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Joel R. Poinsett in Latin America


            The name Poinsett immediately brings to mind the bright red flower that has become one of the symbols of Christmas: the Poinsettia, which received its name to honor the man who brought it to the United States from its native Mexico. 

JOel Robert Poinsett

            Poinsett's life has all the elements of a fascinating adventure story; perhaps that is the reason it is so easy to speak of Poinsett here, close to Hollywood.       

Poinsett was bright, impetuous, ambitious and sometimes reckless. He translated his ideals into action disregarding the consequences. His life is so exciting that a single lecture can do no honor to him or to you, who would be overwhelmed by a plethora of names, places and events.

            Therefore, I shall restrict my scope, and deal with only two periods in the life of this extraordinary man and Mason, who left us not only a flower, but the unforgettable memory of his contribution to our neighbors to the south, and to strengthening and developing these United States of America.


            Joel Roberts Poinsett came from a wealthy and distinguished South Carolina family. His father, a renowned physician, wanted him to follow in his steps and sent him to study medicine in Edinburgh. However, his boundless energy and restless character would not let him complete the course. Deciding that medicine was not for him, he was attracted instead to the profession of arms. A period in the Royal Military Academy endowed him with the knowledge that would prove useful during his service in Chile.

A period of studying the legal profession also ended prematurely, marking the end of his formal education. So, free at last to give free rein to his wanderlust he embarked on a grand tour of Europe, where all important doors were opened to this young, handsome American who arrived armed with the best credentials. Rippy comments that "Poinsett traveled more widely, and read more industriously than almost any American of his day." [i]

He put his practical experience in agriculture and gardening at the service of the Czar of Russia, who was so impressed with him that he offered to give him an officer's commission in the Russian army. His sojourn in Russia lasted three years.

There is little doubt that his varied educational experience, as well as his travels, where he made the acquaintance of many statesmen; on the other hand, he was able to could observe first hand the miserable condition of the serfs and the lower classes, which strengthened in him the conviction that only independence and a democratic, republican form of government, could form the foundation for the development and progress of a nation, allowing its citizens to enjoy the benefits of freedom.

Back home, the young man of 30 (he was born in 1779) waited to see what the future would bring him. What it brought was an appointment as the first American diplomat in the countries at the southern tip of the American continent: Argentine and Chile.

The South Americans were embroiled in their wars of independence from Spain. For the first time their ports were open to foreign shipping, free from the stringent restrictions imposed by the Spanish homeland. Seeing these new opportunities to expand its trade, Great Britain had already sent emissaries to Buenos Aires. The American government saw this development with concern, not wishing to let its old Colonial masters to encroach into its southern backyard.

The situation in South America was confused: the local Spanish governors were still strong while the independence forces were weak and lacking in military training.

President Madison decided to be cautious, to send somebody who could establish proper contacts, start negotiations, and yet a man who was not a career diplomat, so he would not appear as official representative of the American government and would not compromise it.

            He chose Poinsett, who was known in the capital's circles, had traveled widely and was fluent in Spanish and several other languages He was sent posing as a simple commercial agent.

            On October 15, 1810, Poinsett left aboard the Niagara bound for Brazil. The voyage was stormy and the captain was not a very able seaman, he lacked a compass and the ship almost floundered on the coast of Brazil. After seventy days, they finally reached Rio de Janeiro on the eve of Christmas, only to discover that the captain was incapable of finding the entrance to the harbor.

            Only the next day Poinsett could set foot on land and immediately went to see Thomas Sumter, the American Minister to the Portuguese court in Brazil. It appears that Poinsett became enthralled by the luxurious local flora, because he remained in the Rio for several weeks.  Shipping was irregular at the time, and he had to wait for a ship to take him to Argentine. Finally, a British vessel arrived, and in January of 1811 he traveled to Buenos Aires disguised as an Englishman.

            Poinsett was well received at first, and he started at once exploring the commercial possibilities of the new nation. He quickly got to meet the leaders of the revolutionary junta, and achieved some minor concessions for American trade. However, his steps were closely watched by the British consul and the local British merchants, who opposed his every move.

Poinsett soon realized that his activities in Argentine had reached a dead end. In the meantime, based on his reports, an appointment arrived from Washington, making his Consul General for Argentine, Chile and Perú, so by the end of November 1811 he took the road to Chile, where he expected to find better opportunities.

