Mathew Carey (1760-1839), Philadelphia Publisher and Provocateur

(The following is a guest post by Julie Miller, early American specialist in the Manuscript Division.)

Through the winter and spring of 1825, the Philadelphia publisher Mathew Carey sat for the painter John Neagle. On Feb. 1 he recorded in his diary: “His portrait appears a flattering one. If true, I am a better looking man than I ever supposed.” The Manuscript Division of the Library of Congress recently acquired two manuscript diaries by Carey, including the one containing this entry. Like the painting (now at the Library Company of Philadelphia), the diaries are a portrait of a man who was at once boastful and self-doubting, sociable and cranky, driven and depressed.

John Neagle (1796-1865). Portrait of Mathew Carey, 1825. Oil on canvas. Library Company of Philadelphia. Gift of Mary Hudson, 1991.

John Neagle (1796-1865).
Portrait of Mathew Carey, 1825.
Oil on canvas.
Library Company of Philadelphia. Gift of Mary Hudson, 1991.

Carey was born in Dublin in 1760, emigrated to the United States in 1784 after several times tangling with the British parliament over his writings in favor of Irish nationalism and Catholic emancipation and settled in Philadelphia. After an early career as a printer, journalist and newspaper publisher, he became one of the most successful book publishers in the U.S. He prospered publishing bibles, schoolbooks, maps and atlases, almanacs and novels. The absence of an international copyright law made it possible for him to republish British books, including the popular novels of Sir Walter Scott, and “Charlotte Temple,” by Susanna Haswell Rowson, which attracted a wide and enthusiastic readership. His American publications included the “Life of Washington,” by Mason Locke “Parson” Weems. In 1801 he organized an annual book fair, to be held alternately in Philadelphia and New York, following the example of the book fairs of Frankfurt and Leipzig. It lasted only a few years, but it fortified Carey’s reputation as a leader in the American book business.

Carey was also an impressively active participant in Philadelphia civic life. He was a member of the American Philosophical Society and the Franklin Institute; a director of the Bank of Pennsylvania and the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal company; and a founder of the Hibernian Society, which aided Irish immigrants. More ephemeral bodies he belonged to included the health committee organized during Philadelphia’s yellow fever epidemic of 1793; a “committee of 24″ that promoted canal-building in the 1820s; and a “friends of Clay” group that supported Henry Clay’s presidential candidacy in 1824.

During the period these diaries cover, Nov. 11, 1821 – Jan. 3, 1823, and Sept. 2, 1824 – Nov. 1, 1825, Carey was easing out of the publishing business and into a new career as an author of essays on political economy and a promoter of what Americans then called “internal improvements.” Like Alexander Hamilton and Henry Clay, both of whom he admired, Carey believed that government ought to play an active role in promoting and protecting the American economy. For Carey, this meant federal government protection of American manufacturing through tariffs on foreign imports and the construction of canals in order to speed communication and trade. As early as the 1780s Carey was leading organizations that promoted American manufacturing and the “useful arts.” After the Panic of 1819, an economic collapse whose effects lasted into the early 1820s, he helped found several more, including the Pennsylvania Society for the Promotion of Internal Improvements.

Carey’s economic views are preserved in his writings and in correspondence with friends and political leaders. On Oct. 3, 1822, he wrote retired president James Madison “on the policy that prevails in our intercourse with foreign nations – a policy which renders us hewers of wood and drawers of water to the manufacturing nations of Europe.” Today Carey’s letter is in the Manuscript Division’s James Madison papers. On Nov. 2, 1822, Carey wrote in his diary: “Rec’d a flattering letter from Mr. Madison.” A draft of that reply, dated Oct. 25, 1822, also in the Madison papers, is more flattering than Carey knew. Lengthy and heavily corrected, it is evidence of Madison’s engagement with Carey and his ideas.

Carey’s diaries are also a storehouse of his emotions at a time when the practice of diary-writing was shifting from terse and factual to emotive and soul-searching. An incident in the diary that shows Carey’s emotions from the inside out involves the Marquis de Lafayette. In 1784, Lafayette, in a gesture of life-transforming generosity, gave Carey $400 to start his first American enterprise, a newspaper. In 1824 Lafayette was visiting the U.S. again and Carey wanted to pay him back. In his autobiography, Carey writes that as soon as Lafayette arrived, he sent him a check that Lafayette cashed “only at my earnest insistence” (Autobiography, Letter II, Vol. 5, December, 1833, “New England Magazine,” p.491, “Making of America,” Cornell University). But here is what Carey wrote in his diary on Oct. 2, 1824: “The Marquis de Lafayette’s check paid – so that I was overdrawn about $20. Gloomy and desponding today.”

