The Life of Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna: Savior, Emperor, President, and Dictator

by Randy L. Sible

    In 1821 the old authoritarian system of Spain collapsed in Mexico leaving no group of citizens trained to assume the responsibility of government.  "The Mexicans tried every form of government:  an empire with a self made emperor, a federal republic, a centralist republic, and a dictatorship.  The results were always disastrous.   The dominant feature in the history of early Mexico were rebellions of generals who pronounced themselves against the government and proclaimed a "plan" denouncing existing abuses and promising reforms."
     "The leading actor in this tragicomedy was Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna Perez de Lebron.  Born in Jalapa on February 21, 1794, to a family of indifferent social standing, he had a gift for concocting plans and instigating pronunciamientos that remains unmatched to this day.  A talented commander, revered as a hero for his battle victories, and a clever politician who was able to shift his allegiance when public opinion changed, he was in turn the champion of the liberals, the defender of the conservatives, and the promoter of dictatorship."
    Santa Anna's military career began on June 10, 1810, despite his father's objections, he became an infantry cadet fighting for the Spanish against the insurgents.  He quickly climbed up the ranks becoming a lieutenant by the age of 18.  "He first appeared on the political scene at Veracruz in 1821 when he switched his allegiance away from Spain and pronounced for "El Libertador," Agustin de Iturbide."
    Santa Anna decided to secure his place in history as a outstanding military leader in Mexico's war of independence by liberating the city of Veracruz from Spanish control.  Veracruz's defenses were considered impregnable, but this did not deter Santa Anna.  On July 21, 1821, he led a vigorous assault on the city.  He continued the battle until October 21, when the Spanish retreated to the harbor island fortress of San Juan de Ulua.  Santa Anna proclaimed Veracruz liberated.  He was emerging as a revolutionary hero.
    On May 19, 1822, Agustin de Iturbide was named the first emperor of Mexico, but his reign would be short-lived.  Iturbide's obsessive vanity and his neglect of his duties drove the country's economy to ruin.  Within ten months his empire had collapsed.  In December of 1822 Santa Anna pronounced Veracruz, were he was governor, against the empire and proclaimed a republic.  Santa Anna prepared his forces in Veracruz for Iturbide's attack, but the assault never materialized.  Instead, other generals joined Santa Anna in rejecting Iturbide as emperor.  In February 1823 virtually all military and political leaders signed the Plan of Casa Mata.  This declaration called for an end to Iturbide's rule.
    On July 27 1829, the Spanish made their last desperate bid to regain control of Mexico.  They sent a small expedition of three thousand soldiers to Tampico, Mexico to reconquer her former colony.  Drawing upon his authority as governor of the state of Veracruz, Santa Anna recruited and armed two thousand men.  It was a small force, but it was large enough to be a formidable military threat.  "The new general rushed to Tampico to beat off the Spaniards, who had already been defeated by heat and yellow fever.  After a short but bloody action, the Spanish troops surrendered, and Santa Anna began to be known throughout Mexico as the "Savior of the Country" and the "Victor of Tampico."  Santa Anna himself retired to his hacienda and was quoted as saying, "that I would not have to answer another call to arms."
    Santa Anna's retirement would not be a long one.  In the early 1830 Vice-president Anastasio Bustamante took over the president's office from Vincente Guerrero.  "Bustamante's administration improved government finances, but ruled Mexico through terror, imprisonment, and assassination.  One victim of the firing squad was Guerrero."  The execution of Guerrero angered many Mexicans and triggered another military revolt.  Santa Anna was one of the first to pronounce against Bustamante.  By the end of that year Bustamante was removed from office.  On April 1, 1833, Santa Anna was elected president of the republic.
    Santa Anna assumed the office of president, but he did not actually run the government.  This task he delegated to his vice-president Valentin Gomez Farias, an ardent liberal.  "Gomez Farias indeed cleaned house from attic to basement.  He sponsored many good measures, though his reforms displeased the clergy and the army (Olivera 1991,10)."  When the colonels and generals began to rebel Santa Anna "ousted Gomez Farias, dissolved congress, discharged all officials suspected of liberalism, repealed the anticlerical legislation of his predecessor, and repressed rebellions with merciless brutality."  He used his authority to promote a strong central government and to protect the power of the church, wealthy land owners, and the military.  This pleased the conservatives, but liberal politicians were dismayed and led rebellions against Santa Anna.
    The strongest opposition came from the providence of Texas, where many Americans had settled.  The reason for this was that the Mexican government had encouraged Americans in the past to settle in Texas, but after finding they were losing control of the providence changed their immigration policy.  Doing this prompted Texas on November 3, 1835 to declare the providence independent.  Santa Anna interpreted this action as traitorous.  He quickly raised and equipped an army of 6,000 men to march to San Antonio.  There he met his first organized resistance at a historic mission called The Alamo.  There William Travis, Jim Bowie, and another 180 men were slaughtered fighting off the Mexicans.  Even Santa Anna's officers could not justify his actions at the Alamo.
