Music by Brother J. L. F. Mendelssohn.
Joel Roberts Poinsett:
The Man Behind The Flower
By Brother Edward N. Thompson
Each year the Christmas season is brightened by the poinsettia which has become the traditional Christmas flower. It is named for the
American statesman who introduced it to this
country from its native Mexico. The story
behind this man who gave a lifetime of service
to his country and to Freemasonry has been
neglected while that of others who have accomplished far less is familiar to all. This, then,
is the story of Joel Roberts Poinsett.
With the sounds of the American Revolution round about him, he was born in
Charleston, South Carolina, on March 2, 1779,
of wealthy parents. His father, Dr. Elisha
Poinsett, had dressed the wounds of the dying
Pulaski at the seige of Savannah. Little is
known of his mother.
Poinsett's formal education began in
England where the family lived for six years
from 1782 until 1788 . After returning to
America, he attended a succession of private
schools. He is said to have been a good scholar,
especially distinguishing himself in languages,
both ancient and modern. He became fluent in
French, Spanish, Italian, German and Russian
which prepared him for the diplomatic career
he was to follow.
In October, 1797, determined to follow his
father's wishes, Poinsett enrolled in medical
school in Edinburgh. After less than a year, he
became convinced that medicine was not for
him. Enrolling in the Royal Military Academy,
Poinsett became fascinated with military
maneuvers, the cavalry, the artillery and the art
of fortification. He was convinced he should
become a professional soldier.
Dr. Poinsett was determined that his son
should not shoulder a musket in peace time and
persuaded Joel to begin the study of law. Afer a
year of law, he was seized with wanderlust and
his formal education was ended.
In 1801, Joel Roberts Poinsett began the
travels which were to take him to most of the
nations of Europe. Because a wealthy
American travelling abroad was a curiosity, he
gained admission to the inner-circles of government. He met kings, ministers, financiers--the
people that move governments. In France, he
met the great Napoleon.
Within twenty-four hours of his arrival in
Russia, the American consul, Levett Harris, introduced Poinsett to the Czar. During the three
years he was to remain in Russia, the young
American was to become a valued friend and
advisor of the ruler of the largest nation in th.
world. So impressed was Czar Alexander with
the American that he offered him a commission
in the Russian Army. The South Carolinian
also attracted the attention of the Czarina
through his knowledge of agriculture and of
horticulture. Having come from a wealthy
family with large landholdings, Poinsett had
early developed an interest in these fields which
he would maintain throughout his life. He offered suggestions which improved Russian
John Quincy Adams, later to become President of the United States, reported in 1809
while serving as the American minister to
Russia, that both the Czar and Czarina had expressed high esteem for Poinsett and had hinted
broadly that he should be appointed the
American minister to Russia.
There is no doubt that Poinsett's travels had
a profound effect upon his political beliefs. As
he witnessed the living conditions of the European masses, and especially the serfs in Russia
he came to value the new experiment in government on which his own country had embarked.
Poinsett had become an avid nationalist
who believed that the system of government
conceived by the founding fathers at
Philadelphia was the most perfect ever devised
Having seen first hand the suffering of those
under other forms of government, he was ready
to dedicate his life to his nation's service.
In 1810, within a year of his return to the
United States, President James Madison appointed Joel Poinsett as "agent for seamen and
commerce" in southern South America. The
South Carolinian's travels abroad, his
knowledge of Spanish, and his ability to influence others had marked him for a diplomatic
In 1909, Napoleon had seized the Spanish
royal family and placed his brother, Joseph, on
the throne of Spain. Many Spaniards, living in
the American colonies, remained loyal to King
Ferdinand and formed revolutionary juntas to
defend his rights. These soon gave way to
movements for independence from Spain. The
provisional governments of the Spanish colonies opened their ports to foreign commerce.
England which was always looking for new
markets (and colonies) supported these govern-nents against Napoleon. Poinsett arrived in
Buenos Aires with instructions to combat
British influence with the insurgents. By this
time, England threatened to annex Spanish colonies in Florida and Cuba. Ironically, Poinsett
arrived disguised as an Englishman aboard a
British merchant vessel. The American agent
was 28 years old.
After observing the situation first hand, he
wrote the State Department that the junta in
Buenos Aires desired to declare its independence from Spain and urged their support
by the United States. He urged that we encourage a federation of southern South
America which would counteract Brazil's
monarch, who was under British influence. He
conclused with this prediction: ''All South
America will be separated from the parent
country. They have crossed the Rubicon.''
President Madison responded by appointing
Poinsett Consul-general for Buenos Aires,
Chile and Peru.
Poinsett had misjudged the situation. The
English did not wish to lose the South
American trade and wanted the insurgents to
stop short of independence. The junta dared
not arouse British opposition. Convinced that
nothing more could be accomplished, Poinsett
sought a more favorable climate. In November,
1811, he crossed the Andes into Chile.
Poinsett was the first accredited agent of a
foreign government to reach Chile and he soon
won the favor of the ruling junta.
