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HART, MOSES, businessman and seigneur; b. 26 Nov. 1768 in Trois-Rivières, Que., eldest son of Aaron Hart* and Dorothea Judah; d. there 15 Oct. 1852.
Moses Hart lived just short of 84 years and participated in nearly all the fields of activity of his time, often with extravagance and, except for politics, almost always with success. He was first and foremost a businessman, and in this respect was able to benefit from the valuable experience of his father. In 1786 Aaron Hart, who was closely tied to Trois-Rivières, entrusted him to the care of his brother Henry, a merchant at Albany, N.Y. Moses soon decided to push on to New York City, where he quickly exhausted his money in the social round and in “lavish tips to hotel barmen.” According to the diary he kept at his father’s request, he learned as much about life as about business. Nevertheless he made some useful contacts which he maintained throughout his life.
When he returned to Quebec, Hart took his first initiatives at Nicolet, which he was pleased to call Hartville. However, it was at William Henry (Sorel)that his career began in earnest. In this strategic post located at the start of the road to New York – in times past, the commercial fief of Samuel Jacobs* – he ran a general store. His trade was with England as well as with the United States. He remained there for nearly a decade, until his father’s death in 1800. That year he returned to Trois-Rivières to take up residence. Before doing so he had travelled a great deal, particularly in the United States, and had gone at least once to Europe, in 1792.
Undoubtedly prompted by his father, Hart had taken repeated steps to be granted land in the region of William Henry, following in this the example of the many loyalists who had settled there. On 10 May 1795 he received a negative reply: the lands sought were reserved “for Emigrants from Europe.” Hart was disappointed but tenacious. He refused to accept being treated differently from the newcomers, and at that time conceived the notion of getting himself elected to the House of Assembly. In 1796 he issued an appeal to the voters in William Henry. His father was worried and tried to get him to change his mind: “what I do not like is that you will be opposed as a Jew” and the cost of staying at Quebec had to be considered. Whatever transpired in this instance, Hart never gave up his desire for a political career. In 1809 he attempted to succeed his brother Ezekiel* in the riding of Trois-Rivières but had to concede the election to Mathew Bell* and Joseph Badeaux*. He ran again in Saint-Maurice in 1819 and in Upper Town, Quebec, the following year. Finally, at the age of 75, he made a new attempt in Trois-Rivières against Edward Grieve, and then another in Nicolet against Antoine-Prospère Méthot; both times he was beaten and contested the election of his opponents.
Having failed to get elected, Hart tried to secure appointment to the Executive and Legislative councils. Hence his numerous letters to political leaders such as Louis-Hippolyte La Fontaine* and to governors such as Sir Charles Theophilus Metcalfe*, to whom he wrote on 6 Dec. 1843: “I am the oldest English Canadian in Canada and the largest landholder in this district [Trois-Rivières].”
Looking beyond honours, Hart aspired to bring about numerous reforms. He found a number of laws intolerable, and in his letters often took exception to a “wretched Code of Civil justice made up of a medley of the worst parts of the french edicts” or to a house of assembly with 50 members, four-fifths of them French Canadians “led by lawyers [who] have on occasion evinced strong symptoms of illeberality, and mischief, [being] inimical to change and english customs.” If French laws sometimes revolted him, Hart was equally critical of the place of the French language in public affairs.
Year after year, his letters to various correspondents included precise details about possible reforms, and he even drafted a code of laws. He also worked out a proposal for a penitentiary, preparing a budget to cover construction and operational costs and an outline of regulations. He sometimes proposed the reduction of certain punishments (for example, in cases involving rape), suggested the appointment of “several English magistrates,” and denounced legal costs he thought too high. His innumerable grievances against the legal system in general did not, however, prevent him from making extensive use of the courts. A partial list established for the period 1799–1824 shows that judicial decisions were pronounced every year for cases in which he was concerned. In 1822 and 1823 he obtained at least 28 different judgements against people of various origins and professions, even including members of his own family.
Hart was a difficult man to do business with. The same held true in personal and family matters. In 1799 he married his cousin Sarah after a stormy courtship punctuated by squabbles with her father, Uriah Judah. Three children, Areli Blake, Orobio, and Louisa Howard, were born of their rather fragile union. In 1807 Sarah went back to her parents’ home and obtained a monthly pension of £4 3s. 0d. After getting Hart to agree to drive out his “two women,” she returned to him and remained for about five years. But in 1814 she again denounced his conduct and dissolute life, and in the end obtained on 15 March 1816 an annual pension of £300.
Hart had an astonishing number of fairly short affairs. He would finish his days with Mary McCarthy (the widow of one Peter Brown), who, along with some of his legitimate and illegitimate children, was to inherit part of his assets. Hart already had at various times acknowledged and even lent assistance to a number of his other illegitimate children.
