Gen. William G. Harding

Gen. William G. Harding, the eminent agriculturist & breeder of thoroughbred stock, was born 9/15/1808, in a log cabin, still standing on his present celebrated & magnificient Belle Meade estate, six miles from the city of Nashville.  He grew up on that place when the Indians were plentiful in its neighborhood, & it has been his home ever since, except during the six years he engaged in cotton planting on his Stone’s river farm.  Said he, “I am to the manner born,” & alluding to his birthplace he said, “I am a log cabin man.”  And, indeed, he is a splendid illustration of the virtue of the staying power as a factor of success.  He is one of the few men whose personal records appear in this volume, who are now living where they were born, & such men are, as a rule, eminent examples of success in life.

Gen. Harding was educated at the “old field schools” until he was fourteen years old, when he went to the Cumberland College (predecessor of the University of Nashville), under Prof. Philip Lindsley, & there studied two years, displaying the characteristics which foreshadowed his manhood, resolution.  He then said to his father, “I want to go off in search of an education, for I cannot get one here, surrounded, as I am, by clever chums, who do not study & will not permit me to study.”  His father, immersed in a large business, could not give neither time nor though to his son’s request, & not comprehending why he could not get an education nearer home, reluctantly yielded to his request, gave him the funds, & told him to go to any school he might select.  He visited Yale, Harvard, & Princeton, inspecting their methods, & at last found that system, order & studiousness which he was seeking at the American Military Academy, at Middletown, Connecticut, under Capt. Alden Partridge, then having two hundred & fifty students.  He had no acquaintances there, & did not want to find any.  The absence of acquaintances was to his liking, for those he wanted to form slowly & with proper care.  After four years stay, he graduated with the highest honors, having attained the first position in the corps of cadets.  He returned home, to the great gratification of his father and mother, bringing with him as his guest old Capt. Partridge, this being the latter’s first visit to any of the Southern States.  Shortly after their arrival they paid a visit to the “Hero of the Hermitage,” a man whom Capt. Partridge resembled in many respects.  Andrew J. Donelson, the private secretary of President Jackson, was a cadet at West Point when Capt. Partridge was superintendent, prior to his organizing the Military Academy at Middletown.  The course of instruction at this institution combining, as it did, the strict systems & accurate methods of military science, was also coupled with literary advantages & interspersed with the thoroughly practical, & consisted of marches over New York, Pennsylvania & Maryland, laying out roads, perfecting engineering plans, drawing canal locks, building of bridges, acqueducts, etc., & was of immense advantage to the young student who, at the age of sixteen, had the audacity to inspect for himself the merits of the oldest & most famous educational institutions of the country.

In attendence at the military academy with young Harding were ex-Gov. Harry Seymour, of Connecticut; ex-Gov. Horatio Seymour, of New York; Iturbide, son of the Emporor of Mexico; Col. M. H. Sanford, of New York; ex-Gov. Hoge, of North Carolina, & many others equally distinguished in the military & civil service of the nation.  The only certificate of graduation ever given in Capt. Partridge’s own handwriting was to young Harding, & closed with the following words: “I hereby recommend Wm. G. Harding as a scholar, a gentlman & a soldier.”