The viceroy of Peru who was the nominal
ruler of Chile was loyal to Spain. He had
ordered ships dealing with the rebels seized and
their cargoes confiscated. Many American
ships were among them. Poinsett urged that
Chile close its ports to Peru, but the leaders in
Santiago felt they did not have the forces to do
so. They instead asked for American arms. This
was impossible because the United States was
now at war with England and these supplies
were needed at Home.
In July, 1812, a commission representing
the Chilean junta met to draft a declaration of
independence from Spain. Forgetting momentarily the neutrality of the United States,
Poinsett not only met with the commission; but
the meeting was held in his home. He proposed
a constitution patterned after our own. When
troops of the viceroy of Peru landed in
southern Chile, the president of the junta, Don
Miguel Carrera, appointed Poinsett, whose
military knowledge was highly esteemed, to be
his chief military advisor.
The South Carolinian urged an attack on
the port of Talcahuano. Peruvian privateers
had seized several whaling vessels, mostly from
Nantucket, Massachusetts, and were holding
their crews captive. The commander was
threatening to send them to Lima in chains. The
attack was made and the town was captured in
three hours. Imagine the surprise of the
American sailors when they met their liberator,
the American Consul-General. Never before
had an official representative of the United
States joined rebel forces as an active combatant in a civil war against a government officially recognized by our country.
This was the apex of the independence
movement, reenforcements were sent from
Peru. The leaders of the junta were captured
and imprisoned. Poinsett left for Buenos Aires.
When he returned home, he did not report
to the President that he had served with the insurgent army many weeks following the victory
at Talcahuano. With full knowledge of
Poinsett's activities thus incomplete, Monroe
commended him for a job well done.
Returning to Charleston, he became embroiled in South Carolina's politics, being
elected to the state legislature for two terms. He
actively supported internal improvements.
Never one to shun controversy, Poinsett sponsored a bill to limit the importation of slaves into the state. This action was to make him an
arch-enemy of the proslavery faction. Eventually, he would clash with John C. Calhoun,
an anti-Mason, and the strongest political force
in the state.
It was during this period that Poinsett began
what was to become a distinguished Masonic
He is recorded as being a past master of
both Recovery Lodge, No. 31, Creenville,
South Carolina, and of Solomons Lodge, No.
1, in Charleston. In 1821, he was elected Deputy Grand Master of the Grand Lodge of South
Carolina. He was unable to serve as Grand
Master due to his appointment as Secretary of
War in 1841. In 1821 he was elected Grand
High Priest of the Crand Chapter of South
Carolina, holding office until 1841. He served
as Deputy Ceneral Grand High Priest of the
Ceneral Grand Chapter from 1829-1839. He
also introduced Royal Arch Masonry into Mexico.
In 1821, he was elected to the United States
House of Representatives. Because of his experience in diplomacy, he was placed on the
Foreign Affairs Committee. When the
presidential election of 1824 was thrown into
the House, he declared that nothing but an act
of God could prevent him from voting for Andrew Jackson. John Quincy Adams was
elected. On March 7, 1825, Poinsett resigned
from Congress to take up his post as the first
American Minister to Mexico.
Taking time out from his Congressional
duties in 1822, Poinsett had been sent on a
semi-official mission to Mexico by President
James Monroe. Mexico had gained its independence from Spain and Poinsett was to
determine if the U.S. should extend diplomatic
recognition to that country. At the completion
of the mission, he expressed the belief that Iturbide held the imperial throne against the wishes
of the people who were for the establishment of
a liberal constitution and a republican form of
After his appoinement by Adams, Poinsett
arrived in Mexico only to find the conservative
faction, many of whom favored a monarchy, in
"Poinsett had hardly reached Mexico City
when certain members of five newly founded
York Rite lodges requested him to obtain for
them a charter from the United States . . .
Many of the members of the new organization
were men of political influence. Among them
were two members of the cabinet, two senators,
several congressmen and such prominent army
officers as Cuerrero Santa Anna and Zavala.
The movement spread like wildfire and in the
course of a few months some eighty-two lodges
had been organized. Poinsett always insisted
that he did not expect the York Masons to
depart from their legitimate functions of
benevolence and humanitarianism but one
finds this difficult to believe. The Scottish Rites
were already a political party and the new
lodges soon became the nucleus of an opposing
political group known as the Yorkistas. After
this transformation Poinsett found it expedient to desist from attending their meetings but
whether he wished it or not he was forced to
depend upon the members of the York lodges
Rightly or wrongly, Poinsett was accused of
fomenting revolution. So involved had he
become in Mexico's political affairs that as
Guadalope Victoria's term as President neared
its close, Nicolas Bravo, Vice-President and
Scottish Rite Mason, rose in revolt and issued
the Plan de Montano.
"It contained four points: the Congress was
to prohibit by law all secret societies; the President's ministers were to be dismissed; Poinsett
was to be driven out of Mexico; and the constitution was to be rigidly enforced."
