Carter was born about 1707 to Robert “King” Carter, a land baron and member of the, and Elizabeth Landon Willis Carter. It was the second marriage of both his parents. His elder half brother (d. 1742) became secretary of the colony and also a councillor, and his younger brother, , served with him in the House of Burgesses. Carter and his brothers were educated in England. After his return to Virginia early in 1724 he moved to one of his father’s estates near Urbanna, in Middlesex County. The governor appointed Carter naval officer, or customs official, for the Rappahannock District on November 1, 1729, and on the following April 29 named him a justice of the peace for Middlesex County.
After the death of his father Carter moved to King George County to the Stanstead plantation, which he inherited. Later he purchased nearby Cleve, where he resided for the rest of his life. He was often referred to as Charles Carter of Cleve to distinguish him from several relatives of the same name. About 1728 Carter married Mary Walker, of Yorktown. They had three daughters and two sons before her death early in 1742. Their eldest daughter, Mary Walker Carter, married Carter’s nephew(1732–1806), who served with him in the House of Burgesses, and their only surviving son, (1732–1796), also served with him in the House of Burgesses and later sat on the Council of State. On December 25, 1742, Carter married Anne Byrd, the seventeen-year-old daughter of , of whose estate he was an executor. They had six daughters and two sons before she died on September 11, 1757. Carter courted at least two women, including the widow Martha Dandridge Custis, before he married sixteen- or seventeen-year-old Lucy Taliaferro about June 9, 1763. They had one daughter, who was born a few weeks before his death.
Carter was a trustee for the establishment of the towns of Falmouth, in King George County (1776 Stafford County), Leedstown, in King George County (later Westmoreland County), and Port Royal, in Caroline County, and he was a commissioner in the 1730s and again in the 1740s to determine the boundaries of the Northern Neck. Carter served as a justice of the peace in King George County beginning in 1734 and became county lieutenant, or commanding officer of the militia. In September 1734 he stood for to the House of Burgesses, lost, and unsuccessfully challenged the result. Two years later Carter won election to the House of Burgesses from King George County but had his victory contested on the ground that he had offered life leases to one or more men to make them qualified to vote for him. The challenger failed to gather evidence properly, and the Committee of Privileges and Elections recommended that the challenge be dismissed. Carter served in every session of the assembly from 1736 until his death and quickly became one of the most influential burgesses. On his first day as a member he seconded the nomination of John Robinson (1705–1766) for Speaker, and during that session he took the lead in attempting to tighten enforcement of the duty on the importation of slaves, served on a committee that examined the treasurer’s accounts, and also sat on a committee appointed to draft a bill to secure titles to land grants issued by the proprietors of the Northern Neck.
Lieutenant Governorrecommended Carter for the governor’s Council late in 1742, but another man received the appointment. Throughout his career in the assembly Carter usually served on committees appointed to frame petitions to the Crown or to draft bills and major state papers on such topics as finance. In the October 1748 assembly session Carter succeeded Edwin Conway, who had temporarily retired from the House, as Robinson’s right-hand man. Carter chaired the Committee of Propositions and Grievances and routinely presided during debate in the committee of the whole, which allowed Robinson to exercise his power effectively without fear of adverse rulings from the chair. Until his death, Carter remained, next to the Speaker, the most influential member of the House of Burgesses, even as the next generation of legislators, such as and Peyton Randolph (d. 1775), emerged early in the 1760s. Along with Robinson, Randolph, his kinsman , and his brother Landon Carter, he was appointed in 1756 as one of the directors to oversee the colony’s financing of troops to protect the Virginia frontier during the Seven Years’ War.
Advocate for Economic Diversification
While his father was an agent for the Fairfax family, Carter received grants for large amounts of land in the Piedmont counties of the Northern Neck Proprietary, and he subsequently inherited large tracts from his father. Carter spent much of his life improving his huge landholdings and seeking to diversify the productions of his plantations. He constructed flour mills that served a wide community and grew a variety of crops for market. Carter and his brothers developed a copper mine, he owned equipment for a large distillery and for processing nut oils, and he built a bakery that produced ship biscuits for the maritime market. About 1746 he began construction of the great, seven-bay house at Cleve.
Carter was equally committed to the diversification of the colony’s economy and the development of the Piedmont and the. He worked in the 1750s with other colonial gentlemen to obtain grants to large tracts of land in the West, and in 1754 he persuaded to survey the Potomac River above the falls in pursuit of their mutual interest in opening the upper regions of that river to navigation.
In 1759 Carter sponsored a bill to create a committee to encourage economic diversification in Virginia and award “bounties or premiums for the more speedy and effectual bringing to perfection any art or manufacture of service to the public.” As committee chair, he initiated an extended correspondence with the Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce, in London. Carter shared the results of his experiments and the trials other planters made with a variety of raw goods and manufactures, ranging from hemp and salted fish to naval stores and viticulture. The society awarded him a medal in 1763 for his attempt to produce wine in Virginia. Carter hoped to improve the colony’s economy and the profitability of its plantations by fostering new exports to replace, which he feared would saturate the European market. Carter was one of the pioneers in transforming the plantation economy of northern Virginia from tobacco production to grains and other commodities.
When Carter wrote his will in 1762 he sought to extend his vision of economic improvement under the direction of a. He instructed his executors to implement his full plan of agricultural reform at Cleve, and he granted a favored slave, Benjamin Boyd, a continued role in the maintenance of the estate’s manufactures, as well as an annual income. Carter made substantial provision for all of his children, daughters as well as sons, and younger sons as well as his firstborn, and he ordered that his younger sons study law in London in order to prepare themselves for their varied business affairs in the colony. Carter used his will as an attempt to instill in his family a code of behavior that shunned material ostentation and emphasized genteel manners. Carter died at his home in King George County on April 26, 1764, of “a dropsey” that may have been induced by the use of narcotics to relieve pain or reduce fever. He was buried probably on his estate at Cleve.