Joel Roberts Poinsett

Joel Poinsett is not known to have ever resided in Texas but was a career public servant and diplomat whose efforts could possibly have led to the addition of Texas to the United States prior to the Texas Revolution.

Poinsett was born in South Carolina in 1779 and received some of his higher education in the United Kingdom before completing it in the United States.  As a young man, he traveled widely.  One of his early diplomatic posts was to be appointed trade envoy to South America.  There he was known to promote United States interests above those of Spain.  This caused him to be unpopular with Spanish interests in South America and led to his return to the United States in 1814.

For the next few years, he served in South Carolina’s assembly before being elected to Congress from Charleston.  In 1825, Poinsett accepted an appointment from President James Monroe, officially serving under John Quincy Adams since his confirmation occurred roughly at the same time as Adams’ inauguration, to take the position of the first United States ambassador to Mexico.  According to the United States Gazette of March 15, 1825 out of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, his actual title was “Envoy Extraordinary and Minister Plenipotentiary to Mexico.”  Mexico had recently secured its independence from Spain.  Among its various interests, the United States favored an independent Mexico.  More broadly, President Monroe’s political philosophy was followed for some time and came to be later called the Monroe Doctrine.  Its points included the following: the United States would not interfere with wars/affairs of European countries; the United States would not interfere with existing colonies in the Western Hemisphere; the United States was not in favor of any further colonization in the Western Hemisphere and any such action would be viewed as aggressive and hostile toward the United States.

The first half of the 19th century saw the greatest expansion of the United States.  Shortly after 1800, future president Monroe had been sent by President Thomas Jefferson to negotiate with France.  As a result of the negotiations, the United States had succeeded in acquiring the Louisiana Territory from France in 1803 in what is called the Louisiana Purchase.  Florida was ceded to the United States by Spain in 1819 by a treaty that also established the boundary between the United States and New Spain.  A section of this latter area was the subject of Poinsett’s negotiations.  He was authorized to try to acquire from Mexico a portion of New Spain that lay north of the Rio Grande from Mexico, extending along the Pecos River to its source, and terminating at the Arkansas River.

It is unknown just how close Poinsett’s negotiations came to being successful, though in hindsight it does not seem too likely that they would have succeeded.  Hypothetically, had he been able to accomplish an agreement with Mexico, such a purchase might have made the Texas Revolution unnecessary and possibly (though most likely not) avoided the years of border clashes with Mexico.  Poinsett was authorized to offer one million dollars for the area.  For various reasons, Poinsett was unsuccessful.  He is said to have again aggressively represented the United States interests in this and other matters, which after all was his assignment.  Opposition from national and outside interests (including those of the British) in Mexico led Poinsett’s recall in 1830.  Poinsett went on to serve in other capacities including an appointment to serve as Secretary of War in 1837.

Poinsett continuously served under three presidents: John Quincy Adams, Andrew Jackson and Martin Van Buren.  Politically, he was a Unionist, an abolitionist and an advocate of a strong military.  He continued to serve the United States in various capacities until the early 1840s, after which he returned to his native South Carolina.  He died in 1851 and is buried in Stateburg, South Carolina.


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Poinsett’s many varied interests included botany, and while he was in Mexico, he is known to have found and cultivated a beautiful red leafed plant.  Poinsett brought cuttings back to his South Carolina farm.  Its scientific name is euphorbia pulcherrima.  This is the now familiar Poinsettia, and the common name of the plant is named in his honor

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