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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 528

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This is the grave of Joel Poinsett.

Born in 1779 to a rich doctor and his wife in Charleston, South Carolina, Poinsett was educated with the elites of his time. Some of his schooling was in Charleston, but some of it was in Europe, something obtainable to only the wealthiest people in the new nation. He trained to become a doctor like his father, but also picked up several languages, an understanding of military techniques, and a general sense of international relations, all of which helped make him one of the most influential figures of pre-Civil War era.

In 1800, Poinsett returned from Europe and wanted to be a soldier. His father was very unhappy with that. So they compromised and instead, the young man studied law. But Poinsett hated it. So his parents sent him back to Europe for a couple of years, where he did the Grand Tour, spending lots of time hobnobbing with the wealthy, both European and American. He only returned in 1803, when his father died. Then his sister died soon upon his return. As the sole heir, Poinsett was now a very rich young man, much of it in slaves, but also a lot of banking interests and property. So he traveled to Europe again.

In 1806, Poinsett was in St. Petersburg, Russia. He knew the American consul there, who had him introduced to the Czar. When the Empress discovered he was from South Carolina, she asked him to inspect the Russian cotton factories. Through this, he did meet the Czar, who asked him over dinner whether he might join the Russian military or the civil service there. That was a bit too much of a commitment for Poinsett, but Alexander I told him to travel around Russia and then make a decision. He certainly was willing to take a chance on that. So he traveled not only to Moscow but deep into Russia, well into the Caucasus, where they had a Cossack escort and to Baku. In fact, the trip was very rough. Only two of the nine people who started the trip survived it. When Poinsett returned to St. Petersburg, Alexander II again offered him a job. But by this time, Poinsett had heard news of the British attack on the USS Chesapeake and sensing war and thus military opportunity, decided to return home. That was however a few years off still.

By 1809, Poinsett, despite having never actually come close to working a day in his life, was one of the nation’s few experts on the world. After all, very very few had traveled as extensively as he had. Moreover, he had a clear talent for diplomacy, having personally significantly improved relations between the U.S. and Russia just through his personality and knowledge. A good Jeffersonian like many of the southern elite, this made him a man with a lot of opportunities. So, in 1811, the new Madison presidency entrusted Poinsett with a travel mission–go to Latin America and see what the chances the Spanish colonies were in fact going to revolt. So he traveled to Argentina and Chile. He actively encouraged the Chilean revolution, though he couldn’t really offer serious U.S. help, as it was already occupied with its impending war with the British. Peru, controlled by Spanish loyalists, was furious and began impounding American ships. Since was the American representative in Chile, he thought it was within his rights to volunteer in the Chilean army to fight Peru and he became a general. Finally, he would have his military service. And he in fact did fight, leading a cavalry charge at the Battle of San Carlos, which was a loss for the Chileans, though they did eventually defeat the Peruvians. By this time, when an American ship showed up, Poinsett found out that the U.S. was at war with Britain and he desperately wanted to return so he could fight. But he was stuck in Chile. With the British Navy dominating the seas, Poinsett just had to wait it out. He ended up in Buenos Aires, but did not make it back to the U.S. until 1815.

When Poinsett returned, not only was he one of the nation’s only experts on Latin America, but he actively tried to help his Chilean revolutionist friends. When the revolution’s leader Jose Miguel Carrera came to the U.S. to gin up support, Poinsett did what he could. He introduced him to major Americans, such as John Jacob Astor and even President Madison. But he couldn’t gin up any real interest in active support. Madison was primarily concerned with acquiring Florida and didn’t want to anger the Spanish any more than necessary. Poinsett then took a tour of the west, staying with Henry Clay and Andrew Jackson. He probably played a key role in turning Clay into a powerful defender of the Latin American revolutions, their biggest advocate in Washington. All the time he was gone, Poinsett was working up political support for himself. And in fact, he won a seat in the South Carolina legislature while he was gone without even knowing he was a candidate. He was pretty into this. In fact, the Monroe administration offered him a position as special envoy to South America in 1817, but he turned it down.

As a state rep, Poinsett was a big internal improvements guy, especially on issues of transportation and the limitations of it at the time, which he personally knew very well. In 1820, he went to Congress. There, he was a strong nationalist, allied with John Quincy Adams and John C. Calhoun, which made sense at the time, before Calhoun made the cynical turn to extremist states rights rhetoric to save his own political career. As a nationalist, he also sought to build American institutions and was an influential person in the creation and development of the Smithsonian, one of the leading group that pushed for the original bequest to be used for a national museum in Washington.

Poinsett also remained involved with Latin American affairs, traveling to Mexico on multiple occasions to represent both the Monroe and Adams administrations. One of his tasks was to get Mexico to sell big parts of their nation to the U.S., basically what the Americans eventually stole to expand slavery in the Mexican War, but also well down into Nuevo Leon, Sonora, and Coahuila. Mexico was, uh, not interested. He became minister to Mexico in 1825, resigning from Congress to do so. While in Mexico, Poinsett also ran into a cool plant that he sent back to the United States. That became known here as the poinsettia, a name it had taken on by the mid-1830s.

Poinsett returned to the U.S. in 1830, in the middle of the growing crisis between Andrew Jackson and South Carolina over nullification. In this, the strong nationalist was openly on the side of Jackson and was feeding him inside information. In 1837, Martin Van Buren named Poinsett as Secretary of War and he served for the entirety of that administration. As such, it was Poinsett who was in charge of much of Indian Removal. Jackson gets all the criticism for that, but it really should be spread much wider, very much including Van Buren, Poinsett, and the large majority of American whites, some of whom were disappointed because they though the Cherokee and other tribes should simply be eliminated through murder and execution. Other than mass genocide against Native people, his tenure in the War Department was relatively quiet, mostly focusing on internal military reforms.

In 1841, after Van Buren’s defeat, Poinsett returned to his plantation in South Carolina. It’s very much worth noting that though Poinsett had spent very little time there before this, his ability to be a world traveler and wealthy guy without working was all happening on the back of his slaves producing cotton and other goods for the global capitalist market. Violent control over labor was at the core of Poinsett’s republicanism, just as it was for many of his allies. He died in 1851 of tuberculosis.

Joel Poinsett is buried in Church of the Holy Cross Cemetery, Stateburg, South Carolina.

If you would like this series to visit other Secretaries of War during the early 19th century, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Lewis Cass (an odious man in his own right) is in Detroit and Peter Buell Porter is in Niagara Falls, New York. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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