Profoundly affected by his matrimonial rebuffs and influenced by his reading of foreign philosophers, Hart began writing discourses – as yet unpublished – in which he attacked the Catholic faith, and then finally proposed a new religion. In 1815 he had a 60-page pamphlet entitled General universal religion printed in New York; he took up his treatise again in 1824 under the title Modern religion. He made use of his business connections to circulate his texts and his ideas, and on occasion made himself available to give lectures to promote his religion which, he said, was relevant to both Jews and deists. He also kept up a correspondence with American deists, among them William Carver.
From 1825 or 1826 Hart seems to have recovered a degree of equanimity in his personal life. No doubt having Mary McCarthy by his side was a factor. From then on he concentrated on his numerous concerns and took a greater interest in political questions than in religious ones.
Paradoxically, at the same time as he denounced Christianity he agreed to help many religious institutions. The Ursulines of Trois-Rivières, as a result of loans he made to them without interest, at one time counted him among their generous benefactors. Hart also financed numerous parishes and made possible the building or restoration of churches, including those of Saint-Michel-d’Yamaska (Yamaska), Saint-Stanislas, William Henry, Saint-Apollinaire, Saint-Charles-des-Grondines, Baie-du-Febvre (Baieville), and Deschaillons.
Hart was beyond doubt eccentric, but he was a shrewd businessman. Between 1795 and 1835 he had dealings with 21 large English firms (12 in London, 4 in Liverpool, and the rest in Bristol, Stourbridge, Wolverhampton, Leeds, and Birmingham) and also with a company whose head office was in Glasgow. He traded in a wide range of items. He imported raw sugar, coffee, woollen goods, fabrics, and Jamaica rum, among other things, and he exported mainly potash and grains. Until his father’s death, Hart used the firm of Aaron Hart and Sons as his usual middle man. But after 1800 he established relations with a network of British agents and avoided the agents at Montreal, Quebec, New York, and Halifax. He also frequently used personal friends, and he took advantage of his family ties with his uncle George Joel from 1807 to 1818 and with his cousin Judah Joseph from 1803 to 1834.
Hart was interested in everything, but especially in banks. When the Bank of Montreal was created in 1817, the promoters found only 12 subscribers outside Montreal, two of them at Trois-Rivières: Moses and his brother Ezekiel. Moses’ original investment was £150 and on four occasions in the next year he purchased new shares, for £480, bringing his total to 124 shares. In 1819–20 he purchased at least £520 in shares and from 1828 to 1830 he added several further blocks. When the Quebec Bank was started in 1818, the two brothers were again among the shareholders. Archival records contain numerous notes exchanged from 1824 to 1847 between Moses Hart and Noah Freer, who was its cashier (general manager). In 1824 alone, Freer offered Hart three blocks of shares valued at £950. The Bank of Canada was also founded in 1818, in Montreal, and on 18 June Hart obtained 20 shares for £100. Two months later he acquired another 20 shares, for which he paid £150, and in February 1819 a further 20 shares for £50. In 1820, 1821, and 1823 respectively he bought 15, 30, and 45 additional shares. By 1819 he was also a customer of the bank. When the City Bank opened its subscription register at Montreal in 1833, Hart figured among the shareholders, and he was soon directing part of his business to it, at least from 1835 to 1840. In 1835 Louis-Michel Viger and Jacob De Witt founded the Banque du Peuple, and in January of the following year the partnership agreement was signed by nine French Canadian merchants. Hart transacted business there immediately.
When a bank crisis occurred in the United States in 1837 and many banks suspended payments in cash, the Canadian banks followed suit. Faced with a shortage of ready money, some of the larger merchants reacted by issuing their own currency [see William Molson*]. This was the moment if ever there was one for Hart to realize an old family dream. On 9 May 1839 he requested a licence to operate “a private Bank . . . for the convenience of this town.” He reported that certain notes were already in circulation and gave a brief outline of his financial situation, estimating his real estate at £15,000 and his secured credits at the same amount. There is every indication, however, that the licence was never granted and that the notes were progressively redeemed by the Harts.
