Carter Glass was born in Lynchburg, Virginia, the fifth of twelve children. His mother, Augusta Elizabeth (née Christian) Glass, died in 1860, when he was only 2 years old and his sister, Nannie, ten years older, was his surrogate mother. His father, Robert Henry Glass, owned the Lynchburg Daily Republican, a newspaper and was also the postmaster of Lynchburg.
The American Civil War (1861-1865) broke out when Carter was 3 years old. His father initially worked to try to help keep Virginia from seceding. However, after the state did so, Robert Henry Glass served, initially in the Virginia forces in 1861, and then with the Confederate Army where he was a major on the staff of Brigadier General John B. Floyd, a former Governor of Virginia. Carter's father survived the Civil War, although 18 of his mother's relatives did not.
In poverty-stricken Virginia during the post-War period, young Carter received only a basic education. He became an apprentice printer to his father when he was 13 years old. Although no longer in school, young Carter continued his education through reading. His father kept an extensive library. Among the works he read were those of Plato, Edmund Burke and William Shakespeare. This would stimulate an intellectual interest in Glass which would be life-long. His formative years as Virginia struggled to resolve a large pre-War debt were to help mold his conservative fiscal thinking, much as it did others of Virginia's political leaders of his era.
When Carter Glass was 19 years old, he moved with his father to Petersburg. However, when he failed to obtain a desired job as a newspaper reporter in Petersburg, he returned to Lynchburg, where he went to work for former Confederate General William Mahone's Atlantic, Mississippi and Ohio Railroad (AM&O) at the company headquarters. Glass became a clerk in the auditor's office at the railroad, which was in receivership, from 1877 to 1880. Several years later, under new owners, the railroad was to become the Norfolk and Western (N&W), with headquarters relocated to Roanoke. However, by then, Glass had returned to work in the newspaper industry.
At the age of 22, he finally became a reporter, a job he had long sought, for the Lynchburg News. He rose to become the newspaper's editor by 1887. The following year, the publisher retired and offered Glass the first option to purchase the business. Desperate to find financial backing, Glass received the unexpected assistance of a relative who loaned Glass enough to make a down payment of $100 on the $13,000 deal, and Glass became an editor and publisher.. Free to publish whatever he wished, Glass wrote bold editorials and encouraged tougher reporting, and the morning paper had increased sales. Soon, Glass was able to acquire the afternoon Daily Advance, to buy out the competing Daily Republican and to become the only newspaper publisher in Lynchburg. The modern-day Lynchburg News and Advance is the successor publication to his newspapers.
Martin had been widely regarded as the head of Virginia's Democratic Party, a role filled during the 1920s by Harry Flood Byrd of Winchester, another Virginia newspaperman who shared many of Glass' political views and headed the political machine known as the Byrd Organization which dominated Virginia's politics until the 1960s. In 1933, Byrd became Virginia's junior Senator, joining Glass in the Senate after former Governor and then-senior U.S. Senator Claude A. Swanson was appointed as U.S. Secretary of the Navy by President Franklin Roosevelt. Both Glass and Byrd were opposed to Roosevelt's New Deal policies. Each was a strong supporter of fiscal conservatism and state's rights while representing Virginia in Congress. Glass and Byrd invoked senatorial courtesy to defeat Roosevelt's nomination of Floyd H. Roberts to a federal judgeship, as part of a greater conflict over control of federal patronage in Virginia.
Carter Glass served in the U.S. Senate for the remainder of his life, turning down the offer appointment as Secretary of the Treasury from President Roosevelt in 1933. When the Democrats regained control of the Senate in 1933, Glass became Chairman of the Appropriations Committee He was President pro tempore from 1941 to 1945. As a Senator, Glass's most notable achievement was passage of the Glass-Steagall Act, which separated the activities of banks and securities brokers and created FDIC insurance.
"Montview", also known as the "Carter Glass Mansion", was built in 1923 on his farm, which was then outside Lynchburg in Campbell County. It is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and now serves as an administration building on the grounds of Liberty University within the expanded city limits of Lynchburg, an independent city. The front lawn of "Montview" is the burial site of Dr. Jerry Falwell, founder of Liberty University.
The Virginia Department of Transportation's Carter Glass Memorial Bridge was named in his honor in 1949. It carries the Lynchburg bypass of U.S. Route 29, major north-south highway in the region, across the James River between Lynchburg and Amherst County.