            Poinsett left us a fascinating description of his voyage, traversing the flat pampas, a wasteland which he compared to the Russian steppes, flat, devoid of trees, with scant, brackish water. He was fortunate not to be murdered by the ferocious Indians, and then came the crossing of the Andes, the imposing Cordillera, which had to be traversed mounted on mules, along mountain paths so narrow that even the beasts of burden sometimes lost their footing and fell with their passenger to the bottom of the gorge. The crossing took several days, but when they finally reached the other side, and Poinsett saw the fertile central valley of Chile, he believed he had come to a patch of heaven on earth. His journey had lasted 32 days. He reached Santiago on December 29, 1811. [ii]

            Chile was being governed by a revolutionary junta headed by José Miguel Carrera. The Chileans were divided, some of them – the wealthy land owners and the Spanish-born - wanted to remain under Spanish rule, while most of the "criollos" – those born in Chile - thought otherwise, but they themselves were divided between those who wanted to gain some form of autonomy while remaining faithful subjects of the Spanish crown, and those who strove to gain complete independence and form a republic, though, to tell the truth, they had little idea of what form that government should take.

            Poinsett, then, arrived at a critical time in the independence struggle. At a town-hall meeting in Santiago, the Chileans has declared their independence on September 18 of the previous year (1810), but Spanish soldiers still occupied the far south, and the Spanish Viceroy in Peru was preparing to send an expeditionary force to regain control of the country. The independence movement was in danger, and – as later events would prove – independence could not be achieved for several more years.

            We don’t know when Poinsett became a Mason, but he is recorded as being a Past Master of two South Carolina lodges [iii] ; we also know that José Miguel Carrera was a Mason  [iv] and he shared with Poinsett the same devotion for the republican form of government and for the philosophical ideals of the Enlightenment. Thus, it is not surprising that the two developed an immediate liking for each other. Poinsett, who was older and more experienced, soon became a trusted confident and military advisor to the Chilean ruler.

            It is interesting to note that Carrera had replaced Bernardo O'Higgins in the revolutionary government, and the two were at odds. While some historians have claimed that O'Higgins – a central figure in Chile's independence war - was a mason, this is another bit of evidence supporting the view that O'Higgins probably was not a mason, while Carrera certainly was one.

            In the spring of 1812 the movement to separate Chile from Spanish rule gained impetus. A national flag was created, and the 4th of July was set to formally dedicate the new emblem. Poinsett – who had invited members of the government and some three hundred other Chilean personalities to a celebration in the Consul's residence, was careful to stress the symbolic connection between the Chileans and the Americans. The Stars and Stripes was flown entwined with the three colors of the Chilean flag. [v]

            Unfortunately, the festivity was somewhat marred by the disorderly conduct of some American sailors who got drunk and had to be thrown out. In the end they got involved in a brawl, shots were fired, several Americans were wounded, and one died. Poinsett was mortified, but his good relations with the Chilean government remained unaffected. In fact, he was soon invited to join an even more important project, which marked a new step towards independence: writing a Constitution for the new republic.

            Father Camilo Henriquez, editor of the first Chilean newspaper, La Aurora de Chile, and six other prominent Chileans were appointed to draw up the document, together with Poinsett. We shall not be surprised to learn that the meetings were held in his home. Poinsett took as his model the recently enacted Constitution of the United States of America, which he firmly believed was a milestone of political science and a model for all countries of Spanish America. Poinsett's advice was accepted in almost every instance, and the first draft of the Constitution was completed in October.

            During this period, a family quarrel broke out between José Miguel Carrera and his younger brother Juan José, who commanded the infantry in the revolutionary army. The dispute could have ended in civil war, but Poinsett intervened, and his arbitration succeeded in restoring the peace between the two brothers. José Miguel, who had resigned to avoid bloodshed, returned to the Presidency of the junta.

            Poinsett contributed in other ways to the welfare of the country. He devised a plan to organize a police force, and proposed the cultivation of cotton, and other crops which could be valuable for international trade.

