Thursday, February 16, 2012

Enemy of Monarchy: Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna

Perhaps the most well known name in Mexican history north of the Rio Grande is that of Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna, the man they called "the Eagle". Despised by the English-speaking people of North America as a blood thirsty and cowardly despot, Santa Anna has alternately been seen by Mexicans as both a patriotic hero and an incompetent dictator who lost or signed away more than half of the national territory of Mexico to save and enrich himself. In some circles today though, the name of Santa Anna has recovered somewhat among those who see the people of the United States as the cause of all Mexican troubles and who defend him simply for being an enemy of America rather than out of any appreciation for his actual accomplishments. The truth, of course, is that Santa Anna was quick to sell out his country to the United States on more than one occasion. He was not the most stridently enemy of monarchy to ever rule Mexico, in fact he seemed favorably disposed toward the idea of a monarchy at times. Yet, he was a republican when it mattered most. One thing is certain, he is almost as controversial a figure now as he was in his own time; being a soldier, loyalist, revolutionary, liberal, conservative and becoming President of Mexico on seven different occasions.

Antonio de Padua Maria Severino Lopez de Santa Anna y Perez de Lebron was born on February 21, 1794 in Xalapa to a Spanish colonial bureaucrat and a woman from France. A native of Mexico of pure European blood he was of the criollo class and in 1810, when the first revolutionary uprisings were breaking out in Mexico he joined the Spanish royalist army and served with distinction in Texas under General Joaquin de Arredondo who crushed a republican invasion known as the Magee-Gutierrez Expedition. He later said this was the campaign which taught him that one had to deal with rebels and invaders (also called filibusters or land pirates) mercilessly, but it is hardly a defense for his later actions considering that in this case the filibusters began by being cruel to their own enemies and were only reaping what they had sewed. However, Santa Anna was not to remain a loyal Spanish soldier for long and when the political winds shifted against the Crown of Spain, in 1821 he changed his coat for the first of many times in his life as he joined forces with "The Liberator" General Don Agustin de Iturbide who freed Mexico from Spain and became her first Emperor after King Fernando VII refused the crown of an independent Mexico.

Santa Anna was absolutely effusive in his praise and protestations of loyalty to the first Emperor at this time. Most saw him as one of Iturbide’s top men. At times, there is no doubt that Santa Anna could display considerable military ability and in 1821 he captured the Spanish held port city of Veracruz, a remarkable accomplishment and one for which Iturbide promoted him to the rank of General. Not long after pledging his absolute allegiance and loyalty unto death to Emperor Agustin though, Santa Anna became upset when Iturbide refused to take his side in a personal dispute with another officer. Sensing another wind shift, he changed his coat again and joined the ranks of the liberal supporters of the Plan of Casa Mata to oust the Emperor and make Mexico a republic. In fact, Santa Anna and Guadalupe Victoria (soon to be famous as Mexico’s first President) were the key originators of the plan. However, though both had originally supported Iturbide, Victoria was known to be a republican whereas the betrayal of Santa Anna was more spontaneous and self-serving.

Not surprisingly, Santa Anna was no more faithful to his new found republican principles than he had been to the idea of monarchy once the Emperor was out of the picture as he was involved in the coups which overthrew President Vicente Guerrero and President Manuel Pedraza as well. However, he still kept up a good public image, winning his greatest fame when Spain attempted to “re-conquer” Mexico with 2,600 soldiers whom Santa Anna defeated at Tampico in 1829. In actuality, Spain could have never made much progress in Mexico with so few troops, and though they did have Santa Anna outnumbered, most of the Spanish soldiers were incapacitated by yellow fever. Nonetheless, the battle was celebrated as a great victory with a medal struck to honor it and Santa Anna rose to the level of a national hero by glorifying himself as the "Hero of Tampico" and the "Savior of Mexico".

