Leading Tennessee agriculturist and nationally acclaimed stock breeder William G. Harding was born in 1808 near Nashville. Harding was educated at the American Literary, Scientific, and Military Academy in Middletown, Connecticut. Two years after his first wife, Mary Selena McNairy, died in 1837, he assumed full responsibility for managing Belle Meade, his father's twelve-hundred-acre plantation on the “Old Natchez Road.”
In 1840 Harding, then a brigadier general in the state militia, married Elizabeth McGavock. They had two daughters, Selene and Mary, who would grow to maturity. Harding also had a son, John, by his first marriage.
In 1853-54 Harding transformed the Federal-style house his father had built in 1820 into the Greek Revival mansion that stands today. He also raced horses, won premiums for his thoroughbreds, and established Belle Meade as a nationally recognized horse nursery.
Early in the Civil War, Harding headed the Military and Financial Board of Tennessee, which spent five million dollars arming and equipping soldiers for the defense of the South. In 1862, as the result of his activities, Harding was imprisoned by Federal authorities for six months. During his absence, his wife managed the plantation under dire circumstances and looked after “a family of 150 people,” mostly slaves.
Following the war, Harding and his son-in-law, W. H. Jackson, developed Belle Meade into one of the world's greatest horse-breeding establishments. When he died in 1886, the Chattanooga Times called Harding “a monarch in his own domain.”