The Foreign Service Journal, July-August 2012

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.