The following was previously published in Volume 21 of the Transactions of the South Carolina Masonic Research Society, 2009. Portrait by Charles Fenderich (1805-1887), n.d.
BEYOND THE POINSETTIA: JOEL POINSETT AND MEXICAN FREEMASONRY
Joel Roberts Poinsett (1799 – 1851) was a native of Charleston, South Carolina, and is largely remembered only due to the beautiful flowering plant that bears his name. Commonly known as the poinsettia (Euphorbia pulcherrima), this plant is a frequent addition to many Christmas decorations. Although Poinsett was instrumental in bringing this plant to the United States from its native Mexico, his activities in that country extended well beyond amateur botany and secured his place in the history of early Mexican Freemasonry.
In addition to being a member of the United States House of Representatives and a Secretary of War for the United States, Poinsett served as the first Minister to Mexico from 1825 to 1830.1 He was an Ancient Free Mason, having served as Master of both Solomon’s Lodge No. 1 and Recovery Lodge No. 31, in Charleston and Greenville, South Carolina, respectively. He was also a High Priest of the Grand Royal Arch Chapter of South Carolina and, though he never actually had the opportunity to carry out the duties of the office due to his commitments to the government of the United States, Poinsett was also
The Grand Lodge of Ancient Free Masons of South Carolina, through Poinsett, has sometimes been credited with the introduction of Freemasonry into Mexico. It is doubtful, however, that the historical evidence can support any such claim.
The prolific Masonic writer and historian, Albert G. Mackey, examined the Poinsett – Mexican Masonic connection in detail in 1861 when he presented his work, The History of Freemasonry in South Carolina. Mackey was in a unique position to be able to make this examination since, as Grand Secretary of the Grand Lodge in South Carolina, he was in possession of the written proceedings and various related documents that pertained to Grand Lodge business.
Mackey acknowledges that the South Carolina Grand Lodge did receive a letter from Poinsett in 1826, while he was in Mexico as the Minister from the United States. The contents and date of that letter were unfortunately not saved for review by Mackey or other Masonic historians but, in consequence of that letter, on the 15th of December, 1826, the Grand Lodge of South Carolina adopted the following resolution:
That the Grand Lodge do constitute our worthy Brother, Joel R. Poinsett, the Minister Plenipotentiary of the United States, near the Republic of Mexico, the Agent and Representative of the Grand Lodge, for the purpose of establishing friendly relations with the Lodges of that Republic. That our said Representative be authorized, in the manner of the Grand Lodge, to visit and inspect the working of the said Lodges, and, if deemed expedient, to grant dispensations for the constituting and working of Lodges according to the ancient landmarks, as fixed by this Grand Lodge; with a request that he will communicate to the Grand Lodge such information and advice as will enable it to promote the cause of Masonry in that country.3There is, therefore, little doubt that the Grand Lodge of Ancient Free Masons of South Carolina clearly desired to establish Lodges in Mexico. South Carolina, like several Grand Lodges of the time, had a history of establishing Lodges in territories not already occupied by another Grand Lodge. It had done so before in places such as Alabama and Cuba.4
Poinsett had, however, written another letter that more fully revealed the Masonic situation in Mexico. It was dated June 2nd, 1826, but not received by the Grand Lodge of South Carolina until 1827-- well after the resolution of December 15th, 1826. In this letter, which Mackey was able to reproduce word for word, Poinsett reports the following: “The Grand Lodge of Mexico counts thirteen Subordinate Lodges under its jurisdiction.”5 The Grand Lodge of South Carolina could not have established Lodges in Mexico in 1826 or later without having been labeled as an invader of an established Grand Jurisdiction. Mackey makes it clear that there is no evidence that Poinsett ever acted on the authority granted to him in December 1826. Mackey stated unequivocally that Freemasonry in Mexico was “un fait accompli;”
and neither the Grand Lodge of South Carolina nor any other Grand Lodge had the right to intrude and interfere with the lawful sovereignty of the Grand Lodge of Mexico. The Grand Lodge of South Carolina certainly did not – it granted to one of its Past Officers, it is true, while it was ignorant of the real condition of affairs, the authority so to do, but we have no evidence that he ever availed himself of the authority, nor is it likely, with the knowledge he possessed of the condition of things, of which his superiors in South Carolina were ignorant, that he would commit so egregious an error as to interfere with the legally organized jurisdiction of the Grand Lodge of a foreign country in which he was temporarily residing.6The story of Poinsett’s Masonic activities in Mexico does not end there. Mackey, referencing a pamphlet issued by a George Fisher in 1859 and entitled “Freemasonry in Mexico: It’s Origin, etc.: Illustrated by original documents not heretofore published,” claims that Poinsett was actually working as the proxy of the Grand Master of New York and, in 1825, obtained charters from New York for three Lodges in Mexico. Fisher, who Mackey reports to have been a Mason from California who was residing in Mexico in 1825, may have been in a position to be an accurate observer of the Masonic conditions in that country. Based on this information, Poinsett could possibly be considered as the man who brought Freemasonry to Mexico; not on behalf of his own Grand Lodge in South Carolina but on behalf of the one in New York.7
Dr. Paul Rich and Dr. Guillermo De Los Reyes, researchers who have specialized in the study of Mexican Freemasonry, make the claim that Freemasonry was actually brought to Mexico in 1816 or 1817 by the Grand Lodge of Louisiana.8 This, though the proof is not presented and Rich and Reyes don’t name these Lodges, is not disputed in this article. It is reasonable to assume that Lodges existed prior to Poinsett’s three charters from New York in 1825 and, in all probability, those three Lodges were already in existence but working without charters. Therefore it is entirely possible that a Grand Jurisdiction with its origins in New York had already been formed based on Poinsett’s correspondence of June of 1826. That letter and the one that prompted the Grand Lodge of South Carolina’s resolution in December 1826, and which was most certainly written prior to June 1826, makes it rather certain that he was a supporter of the establishment of a Mexican Grand Lodge from the outset.
Poinsett’s support of and involvement in Mexican Masonry goes much deeper than just the relatively mundane act of obtaining a few charters from New York. To appreciate this, one should know something about the relationship between Freemasonry and Mexican politics in the 1820s and beyond. The interested reader will find that Mexican politics were heavily influenced by two competing Masonic factions. The Yorkinos, or York Masons, and the Escoseses, or Scottish Freemasons, were on opposite sides of the political situation in Mexico and, being from an Ancient York Mason influenced state and a well placed member of the York Rite, it would probably only be natural that Poinsett would side with the Yorkinos, Masonically and politically. Poinsett’s support of and involvement in Mexican Freemasonry, which was so closely tied to Mexican politics, would ultimately lead to him being recalled to the United States.9
So did Poinsett bring Freemasonry to Mexico? No, not exactly. However, he certainly was on a Masonic mission in that country and his activities pertaining to Freemasonry are every bit as important as his act of introducing poinsettias to Christmas place settings.
1. Ingersoll, L.D., History of the War Department of the United States, Washington, D.C., Francis B. Mohun, 1879, pp. 483-486.
2. Rich, Paul and De Los Reyes, Guillermo, “Problems in the Historiography of Mexican Freemasonry”, Mexican Freemasonry, Regency Press, New York and London, 1997.
3. Mackey, Albert G., History of Freemasonry in South Carolina, South Carolina Steam Power Press, Columbia, SC, 1861, pp. 220-221.
4. Ibid, pp. 558, 574.
5. Ibid, p. 222.
6. Ibid, p. 222.
7. Ibid, p. 223.
8. Rich and De Los Reyes.