Joel Roberts Poinsett (March 2, 1779-December 12, 1851) was a member of the United States House of Representatives, the first United States Minister to Mexico (the United States did not appoint ambassadors until 1896), a U.S. Secretary of War under Martin Van Buren and a co-founder of National Institute for the Promotion of Science and the Useful Arts (a predecessor of the Smithsonian Institution).
He is the eponym of the historic Poinsett Bridge in Greenville County, as well as Poinsett State Park in Sumter County and the poinsettia, a popular Christmas flower.
Born in Charleston, he served as a “special agent” to two South American countries from 1810 to 1814, Chile and Argentina. President James Madison appointed him in 1809 as Consul in General. Poinsett was to investigate the prospects of the revolutionists, in their struggle for independence from Spain.
In 1816, Poinsett was aware that his friends had nominated him to represent Charleston in the state legislature. In Greenville on his way back home, he learned that he had won the nomination and had a seat in the state house of representatives
For Poinsett, whose political values mirrored those of the Jeffersonian Republicans, one of the most important measures supported by Jeffersonian Republicans following the War of 1812 was that of federally funded internal improvements. As a member of the state legislature, this was one of Poinsett’s passions. After being re-elected to the South Carolina House in 1818, he became a member of the Committee on Internal Improvements and Waterways. Poinsett also served on the South Carolina Board of Public Works as President. One of the main plans of this board was to link the interior of the state with the seaboard. Another important project was the construction of a highway from Charleston through Columbia, to the northwestern border of South Carolina. It was designed to promote interstate commerce as well as to draw commerce from eastern Tennessee and western North Carolina to Charleston.
Poinsett, a seasoned traveler, knew better than anyone the importance of good roadways. Through his journeys in New England in 1804 and especially to the west in 1816, Poinsett understood that his country could benefit from transportation facilities. In 1820, Poinsett won a seat in the United States House of Representatives for the Charleston district. As a congressman, Poinsett continued to call for internal improvements, but he also advocated the maintenance of a strong army and navy.
He simultaneously served as a special envoy to Mexico from 1822 to 1823 and was appointed the first American minister to Mexico in 1825, and became embroiled in the country’s political turmoil until his recall in 1830. It was during this time that he visited the area of southern Mexico called Taxco del Alarcon and discovered what was later to become known as the poinsettia, in Mexico is called “Flor de Noche Buena” (Christmas Eve flower). (The Aztecs referred to the winter-blooming plant as cuetlaxochitl; its Latin name is Euphorbia pulcherrima or “the most beautiful Euphorbia.”) Poinsett, an avid amateur botanist, sent samples of the plant home to the States and by 1836 the plant was most widely known as the “poinsettia.”
In 1830, Poinsett returned to South Carolina to espouse the Unionist cause in nullification quarrels and to again serve in the South Carolina state legislature. In this capacity, Poinsett was President Andrew Jackson's confidential agent. Between October 1832, and March 1833, his correspondence kept Jackson abreast of the evolving situation in their home state, helping Jackson to craft policy in regards to the crisis. He was occupied thus until 1833, when he married Mary Izard Pringle.
Poinsett served as Secretary of War from 1837-41 and presided over the continuing removal of Indians west of the Mississippi and over the Seminole War. He retired to his plantation at Georgetown in 1841.
He died near Stateburg in 1851 and is buried at the Church of the Holy Cross Episcopal Cemetery.
It is unknown when Poinsett became a Master Mason, but it is known that he was a Past Master of Recovery Lodge #31, Greenville, and Solomons Lodge #1, Charleston.