At the age of twenty Gen. Harding married Miss Selene McNairy, the history of whose family is elsewhere given, & commenced life on a tract of six hundred acres & with forty-five dollars in money.  There he early displayed those traits of energy, close application to business, & systematic & economical methods which have guided him to eminent success as an agriculturist & breeder of fine stock, & given him a rank among the most distinguished farmers & stockmen in the US.  Remaining on his patrimonial inheritance on Stone’s river, engaged in cotton growing, until 1839, he took possession of the Belle Meade estate, then comprising  about fourteen hundred acres of land & one hundred & twenty-five slaves of all ages, & here he has resided till the present time, constantly giving his personal attention to the plantation, & adding adjorning acres to the estate, to make room for the increase of his negroes.  He was opposed, as his father before him had been, to purchasing slaves, & also opposed to trusting his slaves to the charge of an overseer.  Consequently he would never invest in a cotton or sugar plantation, but kept his slaves under his immediate supervision, a course generally thought to be a less profitable method of working slave labor, but by him considered the more humane.  During the civil war his slaves remained faithful to him, & a goodly number remain with him at this writing.  He cares of them in sickness & in health as formerly.  They are a contented, happy set; well fed; well clothed; fat, sleek & merry.  An incident is told illustrative of their affection & the delight with which they welcomed their old master’s return home in 1862, after he had been confined as a political prisoner at Mackinaw.  A number of them met the vehicle in which he was riding a mile from home, took him out of the carriage & carried him , with great exultation, on their shoulders.  On arriving at the front yard he wanted to go immediately to see his wife, but they said, “No; old master, you must go first to see Bob” (Bob Green, the faithful groom of the thoroughbred stock, who had been shot by the Federals on account of his faithfulness to his master’s interest in his absence), where he was carried, & afterwards returned to his family.

Thus, ever since 1839, he has resided on his farm, Belle Meade, conducting, on the most extensive scale, farming operation & the breeding of blooded stock, & the management of labor with intelligent direction, order & rare good judgement.  Particularly has he adhered with great persistence to the rearing of the thoroughbred horse, bringing to bear learning & research, & backing these with great outlay of funds in his breeding & development; and, although he has oftentimes seen his noble products below the price of mules, he has continued to preserve in this branch of animal industry, clining with tenacity of purpose to his first love, until now, in his declining years, he enjoys the proud satisfaction of knowing that his blood horse stock has a reputation for excellence second to none in either the old world or the new.  This face is attested by the representatives of the French government in their report on the horses of America to their government.  Such is the result of firm resolution, integrity, fair dealing, & a calm, cool judgement.  The time was when he chased foxes, having only an old fashioned “bit” to his name, but he held to that as a nest egg, & rode without a girth to his saddle until he had a few lambs old enough for sale, when he gave the “bit” to his wife to buy bluings with, & helped the butchers drive the lambs to Nashville.

A commendable pride of character has ever been Gen. Harding’s guiding star; but he was never proud in the worldly sense of looking down on any body.  He esteems men in every condition of life for their cleverness & goodness of heart & integrity, rather than for great intellect without those noble traits.  He is given to large, descriminating charity, of which he has been his own dispenser, never trusting to committees.  He is ever ready to assist the industrious of both sexes, but never gives to the drone.  He is noted for his generous & elegant hospitality, & at his palatial residence he has entertained nearly every man of prominence that lives in or has visited this section of the US.

Gen. William H. Jackson, his son-in-law, who has lived with him now sixteen years, says of Gen. Harding: “In his course of conduct & bearing towards his fellow-men he has fulfilled literally the golden rule, more so than any man I have seen, either in or out of the church.  As illustrating the difference, I have known him, at a public auction of his colts, to direct the auctioneer to knock the colt off when he had reached a certain price, remarking that that was price enough for any yearling colt; &, again, when a young man, representing a city firm, offered him one dollar & fifty cents per bushel for his wheat, he remarked, ‘Young man, I am afraid you are not a judge of wheat after inspecting it.  This wheat is not of sufficiently good quality for that price, & you may have it for one dollar & twenty-give cents,’ a beautiful commentary upon the grasping, sordid times in which we live.  This action on Gen. Harding’s part was but natural, when we consider the early association of his life.  He grew up in an age when confidence between man & man was almost universal, the note or bond never required; when good & neighborly feeling was the rule; when neighbor helped neighbor to shuck his corn, roll logs, clear new ground & raise his cabin; when the incarcertation of a single prisoner in the log jail at Nashville produced a great ripple of excitement in the public mind, & when honesty & fair dealing were the rule with scarcely an exception.  He attained the age of fifty years before he believed there was a man in the world who would look him in the face & tell him a lie – a beautiful confidence in his fellow-man, illustrative of the purity & simlicity of his own life.  I believe he would suffer death rather than sacrifice a friend or betray a trust confided to him.”

