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The conspiracy-fueled origin of the Christmas poinsettia

How the flower’s namesake became embroiled in intrigue and foreign policy blunders in Mexico

A poinsettia display at the U.S. Botanic Garden in 2017. (Adrian Higgins/The Washington Post)

The scarlet bracts of the poinsettia are ubiquitous this time of year. But the story of how the “Christmas flower” came to the United States from its native Mexico is not one of peace and goodwill. It is more a case study in the highhanded diplomacy, Yankee arrogance and mutual suspicions that have long plagued U.S.-Mexico relations. It is also a timely and colorful reminder of the crises that can ensue, and the conspiracy theories that can flourish, when the United States meddles in the domestic politics of another nation.

In June 1825, President John Quincy Adams appointed Joel Roberts Poinsett as the first American minister to the newly independent republic of Mexico. Poinsett was unusually qualified for an ambassadorship. He had traveled the world extensively, spoke Spanish and four other languages, had served as consul general in Chile and Argentina, and wrote a widely praised book titled “Notes on Mexico.” An avid botanist, Poinsett first saw the flower known to Mexicans as Flor de Noche Buena and to the Nahua people as cuetlaxochitl at a nativity scene in southern Mexico. He sent several cuttings of the flower to friends in the United States. Within a few years, the “Mexican Flame Flower” became a fixture in flower shows and horticultural journals, which often credited Poinsett with its “discovery.” In 1836, the Scottish botanist Robert Graham labeled it the “Poinsettia,” and the name stuck.

But Mexicans found a different use for Poinsett’s name. They made poinsettismo a popular term for officious Yankee meddling, and for good reason. Poinsett helped to organize the masonic lodges that laid the political groundwork for openly pro-American factions working within Mexico. Poinsett’s Mexican opponents vilified him as a political puppeteer and “the scourge of the American continent.”

Poinsett had arrived in Mexico in 1825 with instructions to “explain the practical operation and the very great advantages which appertain to our system” of government. The slave-owing South Carolinian saw republican government as compatible with racial hierarchy. In “Notes on Mexico,” published several years earlier, he argued that Mexicans were fully capable of republican self-governance, but only if “white Creoles” retained their place atop the social order. The real threats to the Mexican Republic, as he perceived them, were centralizing tendencies in its constitution and the corrupting influence of European monarchies.

Poinsett first focused his attention on curtailing British influence in Mexico. As the first great European power to recognize Mexican independence, Britain had recently arranged for the purchase of Mexican bonds worth over 6 million British pounds. The British chargé d’affairs, Henry George Ward, cultivated strong ties with President Guadalupe Victoria and his ministers and aligned British interests with the conservative elements in Mexican political society, who favored a strong centralized confessional state: the aristocracy, the clergy and the army. Poinsett saw this “European party” as a danger to Mexican republicanism and to the interests of the United States. He placed his hopes in a loosely organized “American party” of liberals who favored a more federated, secular government and held a majority in both chambers of the Mexican congress.

To build the American party, Poinsett turned to Mexico’s masonic lodges. Freemasonry, an international and “ancient” fraternal order, promoted a spirit of philanthropy and cosmopolitanism among gentlemen. But the secrecy of its rituals and teachings had long aroused suspicion. Churches and monarchies condemned the lodges as hotbeds of infidelity and revolution. Mexican masons, organized under the “Scottish rite,” had taken an active role in their nation’s fight for independence but had since become more conservative and pro-European in character. Poinsett, a prominent mason back in South Carolina, agreed to help pro-American Mexican liberals develop a competing network of over a hundred “York rite” masonic lodges. That network soon developed into a new popular, pro-American political party known as the Yorkinos.

Yorkino victories at the ballot box convinced a growing number of Mexican conservatives that secret societies were instruments of sedition. The conservative congress of the state of Vera Cruz issued a manifesto calling for a national ban on secret societies, deeming them “a hundred-fold more dangerous and destructive than twenty battalions of the perfidious tyrants of Spain.” The congress also called for the removal of Yorkinos from the president’s Cabinet, and the expulsion of Joel Poinsett, “a sagacious and hypocritical foreign minister as zealous for the prosperity of his own country as inimical to ours.”

Poinsett defended his actions in a pamphlet, insisting that he had withdrawn from the York lodges when he realized that they had been perverted to political purposes. Professing his goodwill toward Mexico and its people, he claimed to have done nothing more than advocate for the superiority of republican institutions. In letters to his superiors in Washington, however, Poinsett put a different spin on things, explaining that he had “found it necessary to form a party” to oppose British influence and that Freemasonry had been essential to doing so.

The tension between Yorkinos and conservatives boiled over late in 1827, and a small armed insurrection broke out. Gen. Vincente Guerrero, a revolutionary leader of Afro-Mestizo descent and a York rite mason, put the rebellion down. A little over a year later, Guerrero became president of Mexico after a violent and contested election. Poinsett cheered the result.

While Guerrero considered Poinsett an ally, he realized that Mexican public opinion had turned decisively against the American minister. In July 1829, Guerrero demanded that President Andrew Jackson recall Poinsett. Jackson had little choice in the matter. Stories of Poinsett’s masonic intrigues had made their way into American newspapers, helping to fuel the rise of the Anti-Masonic Party in the United States. The fact that Poinsett had not yet been removed was, for one Anti-Masonic editor, proof that the federal government was “in the hands of free masonry.” Jackson, a mason himself, reluctantly agreed to bring Poinsett home. His replacement, Anthony Butler of Mississippi, made matters worse. With orders from Jackson to acquire Texas from Mexico, Butler attempted to bribe Mexican officials. He insulted countless other Mexicans, sexually assaulted several women and challenged the Mexican secretary of war to a duel. Together, Poinsett and Butler set the United States on a course for war with Mexico.

While Poinsett’s tenure has been largely forgotten, the flower that bears his name in the United States has unusual staying power and is a staple of the holiday season. But we might reflect on the imperious meddling of Poinsett and the lessons we can draw from this story when we next lay eyes on those scarlet bracts. And perhaps we can embrace the flower’s other names — the Flor de Noche Buena, the cuetlaxochitl — while working to excise poinsettismo from U.S. diplomacy.