Biography of Joel Roberts Poinsett

Joel Roberts Poinsett, diplomat and scholar remembered for a plant he found in Mexico.
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Joel Roberts Poinsett was a scholar and traveler whose skills as a diplomat were relied upon by five consecutive American presidents in the early 1800s.

Today we remember him not because he was taken so seriously by presidents from James Madison to Martin Van Buren, or because he served as a congressman, an ambassador, and in the cabinet as secretary of war. We also overlook that he helped keep his birthplace, South Carolina, from leaving the Union 30 years before the Civil War, during the heated politics of the Nullification Crisis.

Poinsett is mainly remembered today because he was a devoted gardener, and when he saw a plant in Mexico that turned red before Christmas, he naturally brought samples back to raise in his greenhouse in Charleston. That plant was later named for him, and, of course, the poinsettia has become a standard Christmas decoration.

An article about plant names in the New York Times in 1938 stated that Poinsett "probably would be disgusted with the fame that has come to him." That may overstate the case. The plant was named for him during his lifetime and presumably, Poinsett did not object.

Following his death on December 12, 1851, newspapers published tributes that did not mention the plant for which he's now remembered. The New York Times, on December 23, 1851, began his obituary by calling Poinsett a "politician, statesman, and diplomatist," and later referred to him as a "substantial intellectual power."

It wasn't until decades later that the poinsettia was widely cultivated and began to achieve enormous popularity at Christmas. And it was in the early 20th century that millions began unknowingly referring to Poinsett while remaining unaware of his diplomatic adventures 100 years earlier.

Poinsett's Early Diplomacy

Joel Roberts Poinsett was born in Charleston, South Carolina, on March 2, 1779. His father was a prominent physician and as a boy, Poinsett was educated by his father and private tutors. In his teens, he was sent to an academy in Connecticut administered by Timothy Dwight, a noted educator. In 1796 he began studies abroad, attending, in succession, a college in England, a medical school in Scotland, and a military academy in England. 

Poinsett intended to pursue a military career but his father encouraged him to return to America and study law. After engaging in legal studies in America, he returned to Europe in 1801 and spent most of the next seven years traveling through Europe and Asia. When tensions between Britain and the United States heightened in 1808, and it seemed war could break out, he returned home.

Though apparently still intent on joining the military, he instead was brought into government service as a diplomat. In 1810 the Madison administration dispatched him as a special envoy to South America. In 1812 he posed as a British merchant to collect intelligence on events in Chile, where a revolution sought independence from Spain.

The situation in Chile became volatile and Poinsett's position became precarious. He departed Chile for Argentina, where he stayed until returning to his home in Charleston in the spring of 1815. 

Ambassador to Mexico

Poinsett became interested in politics in South Carolina and was elected to statewide office in 1816. In 1817 President James Monroe called upon Poinsett to return to South America as a special envoy, but he declined. 

In 1821 he was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives. He served in Congress for four years. His time on Capitol Hill was interrupted, from August 1822 to January 1823, when he visited Mexico on a special diplomatic mission for President Monroe. In 1824 he published a book about his journey, Notes on Mexico, which is full of gracefully written details about Mexican culture, scenery, and plants.

In 1825 John Quincy Adams, a scholar and diplomat himself, became president. No doubt impressed by Poinsett's knowledge of the country, Adams appointed him as the U.S. ambassador to Mexico.

Poinsett served four years in Mexico and his time there was often fairly troubled. The political situation in the country was unsettled, and Poinsett was often accused, fairly or not, of intrigue. At one point he was labeled as "a scourge" to Mexico for his presumed meddling in local politics.

Poinsett and Nullification

He returned to America in 1830, and President Andrew Jackson, whom Poinsett had befriended years earlier, gave him what amounted to a diplomatic mission on American soil. Returning to Charleston, Poinsett became the president of the Unionist Party in South Carolina, a faction determined to keep the state from seceding from the Union during the Nullification Crisis.

Poinsett's political and diplomatic skills helped to calm the crisis, and after three years he essentially retired to a farm outside Charleston. He devoted himself to writing, reading in his extensive library, and cultivating plants.

In 1837 Martin Van Buren was elected president and convinced Poinsett to come out of retirement to return to Washington as his secretary of war. Poinsett administered the War Department for four years before again returning to South Carolina to devote himself to his scholarly pursuits.

Lasting Fame

According to most accounts, plants were successfully propagated in Poinsett's greenhouse, from cuttings taken from the plants he brought back from Mexico in 1825, during his first year as an ambassador. The newly grown plants were given as gifts, and one of Poinsett's friends arranged for some to be exhibited at an exhibition of plants in Philadelphia in 1829. The plant was popular at the show, and Robert Buist, the proprietor of a nursery business in Philadelphia, named it for Poinsett.

Over the following decades, the poinsettia became prized by plant collectors. It was found to be tricky to cultivate. But it caught on, and in the 1880s mentions of poinsettia appeared in newspaper articles about holiday celebrations at the White House. 

Home gardeners began to have success growing it in greenhouses 1800s. A Pennsylvania newspaper, the Laport Republican News Item, mentioned its popularity in an article published on December 22, 1898:

... there is one flower which is identified with Christmas. This is the so-called Mexican Christmas flower, or poinsettia. It is a small red flower, with long highly decorative red leaves, which blooms in Mexico about this time of year and is grown here in greenhouses especially for use at Christmas time.

In the first decade of the 20th century, numerous newspaper articles mentioned the popularity of the poinsettia as a holiday decoration. By that time the poinsettia had become established as a garden plant in southern California. And nurseries devoted to growing poinsettia for the holiday market began to flourish.

Joel Roberts Poinsett could never have imagined what he was starting. The poinsettia has become the largest selling potted plant in America and growing them has become a multi-million dollar industry. December 12, the anniversary of Poinsett's death, is National Poinsettia Day. And it's impossible to imagine a Christmas season without seeing poinsettias.

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McNamara, Robert. "Biography of Joel Roberts Poinsett." ThoughtCo, Feb. 16, 2021, McNamara, Robert. (2021, February 16). Biography of Joel Roberts Poinsett. Retrieved from McNamara, Robert. "Biography of Joel Roberts Poinsett." ThoughtCo. (accessed January 28, 2023).