Was Joel Poinsett an Agent of Empire and a Patron of Science?

Secretary of War Joel Poinsett

During the Eighteenth Century, European technological advances, nation-building agendas and philosophical debates combined to produce an era of expedition and state-sponsored social and scientific classification. Harry Liebersohn identifies the years between 1750 and 1850 as a “distinctive era” in overseas-exploration, scientific ethnography, and the development of the human sciences.[1] What was this “distinctive era” and the transitions within it from exploration to anthropology, as people tried to reconcile their philosophical and religious beliefs with evidence of unimagined human variety. This transition was complex, and took different forms in Europe and North America, and themes inherent to each will be addressed below. In order enrich the interpretation of this era, the career contributions of an American traveler, diplomat, and politician, Joel Poinsett, need to be explored.

During the early 1800s, Poinsett moved in the same European social circles with some of the first naturalists and travelers to explore the Pacific Islands. He explored Mexico in the early 1820s and published both popular and official descriptions of the new nation. During the 1830s and 1840s, Poinsett worked as both the US Secretary of War, and a patron of the human sciences, and was involved in the foundation of the organization that would become The Smithsonian Institute.

Poinsett’s career reflects the complexities that distinguish this era. As travel accounts became foundational to ethnographic and anthropological sciences, his career turned from exploration to scientific patronage and institution-building. As questions of human nature became fundamental to definitions of republicanism, natural rights, and national identity, Poinsett went to Mexico, as both a liberal influence, and imperial investigator. As explanations for human variation became integral to debates over race, slavery and American Exceptionalism, Poinsett published an article defining innate differences between civilized people and barbarians, and, as Secretary of War, carried out widespread Indian removal.

Several books will underpin this paper, both primary and secondary accounts of this age of expedition, categorization, and conquest. Harry Liebersohn’s rich account of the relationship between travel and culture, The Traveler’s World, Europe to the Pacific, will provide the philosophic and historic foundation for the discussion. Mexico Otherwise, Modern Mexico in the Eyes of Foreign Observers, edited by Jurgen Buchenau, will illustrate the position of Mexico during this era, and will provide the context for a comparison of Poinsett’s two books about Mexico, Notes on Mexico in the Autumn of 1822 and his Unpublished Report on the Present Political State of Mexico. A Social History of Anthropology in the United States, by Thomas C. Patterson provides the basis for interpretation of the last section of this essay, as attention is directed toward the United States, and the national and racial debates specific to the young republic – debates originating, in part, from the accounts of Europeans naturalists.


Joel Poinsett by Charles Fenderich

Liebersohn examined several high-profile European naturalists and explorers in The Traveler’s World. He argues for the significance of networks of global travelers and European scholars who influenced state policy and informed conceptions of empire and race. He profiles the experiences of: Philbert Commerson, on the 1766-1769 voyage to Tahiti with Louis de Bougainville; George Forster, on the 1772-1775 voyage with Captain Cook, also to Tahiti; and, finally, Adelbert von Chamisso on the 1815-1818 voyage to the Hawaiian Islands aboard the Russian vessel the “Rurik”. Liebersohn discusses the accounts written by these men, integrating their stories into a well developed historical interpretation of the Revolutionary and Napoleonic wars, the philosophy of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Immanual Kant and others, and the far-flung implications of the cultural exchange intrinsic to colonialism. Liebersohn paid serious attention to the networks of relationships between the naturalists, the political intentions and conditions of the states that sponsor their expeditions, the Pacific Islanders that they encounter, and the community of philosophers and scholars who used their travel accounts to construct and support their theories on human nature.

