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Mathew Carey

Author and publisher, b. in Dublin, Ireland, January 28, 1760; d. in Philadelphia, U.S.A., September 15, 1839

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Carey, – MATHEW, author and publisher, b. in Dublin, Ireland, January 28, 1760; d. in Philadelphia, U.S.A., September 15, 1839. He was the first Catholic of prominence in the publishing trade in the United States, and brought out in 1790 the first edition of the Douay Bible printed in America. His father was a baker who acquired a small fortune. In early youth Mathew was a dull pupil, but later exhibited remarkable ability in languages and mathematics. When fifteen years of age he disappointed his father by deciding to be a book-seller and printer, and began at once to learn the business as an apprentice. He was an omnivorous reader and acquired a fund of knowledge through persistent application to study. His first article, published in the “Hibernian Journal” in 1777, was on duelling. A duel fought by one of Carey’s friends suggested the article which was a strong argument against this means of settling differences. In 1779 he published a pamphlet on the “Urgent Necessity of an Immediate Repeal of the Whole Penal Code against Roman Catholics”. Before its publication the work was advertised and the preface, which was a radical statement of the situation, was printed. The pamphlet was regarded, by Parliament as an evidence of the seditious character of the Irish people. The leaders of the Catholic party in Dublin, who hoped for favorable legislation from Parliament at this time, took up the matter, offered forty pounds for the detection of the author and made arrangements for his prosecution in the event of his capture. Carey escaped to France where he remained a year. While there he met Lafayette and worked for a time in the printing office of Franklin at Paris. After his return to Ireland he conducted the Dublin “Freeman’s Journal”. With funds supplied by his father he founded in 1783 the “Volunteers Journal”. “The object of the paper”, to use his own words, “was to defend the commerce, the manufactures, and the political rights of Ireland against the oppression and encroachment of Great Britain.” It was a radical paper suited to the temper of the times, and did much to form public opinion. On April 5, 1784, an article attacking Parliament and the Premier was published. For this Carey was arrested, tried before Parliament, and sent to Newgate. When Parliament was dissolved he was released. He then accepted the advice of his friends, left Ireland in disguise and emigrated to America, landing in Philadelphia.

Lafayette visited him in Philadelphia and gave him $400 to establish the “Pennsylvania Herald”. He began to publish the debates of the House of Assembly in 1785 from notes he took himself, and as this was an innovation in the newspaper business in America, the paper immediately had a large circulation. There was great political bitterness at this time in Pennsylvania, between the Constitutionals and the Republicans. Carey became one of the leading advocates of the Constitutionals, and Oswald, who published the “Independent Gazetteer”, was the mouth-piece of the Republicans. The foreigners in America were generally on the side of the Constitutionals. Through his paper, Oswald attacked them and Carey became their defender. As a result of a personal attack by Oswald, Carey challenged him to a duel. It was fought in New Jersey, and Carey was seriously wounded. It is strange, as Carey admits in his auto-biography, that he should have been led to fight a duel after he had denounced duelling in his earliest essay. In partnership with five others he began the “Columbian Magazine” in 1786. The discordant views of the publishers and the small profits accruing to the proprietors led Carey to withdraw from the enterprise within a year. In January, 1787, he began the publication of the “American Museum” which continued until December, 1792. It was dedicated to “Dr. Carroll, Bishop-elect of the Catholic Church” and contained no essays of the editor, but was filled with valuable articles from papers and documents which were deemed of general interest and worthy of preservation. It was not a financial success. After quitting the “Museum” he began on a small scale the business of book-selling and printing, to which he devoted himself closely for over twenty-five years; abandoning it altogether in 1821. In 1793 the yellow fever epidemic broke out in Philadelphia, and he was appointed a member of the Committee of Health to devise means for the relief of the sufferers. He applied himself in a painstaking way to arrest the spread of the disease and published the results of his investigations in a volume on the “Rise, Progress, Effects, and Termination of the Disease” in 1793. Five editions were published. In 1793 Carey called a meeting of prominent Irishmen in Philadelphia, and with them founded the “Hibernian Society for the Relief of Immigrants from Ireland“. In 1796 he was engaged with several others in founding the “Sunday School Society“, the first of its kind established in the United States. Becoming involved in a quarrel with a publisher, William Cobbett, he published a scathing reply in a Hudibrastic poem, “The Porcupiniad”, in 1799.

