Carey, Mathew (1760–1839), author, bookseller and publisher, was born 28 January 1760 in Dublin, one of five sons to Christopher Carey, a baker who prospered provisioning the British navy, and Mary Carey (née Sheridan). Small and lame from infancy (having been dropped by his nurse), Mathew was a withdrawn child and so became a voracious reader. In 1775 he secured a position for himself as a printer’s apprentice to Thomas McDonnell (qv), co-publisher of the pro-American Hibernian Journal. In 1777 it published his first essay against duelling, and he quickly emerged as an outspoken radical. His first pamphlet, The urgent necessity of an immediate repeal of the whole penal code (1779), argued for catholic emancipation; but its radical tone angered catholic leaders, who offered a reward to have the author identified. To avoid the possibility of prosecution, Mathew’s father sent him to France, where his pro-American reputation gained him an introduction to Benjamin Franklin, who employed him at his press in Passy. He also gained vital experience under the great printer Didot le jeune, and met the Marquis de Lafayette. Back in Dublin by late 1780, he successfully edited the pro-Volunteer Freeman’s Journal for three years before establishing his own Volunteer’s Journal in October 1783, with the financial support of his father. Adopting a strongly popular line on the issues of parliamentary reform and protective duties, Carey persistently criticised Ireland’s connection with Britain. His Journal grew to attain the second largest circulation in Ireland, but its outspokenness was halted when on 5 April 1784 he published a woodcut depicting the hanging of John Foster (qv), the chancellor of the exchequer. Arraigned before the house of commons along with his brother Thomas, he was jailed for a time in Newgate. On his release, with a libel case still pending against him, he fled for America on 7 September 1784. According to legend, he was smuggled on board ship dressed as a woman.
Carey reportedly arrived in Philadelphia in November with just £25, having lost much of his money en route to card sharps. However, he had letters of introduction from Franklin and was fortunate to be reintroduced to Lafayette, who sent him a note of encouragement and $400 with which to start a newspaper, and also commended him to George Washington. Forty years later Carey persuaded Lafayette to accept a return of the $400. His initial efforts to acquire printing equipment were frustrated by the conservative Republican publisher Eleazer Oswald, who feared this skilled Irish rival with his extensive European contacts and experience of journalism. Carey, siding with the Constitutionals, persevered and spent most of his capital setting up the Pennsylvania Evening Herald, which appeared on 25 January 1785, just three months after his arrival in Philadelphia. Its anti-English and pro-Irish tone limited its appeal, but when Carey introduced innovative reporting of state assembly debates in the summer, based on his own notetaking, circulation soared. In 1786 he became embroiled in a public quarrel with Oswald when he published a bitter satire against him entitled The Plagi-Scurriliad. Oswald, a former army officer, claimed Carey used his infirmity to protect himself from personal insults, and challenged him to a duel. Carey took eighteen months to recover from the wound he sustained in the fight, and wryly noted the paradoxical situation of having begun his career condemning duelling.
In September 1786 he co-launched Columbian Magazine, a monthly journal that also included two fine engravings with each issue. In December, however, he withdrew from the partnership and established a rival publication, the American Museum, the first publication to promote American literature. Although it secured his national reputation, it ceased publication in late 1792 due to continuing distribution problems. This prompted Carey, over time, to pioneer a distribution network which ensured the success of his later bookselling and publishing. During the constitution ratification debates of 1787–8, he adopted a non-partisan stance by printing arguments for and against and, as his reputation grew, he earned the backing of the Federalist party and recommendations from George Washington. Carey’s precarious financial situation was also bolstered when he began a partnership with Mason Locke Weems, a legendary salesman and popular author, publishing his Life and memorable actions of George Washington, a bestseller of the nineteenth century.
Carey married Bridget Flahavan on 24 February 1791, and later acknowledged his gratitude to her for the role she played in running the business he had struggled to establish. Six of their nine children lived to maturity and his son, Henry, became chief economic adviser to Abraham Lincoln. Having maintained lucrative links in London, Edinburgh and Dublin, Carey imported works of all kinds in vast quantities, and his Philadelphia Company of Printers and Booksellers became one of the largest in the country. Patrick Byrne (qv) was one of his many Irish trading partners, and he successfully distributed Byrne’s Dublin imprints, also helping him settle when he eventually emigrated to America in 1800. Carey’s private acts of charity were innumerable, and he was repeatedly honoured by his fellow citizens. When yellow fever struck Philadelphia in August 1793, Carey was appointed on the relief committee. His Short account of the malignant fever (1793), first a pamphlet then a book, was an influential account, widely read in Europe and republished in five editions. Publishing further works on the disease, he became extensively involved in medical publishing. Constantly seeking new markets, he also published literature and technical ‘how to’ books as well as works on science, agriculture, humour, travel, material of interest to women, scholarly texts, grammars, dictionaries and important early accounts of the frontier.
