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Fort Hill and John C. Calhoun


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    Published 12-11-2019

    There are lots of old plantations and plantation houses scattered across the South. Many are special, usually due to some sort of historical connection. Fort Hill was the antebellum plantation of John C. Calhoun, a preeminent nineteenth century southern statesman and later the home of Thomas G. Clemson, his son-in-law. It is unusual for a number of reasons: it is furnished as an historic house museum, primarily with original furnishing from the Calhoun family and Clemson family; due to the historical legacy of both families, it is full of fascinating historical artifacts; and it is a historical site hidden in plain sight, in the center of a major university campus. 

    Fort Hill (named after nearby Fort Rutledge, built in 1776 as part of a campaign against the Cherokee Nation) is a white columned “Big House,” typical of a southern plantation. It sits on a small hill in the middle of about five acres (the remains of an 1,100-acre plantation). It was John C. Calhoun’s home from 1825 until 1850. While located in the center of Clemson University’s campus, it is screened from most of the campus development by large trees and shrubs, many planted by Calhoun himself.  

    John C. Calhoun and Thomas G. Clemson

    First, a brief overview of the history. John C. Calhoun was elected to the House of Representatives in 1810. He was a leading supporter of the War of 1812 against Great Britain and served as Secretary of War under President James Monroe. In 1824 he was a candidate for President, but ended up serving as Vice President under John Quincey Adams, and then as Vice President under Andrew Jackson after the 1828 election. From 1832 to his death in 1850 he served as a United States Senator from South Carolina, interrupted from 1844-1845 when he served as Secretary of State under President John Tyler. Calhoun was one of the “Great Triumvirate” of the United States Congress during the early nineteenth century, along with Henry Clay and Daniel Webster. He was a champion of state’s rights and slavery and a symbol of the “Old South.” He is often credited with sowing seeds that led to the American Civil War.

    Thomas G. Clemson married John C. Calhoun’s oldest daughter, Anna Marie. Clemson was educated and had a major interest in agriculture. From 1860 to 1861 he served as Superintendent of Agriculture under President Buchanan, leaving that position at the start of the Civil War. Clemson ended up owning Fort Hill and deeded it to the State of South Carolina on the condition it be used to establish a land-grant college devoted to the sciences and agriculture (The Clemson Agricultural College of South Carolina, today’s Clemson University). Today the mansion and grounds are well-maintained and open to the public.

    Fort Hill Today

    Fort Hill sits in the center of the Clemson University campus on a hilltop, almost hidden by large trees and shrubs. It is very close to the football stadium and it is likely many fans have no idea it is nearby. The library and office are adjacent to the mansion and a few other features, like the Spring House are also nearby.

    The plantation house or “the big house” sit on top of a hill, almost hidden by vegetation.
    The spring house is still there for visitors to see.

    The first floor includes a reconstructed plantation kitchen, state dining room, parlor, and, master bedroom. The kitchen is separated from the main house by a few feet. The entrance hall contains a portrait of John C. Calhoun, a matching pair of Empire pier tables, and a marble-top table. In the state dining room Mrs. Calhoun’s wedding portrait is over the mantle. The banquet table and chairs were designed by Duncan Phyfe about 1820. The dining room also contains the U.S.S. Constitution sideboard made from mahogany from the famous frigate “Old Ironsides” (a gift to Secretary of War Calhoun from Senator Henry Clay). The master bedroom features a massive Empire bed and Piedmont wardrobe by William Knauff. In the parlor is Calhoun’s prized Windsor chair which once belonged to George Washington. 

    The State Dining Room.
    The Parlor.

    The second floor is mainly bedroom and dressing rooms. The master bedroom was downstairs. These rooms were mainly used by the children.

    One of the second story bedrooms.
    bedroomin antebellum home
    One of the second story bedrooms.

    Calhoun’s one-room library or plantation office is located about 50 feet south of the mansion. It is probably the most interesting room associated with the mansion, as it is where John C. Calhoun did much of his writing and thinking. The National Register of Historic Places Nomination Form has a description of the office: “The library has its sides filled with bookshelves, and these are packed with volumes of every description, though largely the literature of law and rostrum. Calhoun’s own speeches appear in several editions, and there are many books that bear the marks of his pen.” For safekeeping the books were stored in the College Library, resulting in their loss in an 1894 fire. Today it houses an interesting collection of early maps and many Calhoun furnishings, including his chair from the U.S, Senate and a carved roll-top desk which he used while Vice-President. The library was built about 1825 and has a columned porch in front and a fireplace on the south side. The interior is oak-paneled and has a high ceiling. Under the building is a walled excavation that served as an icehouse.  

    While Calhoun spent much of his last twenty-five years in Washington, D.C., he returned whenever he had the opportunity and wrote some of his most important speeches and papers there, most likely in the library. During the Congressional recess of 1828 he returned to South Carolina to write his “South Carolina Exposition,” that is the foundation of the doctrine of nullification (state’s may nullify federal law). During his last summer at Fort Hill he wrote his famous “Discourse on the Constitution of the United States” and essay “A Disquisition on Government.” These gave his views on state sovereignty, the concurrent majority, and the nature of the union. He is noted as being one of the strongest proponents of the Southern viewpoint during the Great Compromise of 1850 dealing with westward expansion of slavery.

    The plantation library and office is actually a separate building.
    The plantation desk was used by Calhoun to write the “Fort Hill Address” in 1831.
    Then Vice President Calhoun expressed support for nullification and state’s rights.
    President Jackson strongly opposed those views and Calhoun resigned the following year. 
     The maps in the room belonged to Calhoun and were used by him.
    This was desk used by Calhoun in the U.S, House of Representatives.
    Desk given to Calhoun by the people of South Carolina while he was Vice President.

    Fort Hill represents a wonderful opportunity to visit a real southern plantation mansion furnished with mostly original historical furniture and artifacts. It is also a chance to learn southern history and even the history of Clemson University. The library has to be the most interesting part of Fort Hill. The original desk, chairs, and maps are absolutely fascinating. It is only ten miles from Interstate 85, about half-way between Atlanta and Charlotte, and it is well worth a stop.  
    Author: Thomas J. Straka is a forestry professor at Clemson University. He has a keen interest in history.




    For additional information:

    Fort Hill: The Land (Clemson University)


    Fort Hill: John C. Calhoun House and Office (South Carolina ETV 3D Space)


    Fort Hill Plantation: Let’s Go! South Carolina ETV Video




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