Carey, Mathew (1760-1839)

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Mathew Carey (1760-1839)



Irish Rebel. By the time he was twenty-four Mathew Carey had been condemned by the British House of Commons for his outspoken defense of Irish Catholics and jailed for publishing criticism of Parliament. Born in Dublin on 28 January 1760, Carey fled to France, where a priest introduced the young printer to Benjamin Franklin. The American colonial agent then introduced Carey to the Marquis de Lafayette, who was keenly interested in Irelands revolutionary sentiment because France was considering an invasion of Ireland. Carey fled to America in September 1784, dressing as a woman to escape detection by British authorities.

Philadelphia. Carey arrived in Philadelphia with just a few dollars and no friends. Another passenger from the ship went on to Mount Vernon, Virginia, and in the course of casual conversation with George Washington and Lafayette, who was visiting, mentioned Carey. Lafayette came to Philadelphia, found Carey, introduced him to some of the citys leading men, and gave him $400. With this money Carey began a newspaper, the Pennsylvania Evening Herald, which offered detailed accounts of Pennsylvanias assembly sessions. The paper was successful, but Carey had antagonized Philadelphias leading publisher, Col. Eleazer Oswald. They attacked one another viciously in the press, and when Carey published a poem ridiculing Oswald, the colonel challenged Carey to a duel. Carey was wounded in the leg, and his paper was discontinued during his long convalescence.

A Free People. While recovering, Carey launched a magazine. The American Museum appeared in January 1787 and included American material, unlike other magazines which were filled with English stories, essays, and news. A compilation of useful knowledge, the American Museum printed essays by Franklin, Thomas Paine, and Anthony Benezet; poetry by David Humphreys and Philip Freneau; and historical documents. The American Museum was a bold and ambitious experiment. George Washington wrote to encourage Carey, saying he wished that copies of the Museum and Magazines, as well as common Gazettes, might be spread through every city, town, and village in America. These vehicles of knowledge, Washington wrote, were best able to preserve the liberty, stimulate the industry, and meliorate the morals of an enlightened and free people.

Wide Circulation. By 1788 Careys American Museum had subscribers in every state except New Hampshire and Vermont and included some of the most influential men of the day. In addition to American readers, the magazine had subscribers in every European country (except Spain) and in the West Indies and Calcutta, India. Subscribers were generally obtained through personal contact, or by having agents circulate throughout the country to solicit subscriptions either for magazines or books. But though the circulation was wide, Careys American Museum brought him into debt, and in 1792, when the Post Office Act allowed newspapers into the mail, but excluded magazines, Carey had to suspend publication. While Carey left the magazine business, he moved into the book trade, printing and selling books.

New Career. Between 1792 and 1799 Carey would do more than $300, 000 worth of business in the book trade (the equivalent of about $14 million today) and more than one hundred men would work on his printing presses. In 1794 and 1795 he sold twenty-five hundred copies of William Guthries A New System of Modern Geography (1770), priced at sixteen dollars each, and earned $40, 000 in profits. He wrote to his brother, who had remained in Ireland and become a Catholic priest, My situation never promised so fair at present. I have lately entered pretty largely into the printing & book-selling business. I have printed a considerable number of books on my own accountthe history of New YorkNecker on religionBeauties of PoetryBeatties moralsLadies LibraryGarden of the SoulDouay BibleMcFingal, & several smaller works. I have written to London, Dublin, & Glasgow for a supply of foreign books without which I cannot have a proper assortment. Carey printed American authors, but supplemented them with a wide variety of European books. In 1801 he adopted a new method of printing, similar to stereotyping, by which an entire page of type could be cast at once. The traditional method of setting individual letters in type required printers to break up the pages of type when a book was done so that they could set and print another. With the new method a printer could keep on hand the type from a book and quickly issue new editions. In 1801 Carey published an edition of the Bible using this method and paid a clergyman $1, 000 for commentary.

American Company of Booksellers. By 1800 Carey and Isaiah Thomas were the two leading publishers in the United States. Most book publishers dealt with strictly local markets and corresponded with other publishers to receive copies of books. In 1802 a proposal circulated for American booksellers to hold a book fair similar to the book fairs held in Frankfurt and Leipzig. The first meeting of the American Company of Booksellers was held in New York on 1 June 1802. This group tried to raise the standards of printing, offering a fifty-dollar gold medal for the best recipe for printers ink and a similar award for the best paper and binding of American leather. This trade association met for a few years but was undone by its own success. Booksellers attending would bring samples of their work; less scrupulous publishers would quickly produce editions on cheaper paper to sell at a lower price. Booksellers found it less advantageous to meet together and share ideas, though Carey continued to push for some kind of a national organization.

The Olive Branch. Through his publishing house Carey became one of Philadelphias, and the nations, leading citizens. With Stephen Girard in 1793 he worked to relieve sufferers from the yellow fever epidemic, and he launched the Hibernian Society to aid other Irish immigrants. Though he corresponded with men and women from all across the political spectrum, by the end of the 1790s he had become a confirmed Republican and engaged in a feud with the Federalist editor William Cobbett. Carey supported the national bank and in 1810 worked to have its charter renewed. In 1814, as the nation seemed on the brink of ruin, Carey wrote and published The Olive Branch to encourage Republicans and Federalists to work together to save the union. This may have been his most important book and was among his most popular.

Repaying Lafayette. Carey married in 1791 and with his wife had nine children. Their oldest son, Henry C. Carey, became one of the nations leading economists. Carey throughout his life remained committed to American political and cultural independence and to the rights of the Irish people. His publishing house encouraged some of the young countrys most prominent authors, from Susannah Rowson and Charles Brockden Brown in the 1790s to James Fenimore Cooper and Edgar Allan Poe in the 1830s. In 1824, when Lafayette returned to the United States, Mathew Carey was finally able to repay him the $400 loaned to him forty years earlier. Carey died on 16 September 1839.


Earl L. Bradsher, Mathew Carey, Editor, Author and Publisher: A Study in American Literary Development (New York: Columbia University Press, 1912);

David Kaser, Messrs. Carey & Lea of Philadelphia: A Study in the History of the Booktrade (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1957).

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