Ambler was born on August 9, 1742, in Yorktown, the fourth of six sons and seventh of nine children ofand Elizabeth Jaquelin Ambler. He was the youngest of the four children who survived childhood. Unlike his two older brothers who were educated in England, he attended the grammar school at the College of William and Mary from 1752 to 1756 and the College of Philadelphia, from which he graduated in 1761. Following two years of training in his father’s Yorktown mercantile house, he became a partner in the family business. He married Rebecca Burwell on May 24, 1764. They had one son and seven daughters. Four of the daughters survived to maturity, and they all married into prominent Virginia families.
Ambler’s father died in 1766, and his elder brothers died of consumption in 1766 and 1768. Ambler and the young sons of his brother Edward were the heirs to his father’s extensive property and thriving commercial business. Ambler moved into the family residence and took charge of the store and lots in Yorktown, together with lands in the vicinity and a plantation in Warwick County. He was also heir to the family’s political and social prominence in York County. He succeeded his father as collector of customs at Yorktown from 1766 to 1776, sat on the vestry of Yorkhampton Parish, became a justice of the peace in 1767, and served as sheriff of York County from 1771 to 1773.
The American Revolution disrupted Ambler’s life as a prosperous merchant and planter. He left Yorktown and moved his family several times, going as far inland as Winchester, before relocating in the autumn of 1777 in Hanover County. The family did not return to Yorktown until 1778 or 1779, and then to a small tenement, not to the spacious old family residence. One of his neighbors in Yorktown in 1780 was Colonel Thomas Marshall, the commanding officer of a state artillery regiment. Captain John Marshall, the colonel’s son, fell in love with Ambler’s daughter Mary Willis “Polly” Ambler while on leave from the Continental army and later married her.
Ambler served on the Virginia Navy Board during the last three months of its existence in the spring of 1779. From June 1779 to April 1780 he served on the Virginia Board of Trade, which oversaw the importation, domestic manufacture, and allocation of military supplies and necessities such as salt, cotton, and woolens. Ambler’s experience as a merchant served him well in that important office. In the spring of 1780 the General Assembly elected him to the Council of State. He served from June 21, 1780, until April 12, 1782, during two British invasions and the most trying months of the war in Virginia. The capital moved from Williamsburg to Richmond while Ambler was a member of the Council, and he left Yorktown and took up permanent residence in the new capital.
On April 13, 1782, the Council appointed Ambler treasurer of Virginia. The assembly annually reelected him, and he served as treasurer until his death. His official letters and reports attest to a diligent, methodical, and efficient administrator. Along with his treasury post, Ambler served from 1784 to 1791 as one of the directors of the public buildings and helped supervise construction of the new Capitol. A dedicated public servant and administrator, Ambler remained above the fray of partisan politics, though his sympathies during the 1790s were undoubtedly with the Federalists.
From July 1782 to May 1783 Ambler served as an alderman of Richmond. He purchased several lots on Shockoe Hill and built a new house there. Over the years Ambler gathered about him all his daughters and their families, forming a close-knit society. A deeply religious man, he began and ended each day with prayer and regularly attended services of the Episcopal Church. For several years the rector of Henrico Parish, John, lived in the Ambler household. Ambler was serious and reserved, ever attentive to his duties and obligations as husband, parent, and public gentleman. He was not inclined to participate in society and appeared to some people to be reclusive. Because of his wife’s frail health, he assumed principal responsibility for the care and instruction of his daughters. As a parent, he was a strict disciplinarian who did not spare the rod. Only a few beneficiaries were aware of his many acts of charity and benevolence.
Ambler suffered from a painful inflammation of the kidneys and died in his Richmond home on January 10, 1798. The General Assembly adjourned for his funeral the following day. He was buried in the yard of Saint John’s Church in Richmond.