            The war with Great Britain, (declared on 18 June 1812), was then in full progress, and the ship Essex was sent to protect American shipping in the Pacific. In March, 1813 the warship arrived at Valparaiso, where it was received with great jubilation. Captain David Porter and his officers were invited to a reception by the Governor, while Poinsett and other government officials traveled to Valparaiso to greet the Americans. The Chileans mistakenly believed this was a sign that the United States was ready to support them in their struggle for independence.

            In the spring of 1813 the Viceroy in Lima decided it was time to squash the rebellion in the south. He sent a contingent of troops that landed near Talcahuano, the port of Concepción, the main city south of Santiago. Concepción was a center of royalist faithful, and the patriots were easily defeated.

            Carrera hastily formed an army and went south to face the invaders. Here he was accompanied by Poinsett, who advised him on military organization and tactics. Again, Poinsett's devotion to liberal ideas prevailed over his official duties as a diplomat. Carrera greatly valued the American's assistance, once declaring that Poinsett was "the best Chilean". The consul also concerned himself with the plans for provisioning the army.

            The patriotic forces met the royalists and forced them to retreat. However, victory was not decisive. The royalists remained near Chillán, a city about half way between Santiago and Concepción. Poinsett, who marched with the vanguard of the army, now took charge of attacking the port of Talcahuano, still held by the enemy.

            Some Peruvian privateers had arrived with orders to seize all foreign ships using the Chilean ports and to confiscate their cargos. A large number of whalers from Nantucket, Massachusetts were in Talcahuano. The Peruvians were holding them as prizes of war and threatened to send the crews to Lima as prisoners.

            Poinsett led the attack, and the port was taken with lightning speed, releasing the prisoners. As Putnam remarks, the American sailors must have been surprised and overjoyed when they discovered the identity of their deliverer. [vi]

            This was certainly a most unusual activity for a properly accredited diplomat. We must remember that the USA was at war with England, but not with Spain. In fact, the Washington government had declared its neutrality regarding the conflict between Spain and its American colonies.

            The province of Concepción was cleared of invaders, and preparations were made to wipe out the royalists holding Chillán. The royalist commander – Colonel Sánchez - bitterly resented the intervention of Poinsett, and berated him for his conduct: "notorious in separating yourself from the Duties incumbent on the Character of an American Consul". The Colonel requested that Poinsett inform him immediately whether his activity had been sanctioned by the Government of the United States of America so that the Spanish regency might be notified. [vii]            Poinsett wisely ignored this request. It would have been difficult to explain his actions, and in his reports to Washington he was careful to diminish as much as possible his role in the armed conflict.

            The course of the war now turned against the patriots, who were divided among themselves, lacking in finances and weapons. The royalists began to advance; Carrera was replaced by his old rival, O'Higgins, but this was unable to rally the troops. He was finally holed up with the remainder of his troops in the main square of Rancagua, a town some 60 miles south of Santiago.  There, while completely surrounded by the Spanish forces, and in a gallant, desperate move, he and a few others jumped over the enemy lines on their hordes and managed to escape to Argentine.

The period of the "Patria Vieja", the old fatherland, had ended, and it would take another war, this time started a few years later with the invasion of Chile by an army led by José de San Martín and Bernardo O'Higgins, to bring about the final defeat of the Spaniards.

            Poinsett, meanwhile, had been trying to return to the United States. His presence in Chile was no longer welcome and had become an irritant for the British, who had sent two frigates to South America in order to combat American shipping. Arriving at Valparaíso they met the Esssex, which had returned after a successful cruise. The two British warships blockaded the American ship, and after a failed attempted escape the Essex was attacked, outgunned and finally surrendered after suffering heavy losses (March 28, 1814). The survivors, including Captain Porter, were allowed to return to America, but Poinsett was not permitted to join them. The British commander considered Poinsett an arch-enemy of England.

            In the end, the American Consul again crossed the Andes and the pampas to reach Buenos Aires, and from there he embarked on the long journey back home, arriving to Charleston on May 28, 1815, after an absence of almost six years.

            President Madison thanked Poinsett for his efforts, and congratulated him for the way he had discharged his duties. Poinsett's reputation was intact.

            Soon after Poinsett's return, in January of 1816, José Miguel Carrera came to the United States trying to enlist support for the Chilean revolution. President Madison agreed to receive him, but would not commit himself.  Carrera then moved to New York, and that is the time when he became affiliated to Saint John Lodge N° 1 and was raised to the Master Mason's degree. Poinsett came to New York to meet his old friend, and he also tried, unsuccessfully, to convince John Jacob Astor to supply arms to the Chileans.

