The Knights of the Golden Circle

They say that those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it, so we try always to learn from history. Adalberto Perez, a member of our Facebook community, recently informed us of an event in Puerto Rico’s history that offers a lesson for us today. Puerto Rico, he said, “would be a state today if the Confederacy had won the Civil War. The Knights of the Golden Circle that occupied Texas leadership, ensuring its secession from the Union, had plans to annex a Golden Circle of slave states along the Caribbean islands and Gulf Coast of Mexico.”

The Knights of the Golden Circle

In 1854, according to the Texas State Historical Association, General George W. L. Bickley brought together five men who founded the Knights of the Golden Circle. They were all staunch supporters of slavery, and they could see that slavery was under attack. They determined to make a new nation, centered in Havana, of states that would support slavery.

The secret society had special handshakes and passwords and symbols, and was divided into “castles” or cells, including 32 Texas cities including Houston, Galveston, Austin, San Antonio, Marshall, Jefferson, and La Grange. There were centers in other southern states as well, but the Texas group was especially strong.

Their first planned step was to annex Mexico, but the Knights wanted to bring in all the area shown in dark green below. They wanted to divide Mexico alone into 25 states, so they were envisioning a very big new country. It would have included Puerto Rico, where slavery was still practiced.

By Spesh531 – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0

Their idea was that they could control tobacco and sugar supplies and continue their slave-supported way of life. With 2400 square miles of slave-holding lands, they would outnumber and overpower the Northern states.

In 1860, a group of Knights got together at the Rio Grande to invade Mexico, but their numbers were too small for a proper invasion. They tried again later in the year, but once again couldn’t muster enough manpower.

Some people claim that John Wilkes Booth, the man who assassinated President Lincoln, was a member of the secret society.

Statehood for Puerto Rico?

Some alternate history fiction has imagined that the Confederacy, if it had won the Civil War, would have gone ahead and created the Golden Circle as imagined by the Knights. Would Spain have given up its possessions to the Confederacy? Would Mexico have accepted annexation? Would slavery have found a permanent home in Latin America?

These are big questions, to be sure. The organization was never mainstream in the South, and the Confederacy might not have responded to a win by trying to build an empire.

Havana was the planned capital of the Golden Circle, but some sources say that the Knights wanted — once they built their slaveholding empire — to take back the Northern states. The Civil War was not part of their plan.

Crippled by the loss of the Civil War, the former Confederate states had no chance of annexing Latin American neighbors. The secret organization of the Knights of the Golden Circle, never very large or powerful, disbanded.

Would Puerto Rico, if the Knights of the Golden Circle had fulfilled their dream of annexing the Caribbean, have been a state of the union — or a state of the Golden Circle? Much of the history of the Knights of the Golden Circle is uncertain and even mythical, but it’s certain that they never got anywhere close to reaching their goal.

Lessons from history

The story of the Knights of the Golden Circle confirms that the United States was aware of  and interested in Puerto Rico even before Puerto Rico was ceded to the U.S. by Spain. It shows that some plans for Puerto Rico have been impractical and inadvisable.

We think it is much more likely that Puerto Rico will become a state of the United States in the next few years. Tell your legislators that you want them to be on the right side of history, supporting Puerto Rico as the 51st state.

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