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CARY, THOMAS, businessman, office holder, poet, lawyer, and newspaper editor; b. 1751 near Bristol, England; by his union with an unknown woman he had at least two sons, Thomas* and Joseph; m. 20 April 1795 Jane Oliver at Quebec, and they had no children; d. there 29 Jan. 1823.

Thomas Cary apparently spent his early years in England and likely received his education there. Little is known of his career prior to his arrival in the province of Quebec, except that he had been in the service of the East India Company, where he no doubt first learned about business. His duties in the company seem to have brought him into contact with Canadians, and this acquaintance may in part account for his coming to the colony. But the full explanation of why he left England remains unknown.

Contrary to the usual claim, Cary did not arrive in the province around 1787. By 1775 he was already living at L’Assomption, in the Montreal region, and was selling spirits. In September 1779 he was offering provisions for sale in the Quebec home of merchant Mathew Lymburner, with whom he lived. However, he was soon in a precarious financial position. In the summer of 1785, obviously much in debt and pressed by his financial backers, he had to stand by while a court ordered a public trustee to seize his business and sell it at auction. He found a job, probably the same year, as a clerk in a government office at an annual salary of £40.

In March 1789 at Quebec Cary published Abrams Plains: a poem, written in the style of the poet James Thomson whom he greatly admired. This rhymed poem of 568 lines describes the valley of the St Lawrence, the towns along its banks, and the people who lived there. With his love of poetry went a marked interest in theatre, particularly revealed by the fact that he acted in some of the plays produced at the Patagonian Theatre. When it first opened, he recited a poem of his own that defended theatre “with a view to its being put on as respectable a footing as possible.”

In 1798 Cary became secretary to Governor Robert Prescott*. In the exercise of his new duties he was prompted to write an article on the disposal of crown lands which appeared in the Extract of the minutes of Council for 20 Sept. 1798, printed that autumn at the shop of Roger Lelièvre and Pierre-Édouard Desbarats. Cary had had some differences with the members of the Executive Council, and through this piece he was making light of the slanderous comments about his administrative competence made by some members in a government report. Prescott, who was himself engaged in a dispute with the Executive Council about land grants, gave his backing to Cary and this did not please the councillors.

Some time before, Cary had set up a lending library on Rue Saint-Louis which opened on 14 Sept. 1797. The following day he issued a catalogue, printed in two separate runs of 300 and 1,000 copies by John Neilson*’s shop at a cost of £5 3s. 4d. The catalogue sold at 7 1/2d. (no copy survives), and in it he listed the authors and titles to be found in the library, as well as its lending rules. Cary bought his stock of English books directly from London. But he apparently encountered many difficulties in obtaining French works since he had to put an advertisement in the Quebec Gazette offering to buy them from private individuals. In the summer of 1799 he went to Paris, evidently to bring back a shipment of French books. Subscribers to his library could borrow books for 20s. annually, 12s. semi-annually, 7s. 6d. quarterly, or 3s. monthly; this type of subscription ensured the venture’s success. In order to satisfy his clientele and to increase it, Cary early in January 1798 opened a reading-room on the second floor carrying European, American, and local periodicals. He also had a small bookshop adjoining the library, stocked with books, office supplies, and mathematical instruments. Because of illness Cary had to hand over his lending library to his son Thomas on 18 April 1820.

Cary had lost or given up his job with the government shortly after Prescott was recalled to England on 10 April 1799. This was probably the reason he offered his services as legal counsel, particularly to look after matters concerning landed property. It seems that he was finally authorized to practise law in 1800. That year he ran for the House of Assembly in the riding of Quebec but was not elected. He apparently remained in practice for only a short time, since in the summer of 1801 he had 150 copies of a handbill printed in English and French at Neilson’s shop to announce his new auctioneering and brokerage business. His auction room, first located on Rue Saint-Louis but moved to Rue Sainte-Anne in 1815, specialized in the sale of household furnishings and books. Although his own newspaper, the Quebec Mercury, began publication in 1805, Cary continued to advertise his auctions in the Quebec Gazette, which enjoyed a wider circulation than the Mercury. In April 1817 Cary went into partnership with his son Joseph and three years later retired, leaving him to manage the enterprise.

