HART, SAMUEL, merchant and politician; b. c. 1747, probably in England; m. c. 1780 Rebecca Byrne of Philadelphia, Pa, and they had four children; d. 3 Oct. 1810 in Preston, N.S.
Samuel Hart’s origins are obscure. Apparently born in England of Jewish stock, he moved to Philadelphia some time prior to the outbreak of the American revolution. During the war he evidently became identified with the tory cause since he arrived at Halifax from New York City about 1785 as part of the general loyalist exodus to Nova Scotia. Operating from premises at the corner of Hollis and George streets purchased for £900, Hart conducted a general import-export business. His newspaper advertisements emphasized the sale of dry goods brought in from London, but entries in the diary of Simeon Perkins, a Liverpool merchant, indicate that Hart engaged in the West Indies trade and handled a virtually unlimited range of commodities. Certain contemporaries, including Perkins and William Forsyth, disapproved of Hart’s allegedly “sharp practices,” but he nevertheless prospered, particularly after war broke out between Britain and revolutionary France in 1793. The bankruptcy of his brother Moses Hart, a London merchant, caused Samuel some distress in the late 1790s because he had guaranteed Moses’s debts. By 1801, however, Samuel had recovered to the extent of being able to pay off all mortgages on his Nova Scotia property. At this point Hart owned urban and rural real estate valued at more than £4,000.
Not content with material success, Samuel Hart aspired to social recognition, even if that required suppression of his Jewish identity. In March 1793 he had himself baptized an Anglican and by 1801 he owned a pew in St George’s Anglican Church in Halifax. He also invested £655 in the purchase of a large country estate, complete with mansion, at Preston, to the northeast of Halifax. There he “spent his summers . . . and entertained elaborately.” By playing host to officers of the British army and navy, Hart and his wife acquired a reputation for being “gay and fashionable people.” To cultivate further his image as a respectable man of property, Hart had his portrait painted during a visit to London in 1795. Moreover, through the use of “ledger influence” directed against his outport debtors, Hart gained entry to the provincial assembly. As the member for Liverpool Township between 1793 and 1799 he predictably allied himself with other Halifax merchants against those rural and allegedly democratic interests led by William Cottnam Tonge*. On one occasion Hart broke with the merchants to support an increase in import duties. It is probable that he did so only because the tax increase was being urged by Lieutenant Governor Sir John Wentworth. All of these efforts secured Hart no more than a precarious degree of acceptance from Halifax’s social élite, however. Significantly, he failed to be named a magistrate or be elected to the executive of the Halifax Commercial Society.
In 1797 Samuel Hart declared in a codicil to his will that “the Blessing of God” appeared to be with him in business. That optimism vanished between 1803 and 1805. A severe slump in Halifax trade deprived Hart of income just at the time when his social ambitions made material abundance essential. He mortgaged his property and desperately began coercing his debtors for immediate payment. Hart should have been able to survive this crisis since Halifax trade had begun to revive by 1807. Unfortunately, however, the pressure of events proved too much for Hart’s mind. In 1809 he was declared legally insane. A year later he died, a pathetic figure who spent the last days of his life chained to the floor of a room in his Preston mansion. His wife, Rebecca, and their three children, two girls and a boy, inherited virtually nothing. Debts overwhelmed the estate’s assets, and ultimately Hart’s creditors were obliged to accept payment of 4s. 10d. on the pound. Samuel Hart’s tragic fate underscored the difficulties facing Jews who aspired to social acceptance in early British North America.
Anglican Church of Canada, Diocese of Nova Scotia Arch. (Halifax), St George’s Anglican Church, Halifax, pew rentals, 17 July 1801 (mfm. at PANS). Halifax County Court of Probate (Halifax), H45 (estate papers of Samuel Hart) (mfm. at PANS). Halifax County Registry of Deeds (Halifax), Deeds, 24: ff.10–14; 32: ff.443–45, 484; 34: ff.405–7; 38: ff.185–86; 39: ff.270–73 (mfm. at PANS). PANS, MG 3, 150, William Forsyth & Co. to George Andrew, and to David Colter, 12 Nov. 1796. PRO, AO 13, bundles 80; 96, pt.ii. Royal Bank of Canada (Liverpool, N.S.), Simeon Perkins, diary, 1804; corr, Perkins to Messrs. Cochran, 9 Feb. 1793 (transcripts at PANS). St Paul’s Anglican Church (Halifax), Reg. of baptisms, 17 March 1793 (mfm. at PANS). N.S., House of Assembly, Journal and proc., 1793–99. Perkins, Diary, 1790–96 (Fergusson). Halifax Journal, 3 Oct. 1810. Nova Scotia Royal Gazette, 21 Feb. 1786; 6 Nov. 1787; 16 June 1789; 21 June 1796; 7 Oct. 1802; 24–31 Jan., 7 March, 26 Sept. 1805; 20 Feb. 1810. Directory of N.S. MLAs. M. J. [Lawson] Katzmann, History of the townships of Dartmouth, Preston and Lawrencetown, Halifax County, N.S., ed. Harry Piers (Halifax, 1893; repr. Belleville, Ont., 1972). J. P. Martin, The story of Dartmouth (Dartmouth, N.S., 1957). N.S., Provincial Museum and Science Library, Report (Halifax), 1932–33, 1934–35.