Feb. 15, 1792-July 25, 1866
Floride Bonneau Colhoun married her first-cousin-once-removed, John C. Calhoun, on Jan. 8, 1811. John wrote in a letter to his bride-to-be:
“My dearest one, may our love strengthen with each returning day, may it ripen and mellow with our years, and may it end in immortal joys. … May God preserve you. Adieu my love; my heart’s delight, I am your true lover” (Sept. 28, 1810).
A portrait of the beautiful 18-year-old bride, fashionably dressed in an empire gown, hangs over the dining room mantel at Fort Hill. On another romantic note, also exhibited at Fort Hill is one delicate lace sleeve from Floride’s wedding dress.
Shortly after her marriage, Floride was thrust into political life as the wife of a U.S. representative. She also faced setting up a new home near Bath, S.C., purchased by Calhoun so that he could establish himself as a planter. Before the age of 25, Floride had given birth to four children: Andrew Pickens (1811-1865), Floride Pure (1814-1815), Jane (1816-1816) and Anna Maria (1817-1875).
When James Monroe picked Calhoun as secretary of war in 1817, the S.C. statesman moved his family to Washington and set up residence in the Georgetown section of the city at the Colhoun family home called Oakly. Floride, then in her mid-twenties, seemed to have been quickly accepted into Washington society and enjoyed socializing and entertaining. In 1825, she was placed in the spotlight of Washington society as the wife of the vice president, a role she held until December 1832.
One explosive social incident involving Floride, which occurred in 1829, is referred to as the “Peggy Eaton Affair.” This incident involved Floride, who refused to repay a social visit to Peggy O’Neal Timberlake Eaton, wife of Jackson’s incoming secretary of war John Eaton, on the grounds that the recently married widow was a woman of questionable morals. Floride, as a pillar of family values, enlisted the other fashionable ladies to shun Peggy. Jackson supported the wife of Eaton, his friend from Tennessee, and Calhoun supported the position of his wife. This incident fueled the rift smoldering between Calhoun and Jackson.
Floride might have imagined herself as becoming first lady someday, but events, including the nullification crisis, caused a change in the direction of Calhoun’s career. John C. Calhoun resigned from the vice presidency in 1832 and began his career supporting states’ rights. He was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1832.
Retiring to Fort Hill after her husband’s resignation, Floride may have felt disappointed at returning to the quiet life of a plantation. A portrait hanging over the bed in the master bedroom shows her at about this time dressed in classical attire. She bore 10 children during Calhoun’s assent to power. Her six youngest children were Elizabeth (1819-1820), Patrick (1821-1858), John Jr. (1823-1855), Martha Cornelia (1824-1857), James Edward (1826-1861) and William Lowndes (1829-1858).
After 1832, Floride seldom visited Washington. Instead she focused on her role as plantation mistress, managing the estate duties of an 1,100-acre plantation. She opposed her husband when he repeatedly gave money to some of their children whose exploits she considered bad risks. A portrait that hangs in the dining room shows Floride in her fifties — a strong, self-assured, yet tired woman. Fort Hill, indeed, had grown from a small four-room cottage into an impressive 14-room upcountry plantation house, finally large enough for the family and for socializing. Legend says that Floride added a room to the house each time her husband was away in Washington. Floride’s taste in furnishings is reflected in the china and silver in the dining room and her massive Piedmont wardrobe made for her by cabinetmaker William Knauff of Pendleton.
Floride Calhoun accomplished more than raising children and decorating her home, however. Her personal belongings on view in the master bedroom show Floride’s handiwork: a beaded pin cushion, tortoise shell sewing box and a crochet tea table cover. She also embroidered a christening dress worn by all her children. Personal items that reflect the years spent in Washington include a wool handbag with silk lining, which Floride carried to Andrew Jackson’s inauguration ceremony, as well as a foot warmer used during long carriage trips.
Two of Floride’s lifelong interests were music and religion. She was an accomplished pianist, and her small pianoforte is on view in the parlor. As a teenager, Floride proved herself a talented musician and played the organ at the Trinity Episcopal Church in Newport, R.I. In gratitude, the congregation presented her a Prayer Book and a silver baptismal bowl. Floride was a devout Episcopalian and was instrumental in raising money for a pump organ, which is still played in St. Paul’s Church of Pendleton.
In early April 1850, Floride received the tragic news that her husband of 39 years had died in Washington on March 31. The statesman was buried in St. Philip’s Episcopal Church in Charleston. Four years later, Floride sold the Fort Hill house and plantation to her son Andrew and moved to Pendleton, where she lived at a much smaller house she called Mi Casa.
Tragedy continued to strike the Calhoun family. During the decade before the Civil War, five other children died (John Jr., Cornelia, Patrick, Willy and James). Even though she mourned the loss of four sons, the death of Cornelia was especially painful. Cornelia, crippled since childhood, had been her mother’s constant companion. With the death of Andrew in 1865, Floride regained control of Fort Hill. Upon her death the following year, she willed it to her surviving child, Anna Maria Calhoun Clemson. Floride Calhoun was buried next to her children in St. Paul’s cemetery.