Admitted to the bar in 1783, Colhoun opened a practice in Charleston. On October 8, 1786, Colhoun cemented his ties to the lowcountry elite by marrying Floride Bonneau, heiress to an extensive plantation in St. John’s Berkeley Parish.
U.S. senator. Born in Virginia, Colhoun was the son of Ezekial Calhoun and Jane Ewing. When still a boy, Colhoun moved with his extended family to Long Canes region of the South Carolina backcountry in what is now Abbeville County. Through marriage and land acquisition, the Calhouns (as most of his family chose to spell the name) gained economic and political clout in the backcountry and soon counted themselves among the region’s most prominent families. Colhoun graduated from the College of New Jersey (later Princeton) in 1774, then moved to Charleston to study law. During the Revolutionary War he served as a militia captain and aide-de-camp to General Andrew Pickens. In 1779 Colhoun became a member of the Mount Zion Society, an organization formed two years earlier that established a school at Winnsboro to educate the sons of prominent South Carolinians. Although the school struggled to maintain operations, it helped promote formal education in the backcountry as well as contacts among lowcountry and backcountry elites. Admitted to the bar in 1783, Colhoun opened a practice in Charleston. On October 8, 1786, Colhoun cemented his ties to the lowcountry elite by marrying Floride Bonneau, heiress to an extensive plantation in St. John’s Berkeley Parish. The couple eventually had eight children. Discontinuing his legal practice, Colhoun focused on his plantations in the lowcountry and in Ninety Six District, where he controlled thousands of acres. At the time of his death, he owned at least 108 slaves.
Colhoun entered the General Assembly in 1779 and remained a fixture in the S.C. House of Representatives over the next two decades, representing at various times the backcountry districts of Ninety Six and Pendleton as well as the lowcountry parish of St. Stephen’s. He was also a backcountry delegate to the state convention that ratified the U.S. Constitution in 1788, although he missed the voting. During the 1790s Colhoun was a key member of Pierce Butler’s Republican coalition of backcountry planters, whose guarded conservatism bridged the political gap between the democratic views of staunch backcountry Republicans and the conservative beliefs of lowcountry Federalists.
In December 1800 Colhoun was elected by the General Assembly to the U.S. Senate, narrowly ousting arch-Federalist Jacob Read as part of the electoral “revolution” that placed Thomas Jefferson in the presidency. Taking his seat on March 4, 1801, Colhoun soon broke with the Jefferson administration when he sided with the Federalist opposition in supporting the preservation of an independent federal judiciary. Congressional Republicans had attempted to circumvent the Federalist leanings of the Supreme Court by altering the tenure of members from “during good behavior” to “during the pleasure of the Legislature.” Colhoun denounced this attempt to undermine the court’s independence as “repugnant to the express letter and spirit of the Constitution.” Colhoun’s Senate service was cut short by his untimely death on October 26, 1802, in Pendleton District, where he was buried in his family cemetery.
Bailey, N. Louise, and Elizabeth Ivey Cooper, eds. Biographical Directory of the South Carolina House of Representatives. Vol. 3, 1775–1790. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1981.
Colhoun, John Ewing. Papers. South Caroliniana Library, University of South Carolina, Columbia.
Klein, Rachel N. Unification of a Slave State: The Rise of the Planter Class in the South Carolina Backcountry, 1760–1808. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1990.