In the midst of this commercial activity, Cary had founded his newspaper, a weekly which was first issued on 5 Jan. 1805 and had its offices on Rue Saint-Louis. It had eight pages printed in three columns, more than half of them devoted to advertising, and it drew items from American and English papers. Although it relied heavily on foreign news, it did not neglect the local scene. It was printed in Desbarats’s shop and cost a guinea a year. The paper became a bi-weekly on 14 May 1816, but its circulation remained geographically limited, since there were only seven agencies looking after its distribution in Upper and Lower Canada. However, Cary contacted some printers and journalists outside the country who served as agents for the sale of the paper in the United States, probably on a reciprocal basis. Supported by the conservative, English-speaking Quebec bourgeoisie, who sought to ensure the political and economic domination of the British, the Mercury featured business matters, kept readers informed of economic developments, discussed current social issues, and regularly attacked the House of Assembly with its Canadian majority. Cary, who was the editor, displayed a relentlessly anti-French attitude towards Canadians and thereby provoked the founding of Le Canadien, around which debate would polarize.

To meet the cost of printing the Mercury Cary had to seek other sources of revenue, since he did not own a printing-shop to supplement his income. Forced to carry on another occupation, he regularly advertised his services as an auctioneer. Contrary to the claims made by historian Antonio Drolet, he was never a printer. That Cary was his son Thomas, who took over the Quebec Mercury at his father’s request in July 1819.

Decried by some historians, not so much for the stands he took in the Mercury as for his exaggerated anti-French attitude, extravagantly praised by some of his biographers, particularly for the breadth of his knowledge and his erudition, Thomas Cary remains a brilliant polemicist who defended his principles to the end. Though his name is remembered because of the extreme positions he adopted, it is his career in the book trade that stands out in his life.

Daniel Gauvin

Thomas Cary is the author of Abrams Plains: a poem (Quebec, 1789) and “A true extract . . . ,” Extract of the minutes of Council, of the 20th September, 1798; on the waste lands of the crown, being a continuation, of the extract, of the 11th of June last (Quebec, 1798).

ANQ-Q, CE1-61, 20 avril 1795; CN1-25, 4 févr. 1783; CN1-178, 2 mars 1815; CN1-253, 20 févr. 1812, 7 juin 1817, 27 juill. 1824, 27 août 1829; CN1-256, 2 mai 1791. PAC, MG 24, B1, 64, 84, 143–44, 147. Quebec Gazette, 30 Sept. 1779–31 Jan. 1823. Quebec Mercury, 5 Jan. 1805–31 Jan. 1823. Beaulieu et Hamelin, La presse québécoise, vol.1. Hare et Wallot, Les imprimés dans le Bas-Canada. H. J. Morgan, Bibliotheca Canadensis; Sketches of celebrated Canadians, 156–57. “Papiers d’État – Bas-Canada,” PAC Rapport, 1891: 171, 177–79. Quebec directory, 1822. P.-G. Roy, Les avocats de la région de Québec, 77. Tremaine, Biblio. of Canadian imprints, 271–72, 533–34. Wallace, Macmillan dict. Antonio Drolet, Les bibliothèques canadiennes, 1604–1960 (Ottawa, 1965). Gilles Gallichan, “Bibliothèques et culture au Canada après la Conquête (1760–1800)” (mémoire de ma, univ. de Montréal, 1975). Réjean Lemoine, “Le marché du livre à Québec, 1764–1839” (thèse de ma, univ. Laval, Québec, 1981). Literary history of Canada: Canadian literature in English, ed. C. F. Klinck et al. (2nd ed., 3v., Toronto and Buffalo, N.Y., 1976). Horace Têtu, Historique des journaux de Québec (2e éd., Québec, 1889). Wallot, Un Québec qui bougeait. “La circulating library ou bibliothèque circulante de Cary,” BRH, 42 (1936): 490. “Le théâtre Patagon à Québec,” BRH, 42: 300–3.

General Bibliography

Cite This Article

Daniel Gauvin, “CARY, THOMAS (1751-1823),” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 6, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed December 2, 2023, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/cary_thomas_1751_1823_6E.html.

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Permalink:   http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/cary_thomas_1751_1823_6E.html
Author of Article:   Daniel Gauvin
Title of Article:   CARY, THOMAS (1751-1823)
Publication Name:   Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 6
Publisher:   University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication:   1987
Year of revision:   1987
Access Date:   December 2, 2023