All Commentary
Thursday, December 24, 2015

Poinsetts and Poinsettias

Real Heroes: Benjamin Franklin Poinsett


As the year 2010 began, I was biting my nails. Sixteen months before, I had assumed the presidency of the Foundation for Economic Education at a most inauspicious moment, September 2008. That was the month the bottom dropped out of the stock market. Both revenues and spirits were down as the recession deepened. We were forced to put our hopes for growth on hold, while we focused on maintaining our programs at a sustainable level.

Then came word that a Mr. Benjamin Franklin Poinsett of Bethesda, Maryland, had passed away in November 2009 and left FEE in his will. I never had the pleasure of meeting him but quickly found him in our database. For at least a dozen years, he had faithfully given us $100 per year. I assumed that the estate gift might total a few thousand dollars.

A bequest says even more about a person’s heart and values than the checks he or she writes while alive.   

When someone bequeaths a gift to FEE, whatever the magnitude, I am as greatly touched by the gesture as I know our founder, Leonard Read, always was. A bequest says even more about a person’s heart and values than the checks he or she writes while alive. People tend to put a great deal of thought into where they want their wealth to reside when they’re gone. It’s a big part of their legacy and speaks volumes about them. In making such decisions, they ask themselves consciously or subconsciously, “What was my life all about, and how can I put the best of it to work for the things I believe in once I’ve departed?” Leonard used to say that the best friends are the ones who stick by you even when they can’t stick around anymore.

I think any recipient of a bequest should be ashamed to ever put a donor’s gift toward a cause or a purpose that the donor wouldn’t have supported. It’s a matter of honesty, faithfulness, and character. Shame on the big foundations today that spend their founders’ money for things they steadfastly opposed. There are many such culprits.

A few months after word reached us of Mr. Poinsett’s passing, we learned exactly what he left us: in cash and property, it was a stunning $1.3 million. This gift proved to be transformational, because it enabled us to exit a steady-as-she-goes mode of operation and start building for the future. The gratifying growth that FEE’s outreach has achieved in recent years really dates from the time we received those funds.

I often reflect sadly on the fact that I can’t sit down and talk to Mr. Poinsett about how much his thoughtfulness and generosity meant to us at a critical time. I would also want to know a lot more than I do about his life and accomplishments.

This much I have learned: Mr. Poinsett was born in 1931 in Huntington, New York. He was preceded in death by his wife of 47 years, Doris Jean Poinsett. They left no children. She was a well-known genealogist and was employed by the Smithsonian Institution for 18 years. He, a Korean War veteran, had been a life-long electrical engineer. They resided in the Washington, DC, area most of their lives. Both are buried in Upshur County, West Virginia, where Mrs. Poinsett was born.

The name “Poinsett” is not common. I suspect the chances are quite good that Ben and Doris were related to Joel Roberts Poinsett, the man whose name was given to the flowering plant we see in abundance this time of year. Perhaps Doris looked into that during her genealogical work. Joel R. Poinsett (1779–1851) would certainly be a fascinating figure to count as an ancestor. He was a celebrated man of botany, politics, diplomacy, and medicine. He was even a cofounder of the National Institute for the Promotion of Science and the Useful Arts, the predecessor of the Smithsonian Institution where Doris Poinsett spent much of her career.

Joel R. Poinsett was a member of the South Carolina legislature and then of the US House of Representatives. Appointed by President James Madison, he served as a “special agent” to Chile and Argentina from 1810 to 1814. He was the first US minister to Mexico (we didn’t employ the “ambassador” designation until the late 1890s). He later became secretary of war under America’s eighth president, Martin Van Buren, who also happens to be among the better and most pro-liberty of our 44 presidents.

Fluent in many languages, Poinsett traveled all over the world and once dined with Czar Alexander in Russia. He was one of the last westerners to see Moscow before its burning in October 1812 by the forces of Napoleon Bonaparte.

A newly independent Mexico welcomed Poinsett as US minister in the 1820s. While serving in that country, he visited an area south of Mexico City known as Taxco del Alarcon. There, he found the “Flor de Noche Buena” (the Christmas Eve flower). The Aztecs had called it cuetlaxochitl and were fascinated by “the beautiful flower that blooms in winter.” They had used it to produce red dye and a fever-reducing medicine.

After experimenting with various methods of propagation, Poinsett returned home to South Carolina with enough cuttings to begin the cultivation of this stunning plant in more northern climes. Within a decade, it became wildly popular in the United States by the name we know today, the poinsettia.

The connection between the plant and Christmas actually predated Poinsett himself by two hundred years. Franciscan friars in Mexico used it for its red and green colors in their 17th-century Christmas celebrations.

Now, when I buy or receive a poinsettia this time of year, I think of more than just a Christmas flower. I think of Benjamin Franklin Poinsett and his extraordinary gift to an organization I lead, as well as his possible connection to the man for whom the flower was named. All of us at FEE will be forever grateful to Ben Poinsett, a real hero in my book. I have good reason to believe that he would be proud of the legacy of liberty that he left behind in our hands.

Merry Christmas!

P.S. Benjamin Franklin Poinsett is a posthumous member of FEE’s Leonard E. Read Legacy Society. For more information on leaving a legacy of liberty, visit FEE.org/donate/leonard-e-read-legacy-society/.


  • Lawrence W. Reed is FEE's President Emeritus, having previously served for nearly 11 years as FEE’s president (2008-2019). He is also FEE's Humphreys Family Senior Fellow and Ron Manners Global Ambassador for Liberty. His Facebook page is here and his personal website is lawrencewreed.com.