Joel Roberts Poinsett

JOEL ROBERTS POINSETT was born in Charleston, South Carolina, on 2 March 1779; was educated by his father and the Reverend J. H. Thompson of Charleston; attended the academy of Timothy Dwight at Greenfield Hill, Connecticut, 1794; continued his studies abroad; visited Portugal for reasons of health; returned home to study law under H. W. De Saussure; toured Europe and Asia in 1801–1804 and 1806–1808; returned home amid indications of war with Great Britain; was a special agent to the South American states, 1810–1814; returned to South Carolina in 1815; served in the state legislature, 1816–1820; was chairman of the state’s Board of Public Works, 1818–1820; served in the U.S. House of Representatives, 1821–1825; served as a special envoy to Mexico, 1822–1823; was appointed the first American minister to Mexico, 1825, and became embroiled in the country’s political turmoil until his recall in 1830; returned to South Carolina to espouse the Unionist cause in nullification quarrels, 1830–1833; married Mary Izard Pringle, 1833; served as Secretary of War, 7 March 1837–5 March 1841; presided over the continuing removal of Indians west of the Mississippi and over the Seminole War; reduced the fragmentation of the Army by concentrating elements at central locations; equipped the light batteries of artillery regiments as authorized by the 1821 army organization act; again retired to his plantation at Georgetown, South Carolina, 1841; developed the poinsettia from a Mexican flower; was a founder of the National Institute for the Promotion of Science and the Useful Arts, 1840; died near Statesburg, South Carolina, on 12 December 1851.

The Artist

Army records note that Secretary Poinsett’s portrait was painted by an unknown artist at an unknown place and date and was already in the department’s possession when the portrait gallery project was launched in 1873, but records also indicate that Robert Walter Weir painted Poinsett for the collection. Although the Poinsett work seems to fall within the Weir style as seen in his portraits of Secretaries Monroe, Eaton, Spencer, and Wilkins, the lack of signature, date and substantive documentary record leaves the matter in doubt.


Portrait, Joel Roberts Poinsett

Van Buren Administration
By an unknown artist
Oil on canvas, 29½" x 24½", date unknown

page created 1 March 2001

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