Santa Anna then decided it was time that he cashed in on this reputation and entered politics when the conservative General Anastasio Bustamante, an old supporter of Emperor Agustin, overthrew President Vicente Guerrero. Santa Anna deposed Bustamante, seized power and claimed the presidency after a trumped up election in 1833. Santa Anna tried to pose as a comparative conservative, but his Vice President, Valentine Gomez Farias, was an outright liberal and as Santa Anna left the actual business of government to him, traditional elements in the country were soon outraged by the Santa Anna administration. Trying to cast himself as the national savior once again, Santa Anna turned on his deputy and dismissed Farias, taking absolute power himself. Originally Santa Anna had posed as a federalist, or an advocate of strong state governments, but now he switched sides again to become an avowed centralist. Declaring that Mexico was not ready for democracy, he dismissed the Congress, tore up the original American-inspired Constitution of 1824 and centralized all power in his hands. Some of the conservatives applauded him for this, but numerous rebellions quickly arose.

General and President Santa Anna crushed these rebellions in San Luis Potosi, Queretaro, Durango, Guanajuato, Michoacan, the Yucatan and Jalisco. The most serious was the rebellion in Zacatecas led by Francisco Garcia who commanded a well armed and organized militia. Santa Anna suppressed them with considerable brutality, defeating them on May 12, 1835, massacring those who surrendered and allowing his troops to pillage the city of Zacatecas for 48 hours. It was also in 1835 that the most significant rebellion, and one of the most crucial events of his life, broke out in the northern province of Texas. Texas rebels had taken control of all the major posts in the region and had defeated and forced the surrender of the Mexican garrison in San Antonio commanded by General Martin Perfecto de Cos, who was the brother-in-law of Santa Anna. The President and Generalissimo was not prepared to let this stain on his family honor go unpunished and he soon set out on an expedition to crush the rebellion, restore Mexican rule and annihilate or drive out all of the Anglo population of Texas.

Santa Anna commanded a formidable army and the Texans were surprised by the speed with which Santa Anna drove his men forward, arriving in San Antonio in late February of 1836. On March 6, 1836 he stormed the Alamo, the old Spanish mission in which about 185 Texans had barricaded themselves. The Texans asked for no mercy and Santa Anna showed none, killing or executing every Alamo defender. His own losses were immense and some of his more upright officers commented on what a waste the battle had been and how little concern Santa Anna showed for his own men. He had taken no priests or medical corps with him and dismissed his casualties, asking, “what are the lives of soldiers but so many chickens?” Later, on March 27, 1836 Mexican troops at Goliad massacred some 400 Texan prisoners on orders from Santa Anna which further enraged the Texans, shamed his better officers and cast Mexico in the role of villain in the court of world opinion. By this time, the independence of the Republic of Texas had been declared and Santa Anna threw caution to the wind, driving his forces onward to drive out the Anglo colonists and capture the Texan government.

So far, his forces had been everywhere successful and the vain Generalissimo, who liked to call himself the "Napoleon of the West" became overconfident and sloppy. Allowing himself to be separated from his main army, he camped in an easily isolated area with the enemy out of sight. Texas General Sam Houston seized the opportunity and surprised Santa Anna with a sudden attack at San Jacinto on April 21, 1836 which smashed the Mexican army which had been relaxing without so much as a single sentry posted to keep watch for an attack. Santa Anna had been dallying with a local mulatto girl when the Texan attack came. In cowardly fashion, Santa Anna abandoned the field, fleeing for his life and when captured tried to pass himself off as a common soldier before the salutes of his own men gave him away. In exchange for his own life Santa Anna ordered the rest of his army to withdraw from Texas and later signed the Treaty of Velasco which recognized the independence of the Republic of Texas, after which he was released and went to the United States. The government in Mexico, however, declared Santa Anna deposed and refused to recognize the treaty he had signed.

The following year Santa Anna returned to Mexico and was able to recover his reputation when he lost a leg in the 1838 Pastry War with France. Cashing in on his injury he once again overthrew Anastasio Bustamante to become President of Mexico, acting as usual more as a dictator than a democratic executive. Those who went along with him thought a dictatorship would at least solve the problem of chronic instability that had stagnated all progress in Mexico virtually since independence. However, Santa Anna was never a stabilizing force. His harsh policies and high taxes led to the establishment of the Yucatan republic (which was aided by the Republic of Texas Navy and Marine Corps) as well as the short-lived Republic of the Rio Grande based in Laredo, Texas in a region which was still claimed by both countries. Having seen the loss of Texas when Santa Anna had been in power before, opposition rallied as the fear grew that more losses were coming. The duplicitous dictator was forced out of power once again, Santa Anna was captured and went into exile in Venezuela and later Cuba.

