Early life and education
Carey was born in Dublin into a middle-class Catholic family in 1760. He entered the bookselling and printing business in 1775, and when still only seventeen published a pamphlet criticizing dueling. This publication was quickly followed by another work criticizing the severity of the Irish penal code, and another criticizing Parliament. As a result, the British House of Commons threatened him with prosecution, and Carey fled to Paris in 1781. There he met Benjamin Franklin, the ambassador representing the American Revolutionary forces, who achieved independence that year. Franklin took Carey on to work in his printing office.
Carey worked for Franklin for a year before returning to Ireland, where he edited two Irish nationalist newspapers, The Freeman's Journal and The Volunteer's Journal. To avoid imprisonment and prosecution by the British, Carey dressed as a woman and snuck on a ship to emigrate to the newly independent United States in September 1784.
Career in America
Upon Carey's arrival in Philadelphia, Gilbert du Motier, Marquis de Lafayette gave him $400 to establish himself, and he used this money to set up a new publishing business and a book shop, establishing:
None of these ventures proved very profitable, although the American Museum became the first American periodical to treat American culture as rich and original instead of a poor imitation of Great Britain's. Carey printed the first American version of the Douay–Rheims Bible, popularly known as the Carey Bible, in 48 weekly installments, which subscribers could then have bound. It was the first Roman Catholic version of the Bible printed in the United States. Carey also printed numerous editions of the King James Version. In 1794–1796, Carey published America's first atlases. His 1802 map of Washington, D.C., was the first to name the stretch of land west of the United States Capitol as the "Mall".
He frequently wrote on various social topics, including events during the Yellow Fever Epidemic of 1793, which proved a crisis for the city. Carey reported on debates in the state legislature as well as provided political commentary in his essays. He was a Catholic as well as 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 published 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  one of the first treatises favoring Alexander Hamilton's protectionist economic policy.
During Carey's lifetime, the publishing firm evolved to M. Carey & Son (1817–1821), M. Carey & Sons (1821–1824), and then to Carey & Lea (1824). Carey retired in 1825, leaving the publishing business to his son, Henry Charles Carey and son-in-law Isaac Lea. Lea and Henry Carey made the business successful and, for a time it was one of the most prominent publishers in the country. The business published such works as: The Encyclopedia Americana, A dictionary of German lexicon, as well as American editions of the works of Sir Walter Scott and James Fenimore Cooper.
Upon arriving in America, Carey quickly developed political connections in the developing country. One of his most important supporters was John Adams, still a leading figure of the Federalist Party at the time. Carey's passionate support for the establishment of an American Navy contributed significantly to his alliance with the Federalists.
Throughout his political career in America, Carey supported the development and maintenance of American naval strength, even after joining Jefferson’s Democratic-Republicans in 1796. Carey’s political realignment occurred shortly before the American ratification of the Jay Treaty, primarily intended to ensure peace with Britain, while distancing America from France.
Carey’s strong support of American naval power and his "early political activities in Ireland had developed in part, by the American navy’s decision to carry the war [the American Revolution] into the home waters of Great Britain. John Paul Jones’ victory over HMS Drake off Belfast in June 1778 unleashed a torrent of pro-American sentiment." His publishing in America channeled 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, was meant to influence the public. Its conspicuous omission of naval activity during the American Quasi-War with France showed his political intentions. It helped direct political energy against the British, with which the U.S. was 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, made an influential case for extending the reach of the American navy. Along with his publication of Naval History, Carey wrote Olive Branch, published in 1814. He tried 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, made 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.
Marriage and family
Carey and his wife Bridget Flahaven Carey (1769–1839) had at least eight children, including sons Henry, Edward L. Carey (d. 1845), (Charles William Carey, 1802-) and daughters Maria, Susan, Elizabeth, Ellen and Frances Anne. Frances Anne Carey (1799–1873) married Isaac Lea, who joined the Careys' publishing firm and became a partner. In 1833, Isaac Lea took on a new partner, William A. Blanchard, and after the death of Mathew Carey and retirement of Henry Carey, they changed the business name to "Lea and Blanchard." Later Lea took on his sons, and they changed the name to "Lea Brothers and Company."
Death and legacy
Carey was elected a member of the American Antiquarian Society 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 died on September 16, 1839, and was buried in St. Mary's Catholic Churchyard in Philadelphia.