PROBLEMS IN THE HISTORIOGRAPHY
OF MEXICAN FREEMASONRY, PART I

Paul Rich and Lic. Guillermo De Los Reyes

[Ed. note.: The first of two articles on some historiographical challenges to understanding Masonry in Latin America, and particularly in Mexico. For the second installment, see P. Rich and L. G. De Los Reyes, "Towards a Revisionist view of Poinsett: Problems in the Historiography of Mexican Freemasonry, Part II".]

Dr. Paul Rich and Lic. Guillermo De Los Reyes are Professors of International Relations and History at the University of the Americas, Puebla, Mexico. Dr. Rich is a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society (London) and the Hoover Institution (Stanford University), and a member of the Scottish and York Masonic Rites. They are authors of two forthcoming books, one on Freemasonry in Mexico and the other a guide for historians on interpreting Latin American Masonic lodge records. The following is based on ongoing research for the Research Lodge of the Most Worshipful Grand Lodge of Texas, and the comments of members of that body and access to its papers have contributed to this article.

The Poinsett material in this article will be incorporated in Paul Rich and Guillermo De Los Reyes, _Mexican Freemasonry_, Regency Press, New York and London, 1997. Comments and criticisms as especially invited and will be credited.



Freemasonry is among the least understood topics in Latin American history. It was brought to Mexico by the Spanish, including those in military lodies. (Luis Zalce y Rodriquez, _Apuntes Para Iqa historia de la Masoneria en Mexico_, Mexico City, 1950, 50-51.) Rodriguez suggests that since there were divisions in Spanish Masonry, it is logical to suppose that the antagonism between rites came with them, with "terrible consequences". (Ibid., 42.) That is certainly true.

How shall we even begin to understand the pervasive influence of Masonry on Latin America? The fact is that no historical topic elicits more prejudice and animosity than does Freemasonry, or more unfounded speculation. Part of the problem is the sociological phenomena of the middle-aged Mason who turns from business to the history of the Craft as an avocation and is determined to make Freemasonry into a much old movement than it is: "Whether in ancient India, Egypt, Greece, Italy or Mexico, or among the Druids of Europe, temples of initiation have ever existed...although these great schools of the Mysteries have long dropped out of the public mind, they, or the doctrine they taught, have never ceased to exist; the enmity of official ecclesiasticism and the tendencies of a materialistic and commercial age have caused them to subside into extreme secrecy and concealment, but their initiates have never been absent from the world...it was through the activity and foresight of some of these advanced initiates that our present system of speculative Masonry is due." (W.L.Wilmshurst, _The Meaning of Masonry_, Bell Publishing, New York, 1980 [fac.ed. of 5th ed. pub. London 1927], 64-65.)

Since the warranting of Quatuor Coronati Lodge No.2076 by the United Grand Lodge of England in November 1884 as a research institution, some Masonic historians (but by no means all) have battled to contain the myths and fabrications which bedevil many accounts of Masonry. Not only do they have to combat the criticisms of those outside the movement who view it as a Satanic conspiracy, but they have to deal with those Masons who prefer fairy tales to what really transpired: "It is fair and proper to say that, following the issue of Gould's famous History in the 1880's, at that time the greatest publishing event in the history of speculative masonry, and one that started a new fashion in masonic research. The work of the famous Quatuor Coronati Lodge has brought about throughout universal freemasonry a new understanding of masonic research in every country where freemasonry flourishes." (Bernard E. Jones, _Freemason's Guide and Compendium_, rev. ed., Harrap, London, 1956 [1950], 343.)

Alas, even in the publications of the research lodges that have been founded since Q.C., its influence is not discernible. Fancifulness flourishes. Of course, speculation about the ways in which history is written and whether there can be a "true" and objective history has been going on for centuries. Presumably the first cave man who came back to his den to retell a story of his adventures was accused of gilding the lily. History is used shamelessly for self-serving motives by politicians, ecclesiastics and just about anyone with a cause. But Masons are especially well qualified to comment on the question of impartiality in history, because they have been the victims for decades of the suspicions, sometimes well-founded, of the public.

In short, Masonic historiography is not exempt from motives that lead to the misuse of history in general. Indeed, it suffers from all the problems _in extenso_. Such too is the case with Mexican Masonry. In discussing Poinsett in Mexico the resemblance between general history's difficulties with historians with axes to grind and the difficulties of Freemasonry at the hands of biased historians will become apparent.


The Poinsett Problem in Mexican History

One of the most controversial episodes in Mexican history involves Freemasonry and the first American minister to Mexico, who was Joel R. Poinsett (1779-1851). He is more recalled today for the Christmas flower which he brought back from his stay and which is named after him than for his stormy years as a diplomat. Charleston aristocrat (although opposed to slavery) and inveterate traveler, Poinsett first went to Mexico at the request of President Monroe in the summer of 1822. There he met and formed an unfavorable opinion of the Emperor Iturbide, an army officer (and Scottish Rite Mason) who had set himself up in considerable style as ruler (self-proclaimed) in the wake of the overthrow of the Spanish.

