Selected Dispatches

By what means was Poinsett planning to influence the Mexican government? Which foreign government did Poinsett identify in his dispatch to Henry Clay as intervening in Mexico? Poinsett characterized his intervention in Mexican politics as a way to moderate the excesses of dissatisfied elements in the country. Does this at all justify Poinsett’s meddling? How do actions like this impact Congress’ role in shaping American foreign policy?

No related resources


After narrowly triumphing in the disputed election of 1824, John Quincy Adams (1767–1848) selected Speaker of the House Henry Clay (1777–1852) to serve as his secretary of state. Andrew Jackson and his followers condemned that choice as a “corrupt bargain” that stole the presidency from Jackson. (When the 1824 presidential election went to the House of Representatives because no candidate received the required number of electoral votes, Adams and Clay met; Clay afterward threw his support in the House to Adams, although Jackson had received more electoral votes in the election.) Clay had been critical of Adams’ restrained approach to independence movements around the globe, but the two men shared an abiding interest in acquiring the disputed region of Texas for the United States.

John Quincy Adams appointed Joel Poinsett, an American diplomat and occasional secret operative, as the American ambassador to Mexico in 1825. Poinsett was well equipped for such a mission, having been involved in the affairs of various Latin American countries since the early days of the Madison administration. In 1810 Poinsett had been officially charged with establishing favorable commercial and political arrangements for the United States, but clandestinely he worked to encourage revolution against the tottering Spanish colonial regimes south of America’s border. Poinsett’s activities extended into remote corners of Latin America, including Chile, Argentina, Peru, and eventually Mexico, where his reputation as an “apostle of liberty in South America” was put to its greatest test.

Both John Quincy Adams and Secretary of State Clay were concerned about alleged British intervention in Mexico designed to counter U.S. efforts to acquire Texas. Poinsett’s arrival in Mexico City coincided with the announcement of a commercial treaty between Mexico and Britain, which confirmed his worst fears regarding British intentions. “The British government has anticipated us. …

Their commercial treaty is made, and no doubt appears to be entertained of the result.” Poinsett concluded that an opposition party with a pro-American platform should be formed to counter British influence in Mexican politics. Poinsett had noted that Masonic lodges in Cuba, Colombia, and Mexico had been at the center of independence movements during the 1820s and opted to use this existing network to build the political party. Mexico quickly became a battleground with American and British surrogates vying for influence over the nation’s government.
In these brief excerpts, originally written in code, Poinsett discussed his plans to foster a pro-American political party in Mexico that, once in power, would check British influence and cede Texas to the United States. Some of the correspondence between the State Department and Poinsett went missing from official American records, although copies of some of these records were found in British archives.

—Stephen F. Knott

Diplomatic Correspondence of the United States concerning the Independence of the Latin-American Nations, vol. 3, ed. W. R. Manning (New York: Oxford University Press, 1925), 1636–40, available at

Joel Poinsett to Secretary of State Henry Clay, October 12, 1825

The fall of [Lucas] Alaman1 struck the European party with terror. … [I] have found it necessary to form a party out of such elements as the country afforded or to leave the English as masters of the field. … [The British ambassador has informed his government of] the most exaggerated accounts [of my influence]. The country is tranquil … [but] in a republic without virtue and with a large standing army there is always danger. … [Guadalupe Victoria]2 never will be a friend of the United States. … [Guadalupe Victoria blames me for blocking his plan] to create a confederacy of the Spanish American-speaking states at the head of which the superior population and resources … must have placed Mexico to conquer Cuba and annex that island to Mexico and if possible to induce Guatemala to unite herself with Mexico.

Joel Poinsett to Secretary of State Henry Clay, January 7, 1826

… Masonry is beginning to flourish [and bear] good fruit….

Joel Poinsett to Secretary of State Martin Van Buren, March 1829

They [York Rite Masons]3 were excluded from that participation in government to which they thought themselves entitled, and as they felt conscious of their superior strength, were resolved to overthrow their adversaries. … [I considered it my] duty to interfere, and to advise a milder course [establish a party press and work through the electoral process].

  1. 1. Lucas Alamán (1792–1853), Mexico’s minister of interior and exterior relations. Perhaps more than any other figure, Alamán blocked Poinsett’s efforts to interfere in Mexican affairs throughout the latter’s mission to Mexico.
  2. 2. Guadalupe Victoria (1786–1843), Mexican general and president of Mexico, was a key figure in the movement for independence from Spain.
  3. 3. The York Rite Masons were one of many Masonic organizations in the western world. According to legend, the organization’s name derived from the city of York in England, where Masons allegedly first began to congregate. The York Rite Masons in Mexico were considered at the time to be pro-American.
Teacher Programs

Conversation-based seminars for collegial PD, one-day and multi-day seminars, graduate credit seminars (MA degree), online and in-person.

Coming soon! World War I & the 1920s!