To speak for a moment of the private life of Santa Anna, it was as equally scandalous as his professional one. He married Ines Garcia with whom he had five children, but throughout his life was known to have a number of mistresses, frequented prostitutes and fathered a small army of illegitimate offspring. As mentioned earlier, though he was already married, he desired the favors of a young San Antonio girl named Melchora Barrera during the siege of the Alamo. Her pious mother would not allow her daughter to see him unless they were married, Generalissimo or not, so he had one of his officers pose as a priest and perform a mock ceremony so he could honeymoon while his artillery shelled the Texan garrison. He later sent her to Mexico City where she gave birth to his child. Santa Anna said he intended to save her for his old age. When his first wife died in 1844 Santa Anna was remarried only a month later to Maria Dolores de Tosta, though she was only 15 and he was an old man of 50. Nonetheless he fathered numerous children with her, one of whom, Santa Anna III, became a Jesuit priest in 1897. For himself, Santa Anna never obviously never took religion very seriously. Like everyone who was anyone in Mexico at the time he was a Freemason yet more often than not the clerical “party” was on his side, mostly because he usually seemed the least objectionable of the available choices.

In 1846, following the American annexation of Texas which prompted the U.S.-Mexican War, Santa Anna offered his services to his homeland and promised that he had no political aspirations. It was a lie of course, and the government should have known better as the sitting president was Gomez Farias who Santa Anna had already betrayed once. However, with the war going badly, Santa Anna was allowed to return though unbeknownst to the Mexican people, the duplicitous Santa Anna was simultaneously negotiating with the United States as well, promising to give up vast tracts of Mexican territory in exchange for a considerable bribe. Loyal to no one, once Santa Anna was allowed through the U.S. blockade and given command of Mexican troops by his own government, he declared himself President of Mexico again and began fighting the United States as hard as he could. It was to no avail however and the Mexican forces were steadily pushed back and defeated until the United States occupied Mexico City itself. Santa Anna was overthrown, the southwest was sold to the United States and in 1851 the old Caudillo went into exile again.

Always a survivor, in 1853 Santa Anna was back again as part of a rebellion by Mexican conservatives which restored him to power. Santa Anna, as usual, spent most of his time feathering his own nest and sold additional territory to the United States. He tried to keep favor with the conservatives by showing favor to the Church, restoring some relics from the imperial past but also making himself dictator with the title of "His Most Serene Highness". Even he seemed to possibly realize that political instability was ruining Mexico. Even simple relations with foreign governments were often impossible since by the time diplomats arrived in Europe the government which had sent them had usually been overthrown. Many began to seek a change in the form of government rather than simply the occupants of the National Palace.

In short, many Mexicans began to desire a monarchy as a way of establishing long-term stability in place of the almost constant anarchy. Santa Anna dispatched Jose Maria Gutierrez de Estrada to Europe to look into the possibility of inviting a European (presumably Spanish) prince to Mexico to perhaps assume the throne. How serious Santa Anna was about this, we will never know. Initially there was reason to hope that the cause would be taken up in Madrid, however, the chance of restoring a Spanish monarch to the heart of their former New World empire was dashed by the inability of the Spaniards themselves to agree on who their own monarch should be. The on-going civil war in Spain destroyed any chance of a branch of the Spanish monarchy returning to America and, as usual, it was not long before Gutierrez de Estrada found himself representing a government no longer in power. Back at home, with the increasing respect being shown to the memory of the Mexican Empire and the man he had first betrayed, Emperor Agustin, some wondered if Santa Anna perhaps intended on making himself Emperor of Mexico. Perhaps his hints of inviting a foreign prince were undertaken knowing they would fail so that Santa Anna could, like Iturbide, assume the throne himself? No one would ever know as after losing some of his conservative support, Santa Anna was again overthrown by the leading Mexican liberals Ignacio Comonfort and Benito Juarez in 1855.

