Many historians have traced the roots of the Civil War back to the Nullification Crisis of 1832, triggered by South Carolina’s Ordinance of Nullification. The ordinance contended that a state had a right to ignore a Federal law if it felt the law was unconstitutional. The figure most often associated with that controversy was Vice President John C. Calhoun, easily South Carolina’s most important politician ever. (For more on Calhoun’s role, read “John C. Calhoun: He Started the Civil War” by Ethan S. Rafuse in the October 2002 issue of Civil War Times.)
While there’s much Civil War-related history to explore in Charleston, one option would be to explore the many Calhoun-related sites in the city.
Standing tall along Calhoun Street on the edge of Marion Square is a grand statue of Calhoun. High atop a column, a statue of Calhoun looks down on traffic. According to the NPS, the monument’s cornerstone was laid in 1858, but construction was halted by the Civil War. The monument contains “a cannon ball used in the Revolutionary War battle of Fort Moultrie, a banner used in Calhoun’s funeral, $100 in Continental money, a lock of Calhoun’s hair, and the last speech he delivered in the U.S. Senate, on March 4, 1850. The original statue was criticized for its poor casting, and replaced in 1896 with the current stone statue with cast-iron palmettos flanking its base.” The monument also features a pair of bas relief tablets showing Calhoun in action.
Calhoun is buried in the cemetery of St. Phillips Episcopal Church on Church Street. The church’s cemetery is divided into three parts, two of which are on the same side of the street as the church itself. Because Calhoun only lived in Charleston and wasn’t actually born there, his burial site was relegated to the far side of the street per church tradition. According to the website Charleston Footprints, Calhoun’s grave has been the source of a few odd stories.
Art enthusiasts can trace Charleston’s history through painting and sculpture at the Gibbs Museum of Art. Among its collection, the museum features a rarely reproduced portrait of Calhoun painted in 1834 by Rembrandt Peale.
The highest-profile Calhoun-related site—the Calhoun Mansion—ironically has nothing to do with Calhoun other than the fact that it was named in his honor. Located at 16 Meeting Street, the house was built in 1876 in honor of Charleston’s pre-war eminence. Billing itself as “A Historical and Architectural Marvel,” it’s the largest privately owned home in Charleston. According to the website, the house features “35 rooms, a grand ballroom, Japanese water gardens, 35 fireplaces, 75 foot high domed stairhall ceiling, khoi ponds, private elevator, three levels of piazzas, ornate chandeliers, a 90 foot cupola, and many more wonderful surprises that make up the house’s more than 24,000 square feet.”