Liebersohn argued that the eighteenth-century concepts of “Natural Man” had both “revolutionary and conservative implications,” [2] and that the age of Enlightenment paradoxically provided “both tools for global domination and ideas of human dignity.”[3] Armed with both curiosity and technology, European expeditions exposed native cultures to a wide reading public curious about human difference, and a community of scholars eager for evidence of people living in a natural state. Rousseau, arguably the most influential philosopher in pre-Revolutionary Europe, looked to the uncorrupted “savage” as natural egalitarians, as a critique of the detrimental effects of society and artificiality. Other scholars looked for evidence of human difference in order to justify ideas of racial hierarchy and inferiority. Information gathered by naturalists was ultimately applied to state-building projects during this time of colonial expansion.

Liebersohn emphasized the interactive and reciprocal relationships between travelers and philosophers in Europe at this time. Rousseau used travel accounts of naturalists to show how “savages” lived close to nature in an original state and demanded more data from travelers such as Commerson and Forster.[4] Denis Diderot was also closely involved with Bougainville’s Tahitian expedition, and relied on the descriptions of Tahitian people and customs to demonstrate his theories of utopian utilitarianism. The Pacific Islands were home to unfamiliar people, unlike the indigenous of North and South America, and surprising in their customs and social structures. Tahiti and Hawaii became theoretical laboratories for philosophers’ debates over human nature, and cites of interrogation and construction for self-conscience and expanding nation-states.

A central issue of philosophical debate was the definition of humanity. Kant’s Definition of the Concept of the Human Race,[5] articulated a monogenist philosophy, a belief that there was only one single human species, and he sought to “reconcile the visible diversity of human appearance with the underlying unity of human nature.”[6]] The counter position was polygenism, the belief that there were several human species or races, each with innate abilities and limitations.

The debate over the singularity or plurality of humans species informed travelers as they compiled their evidence and accounts differently at different times, interacting with political trends of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Language of “noble savages” and “natural egalitarians” complemented language of equality and fraternity prevalent during the time of the French Revolution. These Rousseauian terms are evident in Commerson’s account of Tahiti, in which he described the “ideal republic” constructed by a race of people separate from and superior to Europeans. During his expedition, Forster investigated Tahitian social divisions and discovered hierarchies that do not fit his ideal of equality and virtue. Influenced by Diderot and Rousseau, Forster wrote of the inevitability of republican virtue being subsumed by the concentration of power and moral decay.[7] His accounts of the island reflect a personal transition from idealization to disdain, and reflect a larger change in the perception of non-European people and their societies by European states.

Chamisso, the third naturalist Liebersohn profiles, moved in the post-Revolutionary Parisian circles of Romantics and salons. Seasoned by the danger of popular mobilization of the Terror and the repression of the Napoleonic Wars, Chamisso focuses less on ideas of equality and more on manifestations of liberty. Conscious of the naturalists’ tendency to imprint their accounts with their own personal and philosophical bias, Chamisso sought to only “present the strange land and the strange people.”[8] Chamisso’s voyage aboard the Rurik also had more explicitly nationalistic intentions, as it was pursuing both economic and imperial goals for the Russian Empire, as well as providing passage and support for scientific research. This intersection of the interests of science and state during expeditions was to become more prominent during the Nineteenth Century.

Chamisso’s European social circles of republicans and travelers during the early 1800s included a young Joel Poinsett. Both men were known to associate with writer and republican, Germaine de Stael in Coppet, during her exile from France, and to attend her controversial salons during Napoleon’s reign.[9] Poinsett traveled across Europe and Asia during the first decade of the Nineteenth Century, and spent time with many Europeans advocating intellectual and geographical exploration, like Goethe and Tsar Alexander,[10] during a time when new ideas about government and citizenship interacted with accounts of contact with distant native populations. Although there is a lack of available material written by Poinsett during this time, his subsequent actions and interactions illustrate a practical combination of abstract and concrete aspects of travel and politics.