            Poinsett then arranged for Carrera to have meetings in Philadelphia with recently arrived officers of Napoleon's army, including Marshal Grouchy and General Clauzel, with the intention of attracting them to the revolutionary cause. Poinsett also secured a contract with an arms supplier for the expedition that Carrera was planning. By November, a large number of American and European volunteers had assembled in Baltimore, and Carrera sailed with this force to Buenos Aires, hoping to get the support of the Argentinean government to invade Chile. His project was to end in failure, and Carrera was eventually executed (in 1821), as were his two brothers.

            The fate of the greatest independence leaders in South America was generally unfortunate. Miranda was delivered to the Spaniards by his own countrymen and died in prison, O'Higgins and San Martin died in exile, Bolivar was also ousted from his homeland and died in Colombia while waiting to board a ship that would take him to exile in Europe. This common fate is more than a coincidence, it points to the deep divisions that rent Latin-American society, divisions that persist in one form or another until this very day.

Poinsett, back at home, attended his business, neglected for so long, but he also entered South Carolina's politics, being elected to the state legislature for two terms. He sponsored a bill to limit the importation of slaves into the state, which made him the target of the pro-slavery faction's hatred. He also kept in close contact with the Federal Administration. In 1817 President Monroe asked him to head a delegation that would be sent to examine conditions in South America and to report on whether the time had come to recognize the new nations. Poinsett graciously declined. He believed that such a mission had little chance of discovering the real situation.

The following year, the Secretary of State, Adams, asked Poinsett to prepare a report, to be joined to the report of the mission. He responded with an extensive memorandum, and in a personal letter to Adams he explained his position against recognizing the government in Buenos Aires which, he believed, lacked proper stability and popular backing.

            In 1821 both his Masonic and his political life took dramatic turns. That year he was elected Deputy Grand Master of the Grand Lodge of South Carolina, and that same year he was elected Grand High Priest of the Grand Chapter of South Carolina, holding that office for the next 20 years.

And that same year of 1821 he was elected to the United States House of Representatives, where he took a place in the Foreign Affairs Committee. In the presidential elections of 1824, Poinsett supported Andrew Jackson, who lost. John Quincy Adams was elected instead and coincidentally, on March 7, 1825, Poinsett resigned from Congress to accept as appointment as the first American Ambassador to Mexico.

Poinsett already knew Mexico. He had been there in 1822, sent by President Monroe to examine the conditions in the newly independent nation and to determine if the United States should recognize the local government.

I will not attempt to explain the Byzantine convolutions of Mexican politics at the time. Suffice me to say that the country was then ruled by Agustín de Iturbide, an army officer who first had fought for the Spaniards, then against them, and finally took control of the country declaring himself Emperor. He was an active Scottish rite Mason.

Poinsett, whose republican instinct made him abhor the trappings of empire, took an instant dislike to the man.

Now, returning to Mexico as Ambassador, Poinsett met the new President, Manuel Felix Fernández, better known by his nom de guerre Guadalupe Victoria, who had been elected in October of 1824.

The conservative followers of Iturbide, however, many of whom were Scottish Rite masons, continued undermining Victoria and doing all they could to bring Iturbide back. They were commanded by the conservative Nicolás Bravo, who had been elected Vice-President in a futile move designed to bring peace between both camps.

Soon after his arrival, Poisett was approached by members of the newly formed York Rite lodges. These included politicians and military men who wanted to get rid of Iturbide and his faction, and to establish a firm republican form of government.

Once again, Poinsett deviated from his role as diplomat. Although later he would claim that he did not expect the York Masons to act beyond their legitimate functions of benevolence and charity, he could not have ignored the intense political forces that were behind the creation of the competing Masonic body. The Scottish Rite masons, also known as "Centralists" or "Escoceses", were already politicized, and the York lodges, which with the help of Poinsett soon formed their own Grand Lodge, became the center of an opposition political force known as the "Federalists" or Yorkinos.

