Holiday Bonus Episode: Yeah, That Poinsett
In this bonus holiday episode, a re-release from 2020, we explore the consular life of Joel Roberts Poinsett, everyone’s favorite holiday historical figure. Before he went to Mexico, where he “discovered” the flower that now bears his name, Poinsett went all over the world, including to South American as a consul. While he was there, he got involved in quite a lot of activities that didn’t really fit the consular program.
ABBY MULLEN: Since we’re staying home for the holidays this year, I thought that today I’d tell you a little story about a guy who’s pretty famous in my hometown.
MULLEN: If you ever visit downtown Greenville, South Carolina, #yeahTHATgreenville, you’ll notice that there are a few names that dominate the space. Names like Wade Hampton, Greenville’s favorite Confederate son, or the lesser known Vardry McBee. But there’s one guy who has a hotel, a highway and a statue. And that’s just in downtown. His name is Joel Roberts Poinsett.
MULLEN: I’m Abby Mullen and this is Consolation Prize, a podcast about the history of the United States in the world through the eyes of its consuls. In this special holiday mini episode, we’re gonna be talking about Joel Poinsett, who was a consul among the many other things that he did. Now, I’m not at home in Greenville for Christmas this year. But my sister Auria is, so I sent her on a scavenger hunt to find all the places that he turns up. There are two big Poinsett markers in downtown Greenville, a hotel and a statue.
AURIA GARLAND: Here’s the Westin Poinsett. They have like a restaurant that’s attached.
MULLEN: Oh right, wait, wait, go back, what is that restaurant called? Oh, Joel’s Java. That is hilarious, actually, because I assume the Joel that’s being referred to there is in fact,
MULLEN AND GARLAND: Joel Poinsett.
MULLEN: So we found a plaque and a portrait in the hotel. But this statue is the real tourist draw.
GARLAND: There’s your friend, Mr. Poinsett.
MULLEN: Oh, excellent. Let’s go talk to him.
GARLAND: Well, he’s having his picture taken by some other people. So…
MULLEN: In fact, there were so many people around the statue, even in COVID times, that it was actually almost impossible for Arria to get close to the plaque.
GARLAND: Do you guys want me to take a picture of all of you?
UNKNOWN PERSON IN BACKGROUND: Oh, would you mind?
GARLAND: Yeah. Give me just a sec, Abby.
MULLEN: I’d like to think that that was because everybody wants to know about this historical figure. But it’s probably because there was a giant Christmas tree behind him. So people could sit down next to Mr. Poinsett, take a family photo and have a nice little Christmas photo with the tree in the background. People were just walking right over the plaque on the ground that explains who this guy is.
GARLAND: The plaque says, “Joel Roberts Poinsett, statesman, diplomat, naturalist, founder, national institution for the promotion of something” science, maybe? It’s kind of lost in the middle. Something of the Smithsonian Institution. Oh, he was founder, National Institution for the Promotion of something, which was the forerunner of the Smithsonian Institution.
MULLEN: Poinsett is one of those complicated characters like the ones that have been in the news a lot recently. If you’re not from Greenville, or Charleston, maybe you’ve never even heard of him. Or if you have it’s only because you bought a poinsettia around the holidays. He was born in 1779 in Charleston, South Carolina, and he spent most of his life working in the government. I think we could accurately call him a statesman. In his day, he was one of the most highly regarded diplomats in the United States. He served as the US minister to Mexico. He was a state and national legislator for South Carolina. All of that stuff is on the plaques around town in Greenville.
GARLAND (reading a plaque): Born in Charleston, South Carolina, educated in this country in Great Britain, he traveled widely in Europe and Asia before returning to his distinguished career. He served South Carolina in the state legislature 1816 to 1820, 1830 to 1832 and the Chairman of the Board of Public Works 1818 to 1820. He represented South Carolina and Congress 1821 through 1825 was the first American minister to Mexico 1825 to 1829 and Secretary of War 1837 to 1841. Erected by the Greenville County Historical Society in 1968.
MULLEN: But he was also an enslaver and a Secretary of War in the 1830s. Under Martin Van Buren, he was the overseer of the Indian removal policy that Andrew Jackson had put into place.
MULLEN: It would take several hours to tell the story points at Whole life so we are not going to do that. We’re gonna focus on just four or so years of his life, when he was just a young man starting out his diplomatic career. Since our thing is consuls, you will not be surprised to learn that these four years of his life are when he was a consul, in fact, he was the Consul General for Chile, Peru, and Argentina.
MULLEN: When Poinsett first went to South America, he didn’t actually go as a consul. He was posted by President James Madison to be a Special Agent in South America, keeping an eye on the political situation there. The Spanish colonies in South America had begun to look toward independence, and many of them were in revolution. So Poinsett was there to keep an eye on those revolutions.
MULLEN: Poinsett did keep an eye on things. He traveled through Argentina and into Chile when he arrived in South America in 1811. The Chilean revolutionaries were mostly happy to see him. But the Spanish, French, and British agents in the area thought he was up to no good—and they might have been right. By 1812, President Madison changed his status from special agent to Consul General. Now, you might remember that both ends of a mission need to agree in order for a consul to be accepted. We talked about that in our bonus episode. Poinsett was appointed by James Madison. But the revolutionary government of Chile, which we call a junta, wasn’t so sure that they were going to accept his appointment. Poinsett made a friend, a guy named Carrera, and Carrera helped convince them to accept him.
