HARDING, THOMAS, tanner, politician, and justice of the peace; b. c. 1786 in Saint John, N.B., fifth son of Captain William Harding and Leah——; m. 15 Oct. 1808 Mary Johnson, and they had seven sons, two of whom became doctors, and four daughters; d. 7 April 1854 in Saint John.
Thomas Harding’s father, a loyalist, arrived in Parrtown (Saint John) in 1783 and became a respected sea captain in the city’s merchant marine. As a young man, Thomas was apprenticed to a Saint John tanner, and enrolled as a freeman tanner of the city in 1808. He subsequently established his own tannery, which he operated until mid century. Although he owned the largest tannery in the city, and by the early 1840s was employing steam engines in his enterprise, the firm remained a craft-oriented operation. In the late 1840s he most probably had a dozen journeymen and apprentices, including his second son, Thomas.
Harding was one of a small group of religious evangelicals, mostly from non-conformist traditions, who came to dominate the civic life of mid-19th-century Saint John. In 1805 his younger brother, George, had brought Edward Manning to Saint John, the first white Baptist preacher to visit the town [see David George*]. As a result of the services he held, several members of the Harding family were converted to his New Light–Baptist faith. The rest of the family (including Thomas) were baptized a short time later by another Baptist visitor, Joseph Crandall. Thomas became not only a leading Baptist layman, in a community in which Baptists were a scorned minority into the 1840s, but also a prominent supporter of more broadly based evangelical organizations such as the British and Foreign Bible Society and the Saint John Total Abstinence Society.
Another factor which shaped the perceptions of the young Harding was the district of the city in which he lived. Dukes and Sydney wards comprised the southern half of the main peninsula of Saint John. Its centre was the Lower Cove, inhabited by tradesmen, labourers, and soldiers, an area which had provided the popular opposition to the pretensions of the loyalist aristocracy in the famous contested election of 1785 [see Elias Hardy*].
Harding’s initiation into public life came with his election as assistant alderman for Dukes Ward in 1815. He was returned to that office the following year and in 1817 successfully contested the aldermanic seat. Between 1817 and 1851 he was elected alderman 30 times, in most cases by acclamation. In an age of tumultuous open elections and sometimes violent civic politics, Harding proved himself to be a successful political campaigner. In 1851 the lieutenant governor, Sir Edmund Walker Head*, agreed to surrender to the Common Council his prerogative of naming the city’s mayor, and Harding was unanimously elected to that office by the Saint John council. In his acceptance speech, he announced that he planned to serve for only one term. He retired from public life in 1852.
As one of the city’s six aldermen, Harding held a commission as a justice of the peace and sat as a magistrate on both the Inferior Court of Common Pleas and the county Court of Quarter Sessions. As a function of their civic and judicial offices, the aldermen also controlled the appointment of most parish officers in the city and county. In addition, through the committees of council, the aldermen personally directed virtually every aspect of municipal life, frequently negotiating agreements and contracts, supervising the construction of public works, and employing both casual and contract labour. Harding’s seniority after 1830 gave him a place on the principal committees, notably those concerned with finance and public safety.
Harding spoke for the tradocracy (tradesmen and retailers) and the religious dissenters, two influential but unprivileged groups in Saint John society. His responses to a number of issues which accompanied the urban expansion of the 1830s and 1840s provide an insight into the perception of the imperial system held by this middling, second generation, religious dissenter of colonial American origins. Harding was convinced that the constitutional settlement made in the royal charter granted to Saint John in 1785 provided the commonalty of the city with the best possible government. On any issue involving the prerogative rights of the Common Council, he remained a stalwart defender of the council’s position. Most of his other political positions flowed from this one. He particularly feared the centralizing tendencies of the lieutenant governor and the Executive Council, the pretensions of the official elements, and the demands of the great commercial interests for the protection which broader executive powers and stronger provincial institutions could provide. These prejudices led him both to oppose the efforts of Saint John’s leading timber interests to obtain control of the city’s largest potential power source, and to resist strongly the bid by John Robertson*, one of the province’s major merchants, to obtain long-term leases at unusually low rents on a substantial part of the city’s land bordering the harbour.
The principal struggle of Harding’s career followed the great fire of 19 Aug. 1839 when the provincial legislature, at the instigation of Lieutenant Governor Sir John Harvey, passed a bill to widen the streets through the burnt-out district. The cost of expropriating the required land from the city’s largest landowners was to be borne by the citizenry at large. Led by Harding and Gregory Van Horne, a group of councillors met this challenge to the city’s autonomy with a petition to the crown. They were opposed in their resolve by the mayor, Robert Fraser Hazen, and the city recorder, William Boyd Kinnear*, both crown appointees. In the ensuing struggle the dissidents, who were a majority on the council, took control over the mayor’s objections, put their resolution through, and went on to attack the recorder for his support of Harvey’s position. At the height of the debate, Harding placed his right arm on the council table and declared his willingness to cut it off before surrendering any of the city’s prerogative rights. An irate Harvey at first berated the aldermen, and then agreed to forward their petition to London accompanied by his objections. The British government subsequently overturned the provincial legislation.
It is not surprising that Harding opposed any attempt to modify the city charter despite the changing urban conditions of the mid 19th century. Most of the proposed changes involved efforts on the part of the provincial government and the city’s merchant community to restrict the franchise, increase the property qualifications for the office of alderman, and create a permanent civil service to replace the tradition of public administrators who volunteered or were co-opted in return for fees. Harding was also a leading opponent of the efforts made by the House of Assembly to deprive the Common Council of its judicial authority through the creation of a stipendiary magistracy responsible for the administration of justice and the maintenance of order within the city [see Benjamin Lester Peters].
Harding’s position on these issues led both tones and advanced reformers to view him as a parochial figure concerned only with ward politics and with the influence which derived from his aldermanic position. Inevitably, his concerns focused on his ward where his political authority rested on a complex system of formal and informal patronage which had developed over the years. But much of this criticism emerged from his willingness to use public money to meet human needs in the city and from his tendency to accept the wishes of the “mob.” In periods of economic recession, for example, Harding was always willing to use large numbers of unemployed labourers for public works. In the main he was an able and effective civic leader. He was involved with committee meetings, the supervision of public works of all kinds, the negotiation of contracts, dealing with miscreants, personal supervision of police, and fortnightly court sittings, and to these civic duties he devoted hundreds of hours every year.
[There are no secondary sources dealing with Thomas Harding apart from brief references to his mayoralty found in several studies of the city of Saint John, N.B. The best sources for his activities are the minutes and supporting papers of the Common Council of Saint John; the former are found in the City Clerk’s Office, the latter in PANB, RG 18, RS427. Of particular value are the minutes for 15 Nov. 1836; 14 Oct., 7, 21 Nov. 1839; 9 Feb., 3 Oct. 1843; 10 Jan. 1844; 26 Feb. 1845; 19 May 1847; and 29 Jan. 1849. t.w.a.]
Morning News (Saint John), 10 April 1854. New-Brunswick Courier, 10 May 1851. Saint John Chronicle and Colonial Conservative, 14 April 1854. Biographical review: this volume contains biographical sketches of leading citizens of the province of New Brunswick, ed. I. A. Jack (Boston, 1900), 112–14. I. E. Bill, The Baptists of Saint John, N.B.; two sermons on the rise and progress of the Baptist church in Saint John, New Brunswick (Saint John, 1863), 5. MacNutt, New Brunswick.