Roberts Poinsett (Statesman)
Roberts Poinsett was born in Charleston, South Carolina, 2
March, 1779. He was of Huguenot descent, and the last of his
family. He was educated at Timothy Dwight's school in
Greenfield, Connecticut, and in England, and then studied
medicine at Edinburgh university, and military science at
Woolwich academy. His father induced him to abandon his
intention of entering the army and become a student of law, but
feeble health obliged him to go abroad again, and he travelled
widely in Europe and Asia.
was in St. Petersburg the czar offered him a commission in the
Russian army. On his return to the United States in 1809 he
asked President Madison for military employment, and the latter
was about to make him quartermaster-general of the army, but the
secretary of war objected, and Mr. Poinsett was sent by the
government to South America to inquire into the condition of the
inhabitants of that continent and their prospects of success in
their struggle with Spain for independence.
was in Chili the Spanish authorities of Peru, hearing that war
had begun between Spain and the United States, seized several
American merchant vessels, and then, invading Chilian territory,
captured others at Talcahuano. Poinsett put himself at the head
of a considerable force that was placed at his disposal by the
Republican government of Chili, and, attacking the Spaniards,
retook the ships. He was at Valparaiso during the fight between
the "Essex" and the "Phoebe" and
"Cherub" (see PORTER, DAVID), and wished to return
home at once to enter the army, but the British naval
authorities refused to let him go by sea, and, after crossing
the Andes in April and meeting with various delays, he reached
the United States after the declaration of peace.
return he was elected to the South Carolina legislature, where
he interested himself in projects of internal improvement, and
secured the construction of a road over the Saluda mountain. He
was afterward chosen to congress as a Federalist, and served two
terms in 1821-'5, advocating the cause of the South American
republics and that of Greek independence.
he discharged an important special mission to Mexico during the
reign of Hurbide, and in 1825 he returned to that country as
United States minister. During his term of office, which lasted
till 1829, he negotiated a treaty of commerce, and maintained
his independence with spirit and courage in the midst of many
revolutionary outbreaks. He was accused by the Church party of
interfering against them, but justified his course in a pamphlet
after his return.
request of Freemasons in Mexico he sent for charters for their
lodges to the Grand lodge of New York, and he was consequently
accused of introducing Masonry into the country. On his return
to his native state he became the leader of the Union party
there in the struggle against nullification, opposing it by his
speeches and in the public press, and has been credited with the
military organization of the supporters of the National
government in Charleston.
authorized by President Jackson to obtain arms and ammunition
from the government supplies in the harbor, and it was said by
some that he had been secretly commissioned a colonel. During
Van Buren's administration he held the portfolio of war in the
cabinet. In this office he improved the field-artillery of the
army, and in 1840 strongly recommended that congress should aid
the states in reorganizing their militia. This was his last
public office, and he afterward lived in retirement.
He was an
earnest opponent of the Mexican war. Poinsett was the author of
various essays and orations on manufacturing and agricultural
topics, and of a discourse on the "Promotion of
Science" (in 1841) at the first anniversary of the National
institution, to which he gave a valuable museum.
much interest in botany, and the "Poinsettia Pulcherrina,"
a Mexican flower, which he introduced into this country, was
named for him. He was also the founder of an academy of fine
arts at Charleston, which existed for several years, and
published "Notes on Mexico, made in 1822, with an
Historical Sketch of the Revolution" (Philadelphia, 1824).
He left a
mass of correspondence and other papers, which remain
unpublished. Columbia gave him the degree of LB. D. in 1825. He
died in Statesburg, South Carolina, 12 December, 1851. A
portrait of Poinsett, by John Wesley Jarvis, was presented to
the city of Charleston by William Courtenay in 1887.