ANDREW GARLAND (as Joel Poinsett):
The government of the United States has charged me with this commission to the excellent government of Chile, in order to prove in no equivocal way its friendship and desires to establish with this kingdom commercial relations mutually advantageous. The Americans of the North look generally with great interest upon the success of these countries, and desire with ardor, the prosperity and Felicity of their brother of the South. I shall present to the government of the United States the friendly sentiments with which you have congratulated me, and having been the first who had the honorable task of establishing relations between the two generous nations who want to look up to one another as friends and natural allies.
MULLEN: After that, Poinsett immediately got involved in local politics encouraging the revolutionaries. Just a few months after his consulship was approved, he hosted the Chilean group in charge of writing a new constitution for Chile.
MULLEN: While revolution was swirling in South America, war was also breaking out in the United States. Poinsett was so far from home, he didn’t know about the war at first. He first found out from Captain David Porter, who came into port in Valparaiso while he was out hunting British ships.
MULLEN: Poinsett was surrounded by war. In his immediate area, Chile and Peru were fighting against Spain and against each other. The United States and Great Britain were at war now too. And that conflict affected even this remote location. Poinsett really wanted to fight. He wanted a commission in the US Army more than anything, but he couldn’t get that now when he was in South America. So since he couldn’t get involved in the war of 1812, Poinsett got involved in the Chilean war instead.
MULLEN: In 1813, Poinsett learned that Americans had been caught in the crossfire in the revolutionary conflicts in the area. 11 American whale ships had been captured by the Peruvian royalist military in the Bay of Concepcion, and were being held in Callao.
MULLEN: Poinsett didn’t think official channels would be able to get these whalers released, and he didn’t want to wait for orders anyway. So he joined Carrera’s army—as a general—to go attack the Peruvian occupying force and free the American whalers. Poinsett was material to the Chilean victory at the Battle of San Carlos before he was able to release the American whalers at Talcahuano. They weren’t quite surprised to find an American there helping them.
MULLEN: Just so we’re clear, joining another country’s army in order to help Americans is not in the script for consuls, definitely not part of their official duties. But no one really actually seemed to be too mad at him. Maybe if things had gone another way, it would have been different. But since the mission was successful, no one really cared. Poinsett actually served for several months of 1813 in the Chilean army. He defended his actions by arguing that seizing American ships made Peru the enemy. And since he didn’t have any other instructions from the State Department, this seemed like the only way to get those Americans released. This is what we might call going above and beyond the call of duty.Just so we're clear, joining another country's army in order to help Americans is not in the script for consuls, definitely not part of their official duties. Find out more about consul Joel Poinsett in our bonus holiday episode. Click To Tweet
MULLEN: These actions were the high point for the Chilean rebels. Within a few months, their fortunes had turned and things started going badly for them. Poinsett’s reputation took a hit too. And so he started thinking about going home. But that’s easier said than done. The British Navy was blockading off the coast of South America, so there weren’t very many American ships around that could get Poinsett out. So he had to wait.
MULLEN: His rescuer—or so he thought—was once again David Porter. Porter returned to Valparaiso in 1814 after sailing in the South Pacific hunting British ships. This was Poinsett’s chance to get out of South America. But when Porter tried to get out of Valparaiso, the British blockaded him in. Now, Porter wasn’t going to just sit there and wait for those ships to leave. But when he tried to get out, the Essex, his ship, was destroyed.
MULLEN: Porter had to go home on a different unarmed ship, but the British wouldn’t let Poinsett leave. By this point, though, Poinsett was not really welcome in Chile anymore either, even by the junta. The British influence in the area had turned them against him. He couldn’t go home on the sea because the British were still there. So he had to travel overland to Buenos Aires before he could find a Portuguese ship that would take him home. He arrived in Charleston in May of 1815, where the war with Great Britain was already over, and he’d missed it.
MULLEN: Thus ended Joel Poinsett’s consular career. He wrote a lot of letters home about the people, the climate, the flora and fauna of South America in between meddling in the politics and fighting for foreign countries. This wasn’t the end of his political career. He served in the South Carolina legislature, and then he was the minister to Mexico, where he described for science the flower that now in English at least bears his name, poinsettia. At the end of his life, he was the Secretary of War, when he oversaw Indian removal under the presidency of Martin Van Buren.
MULLEN: Poinsett’s name is associated with two things in my mind: Greenville, South Carolina, and a Christmas flower. But his life is much more complicated, in both its good and bad moments. And he’s certainly a consul worth studying. Maybe someday we’ll do a full episode on him. In the meantime, have a great holiday. We’ll be taking a little break over the holidays. And we’ll be back on January 26. When we’re heading to Jerusalem to talk about Americans’ obsession with the Holy Land.
Consolation Prize is a podcast of the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media at George Mason University. This holiday mini episode was produced by Abby Mullen and me Brenda Riley. Our music is by Andrew Cote. Special thanks to Andrew Garland for being the voice of Joel Poinsett, and special thanks to Auria Garland for being our Poinsett scout. Thanks again to all of you for listening to Consolation Prize this year. Have a safe and happy holidays.
Cruz, Juan. Armies, Politics and Revolution: Chile, 1808-1826. Oxford: Liverpool University Press, 2014.
Eicher, Peter D. Raising the Flag: America’s First Envoys in Faraway Lands. ADST-DACOR Diplomats and Diplomacy Series. Lincoln: An ADST-DACOR Diplomats and Diplomacy Book an imprint of the University of Nebraska Press, 2018.
Parton, Dorothy M. “The Diplomatic Career of Joel Roberts Poinsett (1779-1851).” Ph.D. diss., Catholic University of America, 1934.
Rippy, J. Fred, 1892-1977. Joel R. Poinsett, Versatile American. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1935.
Stillé, Charles. The Life and Services of Joel R. Poinsett, the Confidential Agent in South Carolina of President Jackson During the Nullification Troubles of 1832, 1888.