The York Grand Lodge developed with amazing speed. In the course of five months some eighty-two lodges were established. Another historian claims the figure of 130 lodges. [viii]

Guadalupe Victoria has the distinction of being the only Mexican President to serve his full term during the first 50 years of Mexican independence. He also has the distinction of having abolished slavery in his country.

As Guadalupe Victoria's presidential term came to its close in 1828, the conservative Vice-President, Nicolás Bravo, a Centralist and Scottish Rite Mason, rebelled and issued a proclamation, known as the Montano Plan, which contained four main points: the first was to prohibit by law all secret societies; second, all ministers were to be dismissed; third, Poinsett was to be expelled from Mexico, and finally, the Constitution was to be rigidly enforced.

Then came about one of the strangest battles of history, fought by armies led by the Grand Masters of two contesting Grand Lodges: Nicolás Bravo was Grand Master of the Escoceses, while Vicente Guerrero was Grand Master of the Yorkinos. The battle took place outside Mexico City and the Yorkinos were victorious. Bravo was sent to exile.

The elections of 1828 were fiercely contested. Although Gómez Pedraza was declared the winner, he was forced to leave the country, and Vicente Guerrero, with the support of Santa Anna, Závala and Poinsett, assumed power under suspicious circumstances.

Poinsett had overstayed his welcome. His active involvement in Mexican political life had become too blatant, to the point that it antagonized even the people he supported. He was unable to fulfill the his instructions to acquire Texas and to convince the Mexicans to redraw the border line moving it further to the south.

Poinsett returned to Charleston and, faithful to his principles, became an active defender of the Union when the Nullification dispute arose in South Carolina. According to the followers of John C. Calhoun, a state had the right to nullify an act of the federal government. Poinsett became the leader of those opposing this view, defending the authority of the federation. In the end, South Carolina remained in the Union.

While returning home, Poinsett brought back some plants of the flower that bears his name, which in Mexico was known, among other names, as the Nochebuena flower, the flower of Christmas Eve. It was held in high esteem by the Aztecs who called it cuetlaxochitl. The Aztecs thought its bright red color symbolized the blood of their sacrifices. There are many legends connected with this flower, one of them relates that a young child who came to see the Baby Jesus had nothing to offer but a handful of weeds. When she presented them to the nativity scene, the weeds turned into the beautiful red flowers.

The rest of Brother Poinsett's life lies beyond the scope of this paper. I will only mention that he served brilliantly for four years as Secretary of War under President Van Buren, reorganizing the army.

He continued to be interested in the progress of science and art; he was actively involved in the creation of the National Institute for the Promotion of Science, the forerunner of the Smithsonian Institution, and became its first President.  As Brother Thompson wrote: "He was a true Renaissance man; he was an expert in agriculture and horticulture, a diplomat, a legislator, a Congressman, a Secretary of War, an advisor to the Czar, the founder of the Smithsonian Institution, an active member of our Fraternity, and a lover of our American Union." [ix]

            This looks like an appropriate time to conclude my lecture. But please, be patient for a few more moments. I've come from so far away, let me enjoy torturing you with my Spanish accent a bit longer.

            The point is, what can we learn from Poinsett's life? Is there a lesson in the way he acted, that is pertinent to our present situation?

            I think the answer is yes.     

            Poinsett gives us an example of how a man, decided to give others the benefits he himself enjoys at home, goes out of his way to put into practice the principles he professes to uphold.

            Poinsett believed in freedom, believed that despotism cannot be ignored, it must be fought. He risked his career, his own life to give testimony that his ideals were not abstract philosophy, but vital rules of conduct.

            How can we, the masons of today, act in a similar manner, be faithful to our proclaimed ideals, and yet act within the boundaries of our landmarks?

            I don’t think that now is the time for us, as Masons, to go and organize military revolutions, to liberate our countries. Yet, the work of our Masonic forerunners is not complete.

            Look at our world, what percentage of the world population enjoys the benefits of democracy, of freedom in all its aspects? Much less than one half.

            And how can this appalling situation be changed? What can be done to complete the work of liberation started by men like Washington and Bolivar and… yes, and Poinsett?

            Freedom is born in the hearts of men, it cannot be imposed, and the way to awaken the thirst for freedom is through education.

William Wallace, an American, wrote "the hand that rocks the cradle is the hand that rules the world". What does it mean? To change the world, change the minds of the people. The minds of children are the key to change the future.

