The Foreign Service Journal, July-August 2012

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 47 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 Britain. Madison selected Poinsett as his “agent” to the south- ernmost area of Latin America. Secretary of State Robert Smith (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 proper.” 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 William G. Miller , a local businessman, appointed as U.S. consul either in Buenos Aires or Lima. This effort came to naught, however. On April 30, 1811, President James Madison (1751- 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. Halsey (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 Jose 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.”