All who read the foregoing estimate of Gen. Harding’s character by one fully competent to speak, will recognize it as a true picture of a truly noble Tennessean.  Such integrity of life could not help producing like effect on those surrounding him.  During the war his negroes buried a barrell of solid silverware that had been awarded him at fairs as premiums, & when the danger was over unearthed the treasure & brought it home, every piece of it.

Gen. Harding had lived as he was born, a “dyed in the wool” Democrat of the Old Hickory school.  When Tennessee suceded he was appointed a member of the State Military Board, which expended five million dollars in the equipment of the Tennessee soldiery of all arms for the Confederate service.  He had no other connection with the war, having been taken prisoner in April, 1862, & released on his parole of honor, which he observed most sacredly until the end of the war.  His title came from being elected brigadier-general of milita, about 1838.

Though a leading turfman forty years or more, enjoying the confience, esteem & high regard of every man of his aquaintance who ever dealt in thoroughbred horses, yet he has been absolutely free from any of the vices attendant upon the race course.  He has never wagered a cent on any race, but has at all times taken a broad view of the high & important mission of the thoroughbred horse, which is to improve all of the equine race; & believes that his chief mission is not, as many suppose, to contribute to the amusement & pleasure of the public on the race-course, but subscribing to the idea that without the theater the world would never have known those distinguished delineators of human character in all its phases, so without the race-course – the theater of action & competition of the thoroughbred horse – the intelligent breeders of this animal would never have discovered the most valuable strains of blood to propagate.

Gen. Harding has also been an advanced thinker as an agriculturist, keeping pace with the latest improvements in farming machinery & the most valuable modes for the recuperation & culture of the soil.  Occupying through life prominent positions in the different bureaus of agriculture of the State, he has at all times taken an active interest in all measures tending to build up Tennessee.  He was the first farmer who ever shipped grain from Tennessee to the Charleston market; the first to ship a load of hay to New Orleans; the first to suggest the idea of building the Nashville & Chattanooga Railroad, opposing the expenditure of our money for the building of roads leading North, believing that we should connect with our natural markets of the South, & let the North expend her own money in reaching our southern connections.

Gen. Harding’s father was John Harding, a native of Virginia, who came to Tennessee in 1805, with his father’s family, consisting of two daughters (Sallie, who married a Mr. Page, & Patsey, who married Matthew Johson), & four sons, besides himself, Giles, William, Thomas & David Morris, who all became excellent farmers, & were a hardy pioneer race, who did the first clearing in their respective localities, & were noted for their hospitality & fondness for field sports.  They were all men of the strictest integrity, truth tellers, & fair in their dealings, but firm in contending for their rights.

