Dictionary of Virginia Biography


Virginia Randolph Cary (30 January 1786–2 May 1852), writer, was born probably at Tuckahoe, the Goochland County plantation of her parents, Thomas Mann Randolph (1741–1793), a member of the Convention of 1776, and his first wife, Ann Cary Randolph. Her twelve siblings included Mary Randolph Randolph, author of The Virginia House-Wife (1824); Thomas Mann Randolph (1768–1828), who served in the House of Representatives from 1803 until 1807 and as governor of Virginia from 1819 through 1822; Judith Randolph Randolph, who as her husband's executor carried out the manumission and resettlement of more than seventy slaves; and Ann Cary "Nancy" Randolph Morris, who became embroiled in a cause célèbre when accused of adultery with her brother-in-law and infanticide in 1792. After her mother's death in 1789, Virginia Randolph lived with an aunt, but by 1791 she had joined the household of her brother and sister-in-law, Thomas Mann Randolph and Martha Jefferson Randolph, at Monticello and later at Edgehill, both in Albemarle County. Unlike her six elder sisters, who had studied with their brothers' tutors at Tuckahoe, she received no formal education, although she probably studied informally with Martha Jefferson Randolph, who later tutored her own children.

At Monticello on 28 August 1805 Virginia Randolph married her cousin Wilson Jefferson Cary, a Fluvanna County planter, justice of the peace, and leading member of the Episcopal Church. They resided at Carysbrook, in Fluvanna County, with his grandfather Wilson-Miles Cary, a member of the Convention of 1776. Between 1806 and 1823 Virginia Randolph Cary gave birth to two sons and seven daughters, two of the latter of whom died in infancy. Cary's marriage was affectionate but financially troubled. Like many other postrevolutionary Virginia planters, Wilson Jefferson Cary inherited debts, along with land and slaves, from his grandfather. When he died in 1823, his will mandated the sale of his estate to satisfy his creditors. Though named an executor, his widow declined service. After several land sales between 1831 and 1833, Virginia Cary and her surviving children received a maintenance from a portion of the proceeds, most of which went to repay debts.

In November 1831, during antislavery debates following Nat Turner's Rebellion and at the urging of her neighbor John Hartwell Cocke (1780–1866), Cary drafted a memorial in behalf of the women of Fluvanna County calling for the gradual abolition of slavery in Virginia. The petition was neither circulated for signatures nor submitted to the General Assembly. Instead, it appeared in such periodicals as the African Repository, and Colonial Journal and Niles' Weekly Register.

During her widowhood's difficult early years Cary began writing for publication. In 1826 Carysbrook burned, and, though the house was nearly rebuilt by 1828, rheumatism and excessive opium use had debilitated its mistress. In this period Cary produced three of the four major works with which she is credited: Letters on Female Character, Addressed to a Young Lady, on the Death of Her Mother (1828), the first advice book written by a southern woman for the women of her region; Mutius: An Historical Sketch of the Fourth Century (1828), a didactic novel published by the American Sunday School Union; and Christian Parent's Assistant, or Tales, for the Moral and Religious Instruction of Youth (1829), which she addressed to the "Mothers of America."

Cary's first and best-known work, Letters on Female Character, foreshadows the patriarchal ideology of antebellum white southerners. Perhaps reflecting on her own wretched and unprotected state, Cary idealized the authority of benevolent men and cited both Scripture and the laws of nature to argue that women must be subordinate to men both at home and in society. She warned that women's attempts to equal or surpass men in power or knowledge would jeopardize the nation's virtue and happiness, although she conceded that the "partial illumination" of women's minds could make them better wives and mothers.

Cary hoped to "see women highly cultivated in mind and morals, and yet content to remain within…the family circle." This domestic ideal presumably shaped her objectives as an educator, an occupation she first pursued in 1832, when she and her younger children moved to Norfolk to live with her sister Harriet Randolph Hackley, who operated a successful school for young women there. Inspired by Hackley's example, Cary in 1833 opened her own school in Norfolk, where, despite her earlier criticism of women's public ambitions, she plunged into religious and benevolent activities.

By April 1835 Cary had left Norfolk for Fairfax County, where she opened a school in partnership with a brother of Orlando Fairfax, who had married her daughter Mary Randolph Cary. She probably spent her remaining years in the Fairfaxes' home in Alexandria and visiting her other children, who settled in Maryland, New York, and Washington, D.C. Cary contributed poetry and short stories to various publications. She also published another novel, Ruth Churchill; or, The True Protestant: A Tale for the Times (1851), which urged Episcopalians to experience religious conversion, as had she herself. Like her earlier novel Mutius, this work appeared under the pseudonym "A Lady of Virginia."

Cary's life illustrates the significant and sometimes contradictory implications of the postrevolutionary decline of the gentry for Virginia women. At her nadir, Cary accepted the notion of women's powerlessness and became an early, active participant in constructing southern patriarchy. Yet Cary was also among the earliest southern women to write extensively for publication. Her activities as a writer and educator generated income and made her a public figure, belying the image of the submissive and dependent southern lady that her best-known work promoted. Virginia Randolph Cary died at her daughter's house in Alexandria on 2 May 1852 and was buried in the cemetery of Saint Paul's Episcopal Church in that city.


Sources Consulted:
Birth and marriage dates in Cary-Page-Randolph family Bible records, Accession 31593, Library of Virginia; Albemarle Co. Record of Marriage Bonds, 1:275 (bond dated 27 Aug. 1805); Richmond Enquirer, 3 Sept. 1805 (variant marriage date of 25 Aug. 1805); Cary correspondence in Carr-Cary Family Papers, Cocke Family Papers (1725–1939), Cocke Family Papers (1800–1871), and William Cabell Rives Papers, all Small Special Collections Library, University of Virginia, Charlottesville, and at Virginia Historical Society, Richmond; other documentation in Smith Family Papers, American Philosophical Society, Philadelphia, and Edwin Morris Betts and James Adam Bear Jr., eds., The Family Letters of Thomas Jefferson (1966); husband's will, estate inventory, and sale in Fluvanna Co. Will Book, 3:6–7, 9–12, and Fluvanna Co. Deed Book, 10:105, 290–291, 346–347, 351–352; Cary, Letters on Female Character, Addressed to a Young Lady, on the Death of Her Mother (1828), quotations on v, 149; African Repository, and Colonial Journal 7 (1831): 310–312; Niles' Weekly Register 41 (1831): 273; Alexandria Gazette, 14 Apr. 1835; Cynthia A. Kierner, "'The dark and dense cloud perpetually lowering over us': Gender and the Decline of the Gentry in Postrevolutionary Virginia," Journal of the Early Republic 20 (2000): 185–217; Patrick H. Breen, ed., "The Female Antislavery Petition Campaign of 1831–32," Virginia Magazine of History and Biography 110 (2002): 377–398; Virginius Cornick Hall Jr., Portraits in the Collection of the Virginia Historical Society: A Catalogue (1981), 46 (portrait); obituaries in Washington Daily National Intelligencer, 7 May 1852, and Alexandria Gazette, 8 May 1852.


Written for the Dictionary of Virginia Biography by Cynthia A. Kierner.

How to cite this page:
Cynthia A. Kierner,"Virginia Randolph Cary (1786–1852)," Dictionary of Virginia Biography, Library of Virginia (1998– ), published 2006 (http://www.lva.virginia.gov/public/dvb/bio.asp?b=Cary_Virginia_Randolph, accessed [today's date]).


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