The ensuing conflict was one of the
strangest wars ever fought. Two opposing
generals, each serving as Grand Master of a
Masonic Grand Lodge, were to take arms
against brother Masons. Nicolas Bravo was
Grand Master of the Escoceses or Scottish Rite,
while Vicente Guerrero was Grand Master of
the Yorkistas. The two forces met outside Mexico City and the Yorkinos were victorious.
In the election of 1828, the top leaders of
the Yorkino faction ran for the presidency.
Feeling ran particularly high against Poinsett
with several state legislatures calling for his expulsion from Mexico. After a very controversial election, with Pedraza the legally elected
President forced to leave the country, Vicente
Guerrero became President of Mexico. He had
gained the office through the support of Santa
Anna, de Zavala and Poinsett.
So great was the resentment of the Mexican
authorities that on July 1, 1829, President
Guerrero wrote to Andrew Jackson, the
American President, a tactful letter requesting
that the envoy be withdrawn from his post.
Jackson reluctantly granted the request, but
assured Poinsett of his firm confidence that his
envoy had done nothing to merit the prejudice
which had developed against him in Mexico.
At his installation as Deputy General Grand
High Priest, Royal Arch Masons, April 3,1830,
Poinsett defended his action in helping the
Mexican brethren saying:
"I have been most unjustly accused of extending our order and our principals into a
neighboring country with a view of converting
them into an engine of political influence. In
the presence of this . . . assembly and on the
symbols of our order which are spread around
me and the sacred book which is open before
me I solemnly aver that this accusation is false
and unfounded--and that if Masonry has
anywhere been converted to any other purposes
than that for which it was instituted I have in
no way contributed to such perversion of its
By the time Poinsett returned to Charleston,
the question of Nullification has arisen with the
followers of John C. Calhoun expounding the
doctrine that a state had the right to nullify an
act of the federal government if it so desired.
Poinsett, the ardent nationalist, stood with the
forces favoring preservation of the Union
against those who favored secession. As
Unionist leader in South Carolina, he wrote
Andrew Jackson that "Grenades and small
rockets are excellent weapons in street fights. I
would like to have some of them." Jackson
sent them, and South Carolina remained in the
Early in 1837, Martin Van Buren, Jackson's
successor, rewarded the Charlestonian for his
services to the Union by appointing him
Secretary of War, an office for which he was
Some of the problems confronting him were
relations with the Republic of Texas, possible
war with Mexico, and the removal of more than
sixty thousand red men beyond the Mississippi
River. Yet, in 1837, the army numbered less
than 8,000 men, the militia was unorganized
and untrained, and the country was in the midst
of a serious financial panic. Poinsett went to
By 1838, the army was enlarged to 12,500
man. He introduced new weapons into the ar-
tillery, and created a mobile force organized
along European lines. It was this action that
made in possible for the United States to win
the war with Mexico in 1848.
Among his duties was the transfer of
thousands of indians to the West. It was he who
appointed General Winfield Scott to escort
more than twenty thousand Cherokees on their
"Trail of Tears" in which at least a fifth died
on the way.
His term as Secretary of War ended with the
inauguration of William Henry Harrison as
President in 1841.
Poinsett had maintained an interest in
science and the arts. He advocated the application of science to agriculture. His efforts in the
field of botony were not unappreciated. He was
justly honored when the lovely Christmas
flower which he brought from Mexico was
named the Poinsettia pulcherrima in his honor.
His greatest contribution to the progress of
learning in the United States, however was his
work in connection with the founding of the
National Institute for the Promotion of
Science. James Smithson, the illegitimate son
of an English lord, had been shunned by British
aristocracy and was determined to found an institution in America "for the diffusion of
knowledge among men." The South Carolinian
gathered about him some of the most learned
men in America and, using Smithson's bequest,
organized the greatest center of learning known
in the world today, the Smithsonian Institution.
Poinsett was its first president and thus for a
brief time assumed the intellectual leadership of
the nation, serving from 1841 until 1845.
Returning to South Carolina, he cautioned
against U.S. involvement in a war with Mexico,
but favored a course of moderation in dealing
with them if it occured. He actively fought the
Calhoun faction that had begun to agitate for
As we look back upon his accomplishments,
Joel Roberts Poinsett appears as a true
Renaissance man. He was an expert in
agriculture and horticulture, a diplomat, a
legislator, a Congressman, a Secretary of War,
an advisor to the Czar, the founder of The
Smithsonian Institution, an active member of
our Fraternity, and a lover of our American
Union. His influence on our nation during the
first half of the Nineteenth Century has been of
On December 12, 1851, shortly after leading
the Union party to victory over the secessionists
in his native state, Joel Roberts Poinsett died of
tuberculosis, hastened by an attack of
pneumonia. He had made his last stand for the
Union he loved. He was buried in the cemetery
of the Church of the Holy Cross, Episcopal,
Stateburg, South Carolina.
This Short Talk Bulletin has been adopted from
a paper presented at the William M. Taylor
Chapter of the Philalethes Society in Houston,
Texas in February 1984. They have graciously
permitted its use as a Short Talk Bulletin.