Theodore Mills was the son of the noted sculptor Clark Mills, who was renowned for his bronze equestrian statue of Andrew Jackson in Lafayette Park in Washington, D.C. Completed in 1853, it was the first equestrian statue erected in the United States, as well as the first bronze sculpture made in this country. Clark Mills established his foundry in Maryland, where he later cast Thomas Crawford’s Statue of Freedom for the U.S. Capitol dome. Both Theodore and his brother, Theophilus, assisted their father in his projects, and both became sculptors in their own right.
In the 1840s in South Carolina, Clark Mills developed a method of using life casts from the faces of his sitters in order to simplify the production of portrait busts. His 1846 bust of John C. Calhoun, purchased by the city of Charleston and at that time considered the best likeness of Calhoun, was made from such a life mask. That mask was used 40 years later by his son Theodore, who actively petitioned the Joint Committee on the Library for the commission of the Senate’s official vice presidential bust of Calhoun. That Theodore Mills had been born in South Carolina was in his favor, because attempts were traditionally made to choose a sculptor from each vice president’s native state. Mills submitted a plaster model and earned the commission in 1895.
Theodore Mills’s likeness of Calhoun shows him as slightly gaunt, but there is no sign of the tuberculosis that ravaged the statesman in his last years. The face is most memorable for the deeply drilled eyes, which seem to express somber preoccupation. The resolute head, strongly symmetrical, appears almost to sit on the luxuriant roll of whiskers that lies beneath the jaw. The costume of shirt, cravat, waistcoat, and topcoat is encircled and partly overlaid by a cloak whose heavy folds lend an air of classical gravitas to the bust. Beyond the verifiable likeness and brooding quality, however, Mills adds little to suggest the powerfully conflicting characteristics of this controversial figure who played such a central role in 19th-century American history.
Theodore Mills and his father also modeled a life mask of Abraham Lincoln just 60 days before the president was assassinated in 1865. That mask was eventually donated to the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh by Theodore Mills, then a preparator in the museum’s exhibits department. Already known for his Native American groups, the artist was hired in 1898 to create similar figures for the Pittsburgh museum. Mills died in Pittsburgh 18 years later.
John Caldwell Calhoun served as both a U.S. representative and senator from South Carolina, and as the seventh vice president of the United States. Calhoun was born near Calhoun Mills, Abbeville District (now Mount Carmel, McCormick County), South Carolina. After practicing law, and serving in the state house of representatives from 1808 to 1809, Calhoun was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1810. There he became one of Speaker Henry Clay's principal lieutenants and a leader of the warhawks, a group of young congressmen who advocated war with Great Britain. As chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Calhoun introduced the declaration of war against Britain in June 1812. He served as secretary of war under President James Monroe from 1817 to 1825, was elected vice president with John Quincy Adams in 1824, and was reelected vice president on a ticket with Andrew Jackson in 1828.
To further his opposition to high protective tariffs, Calhoun devised a doctrine of nullification whereby states could declare federal laws null and void within their borders. When President Jackson threatened to use military power to enforce a federal law nullified by South Carolina, Calhoun broke with Jackson. Calhoun resigned the vice presidency in December 1832 in order to fill a vacancy in the U.S. Senate. A powerful advocate for the Southern position, Calhoun supported the institution of slavery and the right of slaveholders to extend the practice into the western territories.
Calhoun resigned from the Senate in 1843 planning to run for president, but instead he served briefly as secretary of state in the cabinet of President John Tyler. He was reelected to the Senate in 1845 and remained there until his death in 1850. Calhoun–-along with Daniel Webster and Henry Clay–-was part of the "Great Triumvirate" of the Senate's Golden Age.