Santa Anna was in exile in Cuba during the confrontation between the radical liberals and the pro-Church party as well as the ultimate liberal victory which saw Benito Juarez become President of Mexico and enact a new constitution. However, Gutierrez de Estrada had gone on with his mission even after Santa Anna was overthrown, as he personally believed nothing but a monarchy would save Mexico. With Spain having frittered away the opportunity, he turned to France and was finally able to obtain the support of Emperor Napoleon III. He was also joined by some of the most respected generals who had served with Santa Anna in the war with Texas such as Adrian Woll and Juan Almonte. As we know, with the backing of France, they ultimately offered the Crown of Mexico to HIRH Archduke Maximilian of Austria.

When, in 1864, the Archduke and his Belgian bride were crowned Emperor Maximilian and Empress Carlota of Mexico in Mexico City, Santa Anna wrote to the new Emperor to congratulate him and offer his support to the new regime. He was effusive in his praise of Maximilian and took care to point out that he had “always” been in favor of such a restoration and really deserved the credit for getting the idea off the ground. As always, he stood ready to serve. Thankfully, Emperor Maximilian and his Mexican supporters had enough sense to realize that Santa Anna was hopelessly untrustworthy and refused him permission to return to Mexico. Lest anyone suspect he might have been sincere, Santa Anna thereafter embraced the cause of Juarez (the very man who had earlier overthrown him) and his old friends in the United States. He claimed that he had been opposed to the monarchy all the time and explained away his letter of support by saying that he had only been trying to return to fight against Maximilian (a double-cross just as he had done during the war with the United States). Whether this was true or if he was simply trying to win favor with the victorious Benito Juarez is speculation. He had changed his coat so many times, finally, no one was willing to believe anything he said.

While he was frequently in exile Santa Anna lived a lavish lifestyle, traveled, continued to feed his passion for cockfighting and supposedly invented but failed to profit from chewing gum. After an amnesty was granted in 1874 he returned to Mexico, but by that time he had been largely forgotten and the vast sums of money he had lined his pockets with while in power had long since been spent. He died a poor, ignored, embittered and almost blind old man on June 21, 1876. Throughout his life Santa Anna had proven that he had considerable ability, he was a matchless survivor, could organize and drive an army like few others and could at times show some talent as a battlefield commander. However, he was also inherently untrustworthy, committed to nothing and no one but himself, ambitious, dishonest and excessively vain. In short, he represented all of the worst aspects of republican leadership in Mexico. His treason against the first Mexican Emperor was a major instigator of the downward spiral into anarchy that took Mexico from being the most advanced and powerful country in North America to being the poorest. The atrocities he carried out will never be forgotten, and though he was sadly probably not the worst leader Mexico ever had, his reputation will always be that of a man who in the course of his career betrayed almost everyone several times over and who presided over the worst defeats in Mexican history. The most that can be said for him is that he occasionally brought a glimpse of Napoleonic grandeur to Mexico and that many Mexican leaders were actually worse than him. However, the brief surges of pride he brought to his country were invariably followed by even greater sorrows and all because of his vanity, selfishness and ambition. If he had simply been loyal to his Emperor when it mattered, how different Mexican history might have been.


  1. Oh this man... I never had a great impression on him. He was always so quick to sell his nation away to others just to save his own skin. Quite typical of dictators who don't tie themselves to their own nation, unlike monarchs; they just look out for their own interests.

    1. And that was something the republicans even had to admire about Emperor Maximilian. They were so used to leaders who, when faced with defeat, grabbed all the money they could and left the country, that they were astounded that one would freely choose to stay and die alongside his men. To some extent the same could be said for Iturbide who was living safely in exile but chose to come back even though he knew there was a good chance he would be killed.

  2. Hello, Im a distant relative of Doña Dolores Tosta, as well as family historian. I'd like to contact you regarding some info I'd like to share regarding Dolores as well as other Tosta nobility in the Americas. I left you a msg on your Facebook page.

  3. A shame that the Napoleon of the West never bothered to crown himself. He could have restarted Mexican monarchism, post-Iturbide. Would have made things interesting.


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