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Joel Roberts Poinsett Passes Away

Today in Masonic History Joel Roberts Poinsett passes away in 1851.

Joel Roberts Poinsett was an American diplomat and politician.

Poinsett was born on March 2nd, 1779 in Charleston, South Carolina. His education consisted of schools in Connecticut and Europe. At the age of 21 of returned to South Carolina where his father he insisted that he study law under a prominent local Charleston lawyer.

In 1801, Poinsett, who was not interested in studying law, convinced his parents to let him have an extended your of Europe. He spent the next few years traveling around Europe including France, Switzerland and Austria.

In December of 1803, Poinsett received word that his father had passed away and his sister was gravely ill. He immediately headed back to Charleston. To try to aide his sister’s recovery Poinsett took his sister on a journey to New York. Unfortunately she passed away shortly after they arrived in New York City. This left Poinsett as the sole heir to his father’s estate. At the time the estate was worth approximately $100,000 (about $2,000,000 in today’s money).

In 1806, Poinsett traveled to the Russian capital of St. Petersburg. There he was invited to the court of Czar Alexander. Alexander was impressed with Poinsett and offered him a commission in the Russian military. Poinsett initially refused and Alexander insisted that he travel around the country and get to know its people. Poinsett set out around Russia in 1807 with a small party and was one of the last American’s to visit Moscow before Napoleon burned the city.

By the time Poinsett had returned to Moscow to meet with Czar Alexander news of the H.M.S. Leopard attack upon the Chesapeake. War between Britain and American was coming so Poinsett returned to the United States. In the final meeting between Alexander and Poinsett, Alexander expressed his approval regarding the actions of the United States Congress concerning the attack.

From 1810 to 1814, Poinsett was assigned as a “special agent” to South America by President James Madison. There he became actively involved in the colonial revolutionaries seeking independence from Spain. There he met José Miguel Carrera a leader in the revolutionary efforts in Chile. Poinsett advised Chile in their efforts against Royalist Peru. In 1813, an American Frigate arrived in Chile only to be attacked and defeated by a British vessel during the War of 1812. Poinsett was captured at the time and then released back to Chile and was forced to make his way back to the United States, arriving in Charleston in 1815.

On his return Poinsett was seen as an expert on Latin American affairs. In 1816 his friend Carrera arrived in the United States seeking aide in the revolutionary efforts of Chile. Poinsett worked to get financial and material support for Carrera’s efforts after the United States government did not offer any help. Poinsett set out on a nationwide tour of the United States to raise awareness of the fight for independence of the Latin American countries. He traveled over 2,000 miles during his tour.

Prior to Poinsett’s return to South Carolina, he was nominated and elected to the South Carolina House of Representatives. He spent two terms in the South Carolina House of Representatives before being elected to the United States House of Representatives. In both of the Houses, Poinsett was focused on improving the roads and infrastructure of first South Carolina and then the United States. Being well traveled around the country, Poinsett was very aware of the importance of a strong road system and its importance to commerce.

In 1825, Poinsett was appointed as First Minister to Mexico and given the authority to act on behalf of the United States. As he had in South America, he became embroiled in the political turmoil of Mexico. Despite this he worked hard to push favorable United States policy including trying to get Mexico to favor imports from the United States over Britain. He was recalled in 1830.

When Poinsett, an amateur botanist, returned to the United States he brought back a sample of Flor de Nochebuena (Christmas Eve Flower) which later became known in the United States as the poinsettia. He also worked with President Andrew Jackson during the nullification quarrels, South Carolina felt that federal tariffs that were imposed were illegal, between South Carolina and the federal government.

From 1837 to 1841 Poinsett was the Secretary of War. He used his office to increase military efficiency and readiness.

Poinsett passed away from tuberculosis on December 12th, 1851.

It is unclear when Poinsett joined the Masonic fraternity. It is documented that he served as Worshipful Master of Recovery Lodge No. 31 in Greenville, South Carolina, Solomon’s Lodge No. 1 in Charleston, South Carolina. He was also a Royal Arch Mason and was elected Grand High Priest of the Grand Chapter of South Carolina, serving until 1841.

When Poinsett was First Minister of Mexico he created an issue within American Freemasonry. He was requested by Mexican Freemasons to secure 5 lodge charters. He was able to secure them from the Grand Lodge of New York. Due to the nature of the political climate in Mexico, the country was split along Masonic lines with the Scottish Rite Lodge on one side and the York or American Rite Lodges on the other. Because of this, Poinsett’s actions securing the charters were seen as politicizing the fraternity.

On this subject:

"I have been most unjustly accused of extending our order and our principles into a neighboring country, with a view of converting them into an engine of political influence. In the presence of this respectable assembly of my brethren, and on the symbols of our order, which are spread around me, and the sacred book which is open before me, I solemnly aver, that this accusation is false and unfounded—and that if Masonry has anywhere been converted to any other than the pure and philanthropic purposes for which it was instituted, I have in no way contributed to such a perversion of its principles. And with the same solemnity I here declare, that if such evil councils were to prevail in this country, and Masonry be perverted to political use, which God forbid, I would sever the ties, dear as they are to me, which now unite me to my brothers."

Poinsett also introduced Royal Arch Masonry in Mexico.