“John C. Calhoun,” the name conjures up a host of associations. To some, he was a great Southern statesman, a significant 19th-century political theorist who defended the privileges of the planter class of his native South Carolina and surrounding region by promulgating the principle of nullification – the concept that a state might nullify any federal edict with which it disagrees.
To others, he was a unabashed racist, asserting that slavery was a “positive good” because it obligated an elite group – slaveholders – to care for those from whose labor they profited.
Whatever one’s position on Calhoun’s political legacy, there is no denying that he was in his day a man of considerable power and influence.
Just consider his job resume. He served terms in both the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate; he was twice Vice President (once under John Quincy Adams and again under Andrew Jackson; he served as Secretary of War under James Monroe, and he was Secretary of State in the administration of John Tyler.
On those grounds alone, Clemson University would be justified in preserving the house that he once called home, even if it weren’t for the fact that his son-in-law deeded Fort Hill to the state for the founding of that particular land-grant college.
Surrounded by modern buildings, the mansion called Fort Hill, once the centerpiece of a 1,000-acre plantation, is now run as a house museum in honor of both Calhoun and the college’s founder Thomas G. Clemson.
Built in 1803, the house was eventually expanded to 14 rooms during the 25-year residence of Calhoun and his wife, who took possession of Fort Hill in 1825. The current two-story structure is essentially Greek Revival in style, with columned porticos on three sides.
Today’s visitor enters through double doors into a small hallway with a parlor on one side and formal dining room on the other; all the rooms have fireplaces with mantels carved in Charleston. The bedrooms, some with attached dressing rooms, are all upstairs.
Behind the house, about 50 feet from the southern facade, is a separate building that served as a library and plantation office. It once housed Calhoun’s books, which were subsequently removed to the college library where they were destroyed in a fire in 1894.
The office today features old maps, a chair that Calhoun used while in the Senate, and a desk that he used while vice president.
Calhoun was often absent from Fort Hill for long periods of time-in fact, he died in Washington, D.C. in 1850, but it is said that he wrote many of his most important essays in this small oak-paneled office, including the anonymously published “South Carolina Exposition and Protest” (1828), which outlined his theory of nullification.
The house and about 800 acres became the possession of Thomas G. Clemson, who married Calhoun’s daughter Anne Maria in 1838. Clemson, a Philadelphia-born diplomat and agriculturalist, lived at Fort Hill from 1872 to 1888.
In his will, he left the land to the state to establish the Clemson Agricultural College of South Carolina with the stipulation that the mansion itself “never be torn down or altered but always be open for inspection by visitors.”
After a very successful two-year restoration (2001-2003), Fort Hill is now open to the public. Hours are Monday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to noon and 1 to 4:30 p.m. and Sunday from 2 to 4:30 p.m.
There are also two other historic homes managed by Clemson University. The first is Hanover House, which was built for the St. Julien family in 1716; it is part of the South Carolina Botanical Gardens on the Clemson campus.
The second is Hopewell Plantation, the home of Revolutionary War hero Andrew Pickens, who married Rebecca Calhoun, John C. Calhoun’s aunt; the latter facility is part of Clemson’s complex of research farms and is not generally open to visitors.
Dr. Tom Mack holds the G. L. Toole Chair at USC Aiken. For more information on places of interest in this part of the state, consult his books “Circling the Savannah” and “Hidden History of Aiken County.”