The First Civil War, 1830-1842
Joel Roberts Poinsett
A Note on Then and Now
What They Called "Civil War"
A. L. de Santa Anna
Puebla & Charleston
Guanajuato & Bravo
Loot & development
Guatemala & Carrera
Huasteca, & North
Outcomes, and Vision
|They accused Poinsett of organizing a party to interfere in Mexican
domestic politics. Of course he did. That was his object, wherever
he went in the New World: to throw his weight on the side of what
he considered to be popular government, against the forces of "aristocracy,"
against any English and Spanish influence that would block U.S. interests.
When he went to Mexico in 1825, as U.S. minister, he found democratic elements
on the scene, but they seemed to be fragmented and badly organized, struggling
to use lodge organization as a means of mutual support. He lent them
an ear, gave them advice, helped them connect up their organizations to
the York-rite lodges out of Pennsylvania, and told himself that he was
helping people who would make Mexico more like the United States.
To explain this goal, he listed the causes of U.S. prosperity, centering
on the essentials of political and economic liberalism:
Democracy yes, freedom yes, but also law, strictness, and education for
character. Good "administration," but no "Government."
liberal Institutions ably and faithfully administered
the liberty every man enjoys, to employ his time and his means, to the
improvement of his own fortune, without the intervention of Government.
But then he elaborated with formulas that were designed to make equality
and democracy safe for society:
a rigid adherence to the Constitution
a perfect devotion to the will of the people, constitutionally expressed
a strict and impartial administration of justice
the equality of all in the eye of the law
the universal elective franchise, which elevates the character of the
mass of the people
and last not least, the abundant and cheap means of education which
render the people capable of self Government.
Poinsett's Mexican associates were people like Vicente
Guerrero, and the politician Lorenzo Zavala (who tried to act as an
intellectual power in the Guerrero camp). His enemies, those who
accused him of interfering in ways improper for a foreigner, ran to the
likes of Nicolás Bravo, Manuel Gómez Pedraza, and a host
of patriot journalists. They accused him of some things that were
completely true, other things that were somewhat true but not in the demonic
way they pictured, and other things that were the complete opposite of
his real intentions. They did not hit the point on which he was most
guilty: that he was a conservative slaveowner. Many of them,
after all, were conservatives, of a kind common in Mexican society.
The somewhat true:
Poinsett spoke out for the Monroe Doctrine,
and against the transfer of Spanish territories (that is, Cuba or Puerto
Rico) to any independent nations in the New World other than the
U.S. (that is, to Mexico or Colombia). Part of the opposition to
his political scheming seemed to come from the elements working for a Mexican
invasion of Cuba. Though any such invasion would have to be a daring,
possibly absurd venture, one Mexican regime had made a recent attempt to
annex Central America, and Mexico did take Chiapas from Guatemala.
Boundaries between the new Spanish American nations were vulnerable to
Poinsett transmitted to the Mexican government the U.S. interest in acquiring
He did interfere in politics, making himself an active participant in liberal
party planning, and to an extent that undermined his influence.
But the false:
He thought that he favored a society really different from any known to
Mexican landholders and churchmen, a pluralistic society in which no one
would exercise paternalistic authority over respectable free men.
The lodges he sponsored would be an alternative kind of patronage machine.
(As such, the Masons were also opposed by some Protestant moralists in
the United States.) When his Mexican critics said that the lodges
had produced a "continual struggle of families against families . .
. and the loosening of all the most sacred ties of nature," they may
have referred to quarrels between father and son over lodge membership
itself, over political loyalties, and over participation in business.
Some of that was part of social changes at work in many countries.
It did not require any "outside interference." Within the United States,
Poinsett was the kind of patrician politician who sponsored the efforts
of less prosperous men to take up western lands, moving away from family
The opposition between "organic society" and "competitive society" was
real. It was also oversimplified in the debates of the day.
Many conservative leaders -- hacendados, planters, or authoritarian generals
-- were greedy, ruthless competitors within the economy as they knew it.
