking Admiral Byng’s character.

But did Ramsay provide a masking impugner aimed squarely at George II?

Based on various colonial newspapers from 1754 through 1757, both king and ministries were widely unpopular prior to George II’s declaration of war against France in 1756. The Seven Years’ War became but a pause in a cantankerous cross-Atlantic relationship. Once the war concluded (1763), those bad-tempered feelings quickly resurfaced. Ramsay obviously wrote the book after the conclusion of the war, and likely looked forward to its printing in London. The American Revolution, however, interceded his plans. But there was also a new king, George II’s grandson, George III. He took the throne at the death of his grandfather in 1760; but the new king was no more popular than the former, and as the Revolution drew near, George III’s unpopularity grew: America was done with monarchs.

Maybe Ramsay did write “Even the majesty himself is said to have taken part in the cruel persecution of this unhappy man,” but that the Scottish printers in Edinburgh could not bring themselves to print it: especially in war time, and especially from an American. Ramsay’s book also never mentions the king by name, only referencing George II as “king” or “father.”

However one chooses to interpret this passage, it is quite unfortunate that Ramsay followed the typical eighteenth-century historical convention in not providing footnotes. We may, therefore, never know the true meaning of that one sentence.

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