A brilliant orator and strong supporter of southern opinion, John Caldwell Calhoun of South Carolina was a member of the Senate and House of Representatives, and vice president from 1825 to 1833 under both John Quincy Adams and Andrew Jackson. Calhoun later resigned as vice president in order to represent South Carolina in the U.S. Senate. Because he felt that an excess use of power by the federal government often violated the opinions of a majority of the population within certain states, Calhoun developed his famous nullification doctrine. This doctrine maintained that individual states could repeal, or "nullify" federal laws which they opposed. The nullification doctrine served as a basis for southern defense of the slave system in the first half of the 19th century.
Calhoun is remembered today not only as a protector of the rights of a political minority, but also as a great logician and intellect. His colleague, northerner Daniel Webster, considered Calhoun the Senate's ablest member and the greatest American in public life of his time. Calhoun's final days were devoted to opposing the Senate's Compromise of 1850.
Artist Theodore Mills actively sought approval by the U.S. Senate over several years to sculpt the bust of John Calhoun for the vice presidential bust collection. A native of South Carolina, Mills submitted endorsements from senators Wade Hampton and Matthew Butler in support of his petition. On the basis of Mills's plaster model of the proposed work, the Committee on the Library awarded the commission in 1895, and the finished bust was delivered to the Capitol the following year. The artist based his study on a life mask of Calhoun taken by his father, noted sculptor Clark Mills.