February 21, 1794 - June 21, 1876
Antonio López de Santa Anna, a military and political leader who served as president eleven times during the course of his remarkable career, was the central figure in Mexican public life during the second quarter of the nineteenth century. As elsewhere in Latin America, the Mexican political landscape was influenced less by ideology than personality, with caudillos (charismatic, authoritarian leaders) playing a dominant role. An opportunist willing to change allegiances for reasons of political expediency, Santa Anna personified caudillismo in Mexico in the decades following its independence from Spain.
Born to middle class criollo parents in Jalapa in 1794, Santa Anna joined the military at age sixteen. Upon the outbreak of the War for Independence he joined the Spanish colonial army, serving under José Joaquín de Arredondo, who in 1812-13 crushed anti-royalist resistance in Texas, foreshadowing Santa Anna's campaign to subdue the region in 1836. As the war came to an end in 1821, the ambitious young officer allied himself briefly with Agustín de Iturbide. Soon after Iturbide declared himself Emperor of Mexico he changed sides again, supporting a military junta led by General Guadalupe Victoria. Opposition to military rule in Mexico was strong, however, and in 1824 Congress proclaimed a federalist republic and drafted a constitution influenced by the Philadelphia constitution of 1787 and the Spanish constitution of 1812. Bowing to the prevailing political winds of the time, Santa Anna supported the republic during its early years, rising to the rank of brigadier general and serving as governor of the Yucatán. In 1828 he participated in a coup to depose Guadalupe Victoria, the country's first duly elected president, and the following year won a major victory at Tampico against the Spanish, emerging as the republic's most renowned military hero. In 1832 Santa Anna commanded rebel forces in a coup against the conservative President Anastasio Bustamante in a putative attempt to install Manuel Pedraza as president. After forcing Bustamante into exile, Pedraza, now interim president, convened the Mexican Congress in 1833, which elected Santa Anna instead.
At the height of his power during the 1830s and 1840s, Santa Anna exhibited a lack of interest in the day-to-day business of executive leadership. Citing reasons of poor health, but perhaps motivated also by an unwillingness to make unpopular decisions in a volatile political climate, he often retired to his estates in Vera Cruz, leaving his presidential duties in the hands of a subordinate. Such was the case following his election in 1833, when Santa Anna turned the reins of power in the capital over to his vice president, Valentín Gómez Farías. The liberal Gómez Farias promptly implemented a series of reforms to tax and in other ways curb the power of the church and the army. At the urging of conservatives, Santa Anna reasserted his authority, issuing in 1834 the Plan of Cuernevaca, which declared the Gómez Farías' reforms null and void. Marching on the capital, he dissolved Congress and sent Gómez Farías into exile. With the support of the Church, the army, and hacendados, the Mexican caudillo established a centralist dictatorship, thereby provoking the greatest crisis to the Mexican republic the nation-state had yet faced. Upon taking power, Santa Anna fundamentally altered the federalist Constitution of 1824 with the Siete Leyes (Seven Laws), which replaced the republic's states with "departments" more firmly under the control of the national government. Federalists resisted the changes, and several states rose in revolt, declaring their independence from Mexico City and forming their own governments.
In contrast to his lassitude toward civic governance, Santa Anna displayed much more enthusiasm for military leadership. Assuming direct control over the counter-insurrectionary efforts that followed his return to power in the mid-1830s, the Mexican leader crushed a federalist rebellion in Zacatecas, then took charge of the invasion of Texas, where tejano federalists had joined an insurrection of Anglo-American immigrants. After overwhelming the defenders of the Alamo, a former mission in San Antonio, his army was routed at the Battle of San Jacinto in April, 1836. Captured, the Mexican president signed the Treaty of Velasco, which granted independence to the Republic of Texas (but was later disavowed by the Mexican government). After a brief exile Santa Anna returned to his estate near Vera Cruz. In 1838, the port city was occupied by a French naval squadron, in response to Mexico's inability to pay claims owed to French citizens. Santa Anna quickly raised a force and marched to the coast, losing his left leg in a skirmish with French troops. However, he adroitly turned his personal loss into a political asset, issuing an emotional open letter to the people of Mexico emphasizing his sacrifices to the nation-state.
The outbreak of the U.S. - Mexico War once again found Santa Anna in exile, having been arrested in a military coup in December, 1844. Living in Havana, Cuba, the deposed caudillo devised a plan that would allow him to return to Mexico and reclaim his former position as the illustrious hero of the nation. Allying with his former enemy, President Gómez Farías, Santa Anna offered his services to repel the U.S. invasion. At the same time, he sent an emissary to Washington to assure the Polk administration that, if granted safe passage through the U.S. blockade, he would take power and sell Mexico's northern territories for $30 million. Accordingly, Santa Anna arrived in Vera Cruz in August 1836, whereupon he disavowed the agreement with Washington and promptly set about to organize the war effort against the United States. As in the Texas campaign a decade earlier, Santa Anna assumed complete control over military operations, commanding Mexican troops against Zachary Taylor's army in the North at Buena Vista (Angostura), and then in the South, as Winfield Scott marched toward the capital. After the fall of Mexico City, Santa Anna resigned, and would spend the next five years in exile. Invited to return in 1853, the caudillo once again used his support among the nation's military elite to impose authoritarian rule upon Mexico's competing political factions. Overthrown in 1855 amid charges of corruption and public outcry arising from the Gadsden Purchase, by which Mexico sold the Mesilla Valley to the United States for $10 million, Santa Anna fled into exile yet again, his political career finally over. Impoverished, he was allowed to return to Mexico in 1874, and died in Mexico City two years later.
The verdict of history has not been kind to Antonio López de Santa Anna. Mexican historians, to a large extent, have reviled him as a corrupt, self-aggrandizing leader who deserves much of the blame for the many problems which beset the republic during its early national period. Moreover, they have accused him of betraying the homeland for surrendering large swaths of territory to the United States. American historians have tended to adopt a similarly negative view, while focusing their attention on his military failures in the 1836 Texas campaign and the war against the United States a decade later. Recent studies, however, have tended to take a more balanced, nuanced interpretation, recognizing both the caudillo's limitations and the manifest challenges--regionalism, factionalism, racial and caste tensions, to name only a few--which Mexico experienced in the years after Spanish imperial rule.
Brunk, Samuel, and Ben Fallaw. Heroes and Hero Cults in Latin America. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2006.
Costeloe, Michael P. The Central Republic in Mexico, 1835-1846: "Hombres de Bien" in the Age of Santa Anna. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2002.
Fowler, Will. Santa Anna of Mexico. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2007.
----. Tornel and Santa Anna: The Writer and the Caudillo, Mexico, 1795-1853. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2000.