Five Questions with Lindsay Schakenbach Regele, author of “Flowers, Guns, and Money: Joel Roberts Poinsett and the Paradoxes of American Patriotism”
“The Christmas flower,” the poinsettia, has become a ubiquitous symbol of the holidays, but its origins in this country do not evoke the joy and goodwill of the season. Joel Roberts Poinsett, a South Carolina investor, enslaver, ambitious congressman, and the US ambassador to Mexico in the 1820s, appropriated the plant while searching for profit opportunities in southern Mexico. The story of how the US took the Aztec plant, the Cuitlaxochitl, named it after Poinsett, and commercialized it speaks to the process by which American foreign relations and political economy developed in the nineteenth century, as well as to the role that Poinsett played in this development.
Flowers, Guns, and Money is a fascinating historical account of Joel Roberts Poinsett’s (1779-1851) brand of self-interested patriotism. By examining the man and his actions, author Lindsay Schakenbach Regele reveals an America defined by opportunity and violence, freedom and slavery, and nationalism and self-interest.
In this post, we chat with Lindsay about her research and Poinsett’s impact on America’s concept of patriotism today.
How did you become interested in researching Joel Roberts Poinsett? What inspired you to write a book about him?
I became interested in Poinsett by accident, partly because I kept coming across his name while I was researching my first book Manufacturing Advantage: War, the State, and the Origins of American Industry. When I was on a postdoctoral fellowship at the Library Company for Manufacturing Advantage, another researcher suggested I go next door to the Historical Society of Pennsylvania to check out the papers of a few war department officials, Poinsett being one of them. There, I found a large collection of his personal papers, spanning five decades of his life, and realized I had already seen him while researching state department records from the 1810s and 1820s when he was a secret diplomatic agent in South America and ambassador to Mexico. I became fascinated, and not because he was the namesake for the poinsettia. Without ever having been involved personally with manufacturing, Poinsett made appearances as the writer, recipient, or subject of countless documents that I consulted because his career coincided with major changes in American economic, political, and military life.
Poinsett played a role in major events of the early nineteenth century, including the Latin American Independence Wars, the nullification crisis, the Seminole War and the Trail of Tears, and the founding of the Smithsonian Institute. In his own time, Poinsett was known by foreign dignitaries and philosophers, US presidents, and average soldiers and newspaper readers, and yet today if anyone knows his name, it’s because of the poinsettia. When I realized that the last biographies of him were published more than fifty years ago, I decided that he needed a new book.
While you were researching and writing Flowers, Guns, and Money, what did you learn that surprised you the most?
I was really shocked to learn that Poinsett was Andrew Jackson’s confidante during the nullification crisis in the early 1830s and that Jackson sent weapons, concealed in camouflaged boxes, to Charleston for Poinsett to use against the nullifiers.
More generally, I learned that the things I thought I knew about the era’s familiar categories didn’t hold up the more I learned about Poinsett and others. His stance on a variety of issues defied what one would expect from a typical “Southerner,” “expansionist,” or “Democrat,” categories that he identified with throughout much of his life. For example, he was a slave owner, who opposed states’ rights doctrine and the annexation of Texas. There were others like him, which suggests greater fluidity in political actions and ideologies than histories of US expansion, empire, and politics usually ascribe to individuals of the era.
Joel Roberts Poinsett wore many different hats, including naturalist. How was Poinsett involved with the origins of the poinsettia in the United States?
Throughout his life, Poinsett was interested in plants for their intrinsic, functional, and economic values. Poinsett collected seeds to grow in his own greenhouse and often exchanged plants and seeds with elites in the United States and Britain. He cared about collecting materials for the sake of knowledge and diplomacy; he also cared about marketable crops, especially things that might help South Carolina shake off its dependence on cotton and rice. While the poinsettia today is one of the world’s most economically important potted plants, I don’t think Poinsett had major Christmas sales in mind. He might, though, have been thinking about different uses for the plant, such as a dye like the Aztecs had used the Cuitlaxochitl for. In general, he was thinking about profits while he served as the United States’ first minister plenipotentiary to Mexico from 1825 to 1830. In fact, it was while assessing the profitability of a mining venture that Poinsett admired the Cuitlaxochitl and cut clippings to send to horticulturalists in the United States.
Exactly where and how these clippings occurred is not quite clear, but on a trip south of Mexico City to scope out the Tlalpujahua mines, he remarked on the beauty of the plants he saw, which Franciscan friars had been displaying at Christmas since the 1600s. Several prominent horticulturalists in the United States later reported that Poinsett sent them and by the mid-1830s, agricultural reports described a plant with brilliant scarlet foliage, “lately referred to as the poinsettia,” as having been introduced by Poinsett in 1828.
It was not a commercial holiday plant until the twentieth century when a California family turned poinsettia sales into a major business, but Poinsett helped initiate interest in the plant in the United States and Europe.
In the book, you discuss how Poinsett personified a type of patriotism that emerged following the American Revolution, one in which statesmen served the nation by serving themselves, securing economic prosperity, and military security while often prioritizing their own ambitions and financial interests. Could you touch on his impact on American politics today?
I don’t think any politicians today would say they are influenced by Poinsett, but I think his brand of patriotism is still part of our political culture. Poinsett and his friends used “patriotism” as a value judgment, as in, who best modeled Washington or the spirit of the revolution. It has some parallels with the 1776 Commission. In many ways, we could call Poinsett a nationalist for his commitment to whiteness, Anglo-American culture, and militarism, but this word is steeped in twentieth-century meaning and it was not a word that Poinsett or his correspondents used; instead, they used “patriotism” and “patriot” often.
Poinsett often used the political power associated with his patriotism for private gain, such as when, while minister to Mexico he used his political influence to help establish a US-based mining company and then misrepresented the profitability of the mines to investors. Despite facing a lawsuit when he returned to the US, Poinsett remained active in politics and was appointed secretary of war.
What do you most hope readers will take away from your book?
That the past is complicated and contradictory and that as much as we like to fit historical actors—especially from early US history—into neat ideological and political boxes, individual biographies like Poinsett’s reveal that that doesn’t work.
I also hope they learn a little more about some aspects of early United States history, whether that be US and Mexican relations, the Seminole Wars, the nullification crisis, Texas annexation, or something else.
Lindsay Schakenbach Regele is associate professor of history at Miami University and the author of Manufacturing Advantage: War, the State, and the Origins of American Industry, 1776–1848.