Peter Carr

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Peter Carr (January 2, 1770 – February 17, 1815), was born in Goochland County to Dabney Carr, Sr. (1743 – 1773) and Martha Jefferson Carr.[1] He was the older brother of Dabney Carr, and the nephew of Thomas Jefferson.

Peter had a close relationship with his uncle throughout his life. Jefferson provided Carr's early education and prepared him for his studies at William & Mary, where he studied from 1786 through 1789. While at the school, Carr was a private student of George Wythe.

In addition to studying under Wythe, Carr also attended the professor's lectures on law.[2] Carr’s opinions on Wythe echoed that of his uncle; In Carr's words, Jefferson's "sentiments with regard to Mr. Wythe, and the attention which ought to be paid to his precepts perfectly coincide with mine."[3] Despite Carr's skepticism over the value of an antiquated mode of education, he respected Wythe's judgment and "attended to those things which he advised, and [took] his counsel whenever [he] had doubts."[4] Carr noted that Wythe's teaching went beyond standard academic subjects, adding "advice and lessons of morality, which are not only pleasing and instructive now, but will be (I hope) of real utility in future."[5] Carr defended Wythe’s character against those who claimed that he had no religion, stating that he "fulfills the great command, Do unto all men as thou wouldst they should do unto thee."[6] From Carr's glowing words, it seems likely that he valued his education under Wythe in a manner similar to his uncle, who hoped that his nephew would "find [it] to have been one of the most fortunate events of [his] life, as I have ever been sensible it was of mine."[7]

Carr continued the study of law in 1790 under the guidance of his uncle. He was admitted to the bar in 1793 and engaged in a short-lived practice of the law. Although he inherited slaves and land in 1794, he lived at Monticello until 1796. Carr married Esther Smith Stevenson in 1797 and settled down at the Carrsbrook estate in Albemarle County in 1798.

Carr was a lifelong Jeffersonian Republican. Although he was unsuccessful in his first bid for election to the Virginia House of Delegates, he won election in 1801, 1802, 1803, and 1807. Although Carr was a member of the majority party, his personality may have alienated the voters as "[a] supporter . . . urged Carr to display less pride and more familiarity with the voters."[8] One historian notes that "[d]espite his widely acknowledged gifts, Carr failed to realize Jefferson's hopes for a distinguished legal or political career, at least in part because of the self-indulgence, corpulence, and 'extreme indolence' of which he stood accused in an otherwise affectionate memoir by a much younger cousin."[9]

In 1814, Carr joined in the defense of Richmond from the British. He never saw battle and returned to his estate. On February 17, 1815, Carr died at Carrsbrook, shortly after he had written his uncle about his various illnesses. It is likely that he was buried at Monticello.

After death, Carr's most enduring legacy was that of scandal. Because of his closeness to Thomas Jefferson and his time living at Monticello, he was believed to have been the father of Sally Hemings' children. In an 1868 letter, Ellen Wayles Randolph Coolidge states that "Col. Randolph informed [her] that Sally Henings [sic] the mistress of Peter, and her sister Betsey the mistress of Samuel — and from these connections sprang the progeny which resembled Mr. Jefferson."[10] The publication of Annette Gordon-Reed’s work on Sally Hemings and her children in 1997[11] and a 1998 DNA analysis confirmed suspicions that Jefferson fathered the Hemings children and dispelled the long-held belief of Carr's responsibility.[12]

See also


  1. J. Jefferson Looney, "Carr, Peter" in Dictionary of Virginia Biography, ed. Sara B. Bearss (Richmond: Library of Virginia, 2006), 3:29. All other biographical information derived from this source unless otherwise noted.
  2. Peter Carr to Thomas Jefferson, 30 December 1786, The Papers of Thomas Jefferson.
  3. Peter Carr to Thomas Jefferson, 29 May 1789, The Papers of Thomas Jefferson.
  4. Ibid.
  5. Peter Carr to Thomas Jefferson, 18 April 1787, The Papers of Thomas Jefferson.
  6. Ibid.
  7. Thomas Jefferson to Peter Carr, 10 August 1787, The Papers of Thomas Jefferson.
  8. Looney, "Peter Carr," 29.
  9. Ibid., 30.
  10. Ellen Wayles Randolph Coolidge to Joseph Coolidge, 1 June 1868, Encylopedia Virginia.
  11. Annette Gordon-Reed, Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1997).
  12. Looney, "Carr, Peter," 30.