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United States because American ships,
cleared from the Atlantic by the
British, were no longer visiting Buenos
Aires. Eventually he was able to board
a neutral ship bound for Bahia, Brazil,
where he took another vessel going to
the Madeira Islands. He arrived in
Charleston on May 28, 1815.
Revolutionary Mexico
and the Poinsett Report
Next, Poinsett pursued a successful
political career. After serving in the
South Carolina legislature from 1816
to 1821, he was elected to two terms in
the U.S. House of Representatives.
Simultaneously, in recognition of
his Latin American expertise, Pres.
Monroe appointed Poinsett as an in-
formal special emissary to Mexico,
which had just declared its independ-
ence from Spain.
Poinsett left Charleston on Aug. 28,
1822, arrived in Vera Cruz on Oct. 19,
and reached Mexico City on Oct. 27.
There he met with ranking officials and
obtained an audience with Emperor
Augustin I
(1783-1824) on Nov. 2.
Shortly thereafter, he returned to the
United States to brief the Monroe ad-
ministration on his mission.
He produced two reports. One,
Notes on Mexico
, was for general con-
sumption; the other,
The Present Polit-
ical State of Mexico
, went only to
Secretary of State John Quincy Adams
and President Monroe.
The latter document was highly
perceptive and realistic. It not only
summarized the emperor’s speeches
but reviewed population trends, eco-
nomic developments, the state of the
military and the extent of valuable nat-
ural resources. The report was aimed
at ensuring that the United States was
ready to take advantage of Mexican dif-
ficulties, both in economic affairs and
in territorial expansionism.
Yet even though he warned that the
emperor would soon be deposed “be-
cause his violent dissolution of Con-
gress had so stirred the indignation of
the people,” Monroe decided to rec-
ognize his government.
Soon thereafter, just as Poinsett had
predicted, Mexico became a republic.
But while the United States quickly
recognized the government of Presi-
dent
Guadalupe Victoria
(1786-
1843), it took considerable time to
appoint a diplomatic representative.
Minister to Mexico
On July 8, 1824, Senator
John C.
Calhoun
(1782-1850) sounded Poin-
sett out about taking the post. He ini-
tially declined, but reconsidered when
he failed to secure a higher position.
On March 26, 1825, Poinsett received
his letter of instruction from Secretary
of State
Henry Clay
(1777-1852).
Poinsett’s major task was to negoti-
ate the cession to the U.S. of all or part
of Texas, a very difficult undertaking.
The negotiation dragged on for years,
as the United States offered substan-
tial amounts of money without making
headway. In February 1828 the nego-
tiations came to a screeching halt.
As Poinsett told Secretary Clay in a
letter: “We have been represented by
the agents of certain European powers
as the natural enemies of Mexico; and
our desire to make alterations in the
treaty limits concluded with Spain, was
constantly urged as proof of our bad
faith and insatiable ambition.”
It also did not help that Poinsett
had become embroiled in domestic
Mexican politics. Soon after
Vicente
Guerrero
(1782-1831) became presi-
dent in 1829, he wrote President
An-
drew Jackson
(1767-1845), request-
ing that he recall Poinsett. Jackson
complied, and Poinsett left Mexico
City on Christmas Day 1829 — a date
that would soon prove highly appro-
priate.
A Lasting Legacy
After his return to Charleston,
Poinsett again served in the South Car-
olina state legislature, from 1830 to
1831. In this capacity, he was Presi-
dent Jackson’s confidential agent,
keeping him abreast of developments
and helping him to craft policy in re-
sponse to the nullification crisis. In
1833, he married
Mary Izard Pringle
(1780-1857), daughter of Ralph and
Elizabeth (Stead) Izard.
Poinsett served President
Martin
Van Buren
(1782-1862) as Secretary
of War from 1837 to 1841. In that ca-
pacity, he presided over the continuing
removal of Indians west of the Missis-
sippi, conducted the Seminole War
and significantly improved the effi-
ciency of the U.S. Army. In March
1841 he retired to his plantation in
Georgetown, S.C., where he died on
Dec. 12, 1851.
Though Poinsett’s mission in Mex-
ico a quarter-century before had ended
in failure, it did have one lasting legacy:
a flowering plant he collected there
and brought back with him reminds us
of Poinsett every December.
The plant, which the Mexicans call
the flor de noche buena (Christmas
Eve flower), is known to us as the
poinsettia. One story has it that he
obtained a few exemplars of the plant
near the city of Taxco Alarcon; an-
other, that he saw the plants adorning
a manger tableau in a church in
Cuernavaca and swiped a few from
Baby Jesus.
Either way, he will forever be
linked to the now-iconic Christmas
flower.
48
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
Shortly after arriving in
Mexico, Poinsett produced
two perceptive, realistic
reports that were
promptly ignored.