Iturbide's palace in downtown Mexico City on Avenue Madeiro has been restored and is well worth a visit: "I was presented to His Majesty this morning [3 November 1822]. On alighting at the gate of the palace, which is an extensive and handsome building, we were received by a numerous guard, and then made our way up a large stone staircase, lined with centeniels (sic.), to a spacious apartment, where we found a brigadier general stationed to usher us into the presence. The emperor was in his cabinet and received us with great politeness...I will not repeat the tales I heard daily of the character and conduct of this man." (Joel Roberts Poinsett, _Notes on Mexico Made in the Autumn of 1822_, Frederick A. Praeger, New York, 1969 [originally pub.Philadelphia 1824], 67-68. See J.Fred Rippy, _Joel R. Poinsett, Versatile American_, Duke University Press, Durham, 1935, 90-103.)

There is no evidence to show that Poinsett had any reason to be predisposed to dislike Iturbide, and the principle of Occam's Razor should be applied: the philosophic doctrine that entities and causes should not be multiplied unnecessarily. Rather than fabricate reasons, we can (unless evidence surfaces to the contrary), observe that Iturbide was not a very likable individual and that Poinsett was annoyed by the pretentiousness of the court that the would-be emperor had created.

This was only the initial encounter in Poinsett's involvement with Mexico, a relationship which had profound consequences for the country but which it is easy to misread. While it is true that later when he was America's envoy, Poinsett was to have a unique opportunity to make his views felt, there is nothing to substantiate claims that he was part of a Masonic cabal which sent him to Mexico with a secret agenda.


Minister to Mexico and Roya Arch Mason

He received the official appointment as minister to Mexico in 1825, one which had originally been offered to Andrew Jackson. Jackson was grand master of the Grand Lodge of Tennesee in 1822-1824. He, like Poinsett, was a Royal Arch Mason and was deputy grand high priest when the Grand Royal Arch Chapter of Tennesee was instituted in 1826. When he was president he helped in Masonic cornerstone ceremonies for a monument to George Washington's mother. He attended lodge meetings and Royal Arch chapter meetings all his life. (William R. Denslow, _10,000 Famous Freemasons_, Vol.I, Macoy Publishing, Richmond (Virginia), 1957, 283-284.)

So it would be possible, based on the notion that only Masons were nominated for the post, to allege that the Masons were determined to have a Mason as envoy to Mexico. That would be quite untrue. Poinsett was appointed by John Quincy Adams (1767-1848), who was an anti-Mason, having published as a book the letters he wrote against the Craft. (Ibid., Vol.II, 1958, 5.)

What _is_ true is that a predominantly Protestant and democratic United States was suspicious of what had been a narrowly Catholic and aristocratic neighbor, wary of increasing British presence in Mexico, and alarmed about Mexican intentions in Cuba. (See Frederick C. Turner, _The Dynamic of Mexican Nationalism_, The University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill, 1968, 36. "Poinsett failed to dispel this discord but rather increased the hostility by his intervention in Mexican politics. The friction caused by Poinsett's promotion of democracy and American business interests, his countering of British activity, and his siding with the York Rite Freemasons of Mexico against those of the Scottish Rite was increased still further by the second United States minister, Anthony Butler." (Ibid.)

That these were not Masonic concerns but _American_ concerns is demonstrated by the diplomatic correspondence. Poinsett was given a mandate by the American government to support the Monroe Doctrine and extend democracy. To accomplish such ambitious goals, Poinsett audaciously determined that he must change the attitudes of the Mexican government, challenging those in the leadership who were Spanish-born or sympathetic to Spain and who still looked towards Europe. Strangely, and coincidentally, this involved taking sides in a bitter fight between rival branches of Mexican Freemasonry. Although Poinsett himself was a Freemason, many of those he considered as opponents to his republican goals for Mexico were Scottish Rite Masons who in _his_ view were paternalistic, monarchistic, and socially elitist.

Poinsett did _not_ introduce Masonry to Mexico. If the York Rite blue lodges of this era are considered to be those lodges which were not part of any larger system but which gave the first three degrees alone, then possibly the first York lodges in Mexico were those established by the Grand Lodge of Louisiana in 1816 and 1817.

The eighteenth-century origins of Masonry in Mexico are shrouded in mystery, almost an inevitability given the nature of the organization. (Raymond Estep, _Lorenzo de Zavala (Profeta del Liberalismo Mexicano)_, Mexico City, 1949, 107.) For that matter, Masonry's origins in Europe remain mysteryious. (See P.J.Rich, comments on C.N.Batham's "The Origin of Freemasonry: A New Theory", _Ars Quatuor Corononatorum_, Vol.106,1993,45.)