Education: that should be out mission, our vision. We want our children to live in a better world? Educate the children in democracy, in justice, in freedom. Banish from their minds the evils of ignorance and prejudice.

Our brethren in the 19th century fought to liberate nations, our mission in the 21st must be to liberate the minds. And the key to this is education.

Education is the highest form of charity.

And how do we start? Let's start by educating ourselves. That will be the next great task of Freemasonry, make each lodge an academy, a place of learning, a forum to exchange ideas among friends.

And let us do Masonic work outside the lodge, supporting public education, being active in the schools, in the universities, in all areas of civic life, promoting and supporting everywhere our message of tolerance, brotherhood, self-reliance.

            Give back to the Mason a sense of purpose, practical targets to aim, and he will be active. The lodge will become again a vital part of each mason's life. It will become a magnet for men who seek something more in their lives than the weekly routine, who want to improve themselves and thereby improve the world.

            We have a wonderful institution. Freemasonry is well organized, has ancient traditions that no other voluntary organization can claim; its presence is felt worldwide.

Make our members aware of their great privilege to have joined this great institution, let each Mason become a role model, an example for all of society.

            Let me end with a sentence pronounced by a man who struggled for an idea, an ideal, to create a homeland for the Jewish people. He was Theodor Herzl, the man who predicted the creation of the State of Israel, and what he said was: If you wish it, it will not be a dream.

That applies to us likewise.






Barros, Mario, Historia Diplomática de Chile 1541-1938, Barcelona, 1870.

Burciaga, José Antonio, "La Cuetlaxochitl", Drink Culture, Capra Press, Santa Barbara, 1993.

Clark, Lane, "Vicente Guerrero", Historical Text Archive, http://historicaltextarchive.com/sections.php?op=viewarticle&artid=563.

Collier, William Miller & Feliú Cruz, Guillermo, La Primera Misión de los Estados Unidos de América en Chile, Imprenta Cervantes, Santiago de Chile, 1926.

Gallardo, Guillermo, Joel Roberts Poinsett, agente norteamericano, 1810-1814, Emecé Ediciones, Buenos Aires c1984.

Gaxiola, Francisco Javier, Poinsett en México (1822-1828), notas de un libro inconcluso, Editorial Cultura, México, 1935.

Johnston, Samuel, Diario de un Tipógrafo Yanqui, Editorial América,

Madrid, 1919.

Pinto Lagarrigue, Fernando, La Masonería – su Influencia en Chile, Santiago, 1965.

Putnam, Herbert Everett, Joel Roberts Poinsett; a political biography, Mimeoform Press, Washington,D.C., 1935.

Rich, Paul & De Los Reyes, Guillermo, "Problems in the Historiography of Mexican Freemasonry", Mexican Freemasonry, Regency Press, New York and London, 1997. Professor Rich is the foremost authority on Mexican Freemasonic history.

Rippy, J. Fred, Joel R. Poinsett, Versatile American, Duke University Press, 1935.

Thompson, Edward N., "Joel Robert Poinsett: The Man Behind the Flower", Short Talk Bulletin, Masonic Service Association of the United States, December 1984.

Zeldis, Leon, "Freemasonry's Contribution to South American Independence – A factual approach", Ars Quatuor Coronatorum, Vol. 11 (1998), published October 1999.



[i]  Rippy, p. viii.

[ii]  Rippy, pp. 40-41.

[iii]   Recovery Lodge #31, Greenville, and Solomons Lodge #1, Charleston.

[iv]  In his own diary, kept between November 9, 1815 until October 25, 1816, Carrera mentions that he became affiliated in Saint John Lodge N° 1 of New York on 24 April 1816, receiving the third degree. This proves that he was already a regularly initiated Mason before that, i.e. at the time he met Poinsett in Chile.  The diary is found in the National Archive of Chile.

[v]    Johnston, p. 95.

[vi]   Putnam, pp. 35-36.

[vii]   Colonel Sánchez to Poinsett, July 29, 1813, translation by Stanislaus Laffiteau, Poinsett Papers, I, 156. Quoted by  Putnam, p. 36.

[viii]  José Bravo Ugarte, in Gallardo, p. 33.

[ix]  Thompson, p. 12.