After returning to the United State and serving in the South Carolina state government, Poinsett traveled again. During the 1810s, Poinsett spent several years in South America, exploring, spreading republican ideology and attempting to foment revolution against Spain.[11] His story illustrates the transition from idealized depictions of foreign lands to official reports of imperialistic concern in 1822, as he wrote a traveler’s account of Mexico, while acting as an investigative agent of the United States government.[12]


Named in the US after Joel Poinsetta after he brought it to DC from Mexico in 1824

Mexico has been the object of foreign observations since the early 1800s. Mexico Otherwise examines the content and impact of traveler’s accounts of Mexican people, culture and politics. Employing concepts of Orientalism, developed by Edward Said, and applying it to the literary and intellectual treatment of Mexico, Buchenau argues that travel accounts of Mexico have not only constructed international perceptions of Mexico and Mexican people, but also influenced memory and meaning within Mexico. Buchenau argues powerful nations saw Mexico as a “single undifferentiated other”, just as colonial powers saw India. Traveler and foreign observer accounts of Mexico helped “invent categories”, creating “an essentialist discourse that subsumed a wealth of cultural difference.”[13] Buchenau features excerpts from many foreign observer accounts of Mexican culture, environments and people. The first two traveler’s accounts of this vast land, Alexander von Humboldt and Joel Poinsett illustrate both Orientalist themes, and the implications and implementations of the human sciences in new North American republics.

Alexander von Humboldt’s work in New Spain, over a decade before the Spanish colony gained independence as the Mexican nation, set the standard for cultural interrogation for the nineteenth century. Humboldt’s work also embodied the interaction between science and politics “at a cultural moment defined by revolutionary transformations in European society and politics.”[14] Friends with Forster, Goethe and de Stael, von Humboldt did not limit his activities to botanical or language research, but also wrote essays on the limits of state formation. After he returned from exploring the Spanish colonies in North and South America in 1804, Humboldt exchanged letters and ideas with Simon Bolivar, hero of Latin American Independence. [15] This shift from the empirical to the political reflects the power of ideas such as republicanism and nationalism, and the way ideas and theories travel between cultures, facilitated by state-sponsored expeditions and personal connections.[16]

Humboldt’s Political Essay on the Kingdom of New Spain, discussed themes of race, gender and ethnicity in the Spanish colony, and drew the attention of European governments and businessmen to the region. Paternalistic in tone, Humboldt depicted an “unequal struggle between nations far advanced in arts and others in the very lowest degree of civilization.” His sympathy for the “unfortunate race of Aztec”, that he perceived to be in a “state of degradation”, is evident in his account. Humboldt sought a model that would reconcile the poverty of the indigenous people with the evidence of their pre-conquest social, political, and scientific accomplishments. In his effort to remove blame from indigenous people for their “degradation”, Humboldt urges readers not to judge them from their “miserable remains.”[17] Yet, as Buchenau argues, this laid the foundation for the “essentialist discourse” that obscured the variety of the inhabitants of New Spain, and subsequently Mexico, “under single categories such as ‘Mexican’ or ‘Indian.'”[18]

The year after Mexico achieved independence, Poinsett came to the country as the appointed emissary on a special mission for President Monroe.[19] Traveling as both an explorer and agent, Poinsett’s accounts of this journey display a naturalist’s interest in botany, a statesman’s ideas of republican-style government, and an imperialist’s eye for detail. The two accounts he wrote about his 1822 trip to Mexico parallel each other, they both documented the same expedition, but appealed to different audiences.[20] Notes on Mexico was patterned after other popular travel accounts of the era, mixing a description of Mexican landscape with observations of the people and customs Poinsett encountered. Very different in perspective than the idealistic accounts of Commerson, or the Romantic investigations of Chamisso, Poinsett identified with the Mexican Creoles, whose “good natural talents”distinguished them from the indigenous population and their “indolence…blind submission… (and)…abject misery.”[21] He used evidence of beggars in Mexico City as evidence of Mexico’s intermediate level of civilization, beyond subsistence existence, and able to provide charity to a vagrant population. [22] Poinsett included an historical sketch of the country, lauding the astronomy, architecture, and technological innovations accomplished by the indigenous people before Spanish conquest, and rued the circumstances that exterminated the indigenous priests and left only the lower classes and “oppressed and degraded people alone to represent the former Mexican.”[23]

