Carlyle was born on February 6, 1720, the son of William Carlyle, an apothecary-physician, and Rachel Murray Carlyle. He may have been born in the city of Carlisle, where his parents lived and from which the family took its name, in Cumberland County, England, or a few miles away at his mother’s family estate, Murraythwaite, in Dumfriesshire, Scotland. Eight of his nine brothers and sisters died in early childhood. Carlyle apprenticed at the mercantile house of William Hicks in the coastal town of Whitehaven and may have made his first voyage to Virginia in 1739. On September 24 of that year a John Carlyle witnessed two deeds in Prince William County. Carlyle moved to Virginia about two years later and joined other relatives who had already settled in the Chesapeake Bay region. Registering his power of attorney as a factor, or agent, for Hicks at the Prince William County courthouse on July 27, 1741, he intended to make his fortune working for Hicks in the Maryland and Virginia markets and then return home.
Sometime early in the 1750s, Carlyle and Hicks amicably separated. During the next two decades Carlyle formed several partnerships to conduct business with the British Isles, in the Caribbean, and with western Europe. He imported coal, convicts, rum,, and sugar, and he exported flour, grain, iron from his own foundry, lumber, and tobacco. For his amusement as well as for profit, he imported, bred, and raised racehorses. Carlyle resided in Truro Parish, in Fairfax County, before moving to what became Alexandria. He engaged in business in the upper counties of the Northern Neck and as far inland as the boundary drawn in 1757 that separated the new county of Loudoun from Fairfax County. He steadily acquired tracts of land, , and slaves, and he developed contacts and made friends with other successful men of commerce and members of the area’s , most notably the wealthy Fairfaxes.
On December 31, 1747, Carlyle married Sarah Fairfax, daughter of William Fairfax, a member of the. They had five daughters and two sons, but only two of the daughters lived beyond childhood. Sarah Carlyle died on January 22, 1761, following the birth of her seventh child. On October 22 of that year Carlyle married Sybil West, daughter of Hugh West, one of the early developers of Alexandria. Of their three sons, two died in infancy. Sybil Carlyle died on March 17, 1769, as a consequence of her fourth pregnancy, which terminated in a miscarriage.
Together with the Fairfaxes and their relations, Augustine Washington and Lawrence Washington, Carlyle joined the Ohio Company in hopes of winning a royal grant of land in the Ohio River valley. Selling or leasing the land to new settlers promised to repay their investment as well as create lucrative commercial opportunities for residents in the Potomac River valley. To bring their plans to fruition they needed a seaport, and they petitioned the General Assembly to establish a new town to be built on land of the Alexander and West families at the mouth of Great Hunting Creek in Fairfax County. In 1749 the assembly complied and designated Carlyle one of the eleven trustees of the new town, which was named Alexandria in honor of one of the founding families. In March of that same year Carlyle became a justice of the peace in Fairfax County, and by the end of 1755 he was a colonel in the militia.
Early in the 1750s Carlyle built his family a grand stone Georgian mansion in Alexandria and saw to the details of its construction himself. It was by far the most splendid structure in the new town. He resided there for more than twenty-five years. As a trustee he administered to the town’s needs in education, public health and sanitation, streets, safety, and the town market, and as a justice of the peace and leading citizen he oversaw the construction of the courthouse, bridges, churches, docks, roads, a school, and warehouses. Although a Presbyterian, he may have also attended services of the, and he was a Freemason.
During the early years of the French and Indian War, Carlyle served in 1754 as commissary to the Virginia militia’s Ohio River expedition and the following year as Alexandria commissary to the British expeditionary forces. He employed his commercial experience and contacts to obtain, transport, and store fodder for the horses and powder, shot, shoes, tools, uniforms, victuals, and weapons for the troops, but his skill could not solve all the supply problems that the colonial and British forces faced. Carlyle’s important role in preparing for the British campaign in the West, together with his elegant residence at the seaport closest to the frontier, made his house the natural headquarters for Major General Edward Braddock in the spring of 1755. In Carlyle’s house the general met with governors of five colonies and planned his ultimately disastrous campaign.
Carlyle supported the colony’s protests against British policies during the decade after the war and in 1774 was a member of the Alexandria Town and Fairfax County Committees. He most likely took part in procuring small arms, fieldpieces, and ammunition for the local volunteer companies. During the Revolutionary War his only living son, George William Carlyle, served in the legion commanded by Lieutenant Coloneland on September 8, 1781, at age fifteen, was killed in the engagement at Eutaw Springs, South Carolina.
Carlyle was one of the most prominent and respectable merchants and community leaders in northern Virginia. His magnificent house in Alexandria testified to his success and eminence. He owned several town lots and two plantations in Fairfax County, and his more than sixty slaves raised the value of his personal estate there to more than £2,800. He also owned land in Berkeley and Culpeper counties. When Carlyle composed his will in the spring of 1780, he provided for the education of his one surviving son and a grandson and set aside £500 from which Alexandria’s Presbyterian church was to draw the annual earnings to care for the congregation’s poor. Carlyle died, probably in his Alexandria home, sometime not long before October 17, 1780, when his will was proved in the Fairfax County Court. He was buried, as he had specified in his will, with the bodies of his first wife and their children in the burial ground of the Old Presbyterian Meeting House in Alexandria.