MOS Citation: This passage on Poinsett was adopted from a paper presented at the William M. Taylor Chapter of the Philalethes Society in Houston, Texas in February 1984.
Joel Roberts Poinsett was born in Charleston, South Carolina, on March 2, 1779, of wealthy parents. His 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. He attended medical school in Edinburgh as well as the Royal Military Academy, and he studied law.
Poinsett then traveled Europe for 8 years where he met kings, ministers, financiers, the Czar, and even Napoleon. There is no doubt that Poinsett's travels had a profound effect upon his political beliefs and 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.
He was sent as a special representative to South America becoming entangled in revolutions in Argentina and Chile. 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 including roads to Greenville and the upstate. 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 pro slavery 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 career. He is recorded as being a past master of both Recovery Lodge, No. 31, Greenville, and of Solomon's 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 election to Congress. He also introduced Royal Arch Masonry into Mexico.
In 1821, he was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives. Because of his experience in diplomacy, he was placed on the Foreign Affairs Committee. On March 7, 1825, Poinsett resigned from Congress to take up his post as the first American Minister to Mexico.
By the time Poinsett returned to Charleston, the question of Nullification has arisen with the followers of 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.
Poinsett had a great interest in science and the arts. He advocated the application of science to agriculture. The flower he brought from Mexico, the Poinsettia was named in his honor. He worked in connection with the founding of the National Institute for the Promotion of Science and helped found the Smithsonian Institution.and served as its first president and for a brief time assumed the intellectual leadership of the nation, serving from 1841 until 1845.
As we look back upon his accomplishments, Joel 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 lasting importance.