John Harding married in Davidson County, November, 1806, Miss Susannah Shute, daughter of John Shute, a farmer from the vicinity of Carlisle, Pennsylvania, & of German extraction.  To this marriage were born Amanda (who married Frank McGavock); William Giles (subject of this sketch), & Elizabeth (who married Joseph Clay).  Gen. Harding’s father died in Sept., 1865, at the age of 87; his mother died Sept 12, 1845, at the age of 60.  From a brief biographical sketch of John Harding in the History of Davidson County, it appears that he was a warm friend of education, a member of the Christian Church, a prosperous farmer & stock raiser, a large land & slaveholder, & a man of energy, industry & versatility of talents.  He purchased the Belle Meade place & built the log cabin in which his distinguished son, the subject of this sketch, was born.  No man in this country ever made for himself so high a reputation as a hard & constant worker.  Gen. Harding relates of his father that he was the only man, as the imported horse “Priam” was the only horse, whom he never saw resting, alternately, on either leg.  No one ever saw him in any position except standing erect or sitting erect.  On this remark being repeated to the late venerable Dr. W. K. Bowling, he quietly replied: “Gen. Harding might have said he never saw his father standing on one foot or two, for he was always going.”  He never took a rocking chair or lounge up to the age of seventy.  He was a tall man, six feet high, & of very gentle presence, mild in expression, careful of speech, never going above the mark in assertion.  His motto was, “If you had tried a little harder, don’t you think you could have got a little further?”  He was possessed of indomitable will, & had an iron constitution.  At the age of seventy, at one end of a cross-cut saw & the best negro man of two hundred & fifty pounds that he owned at the other, he would go through the toughest tree of five feet in diameter without stopping to blow.  At the age of seventy, having cleared up three farms in Tennessee & one in Louisiana, he proceeded to Arkansas with eight hands, & at that advanced age, cleared & put in successful operation a magnificent cotton plantation, near Plum Point Bend, which he gave to his grandson John McGavock, & for which he was offered & refused one hundred & fifty thousand dollars in gold.  In 1860 he returned to Nashville, & lived in his city home, bewildered in his old age by the war.  He could never be made to understand how people could take things which did not belong to them.  He devoted his old age to the Christian Church, of which he was an honored member, & for many years was its prominent support.  His name, wherever known, was the synonym of honorable & upright conduct.  Such was John Harding, a factor in the early development of Middle Tennessee, & of more than one of its leading industries.  He left his sturdy, vigorous personality impressed upon the memories of thousands of his survivors, & is therefore a Tennessee historic character, more important than hundreds of noisy politicians, his contemporaries, who died & left neither sign nor name.

The mother of Gen. Harding was likewise a person of strong character, a lady of marked individuality, exceptionally kind & benevolent, & of proverbial candor.  It is reported of her that she would not, out of mere formal courtesy, invite any one to visit her whom she did not want to see again, so great was her devotion to truth.  It is easy to see that these virtues of the old family back of Gen. Harding, formed in him a character which is but a reproduction of their own.

Gen. Harding first married in Nashville, November 17, 1829, Miss Selene McNairy, daughter of Nathaniel McNairy, & niece of Dr. Boyd McNairy & Judge John McNairy, of a prominent North Carolina family of Scotch origin.  The county of McNairy in Tennessee was named for Judge McNairy.  Mrs. Harding’s sister, Amanda, is now the widow of James Porter, a merchant of prominence at Nashville, & is a lady remarkable as a business woman & manager of finance.  Her youngest sister, Kittie, married John Kirkman, now president of the American Nation Bank of Nashville.  Her mother was Catharine Hobson, of a Virginia family, sister of Nicholas Hobson, noted for his sterling integrity & success as a banker; a man who enjoyed the unlimited confidence of the community; a man of simplicity of character, truthfulness, & kindness of heart.  Mrs. Harding was educated the old Nashville Female Academy, & was a lady of domestic & economical habits, & a member of the Christian Church.  She died in 1836, at the age of twenty-four, having borne two children: (1) John, a graduate of the North Carolina University at Chapel Hill; married first Miss Sophia Merritt, daughter of Embry Merritt, of Lawrenceville, Virginia.  She died a few years after the marriage, leaving one child, Sophia Harding, now the wife of Granville S. Johnson, & mother of two children, William Harding & Morgiana.  John Harding next married Mrs. Philip Owen, nee Margaret Murphy, of Mississippi, who bore him three children – Selene McNairy, William Giles, & John.  Selen McNiary Harding is now the wife of Prof. Charles P. Curd, of Washington University, St. Louis, author of several educational text-books, & a brilliant man of great promise.  They have one child, Hayden T. William Giles married Miss Bessie Caruthers, of Nashville.  (2) Nathaniel McNairy, Gen. Harding’s second son, died at the age of ten years, his death being caused by a fall from a horse.

