Dictionary of Virginia Biography

Elizabeth Jaquelin Ambler Brent Carrington (11 March 1765–15 February 1842), a founder of the Female Humane Association of the City of Richmond, was born in Yorktown and was the daughter of Jaquelin Ambler, a prosperous merchant, and Rebecca Burwell Ambler. During the American Revolution the family moved to Richmond, where her father served on the Council of State and became state treasurer in 1782. On 31 March 1785 she married William Brent, of Stafford County, who died suddenly on 15 June of that year. She married Edward Carrington, a former member of the Confederation Congress, in Richmond on 8 December 1792. She had no children from either marriage and was widowed a second time on 28 October 1810. Her family connections and two marriages tied her closely to many of Virginia's other leading families. Two of her sisters, for instance, married the Richmond attorneys Daniel Call and John Marshall.

Revolutionary War Experiences
Carrington's life epitomized the changes in the lives of elite women in Virginia from the colonial period into the antebellum era. There were no academies for young women in the colony, so her father educated her at home, and she read widely. During the Revolutionary War the family fled Yorktown before the advancing British forces. The separation from her native town was the beginning of a revealing correspondence with her friend Mildred Smith (later Mildred Smith Dudley). Their initial topic was a French officer's seduction and abandonment of their orphaned acquaintance, Rachel Warrington, and the subsequent birth of an illegitimate son. Recognizing the importance of a proper education to help young women distinguish false appearances from true, particularly with respect to men, Ambler and Smith articulated a predominant theme in contemporary novels, the rising literary genre of their generation, that reverberated throughout their adult lives. Years later Carrington began a novel based on Warrington's experience. The introduction and first chapter embodied the author's sympathetic attitude toward the mother and emphasized the necessity for women to be prepared to detect dangers to themselves. Carrington never completed or published the book, to which she gave the title Variety or the vicissitudes of Long life.

A committed Episcopalian, Carrington faithfully sought to keep afloat the Henrico Parish (later Saint John's Episcopal) Church in Richmond during a long period of Anglican decline following the Revolution. Her father and second husband were both parish vestrymen, and she contributed money to the church and attended the occasional services held there during its bleakest years. Carrington abhorred the deism of the postrevolutionary age and in her letters particularly scorned Thomas Paine, author of The Age of Reason.

Female Humane Association
Carrington's belief in female education together with her religious sensibilities and memory of Rachel Warrington undoubtedly led her about 1805 to help found the Female Humane Association of Richmond for the relief of female orphans, probably the first such organization in Virginia. Carrington joined Mary Spear Nicholas, wife of the state's attorney general, Philip Norborne Nicholas, and Jean Moncure Wood, wife of former governor James Wood, in drawing up a constitution and bylaws early in 1808, and in December 1810 they and twenty-seven other association members petitioned the General Assembly for an act of incorporation, passed in January 1811. The statute incorporating the Female Humane Association of the City of Richmond omitted naming any male trustees and therefore granted the association's officers a host of legal rights, including the ability to buy and sell property, enter into contracts, and bring suits in court, that were denied them individually as married women.

Carrington was secretary when the association was incorporated and held the office as late as 1837. After initial success and the erection of an asylum, or orphanage, in 1813, the association suffered hard financial times and during the 1820s was forced to retrench, reduce the number of orphans it cared for, and narrow its objective to the care and education of destitute white girls. In 1828 the association instituted an annual fund-raising fair. Even during its lean years the association saved many orphans from lives of poverty and prostitution and literally provided them with asylum in a world where it was dangerous to lack male protectors. Modest as it was in the beginning, the association represented the entrance of women into a public sphere that had been the exclusive province of men and met an important social need that government had ignored. The association's work has survived through several transmutations. Its modern successor, the Memorial Foundation for Children, dispersed more than $905,000 in 2002 in support of educational and cultural programs.

Early in 1834 Carrington supported the successful efforts of her driver William Caswell, a former slave, to obtain permission to remain in Virginia. Carrington's petition to the General Assembly in his behalf specifically mentioned Caswell's contribution to her work for the association. Elizabeth Jaquelin Ambler Brent Carrington died in Richmond on 15 February 1842 and probably was buried beside her second husband in the churchyard of the city's Saint John's Episcopal Church. A simple announcement of her funeral was all the family issued or expected to appear in print, but the Richmond Enquirer published an unusual and perceptive obituary. Stating that family connections conferred "no small distinction on this lady," the editor went beyond that conventional characterization and recognized Carrington's pivotal leadership in the city: "Her intelligent and cultivated mind; her generous heart; her active and diffusive charity, of which the Female Humane Association of Richmond furnishes one enduring memorial"; and her "practical piety" made her one of Virginia's most "distinguished women."

Sources Consulted:
Biographical information in Carrington letters (birth date in Carrington to Ann Ambler Fisher, 10 Oct. 1796, and first marriage date of 31 Mar. 1785 and death date of William Brent in letter to Mildred Smith, 10 July 1785), and draft novel, n.d., in Elizabeth Jaquelin Ambler Brent Carrington Papers, John D. Rockefeller Jr. Library, Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, Williamsburg, Va. (photocopies and typescript copies in Elizabeth Jaquelin Ambler Brent Carrington Papers at Library of Congress, Washington, D.C., and Virginia Historical Society, Richmond, Va., respectively); some letters excerpted in "An Old Virginia Correspondence," Atlantic Monthly 84 (1899): 535–549; Henrico Co. Marriage Bonds, 26 Mar. 1785, 8 Dec. 1792; variant first marriage date of 26 Mar. 1785 in Richmond Virginia Gazette or the American Advertiser, 9 Apr. 1785; Richmond Virginia Gazette, and General Advertiser, 12 Dec. 1792; Memorial Foundation for Children Records, Accession 26532, Library of Virginia (LVA); Legislative Petitions, Richmond City, n.d. [13 Dec. 1810, 31 Jan. 1834], Accession 36121, LVA; Acts Passed at a General Assembly of the Commonwealth of Virginia…, 1810–1811 sess., 86–87; Catherine Kerrison, "By the Book: Eliza Ambler Brent Carrington and Conduct Literature in Late Eighteenth-Century Virginia," Virginia Magazine of History and Biography 105 (1997): 27–52; death notices in Daily Richmond Whig, 16, 17 Feb. 1842; obituary in Richmond Enquirer, 17 Feb. 1842 (quotations).

Written for the Dictionary of Virginia Biography by Catherine Kerrison.

How to cite this page:
Catherine Kerrison,"Elizabeth Jaquelin Ambler Brent Carrington (1765–1842)," Dictionary of Virginia Biography, Library of Virginia (1998– ), published 2006; rev. 2017 (http://www.lva.virginia.gov/public/dvb/bio.asp?b=Carrington_Elizabeth_Jaquelin_Ambler_Brent, accessed [today's date]).

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