Nor was there any Masonic unity between the rites. Early nineteenth-century Mexico was in revolutionary ferment, the atmosphere being one which encouraged the growth of different expressions of Freemasonry and a multifarious jumble of Masonic ideologies and philosophies. (Remberto Padilla, _Historia de la Politica Mexicana_, EDAMEX,Mexico City, 1993, 67. Alonso Fernandez, _La Francmasoneria en la Independencia de Hispanoamerica_, Buenos Aires, 1988, 16.)

Poinsett seized upon the York rite of Masonry, to which he belonged, as a means by which he could strengthen his diplomatic mission. (This relates to Alberto Carreqo's discussion of the importance of extraofficial relationships in Mexican-American affairs. See Alberto Maria Carreqo, _La Diplomacia Extraordinaria en Mexico y los Estados Unidos_, 1789-1947, Vol.I, Editorial Jus, Mexico City, 1961, 7.) The British minister, Henry B.Ward, was siding with the Scottish Rite in hopes of achieving trade privileges, and the Colombian Minister had been an Scottish Rite officer in Cartagena and was siding with Ward. This foreign interference coincided with growing resentment among Mexican patriots of the power of the Scottish Rite, which along with its supposed European affinities was regarded as working for patronage and position rather than the common good.

In respects, Poinsett's decision to employ Masonry as a tool of his interventionist policies was the start of that long involvement of Masonry with Mexican politics which has been regarded so ambiguously by scholars as far as its good and bad effects have been concerned. Regardless of the rite, whether Masonry's political role was beneficial to Mexican society remains a deeply contentious issue. There are those who believe Masonry in Mexican history has been "a symbol of and major instrument for the creation of the modern 'neutral' society. a society in which the fixed statutes of the medieval world gave way to the needs of a changing and dynamic economic and social structure, where artificial and dysfunctional group distinctions are ignored and the individual is judged on his achieved rather than ascribed status." (Rodriquez, 57.) Others would be far less complimentary!


Masonry: Vocation or Avocation?

Generally Poinsett's activities are presented as political, and perhaps not enough credit has been given Poinsett's Masonic as opposed to his political enthusiasms. His involvement in Masonry was during an intense period of anti-Masonic activity in America, so his commitment to the fraternity must have been firm. Before arriving in Mexico he had been Master of Recovery Lodge No.31 in Greensville, South Carolina, and of Solomons Lodge No.1 in Charleston. In 1821 he was Deputy Grand Master of the Grand Lodge of South Carolina as well as High Priest of the Grand Royal Arch Chapter of South Carolina, a post he held until 1841. (Denslow, Vol.III, 352.)

The Royal Arch degrees of which he was an officer, then as now, were open to a Mason after first taking the three degrees offered by the "blue" lodge. Conferred in chapters rather than lodges, they are known to all Masons today as part of the system of Masonic initiations popularly called the York rite.

The nineteenth century was a time when degrees, which may be explained as ritual dramas in which the candidate took a principal role, proliferated in number. "Higher degrees frequently drew fire from Blue Lodge spokesmen, who criticized them for deflecting interest away from Blue Lodge. It was a common complaint that men attracted to the 'high sounding title and the glory of a gorgeous and showy uniform' joined Blue Lodge as a 'stepping stone' to the other orders, and quickly lost interest in the plainer lodges. Blue Lodge leaders also complained that these groups undermined the egalitarianism of Masonry. As John Arthur, Grand Master of Washington, noted, Masonry has 'allowed a childish longing for feathers and titles to destroy the democracy of our Fraternity and convert it into a system of castes more complex than those of [India].'" (Lynn Dumenil, _Freemasonry and American Culture, 1880-1930_, Princeton University > Press, Princeton, New Jersey, 1984, 16-17.)

The situation in Poinsett's day was somewhat similar to that of today as far as the York rite being composed of several autonomous bodies: other York organizations included the Council of Royal and Select Masters, which conferred the Cryptic degrees, and the Knights Templar, whose commanderies gave the chivalric degrees. The Royal Arch was _much_ more wide-spread in the United States at the time than was the Scottish Rite. (E.g. see Gerald D. Foss, _Three Centuries of Freemasonry in New Hampshire_, Grand Lodge of New Hampshire, Concord (New Hampshire), 1972, 356-369. A Royal Arch chapter was established in New Hampshire in 1807. A Scottish Rite Lodge of Perfection was not established until 1842.)

So it was not surprising that Poinsett's affiliation was with the Royal Arch rather than the Scottish Rite. But the full implications for Mexico of his Royal Arch membership have to our knowledge never been adequately discussed. This apparently arcane matter of lodge affiliation was to prove enormously significant in Poinsett's tempestuous Mexican career and to American relations with Mexico. The ramifications of this apparently minor matter of which Masonic ritual and obedience would reverberate for more than a century.

(For the second installment dealing with the wider repercussions of Poinsett's Yorkist sympathies, see P. Rich and L. G. De Los Reyes, "Towards a Revisionist view of Poinsett: Problems in the Historiography of Mexican Freemasonry, Part II").

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