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J U LY - A U G U S T 2 0 1 2 / F O R E I G N S E R V I C E J O U R N A L
these developments with alarm, particularly as British power
grew in the Western Hemisphere.
In 1810, President James Madison sought to confront
these issues by appointing several “agents” to Latin Amer-
ica. These men were to report on the evolving situation in
their area, advance U.S. influence and, concurrently, limit
the influence of other European powers, particularly Great
Madison selected Poinsett as his “agent” to the south-
ernmost area of Latin America. Secretary of State
(1757-1842) detailed Poinsett’s scope of action, in-
structing him to travel to Buenos Aires and “to take such
steps, not incompatible with the neu-
tral character and honest policy of the
United States, as the occasion renders
Poinsett arrived in Buenos Aires on
Feb. 13, 1811. His initial assessment
was that the United States could re-
place the influence of both Spain and
England once the European colonies
declared independence. Three days
after his arrival, he wrote to the new
Secretary of State,
James Monroe
(1758-1831), requesting that he be
given official credentials and detailed
instructions to deal with the fledging
governments of Buenos Aires, Santi-
ago and Bogota. Cautiously, Monroe
told Poinsett that “the destiny of these provinces must de-
pend on themselves.”
But Poinsett was ill suited to be a passive observer. He
successfully protested the preferential commercial advan-
tage given to British shipping and obtained a similar treat-
ment for the U.S. In addition, he worked around Secretary
Monroe by contacting Treasury Secretary
Albert Gallatin
(1769-1849) to ask that he use his influence to get
G. Miller
, a local businessman, appointed as U.S. consul
either in Buenos Aires or Lima. This effort came to naught,
On April 30, 1811, President
James Madison
1836) appointed Poinsett consul general to all the new
South American republics, and named
Luis Goddefroy
(1774-1860), a French national working in Montevideo, as
consul under him. Because the U.S. Senate would not con-
firm Goddefroy, the president appointed
Thomas L.
(1777-1845) to the position, which he held from
1812 to 1819. Miller was appointed vice consul, serving
from 1812 to 1816; both men were based in Buenos Aires.
Drafting the Chilean Constitution
Frustrated by his scant success in promoting U.S. inter-
ests in Argentina, Poinsett left Buenos Aires in November
1811, traveling over the Andes Mountains to arrive in San-
tiago on Dec. 29. He was accredited as U.S. representative
the following February, becoming the first foreign agent to
be so recognized by the new Chilean government.
On July 4, 1812, Poinsett hosted a party to celebrate the
independence of the United States and the unveiling of the
new Chilean flag. In a letter to Chilean President
Miguel Carrera
(1785-1821), Poinsett noted the “special
coincidence that on that same date of my fatherland’s sepa-
ration from Great Britain, [we cele-
brate the] creation of the Chilean
national flag. This gives curious signif-
icance to tomorrow’s celebration, in
which we will see interwoven the sym-
bols of two sister nations.”
Meanwhile, Poinsett was helping
Pres. Carrera draft a liberal republican
constitution; in fact, the first meeting
of the Constitutional Committee was
held at his residence on July 11, 1812.
It appears likely that Poinsett took the
lead in composing the document, for
when he delivered the draft, he wrote
that he was “submitting the constitu-
tion that we developed together ... as
we haven’t spent enough time on it, it
wouldn’t be unexpected that some changes are made.”
The Spanish viceroy in Lima, under whose jurisdiction
Chile fell, regarded the Chilean actions as rebellious and at-
tempted to enforce his authority by seizing ships trading
with Santiago, including American ones.
Poinsett decided to take matters into his own hands. He
sought a general’s commission in the Chilean army and at
the head of a troop of cavalry marched north and defeated
the Royalist troops at San Carlos. He then led an artillery
detachment to lay siege to the port town of Talcahuano, ac-
cepted the surrender of the Royalists on May 29, 1813, and
freed the 10 U.S. merchant ships being held in the bay.
Soon that success was overshadowed by the arrival of two
British warships that nearly captured the envoy (the War of
1812 was well under way by this point). Hounded by Span-
ish Royalist troops who had gone on the counterattack and
retaken Santiago, Poinsett fled with Carrera back over the
Andes to Buenos Aires, where he found that British influ-
ence was well established.
Poinsett could not even secure a passage home to the
Czar Alexander I
advised Poinsett to
“see the empire,
acquire the language,
study the people.”