Poinsett’s Notes on Mexico also discussed the political state of the Mexican government, and woven into his botanical and cultural descriptions were some indications that he is a government agent, responsible for a political report. However, The Present Political State of Mexico, prepared for the US Secretary of State was unambiguous in intent. Poinsett was in Mexico as the nation briefly became an empire under Emperor Iturbide. His report included transcripts of speeches by the Emperor, and organized reports on census data, economic information, military preparedness, and resource estimation.[24] Not for public consumption, Poinsett’s report exposed Mexico in a different way – instead of revealing unique elements of the people’s environment, culture, or language to avid readers, Poinsett initiated a relationship between Mexico and the Unites States colored by opportunism, expansionism, and suspicion. Remembered in the US as the man who introduced the poinsettia, Poinsett left a negative impression on many Mexicans, many of whom remembered him as an imperialist, with a disrespectful interest in procuring Mexico’s northern states.[25]

The United States of America


Poinsett’s expedition to Mexico was part of a larger trend in the history of the United States, during the years of the New Republic, as the U.S. applied the philosophical debate over the definition of the human species and the meaning of human diversity, to American ideas of Manifest Destiny and race. Thomas C. Patterson’s book, A Social History of Anthropology in the United States, examines the purpose and meaning in the development of anthropology in the U.S. Patterson explores the origins of anthropology in European traveler’s accounts and the philosophical debates of Rousseau, Kant and others, and identifies two different ways anthropology and other human sciences have been used by individuals and states. Supporters of social hierarchy used travel accounts to justify conquest and repression, seeing history as, “a series of progressive changes…from the original, primitive condition to more advances, diversified circumstances,” and, “the conquest of nature, material improvement, and increasing modernity as motors driving these changes.”[26]

Critics of imperialism argue that, “egalitarian relations and practices which exist in cultures on the margins exhibit what is essential to the human condition – an essence that is lost or deformed during the civilizing process,” and consider the human sciences complicit in “the genocidal and ethnocidal practices of the imperial states.”[27] The fundamental tension between Rousseauian views of nature, and hierarchical and expansionist visions of empire manifest in the political and social conditions of the New Republic. Patterson defines the era of the New Republic as the years between the American Revolution and Reconstruction, following the American Civil War. Patterson identifies three main purposes of anthropology in the U.S. at this time. The developing science was used to help construct a national identity for Americans, inform U.S. territorial expansion and justify the institution of slavery in the American South. [28] American national identity after the Revolutionary War was elemental to political stability, economic viability, and cultural cohesion, in a country with a skeptical European audience. England, France Russia and Spain had territorial interests in North America, and the scholars and political leaders in the United States were often defensive to Old World scorn.

Scholars like French naturalist Comte Buffon theorized that the new world continents were geologically immature and hostile, producing only “scattered savages”,[29] that were, as a race, evidence of New World inferiority. This dispersion in turn cast doubt on the strength and potential of the Unites States, and the new nation’s ability to qualify for foreign loans. Thomas Jefferson rebutted claims that the United States was destined for political failure due to the innate weakness of the land and inferiority of the native inhabitants by employing a monogenist argument. Thomas Jefferson founded the American Philosophical Society, and aggressively rejected idea that Native Americans were a different race from white Americans, and in 1784 encouraged intermarriage between White and Native Americans in order to facilitate the integration of the two cultures.[30] Jefferson’s ideas of the unity of the human species did not extend to women of Americans of African descent however, illustrating ways ideologies were often applied self-consciously to construct national identity and build political legitimacy.