Gen. Harding’s second marriage, which occurred at Franklin, Tennessee, January 2, 1840, was with Miss Elizabeth Irwin McGavock, daughter of Randal McGavock, a large landowner & farmer of Williamson county, & a large holder of city property in Nashville, & the first county clerk of Davidson county.  The McGavock’s are of Scotch-Irish descent, & are numerous in Williamson & Davidson counties, & in Virginia.  Her youngest brother, Col. John McGavock, one of the most prominent citizens of Williamson, is a highly educated gentleman, thoroughly posted in the careers of the public men & measures of the government, & having been the private secretary of Hon. Felix Grundy while at Washington, he is regarded as a typical gentleman of the school of those days.  Her mother’s sister was the wife of Felix Grundy, & was the lady to whom Washington society deferred in all matters of taste, etiquette & court manners.  Mrs. Harding’s brother, James R. McGavock, was a fine farmer in Williamson county, possessed of a noble, generous heart, given to large charity & overflowing hospitality; of great sympathy for the struggling masses, the soul of honor, & a general favorite & standard man in his county.  He married his first cousin, Miss Louisa Chenault, of Missouri, a lady of sterling qualities, similar to those of her husband, & their sons & daughters are notable likewise for their liberality & hospitality.  Mary Cloyd McGavock, Mrs. Harding’s sister, married J. J. B. Southall, a nephew of Gov. Branch, of Florida, & lived in princely style at their house, “Rosemont,” three miles from Nashville.  Her striking characteristics were a strong will-power, a very highly cultivated intellect, & the highest order of Christian virtues.  She gave her only son, Randal McGavock Southall, to the Confederacy, saying, “My son, you are all I have to give to the Southern cause,” & placing her hand on his head, added, “Go, with my blessing.”  Mrs. Harding’s mother was Miss Sarah Dougherty Rogers, daughter of John Rogers & Margaret M. Dougherty.  Her father was a descendent of John Rogers, the Protestant martyr.

By his marriage with Miss McGavock, Gen. Harding has two children: (1) Selene, born April 5, 1846, at Belle Meade, where her father & her own children were born.  She was educated at the Nashville Female Academy under Rev. C. D. Elliott until the war broke out, when she was sent to Philadelphia, where she studied a year in Madame Masse’s private French school.  She married December 15, 1868, Gen. William H. Jackson, a planter of West Tennesee, whose sketch appears elsewhere in this volume, & has three children, Eunice, William Harding & Selene Harding.  (2) Mary Elizabeth, born February 5, 1850, at Belle Meade, educated at Nashville, under Rev. Philip Fall; married Judge Howell E. Jackson, present United States Senator from Tennessee, & has three children, Bessie, Louise, & Harding Alexander.  She Judge Jackson’s sketch elsewhere in this volume.  Thus surrounded by his children & his grandchildren, & living upon the goodly inheritance bequeathed him by his father, Gen. Harding has wisely made himself his own executor, & disposed of his large estate among his heirs to their entire satisfaction, & is passing the evening of his life in happiness unalloyed, undisturbed by the cares of business or distress of mind caused by the bad conduct of any of his descendants, & is free from the petulance & little foibles & weaknesses so often attendant upon old age.  His life is gradually passing out smoothly, serenely & quietly, with the consciousness of years well & usefully spent, without a wrong inflicted on his fellow man.

Gen. Harding professed religion under the preaching of Rev. Sam Jones, in May, 1885, & immediately therafter connected himself with the Christian Church in Nashville, being received into the same by Rev. R. Linn Cave, its pastor.

Bio courtesy the book ” Sketches of Prominent Tennesseans by William S. Spear”.  This one was the first sketch.

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One thought on “Gen. William G. Harding

  1. I was just reading site claiming you can heard weird noises in Belle Meade. They wonder if it’s the ghost going to check up on daughter who was sickly & died as infant.

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