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46
F O R E I G N S E R V I C E J O U R N A L / J U LY - A U G U S T 2 0 1 2
uring the Napoleonic era, when Span-
ish America saw the opportunity to
seek independence, the United States
seized the opportunity to increase its
political and commercial influence in
the area, while limiting or excluding
that of European powers.
Beginning in 1810, a primary agent
for the implementation of these policies was
Joel Roberts
Poinsett
(1779-1851).
A botanist, traveler and politician, Poinsett was the first
U.S. envoy to the pre-independence Spanish colonies in the
cone of South America; he was later envoy to Mexico. He
was involved in the independence movements of Argentina
and Chile; and while in Mexico, he tried to purchase Texas
and limit British influence.
Joel Roberts Poinsett was born in Charleston, S.C., in
1779, the descendant of a family of French Huguenots, who
had moved to the U.S. in the 1660s. He was educated in
Connecticut and Europe, and traveled extensively overseas
from 1802 to 1807.
While in St. Petersburg, U.S. consul
Levett Harris
, the
first U.S. representative posted in Russia, introduced Poin-
sett to Czar
Alexander I
(1777-1825). Harris was still at
his post when the consulate was raised to the level of a lega-
tion in 1809, and worked for the head of the U.S. mission
(and later Secretary of State and president),
John Quincy
Adams
(1767-1848). Adams would later write that Harris
“made a princely fortune by selling his duty and his office
at the most enormous prices.” Though Harris lost his po-
sition in 1819, he surfaced again in 1833 as chargé de af-
faires in Paris.
In January 1807 Czar Alexander I tried to recruit Poin-
sett to take a post at his court but advised him to “see the
empire, acquire the language, study the people,” before de-
ciding. With that advice in mind, Poinsett left St. Peters-
burg on an adventurous journey through southern Russia.
When he returned to St. Petersburg, the czar offered him a
commission as a colonel in the Russian Army, but Poinsett
decided to return home.
Busy in Buenos Aires
During the first decade of the 19th century, the foreign
policy of the United States encountered many challenges.
Apart from the brewing conflict with Great Britain on the
impressment of U.S. sailors of British extraction, Napoleon’s
actions in Spain and Portugal had created an opening for
most of their Latin American colonies to seek independ-
ence.
The United States, already faced with harassment of its
seaborne commerce by Great Britain and France, viewed
FS HERITAGE
J
OEL
R. P
OINSETT
: F
IRST
U.S.
E
NVOY IN
L
ATIN
A
MERICA
T
HOUGH MAINLY KNOWN TODAY FOR GIVING HIS NAME TO A
C
HRISTMAS FLOWER
,
J
OEL
P
OINSETT ACHIEVED MUCH MORE
.
B
Y
L
UCIANO
M
ANGIAFICO
Luciano Mangiafico, a Foreign Service officer from 1970 to
1991, served in Milan, Palermo, Bucharest, Manila, Bridge-
town and Washington, D.C. Since his retirement from the
Service, he has continued to work as an inspector for the State
Department. The author of two books,
Contemporary Amer-
ican Immigrants
(Praeger, 1988) and
Italy’s Most Wanted
(Po-
tomac Books, 2007), he writes on foreign policy, business and
the arts for various publications.
D