Cary was born on January 24, 1721, probably in Williamsburg. He was the son of the builderand his second wife, Ann Edwards Cary. He grew up in Williamsburg and at Ampthill, the elegant brick mansion that his father erected near the mouth of Falling Creek in the portion of Henrico County that in 1749 . Cary probably attended the College of William and Mary. He was handsome, strong, tall, and pugnacious. On September 21, 1742, his father deeded him 4,132 acres of valuable land in the part of Goochland County that in 1749 became Cumberland County. In 1744 Cary married Mary Randolph, of Turkey Island, in Henrico County. They had one son and eight daughters, several of whom died in infancy or childhood.
Cary was appointed a justice of the peace in Goochland County on April 22, 1747, and represented the county in the House of Burgesses in the two sessions of 1748 and 1749. Named to the new Cumberland County Court on April 27, 1749, he also became aof Southam Parish in December of that year. In 1750, after the death of his father, Cary moved to Ampthill and quickly became one of Chesterfield County’s wealthiest and most important public men. He was appointed to the county court on June 15, 1750, on November 6, 1766, was named presiding judge, and by October 22, 1760, also became county lieutenant, or commander of the militia.
Cary erected an iron foundry near the site of the first ironworks established by thein the seventeenth century. He built a successful flour mill and other manufacturing enterprises at the James River landing called Warwick. In 1769 the General Assembly appointed Cary a trustee of the town of Warwick, which it expanded onto his property near Ampthill, and also of Manchester, a town lying across the James River from Richmond that became an important commercial and manufacturing center. Cary led early efforts to improve navigation on the Appomattox and James rivers and served on the committee that the assembly appointed in 1772 to attempt to extend the navigation of the upper Potomac River. He also kept a well-known stable of fine horses.
Between 1770 and 1774 Cary used his power as presiding justice of the county court to try to curtail Baptist activities. He fined or jailed Baptist exhorters who preached without a license, and after people crowded around the jail and the incarcerated ministers attempted to preach through the grated windows, Cary enclosed the jail with a brick wall. If Baptist ministers were whipped in Chesterfield County for preaching without a magistrate’s permission, as some testimony suggests, it may have been with Cary’s assent. In spite of, or perhaps because of, Cary’s notorious persecution, the number of Baptists in the county increased rapidly during those years.
Cary represented Chesterfield County in the House of Burgesses from 1756 until the outbreak of the Revolution. Recognized as a man of ability, he took responsibility in the mid-1760s for managing the large supply of trade goods that the colony purchased in an attempt to ensure an alliance with. He became chairman of the Committee of Public Claims in November 1762 and retained that influential position through 1775. By the end of the 1760s he was routinely appointed to high-ranking positions on several of the other most important committees, including Privileges and Elections, Propositions and Grievances, and after 1769 the Committee for Religion.
Cary’s rise to prominence reflected his intelligence and competence, but he was also allied through marriage and financial dealings with other leading burgesses. By the 1760s he was heavily in debt to, the Speaker of the House and treasurer of the colony, who was not only the most powerful Virginia politician of the age but also the principal in the colony’s largest financial scandal. Shortly before it became publicly known that Robinson owed the colony more than £100,000, Cary had sat on a House committee that reported that Robinson’s treasury records were in good order. After the scandal became public, Cary was one of the men who spent decades attempting to pay off their loans and preserve their fiscal and personal integrity.
Cary’s relationship with Peyton Randolph, who succeeded Robinson as Speaker, and with the younger generation of burgesses was equally strong but not tinged with financial dependency. In 1765 Cary opposed Patrick Henry’s resolutions condemning the Stamp Act because he deemed them too inflammatory, but never thereafter did he fail to support the most energetic Virginia protests against Parliament. Cary signed the nonimportation associations adopted later in the 1760s and early in the 1770s, and in March 1773 he was appointed to the new Committee of Correspondence that the House of Burgesses created to coordinate Virginia’s actions with those of the other colonies. He was elected to each of the five Revolutionary Conventions that met between August 1774 and July 1776.
During the convention in the summer of 1775 he was a member of nearly every important drafting committee and in August came within a few votes of being elected to the Committee of Safety that in effect governed Virginia for the next eleven months. Cary also served on every significant committee in the fourth convention during the winter of 1775–1776 and usually presided during debates in the committee of the whole. In the fifth convention, which assembled on May 6, 1776, he was one of the two or three most influential members. Cary regularly presided over the committee of the whole and chaired the committee appointed on May 15, 1776, to draft the Virginia Declaration of Rights and the first constitution of Virginia. The convention unanimously adopted both documents, as well as the resolution calling for independence from Great Britain.
During the Revolutionary War, Cary directed recruitment of soldiers and procurement of supplies in central Virginia, and he erected factories in Manchester and Richmond to produce gunpowder and rope. Ampthill became well known to Continental army officers who relied on Cary for advice and assistance or who stayed there while on duty in or in transit through Virginia. He was one of the commissioners named in 1779 to manage the move of the state government from Williamsburg to the new capital at Richmond, and he continued his staunch support of theeven as the Revolution brought about its in Virginia. Because Cary was a strongly opinionated man capable of enforcing his beliefs with violence, at least some of his contemporaries believed a story that Cary, after hearing a rumor that Patrick Henry might be appointed dictator of Virginia, swore to stab Henry to death.
Speaker of the Senate
In 1776 Cary was elected to the new Senate of Virginia to represent the counties of Amelia, Chesterfield, and Cumberland (and also Powhatan after 1778). At its first meeting on October 7 he was unanimously chosen Speaker, and each year thereafter through 1786 the senators reelected him to that office. The Senate’s fragmentary surviving records make it uncertain whether the elections were all unanimous, but they probably were. Because of poor health Cary missed the October 1779 assembly session, when the members chose Nathaniel Harrison to preside in his stead. Again in the autumn of 1781 Cary was unable to attend, and Harrison was acting Speaker.
Scarcely known at all outside Virginia, Cary was in many respects the peer of the distinguished Virginians who gained international fame in theor on the battlefield during the Revolutionary War. Within Virginia his eminent status was undoubted. He may have owned more than 14,000 acres of land and more than 200 slaves during the 1780s. On paper Cary was a wealthy planter with valuable commercial and manufacturing enterprises at his command, but he suffered from a variety of economic problems. His Richmond mills were destroyed during the war, he had trouble collecting money owed to him, and he could not pay his British creditors. Because he was involved with many other men in large-scale partnerships, their similar financial situation created additional difficulties for him. In that, Cary was not in an unusual circumstance, but the range of his interests made the scale of his financial problems especially notable. As a Richmond merchant reported to Cary’s close friend after Cary’s death, “no Gentleman of this Country in the memory of man ever left his affairs so distracted. The debts are immense. I had almost said innumerable. His family will be left very bare indeed.”
Cary presided over the Senate of Virginia for the last time during the session that began on October 16, 1786. He served until at least November 21, so far as extant pay records show. He then became ill and returned home, and by or on December 7 the senators chose John Jones to succeed him.
Cary died at Ampthill on February 26, 1787. He may have been buried there, where a legend circulated as late as the early years of the twentieth century that his ghost occasionally appeared in the basement. No evidence of a grave was found when the mansion was moved during the winter of 1929–1930 to a site north of the James River in western Richmond.