Mathew Carey, Irish-born American publisher and economist who lives and works in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, is born into a middle-class Catholic family in Dublin on January 28, 1760. He is the father of economist Henry Charles Carey.
Carey enters the bookselling and printing business in 1775 and, at the age of seventeen, publishes a pamphlet criticizing dueling. He follows this with a work criticizing the severity of the Irish penal code, and another criticizing Parliament. As a result, the British House of Commons threatens him with prosecution. In 1781 he flees to Paris as a political refugee. There he meets Benjamin Franklin, the ambassador representing the American Revolutionary forces, which achieves independence that year. Franklin takes Carey to work in his printing office.
Carey works for Franklin for a year before returning to Ireland, where he edits two Irish nationalist newspapers, the Freeman’s Journal and The Volunteer’s Journal. He gains passage on a ship to emigrate to the newly independent United States in September 1784.
Upon Carey’s arrival in Philadelphia, he finds that Franklin has recommended him to Gilbert du Motier, Marquis de Lafayette, who gives him a $400 check to establish himself. He uses this money to set up a new publishing business and a book shop. He founds The Pennsylvania Herald (1785), Columbian Magazine (1786), and The American Museum (1787). None of these ventures proves very profitable. The American Museum is the first American periodical to treat American culture as rich and original, instead of a poor imitation of Great Britain’s. He prints the first American version of the Douay–Rheims Bible in 48 weekly installments, this Roman Catholic edition popularly known as the Carey Bible. It is the first Roman Catholic version of the Bible printed in the United States. He also prints numerous editions of the King James Version, fundamental to English-speaking peoples.
In 1794–96, Carey publishes America’s first atlases. His 1802 map of Washington, D.C. is the first to name the stretch of land west of the United States Capitol as the “Mall.”
Carey frequently writes articles on various social topics, including events during the 1793 Philadelphia Yellow Fever Epidemic, which proves a crisis for the city. He reports on debates in the state legislature as well as providing political commentary in his essays. He is a Catholic and a founding member of the American Sunday-School Society, along with Quaker merchant Thomas P. Cope, Dr. Benjamin Rush and Episcopal bishop William White.
In 1822 Carey publishes Essays on Political Economy; or, The Most Certain Means of Promoting the Wealth, Power, Resources, and Happiness of Nations, Applied Particularly to the United States. This is one of the first treatises favoring Alexander Hamilton‘s protectionist economic policy.
During Carey’s lifetime, the publishing firm evolves to M. Carey & Son (1817–21), M. Carey & Sons (1821–24), and then to Carey & Lea (1824). He retires in 1825, leaving the publishing business to his son, Henry Charles Carey and son-in-law Isaac Lea. Lea and Henry Carey make the business economically successful and, for a time, it is one of the most prominent publishers in the country.
In 1821, Carey is elected as a member to the American Philosophical Society (APS) in Philadelphia.
Upon arriving in America, Carey quickly develops political connections in the developing country. One of his most important supporters is John Adams, still a leading figure of the Federalist Party at the time. His passionate support for the establishment of an American Navy contributes significantly to his alliance with the Federalists.
Throughout his political career in America, Carey supports the development and maintenance of American naval strength, even after joining Thomas Jefferson’s Democratic-Republicans in 1796. His political realignment occurs shortly before the American ratification of the Jay Treaty, primarily intended to ensure peace with Britain, while distancing America from France. His publishing in America channels his energy toward productive political objectives. His published works are credited with swaying public opinion toward the establishment of a powerful American navy.
Carey’s book Naval History of the United States, is meant to influence the public. Its conspicuous omission of naval activity during the American Quasi-War with France shows his political intentions. It helps direct political energy against the British, with which the U.S. is at war at the time of the book’s publication on May 6, 1813.
Focus on the British, known around the world for their naval power, makes an influential case for extending the reach of the American navy. Along with his publication of Naval History, Carey writes Olive Branch, published in 1814. He tries to eliminate competition between the two American political parties to create unity during the War of 1812. To many people, these efforts, and his early relationship with Franklin, make him the logical choice as Franklin’s political successor. Scholars believe that he contributed significantly by his books and publications to the establishment of the United States Whig Party.
Carey is elected a member of the American Antiquarian Society (AAS) in 1815. A significant portion of his business papers, as well as a very large number of original copies of works printed and/or published by him reside in the collections of the AAS.
Carey dies on September 16, 1839, and is buried in St. Mary’s Catholic Churchyard in Philadelphia.
In 1943, Publishers Weekly creates the Carey-Thomas Award for creative publishing, naming it in honor of Mathew Carey and Isaiah Thomas.
(Pictured: Portrait of Mathew Carey by John Neagle, 1825, The Library Company of Philadelphia)