Carey dominated the American atlas market for several years, and two of his publications were among the most ambitious titles yet to appear in America without a prior subscription sale. These were William Guthrie’s A new system of modern geography (1794), featuring an atlas of about fifty large maps and charts, and Oliver Goldsmith’s A history of the earth and animated nature (1795) with fifty-five plates. Their maps established the basis for several further updated atlases, most notably his American atlas (1795), the first general atlas of the US. Carey was also the first prominent catholic bookseller in America: in 1790 he published the Douai translation of the Vulgate, in effect the first catholic bible in America, and was instrumental in launching America’s first Sunday school society in 1795.
In 1790 he founded Philadelphia’s Hibernian Society for the relief of Irish immigrants and, as secretary, he urged them to integrate and become civic-minded Americans. He also involved himself in national politics, moving away from the Federalists and joining the Society of Constitutional Republicans (or ‘Quids’) who lobbied for Irish support for Jefferson in 1796. When the terms of Jay’s Treaty between Britain and America were leaked during the ratification debates in 1795, Carey published Alexander Dallas’s Features of Mr Jay’s treaty, one of the first and most lucid attacks on it, as well as The American remembrancer (1795–6). In 1796 he published a direct attack on the Federalists in Address to the house of representatives, not even sparing Washington, and he clashed with the exiled United Irishman James Reynolds (qv) on the issue. His correspondence with Patrick Byrne kept him informed of Irish politics and the activities of the United Irishmen. When the Philadelphia Society of United Irishmen first met in June 1797, he attended but supposedly declined joining, though in 1798 his name appeared (with that of his brother James, also exiled and involved in printing) on a published list of members. Although he vehemently denied having taken the test, ‘his private correspondence tells a very different story’ (Wilson, 44). Despite his success in business, Carey experienced financial pressures that were compounded by the accusation of membership of the United Irishmen and general attacks upon his politics by William Cobbett, using the pseudonym ‘Peter Porcupine’. This public quarrel and the possibility of prosecution under the aliens and sedition acts threatened Carey’s reputation and his credit, but he countered successfully with A plumb pudding for … Peter Porcupine and Porcupiniad, a Hudibrastic poem (1799).
Carey held two positions of public office: a short term on the city council, and a term as a director of the Bank of Pennsylvania, the latter finally ensuring his financial stability. Forming the Philadelphia Society for the Promotion of National Industry (1819), he wrote a series of Addresses for them, appropriately printed on the first American machine-made paper, arguing for domestic manufacture through protective tariffs and championing the nationalist school of economics. Over time he wrote at least 450 pamphlets, which ranged from promoting improvements to the transportation system, canals and railways, prison discipline, colonisation, female labour and the oppression of women, infrastructure and a host of other topics. He involved himself in international issues, forming in 1827 a Greek Committee to aid that country’s independence struggle and publishing African colonization (1829) and Appeal in behalf of the expatriated Poles (1834).
In 1814 he published The olive branch: or, faults on both sides, Federal and Democratic, a plea for national unity in the face of the rift between Federalists and Republicans. The expanded volume from this work became the most widely read political book in America since Thomas Paine’s Common sense, going through ten editions by 1819. When civil war threatened during the nullification crisis, Carey again assumed this role, penning The new olive branch: a solemn warning on the banks of the Rubicon, to the citizens of South Carolina (1830). He remained committed to Ireland and catholic emancipation, and one of his proudest achievements was publishing his Vindiciae Hibernicae (1819), a reaction to William Godwin’s novel Mandeville (1817), which exploited the 1641 massacres in Ireland. Advised by William James MacNeven (qv) on sources, and having conducted thorough scholarly research, Carey examined and refuted falsehoods claimed by historians regarding the numbers of protestants massacred, and the extent of plotting and violent outrages committed by catholics. It was highly influential and contributed significantly to the emerging catholic historiographical movement: Thomas Davis (qv) quoted from it and Daniel O’Connell’s Memoir on Ireland, native and Saxon (1844) was significantly influenced by it. James Madison praised him for demonstrating how the Irish nation had been so ‘traduced by the pen of history’ (Wilson, 166). His first Autobiographical sketches appeared in 1829 and were serialised (1833–4) in the New England Magazine.
In 1821 Carey turned the management of his business (M. Carey & Sons) over to his son Henry and son-in-law Isaac Lea, so he could devote all his energies to social issues. The new firm, H. C. Carey & I. Lea, was financially sound and expanded to become even more of a dominating force in American publishing than Carey himself had been. After passing through the hands of various relations and business partners, with attendant name changes, the firm became Lea & Febiger in 1907, and traded under that name until its sale in 1990. Carey accumulated a sizeable fortune but through habit lived frugally till the end, attributing his achievements as an immigrant to ‘care and indefatigable industry’ (Durey, 175). He died on 16 September 1839, and his funeral procession was one of the largest the city of Philadelphia had ever seen.