In 1810 the question of the recharter of the first United States Bank came up and Carey, although a Democrat, took sides with those who favored the bank. At first he published a series of articles in “The Democratic Press”, a paper which strongly opposed the bank. Later he went to Washington, took an active part in the discussions there when the question of a recharter came before Congress, and published two pamphlets favoring the recharter. In 1814 he published the work for which he is best known, “The Olive Branch”. The second war with Great Britain was still in progress, and the country was divided into rival factions, and the aggressions of the party hostile to American interests endangered the success of the war. The work was written in the interests of harmony and was, as stated in the preface, “An Appeal to the patriotism, the honor, the feeling, the self interest of your readers to save a noble nation from ruin”. It had a large circluation and exercised a good influence, but was not welcomed in New England. In 1820 a second “Olive Branch” was written to harmonize factional interests.

In his boyhood Carey had read everything published in behalf of the Irish cause, and, aroused by Great Britain’s treatment of Ireland, he had resolved to write some day in defense of his native country. In 1818 the famous Godwin wrote “Mandeville”, a novel in which the fictions of the massacre of 1641 were exploited. This occasioned the publication by Carey of “Vindicise Hibernicie” (1818). In it the general unreasoning attitude of Great Britain toward Ireland was discussed, but special emphasis was placed on Catholic emancipation and the legendary massacre of 1641. The plan pursued throughout the work to vindicate Ireland and the Catholics was the use of testimony taken exclusively from Protestant historians. In doing this some of the best material available was excluded. The alleged plots against the Protestants in the so-called massacre of 1641 were shown to be absurd and the number of persons killed greatly exaggerated. The claims of Temple and Clarendon and the assertions of later and uncritical historians were refuted in detail.

Carey began writing on the Tariff question in 1819. In seeking the cause of the financial depression of 1818 and 1819 he was led to believe that the failure to put a high tariff upon goods manufactured in the United States was responsible for the general disaster. Prior to this he found political economy as presented in Adam Smith’s “Wealth of Nations” abstruse and uninteresting. He now took up this work again with the purpose of answering the Free Trade arguments, and published in 1822 his “Essays on Political Economy”. Subsequently he published and distributed at his own expense numerous pamphlets on the tariff question. His essays had a large circulation and went far towards turning sentiment in the direction of a protectionist policy. In 1820 he founded the “Philadelphia Society for the Promotion of National Industry” which consisted of the leading citizens of Philadelphia. Because the organization was not sufficiently aggressive Carey withdrew from it and it soon ceased to exist. Carey’s tariff arguments will not bear the test of scientific criticism, but it must be remembered that he had no economic training. While the soundness of his conclusions cannot be admitted, the policy advocated had much to commend it when Carey wrote.

He was married in 1791 while he was living in very limited circumstances. Later he acquired a considerable fortune, but retained throughout habits of frugality. He was the father of nine children, one of whom was the distinguished economist, Henry C. Carey. In 1833-34 he published his Autobiography in the “New England Magazine”. A valuable collection of Carey’s letters is in the “Records” of the American Catholic Historical Society of Philadelphia for 1898, 1899, 1900, 1902, vols. IX, X, XI, XII, and XIII. Carey took a very active though anonymous part in the disastrous schism occasioned in St. Mary’s parish, Philadelphia, by the rebellious priest William Hogan (1819-22). He is credited with writing or inspiring, as well as publishing, many of the pamphlets issued at the time. An extended list of these publications is given in Finotti, “Bibliographia Catholica Americana” (Boston, 1872), 137-172.


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