Many liberals, such as independent merchants and farmers, were quite ready
to impose authority on labor. Individuals moved between the two extremes,
within Mexico, as also within the United States. The flux included,
among other things, the competition among British, French, and U.S. merchant
interests in Mexico. Movement away from the "organic" was already
at work, before Poinsett arrived, and separate from anything he did.
Poinsett was not trying to "disorganize" Mexican society in order to weaken
its powers of agricultural growth. When he described an opposing
view that argued for rivalry, his critics simply chopped off his concluding
"That's all wrong," and presented the rivalry idea as if it had been his.
The practical content of this notion of agricultural rivalry was the conflict
of interests over Cuba, plus the aggressive migration of U.S. slaveholders
into Mexican Texas.
A potential new "class" was growing up, across national lines:
a network of middling editors, professionals,
tradesmen, small landowners, and city workers, together with larger-scale
operators who thought that they could benefit from a new party. Some
individuals within this network gave genuine allegiance to an ideal of
This network opened further possibilities.
Here the Cuba question revealed the deepest flaw in Poinsett's liberalism.
He knew that Mexico and Colombia, in themselves, had hardly the forces
to defeat Spanish arms in the island. The forces that they did command
might have little means for organizing internal resistance there.
Still, that is what Poinsett feared: "What I most dread is that
the blacks may be armed and used as auxiliaries by one or both parties."
In 1822, just before he left for a first visit to Mexico, he served on
a special court in Charleston, which sat on the cases of people taken up
in the Denmark Vesey slave plot. It put 37 to death.
One was long-range: that its very opportunism would make it sensitive
to economic trends, therefore open to modern, productive industry.
Another was short-range, and dangerous: that the large numbers of
land-hungry U.S. citizens in this new class, compared with the smaller
number of liberals in other countries, would dominate Canadian and Mexican
democrats, drawing them into the arms of U.S. expansionists. The
movement of white populations from older areas helped to mobilize democratic
political machines. In the military sphere, this popular participation
supported militia units, ready to uproot Indian settlements, even when
regular army men were unavailable or squeamish.
This limit on liberalism is also a limit on any "liberal" interpretation
of the events in Poinsett's later life:
Supporting Andrew Jackson, he organized Unionist elements in South
Carolina during the Nullification crisis of 1832-1833. Here,
his language against "aristocratic" Nullifiers like John C. Calhoun was
much the same as his language against Mexican "monarchists" like Lucas
Alamán. Thus, Jackson's opposition to Nullification was in
no way an opposition to slavery, or even to slaveholder leadership.
Rather, they stood for a Southern leadership that would participate aggressively
in the outside world.
As secretary of war under Van Buren, 1837-1841, he pushed for practical
road networks to coordinate troop movements to the Indian frontier.
While this stood in contrast to the visionary
railroad proposals of General Gaines, it showed Poinsett as a worker
in the building of control networks.
Site Map | About
Ernesto González Pedrero, País de un solo hombre: el México
de Santa Anna, I: La Ronda de los contrarios (1993)
William Ray Manning, ed., Diplomatic Correspondence of the United States
Concerning the Independence of the Latin-American Nations (1925)
William R. Manning, "La misión de Poinsett a México," Revista
americana de derecho internacional (1913)
Joel Roberts Poinsett, Contestación del ministro americano a
la escitativa de la Legislatura del estado de México (1829)
Joel Roberts Poinsett, The Present Political State of Mexico: a previous
unpublished confidential report . . . in 1822, ed. L. Smith Lee (1976)
Joel Roberts Poinsett, Esposición de la conducta política
de los Estados-Unidos, para con las nuevas repúblicas de América
Biography of Poinsett, in Charles Lyon Chandler Papers, University of North
José Fuentes Mares, Poinsett: Historia de una gran intriga
Copyright 1999 The Intermountain History Group, firstname.lastname@example.org.
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