Carter was the son of John Carter and Elizabeth Hill Carter and grandson of Robert “King” Carter. He was born in 1732 probably at Shirley, the Charles City County plantation where his parents lived while his father was secretary of the colony and a member of the governor’s Council. Carter’s father died in July 1742, and several years later his mother married Bowler Cocke, who moved from Henrico County to Shirley plantation. Carter was educated at the Gloucester County grammar school of William Yates, a clergyman who later briefly served as president of the College of William and Mary, and at the college. He then assumed management of Corotoman, the Lancaster County plantation that he had inherited from his father. Carter resided there for two decades and supervised that and his other properties on the Northern Neck and elsewhere. He purchased Nanzatico, a 2,200-acre King George County plantation, from his financially strapped cousin Charles Carter. Following the deaths of his mother and Bowler Cocke in 1771, Carter made extensive repairs and renovations to the main house at Shirley and moved there permanently about 1775.
Carter’s success as a planter and entrepreneur made him one of the wealthiest men in Virginia. At the time of his death in 1806, his will enumerated more than 13,000 acres in thirteen Virginia counties and at least 710 slaves. In addition to his extensive landholdings Carter operated a large mill near Corotoman, lent substantial sums of money to other planters, and provided in his will for investing some assets in bank stocks or similar securities. He was also a sometime administrator and trustee of the complicated estate left by his brother-in-law, the councillor William Byrd (1728–1777). Although Carter’s uncle, Landon Carter, characterized him as an inefficient plantation manager, the uncle’s pessimistic frame of mind and negative assessments of nearly everyone suggest that the criticism was overstated.vestryman of Christ Church Parish for several years before leaving Lancaster County, and on the eve of the Revolution he was a member of the board of visitors of the College of William and Mary. Carter served in the House of Burgesses representing Lancaster County continuously from 1758 until the Revolution. He gradually emerged late in the 1760s as a reasonably responsible member who was routinely appointed to the Committees on Privileges and Elections, on Propositions and Grievances, and for Religion. Throughout the imperial crises of the 1760s and early 1770s Carter supported Virginia protests of parliamentary measures. Lancaster freeholders elected him to the county committee in February 1775 and to the Revolutionary Conventions that met in August 1774 and in March, July, and December 1775. In September 1775 he angered Landon Carter by endorsing nonimportation of British goods but opposing the termination of exportation to Great Britain and its Caribbean colonies. He argued that exports were needed to provide money for the war and to enable Virginians to pay their debts. Although Carter was not elected in April 1776 to the fifth and final Revolutionary Convention, probably because by then he had moved to Shirley, on June 29, 1776, that convention elected him to the Council of State. He declined the appointment and never took the oath of office.
Sometime in the mid-1750s Carter married his first cousin Mary Walker Carter, daughter of Charles Carter, who represented King George County in the House of Burgesses for many years. They had two daughters and six sons (including one set of twins) before her death on January 30, 1770. Late in November of that year he married Ann Butler Moore. Of their eight daughters and seven sons, four children died in infancy, and one was stillborn. As had been the case in his generation and the generations of his parents and grandparents, nearly all of the Carter children who lived to adulthood married into respected Virginia families. The best-known example was the marriage in 1793 of his and Ann Butler Moore Carter’s eldest daughter, Ann Hill Carter, to Henry “Light-Horse Harry” Lee.
Carter remained active in the affairs of the church and attended annual Episcopal Church conferences in Virginia from 1789 to 1793 as a lay delegate from Westover Parish. Carter died at Shirley on June 28, 1806. His will directed that he be buried near the bodies of his parents (probably at Shirley or in the graveyard of the Westover Parish church) “without any funeral pomp and nothing but the burial service [to] be read over my grave by the parson of the parish (should we be so fortunate as to have one among us).”