Steam navigation fascinated Hart as much as banking. Even during his time in William Henry he had been interested in navigation on the St Lawrence. First a rival of the Molsons of Montreal in the manufacture of beer, he is reputed to have quickly decided to compete with the steamship Accommodation, which they had launched in 1809. Legend has it that by 1810 a steamship christened Hart began to provide a service between Montreal and Quebec. The Hart, although slower than the Accommodation, sailed a straighter course, according to its owner. Contemporary records, however, do not mention this ship. In any case, with steam navigation becoming increasingly important, in 1824 Hart offered to buy from John Molson* the Telegraph, a ship belonging to John Molson and Sons [see William Molson]. Molson considered the proposal absurd, but when Hart insisted, he demanded £2,150 for the boat and its engine and Hart’s agreement to refrain from any activity that would put him in competition with the Molsons! But there were other ships. In May 1833 Hart and John Miller bought for £1,070 the Lady Aylmer, built in the port of Quebec in 1831. Hart made over his shares in the ship, amounting to 50 per cent, on 30 May 1833 to Alexander Thomas Hart, one of his adopted sons. The relations between Alexander and Miller proved difficult, and several differences between the joint owners in 1834 and 1835 brought them before the courts. Hart and his son then acquired another vessel, the steamship Toronto, valued at £2,500. They rented it to interested parties in 1839 and operated the Hart, “a 45-horsepower steamship,” which they built in 1840 and sold by auction on 27 March 1845. The Hart family papers mention more than 50 steamships that were plying the St Lawrence in that period. In partnership with his son Alexander Thomas, for a time “master of the Steamboat Hart,” and with his nephew Ira Craig Hart, Moses remained active in the shipping business and from time to time in shipbuilding.
It was, however, as a landed proprietor that Hart really asserted himself and made a mark. In the early 1820s he owned a good many properties in almost all the townships behind the seigneuries on the south shore of the St Lawrence. More important were the fiefs and seigneuries belonging to him totally or in part. Around Quebec he owned the seigneuries of Grondines, Bélair, and also Gaspé, which was on the south shore behind the seigneury of Tilly. His holdings in the immediate vicinity of Trois-Rivières were obviously the largest: the Sainte-Marguerite and Carufel seigneuries, the “marquisat Du Sablé,” the Vieuxpont fief, and on the south shore the Godefroy, Dutort, and Courval seigneuries. Each of these domains naturally had its own history: one had come to him by inheritance, another had been acquired by auction, another had been seized.
The ambitious side of Hart dreamed of one day acquiring the Chutes Shawinigan, or looked enviously towards the Jesuit estates. The philanthropic side responded to appeals for building a school at Bécancour or agreed to give a piece of land at Rivière-du-Loup (Louiseville) for the construction of an Anglican church. He was ruthless and quarrelsome but he always selected his victims with care. Thus, throughout his life, he kept his distance from Mathew Bell, the other giant who lived in the same small town as he did and who died in 1849 at the age of 80. They seldom had any connection in business or politics; except for the 1809 elections, they appear to have avoided each other carefully.
Evidently Hart was a demon for work and something of an elemental force. A meticulous person, he kept his own accounts and scrupulously filed all documents received, together with copies of his own letters. Despite his stormy existence and his fleeting impulses for religious reform, Hart progressively re-established closer ties with the religion of his forefathers. Occasionally he made donations to the Shearith Israel congregation of Montreal and New York. At his death he was given a Jewish burial.
“Moses was born temperamental, undisciplined,” writes historian Raymond Douville, who has studied the Hart family thoroughly; “he lived unrepentant and did not greatly lament it. If he had curbed his passions more, he might have left a more enduring testimony. But he was one of those who are bent on pleasures that pass away. He has passed away with them.” Surely a severe judgement, and an excessive one. Moses Hart was more complex.
[Moses Hart is the author of a 60-page pamphlet entitled General universal religion, 500 copies of which were printed in New York by Van Winkle and Wiley in 1815 and another 250 copies three years later. Hart reworked his treatise in 1824 and published it as Modern religion, also printed in New York, this time by Johnstone and Van Norden.
The Hart papers in ASTR, 0009, constitute the principal documentary source for this biography. In addition, Raymond Douville wrote two essays, published in Cahiers des Dix, “Les opinions politiques et religieuses de Moses Hart,” 17 (1952): 137–51, and “Années de jeunesse et vie familiale de Moses Hart,” 23 (1958): 195–216, and also devotes a sizeable portion of his Aaron Hart: récit historique (Trois-Rivières, Qué., 1938) to Moses Hart. However, Douville confuses him with his father, especially at pages 98–99 and 140.
In 1966, Denis Vaugeois presented a paper to the SCHÉC on “Les positions religieuses de Moses Hart,” which was published in the Sessions d’études, 33 (1966): 41–46. American historian Jacob Rader Marcus also became interested in Moses Hart in Early American Jewry (2v., Philadelphia, 1951–53) and “The Modern religion of Moses Hart,” Hebrew Union College Annual (Cincinnati, Ohio), 20 (1947): 1–31. Mention must also be made of the important work of David Rome who has published a number of texts relating to the Hart family entitled “On the early Harts” in Canadian Jewish Arch. (Montreal), 15–18 (1980). As numerous studies address the religious ideas of Moses Hart, the present biography, which includes unpublished material in other areas, only touches upon them. d.v.]