Carey’s moods appear everywhere in the diaries as the private backdrop to his public life of constant activity and prolific writing. The reputation for irritability he acquired in his lifetime is demonstrated in an entry for Nov. 24, 1824, when he wrote: “Almost determined to cease writing, disgusted with the apathy, worthlessness, & sordid meanness of those with whom I have to deal.” Sometimes his annoyance burst into rage, as on April 4, 1825, when after an incident with his horses he wrote of his coachman: “Outrageously angry with George.”

Especially striking are Carey’s descriptions of his depression and self-doubt. The gloom he experienced when he was unable to repay Lafayette without overdrawing his account is one example. There are more: on Jan. 18, 1822, he wrote: “Rode out to the Robin Hood [a Philadelphia green space] in the gig. Atmosphere hushed. My faculties in good measure benumbed. Fear they are fast decaying. Think I ought to write no more.” He added: “In the evening recovered.” But two days later he was down again: “My mind low spirits. Cannot cheer up my spirits.” He sounds panicked. And on Oct. 13, 1825: “Awoke a prey to the blue devils. Could not regain my spirits all day. Determined to cease writing on public subjects.” That day he went for a ride “to try to raise my spirits – but in vain.” Despite his struggle with the “blue devils,” Carey led an active and productive public life. The diaries show how he struggled to do that.

They also show how he enjoyed himself, or tried to. He went to many parties and gave a few, mingling with Philadelphia’s elite, including Nicholas Biddle, president of the Second Bank of the United States and Pennsylvania supreme court justice William Tilghman. He loved the theater, except once when three women in front of him “behaved with boundless indecorum. Talked & giggled & laughed aloud even during the performance. Inexpressibly disgusted at such conduct” (Dec. 18, 1821). A week later he had a better time at St. Augustine’s church, recording this observation about the sermon: “style elegant. Some inconsistency” (Dec. 23, 1821). In 1824 he went to see a painting, “The Resignation of Washington” by the Connecticut-born artist John Trumbull, in Philadelphia as it toured American cities before being installed in the Capitol Rotunda in Washington D.C. “Likeness of Washington most miserable,” he complained on Dec. 4, 1824.

Carey’s deepest pleasure seems to have been reading. Every day he ravenously consumed many pages of books, pamphlets, reports, magazines and newspapers for information, business and pleasure. On Nov. 25, 1821, he “examined a large part of the first album of Macpherson’s annals. Found much matter admirably calculated for my purpose” (David Macpherson, “Annals of Commerce, Manufactures, Fisheries and Navigation,” London, 1805). On Feb. 4, 1822, he “finished reading the Pirate” by Sir Walter Scott, which he was in the process of republishing. On Sept. 20, 1822, he “staid up till 12:30 reading Ennui,” a novel by the Irish writer Maria Edgeworth. On Dec. 26, 1822, he “read 90 pages of the History of an Opium Eater in the carriage & the remainder at night.” This is Thomas de Quincey’s popular “Confessions of an English Opium Eater” (1821). On Sept. 8, 1824, he reports reading the “second number” of Washington Irving’s “Tales of a Traveler,” which was “much better than the first.”

The diaries show Carey at work as a publisher. His entry for June 17, 1822: “Rose at 5. Wrote, corrected & read proofs” is typical, and he frequently reports getting bank loans for his son Henry Charles Carey and son-in-law Isaac Lea (husband of his daughter Frances and a scientist), who joined him in the business and then took it over when he retired. As he eased out of publishing, they show him writing on the subjects that possessed him during these years. Starting in 1822 and continuing through and beyond the period the diaries cover, Carey published more than 60 essays on economic subjects for which he used the pseudonym “Hamilton.” He notes the composition and publication of these in his diary entries, as on Oct. 28, 1822, when he “completed Hamilton No. 5 & sent it to the press.” His working methods are revealed in this entry showing how he spent the evening of Jan. 9, 1825: “After 7 began an essay on Canals, which I finished before one, although it required considerable research in Niles Register. To bed at one.” The diaries may help identify essays Carey published anonymously. For example, his entry for April 22, 1822, reveals that he was the author of an address signed “a Pennsylvanian.”

Carey’s life was packed with incident. Even during the four years these diaries cover, there is more than can fit in a blog post. Had blogs existed during Carey’s lifetime (imagine quills and candlelight mixed with digital clicks and flashes), he would certainly have been a blogger. He would have described the dinners he attended during Lafayette’s visits to Philadelphia in 1824 and 1825, the observations of Philadelphia and its hinterlands he made during his daily carriage rides, and much more. Carey had more to say and a lot more can be said about him with the help of these two diaries, now at the Manuscript Division of the Library of Congress.


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