Territorial expansion in the New Republic was closely connected to the construction of an American national identity. Party to the pursuit of an expanding boarder, anthropologists and other scholars engaged in the debate over inherent land rights and the nature of property and ownership. The theories on men’s natural rights to property were of both theoretical and practical interest at this time. Ever conscience of a critical international audience, anthropologists in service to the government sought philosophical justification for taking territory from native inhabitants. According to Patterson, scholars and politicians used John Locke’s Second Treatise of Government. Locke located a person’s right to ownership of their property within the labor that person expends on the land, therefore Native American had no right to the lands they occupied because they did not change and develop the land. This concept was codified in 1823 by Chief Justice of the Supreme Court John Marshell’s brief “Johnson and Graham’s Lesee V. McIntosh.”[31] This relationship between law and philosophy concretizes understanding of the practical aspects of the human sciences.

Theories and conversations about race and manifest destiny were an important characteristic of the New Republic, argues Patterson, becoming an “increasingly prominent feature of everyday discourse during the 1830s and 1840s.”[32] Polygenists, like Benjamin Rush and James Madison based their justification of African slavery and colonization, and Indian removal on racial difference arguing that Blacks and native Americans were “fixed at lower stages of development.” [33] American Exceptionalism and Anglo-Saxon superiority were underpinned by men like physician and scholar, Samuel Morton, who distinguished and defined races according to cranial capacities and stages of civilization.[34]

Poinsett, as both a US politician and patron of science, contributed to both the discussion and the application of the definition of the human race. After returning to Mexico as an ambassador of the US in 1825, Poinsett spent almost five years deeply involved in the politics of the country, until the Mexican President Vicente Guerrero requested his recall in 1829.[35] Upon his return to the United States, Poinsett supported the unionist cause against the Nullification Movement, and entered the gentlemen’s debate over the definition of humanity.

In 1834, Poinsett published a paper on anthropology, An Inquiry into the Received Opinions of Philosophers and Historians on the Natural Progress of the Human Race from Barbarism to Civilization. Poinsett’s paper defended his nation’s strength and virility. Addressing Buffon directly, Poinsett claimed the natives of his country were not weak due to any environmental flaws, but because of their “habits and pursuits” and the “innate passion in the breast of the Savage,” that loves warfare and rejects agriculture.[36] Using polygenist rhetoric of multiple human species, and “immutable conditions,” Poinsett rebutted Buffon’s attacks on US potential.[37] He wrote of the “white and noble race” of Anglo-Saxons, and the racial hierarchy that supported American constructions of national identity, white superiority, and manifest destiny. The Algonquins, claimed Poinsett, did not respond adequately to missionaries and education, and he wrote, “they do not advance towards a state of civilization, but retain their ancient habits, language, and customs, and are every day more depraved, indigent, and insignificant.”.[38] By denying the civilization of Indian tribespeople, Poinsett laid the philosophical groundwork for Indian removal, in much the same way as Locke’s Second Treatise of Government had in decades past.

In 1837, Poinsett became the Secretary of War and directed the Seminole War and Indian removal west of the Mississippi.[39] He also supported scientific exploration, ensuring the presence of naturalists in the US Exploring Expedition. As a US Senator in 1840, Poinsett was a founding member of The National Institute for the Promotion of Science, an organization funded by the Smithson grant, and precursor of the Smithsonian Institute. At the first anniversary of the organization, Poinsett urged his audience patronize science and support the Institution, asking, “Will we expose ourselves to be denied our just title of a moral, religious, intelligent, and enlightened people by refusing to inscribe the United States of America among the names of the civilized nations of the earth which will be found engraved upon the columns of this magnificent temple?”[40]

Poinsett, with his political career and his patronage of science, and his time as a philosopher, explorer, ambassador and agent, embodies themes inherent to the “distinctive era” of travel and science. His writings and official activity emphasize the relationship analyzed by Liebersohn in The Traveler’s World, between travelers and philosophers, and travelers and their patron states, particularly because he acts as each of these three members of the relationship during his life.