    "A month later Sam Houston's Texans, with blood-curdling shouts of "Remember the Alamo," pounced on Santa Anna's unwary troops and defeated them in thirty minutes.  Santa Anna fled for safety.  Two days later he was captured by one of Houston's patrols."  In return for his release Santa Anna agree to recognize the independence of Texas.  This never happened, once Santa Anna returned to Mexico the government repudiated the treaty.  Humiliated and discredited, Santa Anna once again retires to his hacienda.
    In 1838 Santa Anna once again was allowed to regain his prestige as a national hero in a dispute between France and Mexico later called the Pastry War.  King Louis Philippe of France demanded that Mexico pay the French government 600,000 pesos.  The money was to be used to compensate French citizens for property they had lost in Mexico's war of independence.  The French started by blockading Veracruz harbor in April 1838.  Shortly after, a French naval artillery barrage demonstrated just how obsolete Mexico's coastal fortifications were by demolishing several sections of the walls surrounding the crucial island fortress of San Juan de Ulua.
    On December 1, rather than pay the damages Mexico officially declares war on France.  Once it was decided to go to war, President Bustamante concluded that there was only one man in Mexico who could organize an effective defense against the now widely anticipated French invasion--Santa Anna.  "When the French admiral Charles Baudin landed 3,000 troops in Veracruz, the flamboyant Santa Anna hastened to the port.  As the French forces were in retreat to their boats, a cannonball shattered his leg, and it was clumsily amputated the following day.  The accident proved to be a blessing in disguise for Santa Anna.  He would forever be the martyred hero bleeding for his beloved homeland."  British mediation resolved the French dispute the following spring.  In return for the promise of the Mexican government to pay the demanded 600,000 pesos over a period of years, the French lifted the blockade.
    While Santa Anna recovered from his wounds in Manga de Clavo, the political situation in Mexico deteriorated.  Rebel uprisings increased during the early months of 1839.  President Bustamante proved unable to defeat the rebel forces, so Santa Anna sent out his own forces.  On May 3 they virtually wiped out the rebel army and its leaders.  After this victory Santa Anna knew the presidency was his for the taking.  It would simply be a matter of timing.
    On October 10, 1841, Santa Anna took the oath of office, beginning the longest uninterrupted period--three years--which he would ever serve.  Shortly after he assumed the presidency, Santa Anna began establishing a military dictatorship.  "He proved to be remarkable in collecting money--taxes and more taxes.  He imposed "voluntary" contributions on all householders of the capital, increased duties by 20 percent, exacted forced loans from the church, and sold mining concessions to the British.  But the money was spent for the glory and the pleasure of the dictator, not for the welfare of the general population or the good of the republic."
    Santa Anna's popularity continued to decline rapidly in the fall of 1844 as a result of the deteriorating financial condition of the country.  On December 2, Congress formally declared his dictatorial conduct as president unacceptable.  His presidency was officially over.  Santa Anna was offered a deal:  he would be allowed to keep his three properties--El Encero (88,000 acres), Manga de Clavo (220,000 acres), and Paso de Varas (175,000 acres); and he would be paid half a general salary if he would agree to renounce all claims to the presidency and accept exile to Venezuela.  Because the most likely alternative was execution, Santa Anna accepted.
    Santa Anna instead went to Cuba were he continued to monitor events in Mexico.  He watched Mariano Paredes, a federalist, overthrow the government and take over the presidency from his replacement, Jose Joaquin Herrera, in December 1845.  But Paredes was no more successful that Herrera in coping with the collapse of the economy, the inability to obtain foreign loans, suppressing rebellions, and negotiating a solution to the annexation of Texas by the United States on March 1, 1845.  His inability to obtain funds to pay the army along with the outbreak of war between Mexico and the United States in May 1846 led to the overthrow of the government on August 6.
    The third man to control Mexico within slightly more than a year of Santa Anna's exile was Valentin Gomez Farias, who assumed control of a politically unstable nation at war with no money.  Only one man had a history of being able to defend Mexico's independence in such circumstances--Santa Anna.  Gomez Farias knew Santa Anna could not be trusted, but he felt that he had no choice but invite him back to assume command of Mexico's defenses.  Santa Anna assured Gomez Farias that he had no political ambitions and all he wanted to do was to lead the efforts to protect Mexico.
    While Santa Anna was making promises to Gomez Farias, he was secretly negotiating with the United States in Cuba.  He told them that if he was allowed to pass through the United State's blockade at Veracruz, he would do everything he could to end the war along the terms they sought--recognition of the Rio Grande as the southern boundary of Texas and the purchase of California.  The naïve Americans agreed and allowed the former dictator to land in Veracruz.  On August 16, 1846 Santa Anna returned to accept command of Mexico's military forces.  Ironically, the United States assisted to return the one man capable of organizing and leading an effective national resistance campaign against it.
