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Joel R. Poinsett (1837–1841) - Secretary of War

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Joel Roberts Poinsett was born March 2, 1779, in Charleston, South Carolina. He lived in England as a boy until 1788, when he returned to America and attended school in Greenfield Hill, Connecticut. He would also study in Wandsworth, England and at St. Paul's in Edinburgh. Poinsett attended the Woolrich Military Academy and studied law privately until his return to the United States in 1809, when he was dispatched by President James Madison to observe the status of colonial rebellions in South America. Poinsett was elected to the South Carolina House of Representatives, serving from 1816 to 1820, where he ran the Board of Public Works. He was subsequently elected as a Democrat to the U.S. House of Representatives from 1821 to 1825; thereafter, he served as minister to Mexico during the administration of President John Quincy Adams (1825-1829). Appointed secretary of war by President Martin Van Buren (1837-1841), Poinsett spearheaded a number of bloody Indian campaigns and forced resettlements in the South.

He also implemented dramatic reforms within the Army during his tenure in the War Department. Joel Poinsett founded the Academy of Fine Arts in Charleston and later died in Sumter County, South Carolina, on December 12, 1851.

Citation Information

Consulting Editor

Joel Silbey

Professor Silbey is the President White Professor of History, Emeritus at Cornell University. His writings include:

The American Political Nation, 1838–1893 (Stanford University Press, 1991)

Respectable Minority: the Democratic Party in the Civil War Era 1860–1868 (W. W. Norton & Co (Sd), 1977)