Historic Structures

Fort Hill - McElhenny-Calhoun-Clemson House, Clemson South Carolina

Date added: October 12, 2018 Categories: South Carolina House

The original owner was the Reverend James McElhenny, pastor of the Old Stone Church. Upon McElhenny's death, the house passed into the hands of Mrs. John Ewing Calhoun, John C. Calhoun's mother-in-law. From 1825 until 1836, John C. Calhoun rented the property from her and then gained full possession upon her death. Calhoun died in 1850, but the house remained in family possession. Notably, Calhoun's son-in-law, Thomas G. Clemson was owner from 1872-1888. In his will the property was given to the State of South Carolina for the establishment of an agricultural college. The will also stipulated that the house be preserved in perpetuity.

The original ca. 1802 portion of the house was a simple four-room building with its front entrance on the north facade. During their years there, 1825-1850, the Calhouns enlarged the house to its present fourteen-room size, added the portico and porches, and reoriented the main entrance to the east. Many of these alterations were designed by Floride Bonneau Calhoun, Calhoun's wife. During the 1930's, the house ws restored by the South Carolina Division of the United Daughters of the Confederacy.

Built about 1803, Fort Hill was substantially enlarged by Vice President John C. Calhoun (1782-1850) and was his residence between 1825 and 1850. Fort Hill was later home to his widow, Floride; their eldest son, Crew Pickens Calhoun, from 1854 to 1866; and finally to the Calhouns' daughter Anna Maria Calhoun, during the years 1872-88 and her husband, Thomas G. Clemson (1807-1888), founder of the University that bears his name.

In addition to its role as the family's home, Fort Hill was Senator Calhoun's power base for meetings with his lowcountry constituents who summered in the Pendleton District. As such, the historical significance of Fort Hill rests on the national stature of Calhoun. John C. Calhoun served almost continually in national politics from 1810 until his death in 1850. In his office at Fort Hill, Vice-President Calhoun reflected on the Constitution; there, in the fall of 1828, he formulated the ideas that were anonymously published as "The South Carolina Exposition and Protest." In July 1831, he penned his famous "Fort Hill Address," outlining his Doctrine of Nullification, that was based on the concept of states' rights.

Calhoun was a graduate of Yale and of the Tapping Reeve Law School in Litchfield, Connecticut. During his forty years in politics, the statesman served as a member of the United States House of Representatives, 1811-17; Secretary of War, 1817-1825 with James Monroe; Vice-President of the United States, 1825-28, with John Quincy Adams; Vice-President of the United States, 1828-32 with Andrew Jackson; United States Senator, 1832-43; Secretary of State, 1844-45, with John Tyler; and United States Senator, 1845-50. He is best remembered as part of the "Great Triumvirate" in the Senate with Henry Clay and Daniel Webster.

With the exception of the mythical Tara, no singular home and owner typifies the spirit of the antebellum South in the study of American history. Calhoun's legacy was underscored by President John F. Kennedy in 1959. Kennedy, as a senator from Massachusetts, chaired the committee that selected Calhoun as one of the five greatest senators in American history. Kennedy praised the career of John C. Calhoun by saying "Forceful logician of state sovereignty, masterful defender of the rights of a political minority against the dangers of an unchecked majority, his profoundly penetrating and original understanding of the social bases of government has significantly influenced American political theory and practice. Sincerely devoted to the public good as he saw it, the ultimate tragedy of his final cause neither detracts from the greatness of his leadership nor tarnishes his efforts to avert bloodshed. Outspoken yet respected, intellectual yet loved, his leadership on every major issue in that critical era of transition significantly shaped the role of the Senate and the destiny of the nation."

Fort Hill came into public ownership on November 27, 1889, by an Act of the General Assembly entitled, "Act to Accept the Devise and Bequest of Thomas G. Clemson and to Establish an Agricultural College." Thomas Clemson stated in his will: "It is my desire that the dwelling house on Fort Hill shall never be tom down or altered, but shall be kept in repair, with all the articles of furniture and vesture which I hereinafter give for that purpose, and shall always be open for the inspection of visitors,[ ... ]." Thomas Clemson envisioned "the preservation of the home of the illustrious man who spent his life in the public service of his country" as a museum.

As an historic house museum, Fort Hill contains a priceless of artifacts. Moreover, the core of the collection has never left the house. Many more objects have been returned. The fine arts collection includes family portraits, such as a Eugene DeBlock portrait of Calhoun painted in Belgium for Clemson and based on a Matthew Brady daguerreotype. The furniture collection includes Calhoun's Duncan Phyfe dining table and twelve chairs as well as a mahogany sideboard made of wood from the USS Constitution, "Old Ironsides."

The first date for the erection of the house known as "Clergy Hall" is 1803. John C. Calhoun renamed the plantation house "Fort Hill" and also added significant square footage to the structure between 1825 and 1830. Calhoun had moved to Clergy Hall (permanently) by the summer of 1826; he did so after John Calhoun, Jr., experienced health problems. Calhoun wrote to Martin van Buren that "the Physician recommends traveling, and we have concluded to go South, so soon as the state of his health will permit. Our residence in [South] Carolina is near the mountains in a delightful and healthy climate."

To his brother-in-law, John Ewing Colhoun, Jr., he wrote, "have Clergy Hall repaired, so as to answer for a temporary residence. We wish the piazza to be ["prepared" canceled and "repaired" interlined] and such as enlargement of the space, through which the stair case passes, as will give a pantry of good size, and a comfortable bed chamber instead of the little room, that Andrew [Pickens Calhoun] used to occupy, with a door to open between it an[d] your mother's [Floride Bonneau Colhoun's] chamber. [ ... ] It is my intention to build immediately on the Hill to the left to the road to the court house.

"The V. P. and family are at Clergy Hall, all well and very busily engaged in farming, building and overhauling every thing, with a view to a permanent settlement. Their furniture and other things have arrived from Washington, and the house will soon be completed; so remodeled you will not know it." (John Ewing Colhoun, Jr., to James Edward Colhoun, May 4, 1827)

"I am here so much out of the circle of politicks ... I am now devoted to reading, exercise and farming, the last of which possesses many attractions for me." (JCC to Samuel L. Southhard, August 27, 1827) The constant attention to the renovation made Calhoun comment that he "regreted" that the plantation ["business" interlined] seemed to go on so badly after I left home. I suppose, however, there was great interruption, in consequence of the building." (JCC to John Ewing Colhoun, January 31, 1827)

Calhoun rented the Fort Hill plantation from his mother-in-law for around $250 per year until her death in 1836. However, during those eleven years, he had enlarged the estate. One of the best descriptions of his opinion on building came two years after he had clear title to Fort Hill. "She [Floride Colhoun Calhoun] writes me that she is anxious to commence an addition to our House for[th]with on her return to Pendleton. I think it would not be advisable on many accounts, till after my return. I cannot obtain Andrew's carpenter till after my return, and I have long since learned by sad experience, what it is to build in my absence. It would cost me twice as much and the work then will not be half as well done. By getting Andrew's carpenter after my return, and throwing in with him Mr. Stevens & Daniel, so soon as the crop is finished, I could build at comparatively small expense, and have it well done under my own eye. I wish you to add your weight to mine to reconcile her ["not" canceled] to the course I suggest." (JCC to James Edward Colhoun, April 21, 1838)

As the editor of the Calhoun Papers notes, "Fort Hill was tasteful and comfortable but by no means luxurious-or imposing by the standards of later generations. His labours on the farm gave him a taste for agriculture, which he has always retained, and in the pursuit of which he finds delightful occupation for his intervals of leisure from public duties."