John Carter

Inducted: 2000
Born: 1745 - Died:
1814

John Carter (1745-1814) was born in Philadelphia in 1745, the son of Elizabeth Spriggs, and John Carter, a naval officer of Irish ancestry killed in battle two months before his son’s birth. During the late 1750s, Carter was apprenticed in the print shop of Benjamin Franklin and David Hall. In 1767, Carter moved to Providence, where printer Sarah Goddard took him as a partner in publishing the Providence Gazette. Fourteen months later, Goddard withdrew from the enterprise to join her son in Philadelphia. Carter continued publishing the Gazette on his own “at the Sign of Shakespear’s Head” at 21 Meeting Street, a home he built in 1772. The building is now the property of the Providence Junior League.

In May 1769, Carter married Amy Crawford in an Anglican ceremony. His daughter Ann, one of their twelve children, married businessman-philanthropist Nicholas Brown II; their son, John Carter Brown, was a noted bibliophile who amassed a huge collection of early American imprints that became the nucleus of Brown University’s famed John Carter Brown Library.

Carter molded public opinion in Providence from 1767 until his retirement in 1814. During the two decades of Revolutionary ferment (1764-1783), he was one of the most productive American printers, publishing more than 40 percent of all Rhode Island imprints. He was a fervent advocate of American and individual liberty, and his Gazette was a strong supporter of the Revolutionary cause and the ratification of the federal Constitution. Among his many civic involvements, Carter served as Providence postmaster for twenty years (1772-1792) and was a leader of the Federalist Party.

Carter played an active role in the Gaspee Affair through his newspaper, The Providence Gazette, reporting the legal proceedings and other events during its aftermath. In 1772, HMS Gaspee, a schooner commanded by William Dudingston, in Narragansett Bay, was stationed there enforcing the Navigation Acts, involving what was regarded by the British Crown as illicit trading when it ran aground in shallow water while pursuing the packet ship Hannah. The British became increasingly aggressive in their searches, boardings, and seizures and even went so far as to stop merchants on shore and search through their wares. Angered by what was regarded as yet another British intrusion, a group of Rhode Islanders boarded the ship at midnight on June 9, 1772, and set it ablaze. The incident was soon scantly reported by newspapers. However, Carter, in The Providence Gazette on June 13, published accounts that condemned the scheme of transporting suspects 3009 miles back to England. Another article of December 19, 1772, stated: “The idea of seizing a number of persons, under the points of bayonets, and transporting them three thousand miles for trial … is shocking to humanity, repugnant to every dictate of reason, liberty, and justice.” The Commission of Inquiry continued in its efforts during the first half of 1773 while the newspapers kept a vigilant watch on its developments.

After John Cole, a member of the Assembly’s committee of correspondence, unwillingly testified at the tribunal, The Providence Gazette criticized him for betraying “the faith and confidence reposed in him by his country.” Outraged at the public accusation, Cole resorted to legal action, and, like many colonial printers before him, Carter was arrested for libel. The grand jury at the Inferior Court of Common Pleas of Providence County, however, refused to indict Carter. Carter, in his defense, exclaimed, “This very extraordinary attempt to destroy the liberty of the press did not fail to alarm the friends of freedom.”

After the war, Carter and William Wilkinson, of Thompson, Connecticut, opened the first bookstore in Providence, in a building at the corner of Market Square and Canal Street. After Carter’s death, Wilkinson carried on the business as a bookbinder, bookseller and printer.

For his February 14, 1814, retirement issue, Carter wrote a retrospective of the Gazette in which he accurately described the paper as “open for the reception of temperate discussion of public affairs; respectful remonstrances to government . . . and appeals to the people when their independence has been endangered. It has . . . abounded with original essays on political, literary, moral, and religious subjects; and . . . has unceasingly disseminated the orthodox political principles of the Washington school.”

John Carter was inducted into The Rhode Island Heritage Hall of Fame in 2000.

For additional information:
Rhode Island’s Founders: From Settlers to Statehood, by Dr. Patrick T. Conley.

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