The debate over nature and nurture had powerful implications during this time of exploration and expansion. The search for an explanation for human difference inspired both philosophy and political policy, in Europe and North America, as nations sought the definition of the human species and justification for racial and social hierarchy. Colonial States and new republics used travel accounts and the developing discipline of anthropology to support their national identities and territorial agendas. Individual agency interacted with state-building projects, as theories of natural man and innate abilities defined the rights of humans to maintain their culture and territory. Taking different forms in Europe and North America, this debate continues to have profound implications in society today, as questions of race and human variety inform discussions of human potential.


  1. Porter, Theodore, Ross, Dorothy, ed, The Modern Social Sciences, Vol 7, Cambridge University Press. 2003
  2. Liebersohn, Harry, A Traveler’s World, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University, 2006, pg 4
  3. Liebersohn, 4.
  4. Liebersohn, pg. 16.
  5. Liebersohn, pg. 203.
  6. Liebersohn, pg. 203.
  7. Liebersohn, pg. 50
  8. Liebersohn, pg 71
  9. Liebersohn, Harry, The Traveler’s World, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University, 2006. pg 60 and Rippy, Fred, Joel Poinsett: Versatile American, pg 16
  10. Rippy, pg 25-26 Krumpelmann, John T., The South Central Bulletin, “Duke Berhnhard of Save-Weimer”
  11. Rippy, Fred, Joel Poinsett: Versatile American, pg 39-41.
  12. Dyer, George B; Charlotte L Dyer, “The Beginnings of a United States Strategic Intelligence System in Latin America, 1809-1826”, Military Affairs, 14, 2,(1950).
  13. Buchenau, Mexico Otherwise, Albuquerque, NM: University of New Mexico Press, 2005, pg 3.
  14. Liebersohn, A Traveler’s World, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University, 2006, pg 208.
  15. Rippy, Fred. J, “Alexander von Humboldt and Simon Bolivar”, The American Historical Review, 52, 4, 1947
  16. Benedict Anderson provides a compelling analytical modal for understanding nationalism during this time in his influential book Imagined Communities, describing the ideology as trans-Atlantically mobile. David Livingston’s article, “Traveling Theory and the Spaces for Scientific Encounter”, explores the mobility of Darwinian Theory, further illustrating the exchange of ideas.
  17. Buchenau, Mexico Otherwise, Albuquerque, NM: University of New Mexico Press, 2005, pg 20.
  18. Buchenau, pg 3.
  19. Buchenau, 29.
  20. Poinsett, Joel, Notes on Mexico, New York; London: Praeger, 1969, pg 119
  21. Poinsett, 120.
  22. Poinsett, 203.
  23. Poinsett, 248.
  24. Poinsett/Smith , Report on the Present Political State of Mexicopg vii-vii.
  25. L. Smith Lee, editor and introducer of Poinsett’s report, The Present Political State of Mexico, describes, on pages viii-ix, a rumored meeting between Poinsett and Emperor Iturbide’s supporter, Azcarante, during which Poinsett communicated the United States plan to “absorb all Texas, New Mexico, and Upper California, and parts of Lower California, Sonora, Coahuila, and New Leon.”
  26. Patterson, A Social History of Anthropology in the United States, pg 1.
  27. Patterson, p. 2.
  28. Patterson, p. 4.
  29. Patterson, p. 8.
  30. Patterson, p. 9.
  31. Patterson, p. 8.
  32. Patterson, p. 17.
  33. Patterson, p. 17.
  34. Patterson, p. 19.
  35. Flores Caballero presents a thorough description of Poinsett’s interference in Mexican politics in his book, Counterrevolution.
  36. Poinsett, Joel, Inquiry into the Received Opinions of Philosophers and Historians, on the Natural Progress of the Human Race from Barbarism to Civilization, Charleston, SC: JS Burges, 1834, pg 19.
  37. Inquiry into the Received Opinions of Philosophers and Historians, pg. 13.
  38. Inquiry into the Received Opinions of Philosophers and Historians, pg. 41.
  39. Bell, William Garner. Secretaries of War pg. 48
  40. Poinsett, Joel, Discourse on the Objects and Importance of The National Promotion of Science, Washington: P Force Printer, 1841.