South Carolinian John Roberts Poinsett planted lasting cultural seeds
BY COURTNEY TOLLISON HARTNESS
On Dec. 12, Americans celebrated National Poinsettia Day. This annual recognition isn’t incredibly well known, although that vibrant red plant upon which that day is based and the person for whom the plant is named have roots in South Carolina history.
The plant initially came to the U.S. from Mexico nearly 200 years ago when South Carolinian Joel Roberts Poinsett distributed the cuttings he obtained during his service as our nation’s first Minister to Mexico.
Poinsett has a strong presence in Greenville. We have honored him with a highway, bridge, hotel, dining club, and statue on Main Street. Who was he?
Joel Poinsett was born in Charleston in the midst of the American Revolution, but was educated primarily in England. His education included a focus on languages: He spoke English, German, French, Spanish, Italian, and Russian. He is considered to be amongst the most well- traveled Americans of his time.
He studied medicine, military strategy, and the law, and hoped to pursue a military career. When his father allegedly dissuaded him from joining the Army, young Poinsett proposed that he travel widely across Europe, an alternative his father supported. For the majority of the next nine years, Poinsett traveled Europe, North America, and Canada, visiting notables such as Jacques Necker, former finance minister to Louis XVI of France; Robert Livingston, U.S. Minister to France and negotiator of the Louisiana Purchase; the royal family of Prussia; and Czar Alexander I and his family in Russia. After the Czarina learned of Poinsett’s connections to South Carolina, a state whose economy remained firmly entrenched in slave-based agriculture and cotton in particular, she asked Poinsett to inspect the cotton mills burgeoning in the early phase of industrialization in Europe, and thus he embarked on a months-long tour of Russia’s textile industry.
Poinsett returned to Charleston, but his stay was brief, as President James Madison asked him, on the eve of the War of 1812, to visit South America to learn if countries in rebellion from Spain may be ripe for treaties with the U.S. Poinsett spent the next five years in South America, and soon after his return home, was elected to the S.C. House of Representatives after friends nominated him. News of his first political victory reached him while he was travelling through Greenville.
In his capacity as a state representative, Poinsett became particularly interested in infrastructural development. As president of the Board of Public Works for the state, he led efforts to develop a road from Charleston through Columbia and Greenville and into the mountains of the northwestern corner of the state. His efforts to improve transportation effectively promoted trade from the coast throughout the state.
During this time, Poinsett also began a near-lifelong tradition of hosting Sunday morning breakfasts with Charleston’s intellectual and cultural elite and distinguished visitors, such as his friend Marquis de Lafayette. Poinsett was socially-skilled, well-connected, and considered a fascinating raconteur and gracious host. These breakfasts became a staple of Charleston’s elite social scene.
After his second term in the State House, Poinsett ran for a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives, where he served from 1820 to 1825. During his third term, he resigned his seat to become the first U.S. Minister to Mexico after his successful nomination to this post by President John Quincy Adams. Poinsett’s time in Mexico was tumultuous, complicated in part by U.S. ambitions regarding the acquisition of Texas; Poinsett offered the Mexican government $5 million for Texas, but Mexico did not accept.
In Mexico, Poinsett was intrigued by a vibrant red shrub referred to as Flor de Noche Buena (Christmas Eve Flower). He sent friends cuttings from the plant, one of which eventually reached staff at the Royal Botanic Garden in Edinburgh. During his lifetime, the plant became known as the Poinsettia, and in the decades after the Civil War, the plant’s bright red leaves became associated with the holiday season. Today, it is wildly popular: the Poinsettia is the best-selling potted plant in the U.S. and Canada, with sales of Poinsettias contributing $250 million to the U.S. retail industry annually.
Poinsett’s experiences in Mexico attracted national attention; some even mentioned his potential as a candidate for president of the United States. Like many politicians of this era, Poinsett was swept into the divisive politics that eventually led to Civil War. He returned to the S.C. House in 1830 and served as the recognized leader amongst those who opposed the nullification of federal legislation that many Southerners deemed financially punitive to Southern agriculture.
Before the end of that decade, however, Poinsett once again resigned to serve the president, this time as secretary of war under President Martin van Buren. In this role, Poinsett developed West Point into one of the finest educational institutions in the country. He encouraged more sophisticated military tactics by sending officers abroad to study in Europe, and oversaw improvements in Army weaponry.
In his role as secretary of war, Poinsett pioneered the development of the National Institution for the Promotion of Science. His vision was prompted by a substantial bequest from James Smithson, the illegitimate son of a British Lord who felt snubbed by the aristocracy and thus vowed to establish in America (a country who had recently and successfully fought two wars against England) an institution that would outlast the aristocrats who had spurned him. Poinsett remained at the forefront of discussions that led to the establishment of the Smithsonian Institution, and engaged fellow South Carolinian Robert Mills, a man considered America’s first architect, to develop a layout for what became the National Mall in Washington, D.C., with the grand obeliskal monument to George Washington at its center.
Through his decades-long relationship with Mills, Poinsett’s legacy is in part architectural as well; during his time as president of the Board of Public Works in S.C., Mills served as superintendent of Public Buildings. During Poinsett’s tenure, Mills designed the campus of the University of South Carolina, jails and courthouses (including one in Greenville), the Fireproof Building in Charleston, and is believed to have designed the bridge in Greenville now named for Joel Poinsett. Later, while Poinsett was Secretary of War, he selected Mills to design a library and observatory at West Point.
During the 1830s and throughout the 1840s, Poinsett spent summers at The Homestead, his home outside of Greenville, joining the wave of the well-to-do who travelled from the Lowcountry to what became known in contrast as the Upcountry. His small home had an elaborate garden designed by Poinsett himself.
In 1851, after months of failing health, Poinsett embarked on a trip from his home in the Lowcountry to The Homestead; he never reached his destination. Falling ill near Stateburg, he died and was buried in the Episcopal church’s cemetery there. Today, a state park nearby bears his name.
His marker does not mention his national prominence, his laudable positions in our government, his role in establishing the Smithsonian Institution, his influence on architecture, or his relationship to the plant most closely associated with the holidays.
Instead, it reads, “A pure patriot, an honest man, and a good Christian.”
Annually, Americans honor those who have shaped our national culture. We honor the birthdays of George Washington and Martin Luther King, amongst others. We also honor the life of Joel Poinsett on Poinsettia Day every Dec. 12, the anniversary of his death.
On Poinsettia Day and throughout the holiday season, our nation’s much-loved and ever-present plant serves as a beautiful reminder of our native statesman, a man who fertilized some of our nation’s most significant educational, cultural, and military institutions, in whom this state can take much pride.
Courtney Tollison Hartness, Ph.D, is an assistant professor of history at Furman University and the historian for the Upcountry History Museum in Greenville.