    Santa Anna's strategy for repelling the American attack was simple:  defeat the invasion force of General Zachary Taylor in northern Mexico and then counter an expected U.S. landing at Veracruz.  To accomplish this he recruited and organized an army of 20,000 men and marched them to the Battle of Buena Vista.  During the two day battle, February 22 and 23, 1847, the two armies fought one another to a standstill.  After the second day Santa Anna's officers told him his men were exhausted and had almost run out of food and water.  Instead of being routed the next day by a U.S. offensive, Santa Anna decided to withdraw his troops from the battlefield and fall back to Mexico City.
    As the Mexican army marched back to Mexico City, Santa Anna shrewdly snatched victory from defeat by racing ahead of his army with two captured American flags captured during the fighting and proclaiming that a glorious victory had been achieved.  "Shortly thereafter he took to the field to meet Winfield Scott's army, who had landed at Veracruz.  Attacked from the front and flank and back, the Mexican army was cut to pieces at Cerro Gordo."  The rout was so complete that to escape capture, Santa Anna was forced to flee without both his extra wooden leg and a chest containing 50,000 pesos.  By August the U.S. forces had reached the suburbs of Mexico City and were ready to attack, and on September 14 the city fell.  Santa Anna retired once more into exile.
    "Mexico City could have been defended.  As Lesley Byrd Simpson puts it, "The Mexicans were defeated in advance by hatred, jealousies, poverty, despair, indifference, and apathy."  Some Mexicans, however, fought with great courage and obstinacy.  On February 2, 1848, a peace treaty was signed between the United States and Mexico at Guadalupe Hidalgo, just outside the capital.  The effects of the war in Mexico were to reduce its size considerably, because of the loss of what are now the states of California, Nevada, and Utah and parts of Texas, Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, and Wyoming, but to fill up the Mexican treasury by $15 million."
    "The moderates remained in power a few years and the country enjoyed the most honest government it had ever had.  But their reforms displeased the army.  More pronunciamientos followed.  The conservatives returned to power, and Santa Anna was called back from exile.  Reluctantly he abandoned his happy retirement because he felt it was his duty to heed the call of the country."
    The disastrous conditions of the nation called for drastic action, but this did not mean Conservative political leaders were foolish enough to trust Santa Anna.  Before he was allowed to return on April 1, 1853, he agreed to certain stipulations:  His term was to be for one year, and Lucas Alaman was to receive the most important post in his cabinet.  The other cabinet posts were to be filled with other Conservatives, but it was Alaman's responsibility to monitor Santa Anna's actions.
    On April 20, 1853, Santa Anna took the presidential oath of office for the fifth and last time.  He immediately set out implementing the Conservative agenda:  Congress and the state legislatures were adjourned; state tax revenue administration and collection was transferred to the central government; freedom of the press was suspended; and a new constitution authorizing a highly centralized government was drafted.  To ensure the support of the army, Santa Anna increased military funding.  The total number of soldiers almost doubled to 90,000 men.
    If Santa Anna had only served a year in office and remained merely a figurehead for Alaman he might be remembered today in Mexico as one of the country's great political leaders.  Unfortunately on June 2, 1853 Alaman died and influence shifted to a corrupt group around Santa Anna.  The government was soon run solely for the enrichment of Santa Anna and his cronies.  On December 16 Santa Anna declared himself "Most Serene Highness" and "Perpetual Dictator."
    The first act of His Serene Highness may have been the thing that paved the way for his fall.  "To replenish his coffers he sold the Mesilla Valley, now part of southern Arizona and New Mexico, to the United States for $10 million, in what is know as the Gadsden Purchase."  The United States wanted the area along its southern border for a proposed southern transcontinental railroad.
    Santa Anna claimed that he had no choice:  "The United States would had taken the area by force if he had not agree to the sale."  A rebellion slowly gathered strength.  On March 1, 1854, a new revolt began with the announcement of the Plan of Ayutla by Liberal leaders.  It called for an end to Santa Anna's regime and the convening of a national congress to write a new liberal constitution.
    Two weeks later, Santa Anna led a large army out of Mexico City to crush the rebellion centered at Acapulco.  His policy of shooting captured rebels and burning every village suspected of furnishing supplies to the rebels cost him much more political support than it gained.  When Santa Anna's first attempt to storm the well fortified rebel position was repulsed, he declared victory and marched back to Mexico City.
    Santa Anna realized that he could not save the situation and in August 9, 1855 he slipped out of Mexico City.  A week later, he and his family boarded a vessel at Antigua for a third journey into "permanent" exile.  "A tumultuous chapter in Mexican history had ended.  The former perpetual dictator was allowed to return to his homeland seventeen years later.  He spent his last four years in solitude and died destitute and forgotten on June 1, 1876."