The Mexican general and statesman Antonio López de Santa Ana (1794-1876) was often called the "man who was Mexico." An unprincipled adventurer, he dominated Mexico for some 25 years, during which he served as president six times, switching parties and ideologies at will.
The Mexican struggle for independence was as bloody and destructive as any in the Western Hemisphere. The struggle, a bitter civil war, destroyed trade, farming, communications, and commerce. The ultimate victors, conservative churchman and soldiers, had no intention of sharing their power or wealth with their millions of poor countrymen, of either Indian or mixed blood.
The three decades following independence (1821) saw a continuation of civil war as the small ranchers and farmers of the north and west tried to break the economic, political, and social stranglehold of the colonial elites. Virtually the only beneficiary of this struggle was the United States, which violently seized over 50 percent of Mexico's territory. Gen. Antonio López de Santa Ana did not cause this tragic situation or Mexico's varied problems. A vain, pompous man with great leadership qualities, he only used the contemporary chaos to personal advantage. His very character epitomized one of the most unfortunate periods in Mexican history.
Antonio López de Santa Ana was born in Jalapa, Veracruz. His family was Spanish and Caucasian. His father, a well-to-do Veracruz mortgage broker, had estates in Jalapa. When Santa Ana was 16, the family sent him to the military academy, from which he graduated in time to serve in the royalist army against the forces of independence. He fought against Miguel Hidalgo, the priest and original leader of the independence movement, in Texas and distinguished himself in battle. Apparently a gambling scandal delayed his promotion, and by 1821, despite a distinguished record in the Spanish army, Santa Ana had reached only the rank of captain. In that year he defected to the conservative but proindependence army of Gen. Agustín de Iturbide. The grateful rebels made him first a colonel and later a brigadier general.
Santa Ana did not remain loyal for long; he was one of the first to pronounce against Iturbide's empire, seizing the port of Veracruz in the name of the 1823 revolt which ended Iturbide's short-lived imperial experiment. In 1823 Santa Ana endorsed a republic but later admitted that a Jalapa lawyer had only briefly explained to him all that he knew about republicanism. He remained a political illiterate all his life, one year a rabid Jacobin liberal, the next a monarchist.
In the late 1820s the "republican" general Santa Ana served various Mexican governments as an officer first in Yucatän and later in Veracruz. In 1827 he was one of the principal supporters of the presidential bid of independence hero Vicente Guerrero. The same year at Tampico he took the surrender of a small yellow fever-ridden Spanish force from Cuba which had attempted to invade Mexico. Now the "hero of Tampico," he became an important figure in the chaotic world of Mexican politics. The liberal Congress elected him president, and he took office in 1833 with the determined anticlerical Valentín Gómez Farías his vice president.
Santa Ana's first presidency never even got started. The newly elected president pleaded sick and remained on his hacienda, Magna de Clavo, in Veracruz, leaving Gómez Farías as provisional president. The latter attacked Church and military legal privileges and attempted to reduce the army's size. Santa Ana then posed as the champion of traditional interests and overthrew Gómez Farías. Calling himself "liberator of Mexico," he assumed a dictatorship, dismissed Congress, restored military and ecclesiastical prerogatives, and exiled the leading liberals.
The result was a period of confusion: revolts and counterrevolts, with Santa Ana resigning and again taking office. In 1836 he led a Mexican army into Texas, and after some initial successes his forces were annihilated by Sam Houston at San Jacinto on April 21, 1836. Santa Ana, a prisoner of the Texans, signed the Treaty of Velasco, granting the withdrawal of Mexican troops and the "independence" of Texas. During a short sojourn as a prisoner in Washington, he conferred with President Andrew Jackson and returned to Mexico in February 1837.
While imprisoned in the United States, Santa Ana had been deposed by the conservative Congress, which had abrogated his agreement with the Texans and recalled former president Anastasio Bustamante. Still somehow a national hero, Santa Ana retired to Magna de Clavo for 18 months. In November 1838 he emerged to lead a Mexican force against a French squadron bombarding San Juan de Ulúa in the "pastry war." Caught in a cannonade, he lost a leg to the invaders, a sacrifice which apparently greatly increased his political appeal. He was now the "hero of Veracruz."
In 1839, faced with a liberal revolt, President Bustamante named Santa Ana interim president, a post which he held from March to July. In a period of further confusion and fiscal bankruptcy, Santa Ana doggedly maneuvered through various alliances. By October 1841 he had returned to Mexico City, where he was once again president of Mexico by virtue of a conservative junta. This time his government lasted until 1842. He raised revenue by taxation but spent lavishly on festivals and a private army. In March 1843 he again resumed the executive and ruled until July 1844. He apparently began to see the possibilities of a monarchy as the solution to Mexico's problems.
Overthrown in 1844, Santa Ana again retreated to Veracruz. In 1845 the government captured him and exiled him to Cuba. He solicited aid from the United States, promising to amicably settle the Texas boundary dispute if he returned to power. Permitted to pass through the American blockade of the Mexican coast, he broke his promise and began to prepare Mexico for war. In December 1846 he became Mexico's president. In 1847 he once more led Mexican troops against American forces. The Mexicans, badly beaten owing in part to Santa Ana's incompetence and in part to internal quarrels, lost much valuable territory. In 1847, fleeing both his Yankee and Mexican enemies, the general took refuge on the British Island of Jamaica, but his incredible career had not yet closed. He spent 2 years in Venezuela, devoting his time to farming while Mexico sank further into chaos.
In 1853 the conservatives again seized power. Their leader, Lucas Alamán, sponsored Santa Ana as an interim president until a suitable monarch could be found. In April 1853 Santa Ana again returned as president of Mexico. But Alamán's constructive influence ended with his death in June, and Santa Ana continued to dissipate government funds. In April 1854 he signed the Gadsden Treaty, selling Arizona to the United States for $10 million. In August 1855 the liberals, led by Juan Álvarez, revolted against the increasingly corrupt regime. Santa Ana again fled. A decade later he attempted to stage yet another comeback during the European intervention, but he no longer had any following. He again went into exile but was allowed to return in 1873 to Mexico. No longer a danger, he lived out his last days in semipoverty, dying in Mexico City in June 1876.
Santa Ana's own account is The Eagle: The Autobiography of Santa Ana, edited by Ann Fears Crawford (trans. 1967). There is no definitive work on Santa Ana. The basic biography, although dated, is Wilfrid Hardy Callcott, Santa Ana (1936; repr. 1964); also useful is Callcott's general study Church and State in Mexico, 1822-1857 (1926). Oakah L. Jones, Santa Anna (1968), scholarly and well written, is not distinctly different from Callcott's account. Useful for a flavor of the times are the memoirs of Frances Erskine Calderón de la Barca, Life in Mexico (1843; new ed. 1966). The war with the United States and Santa Ana's role are best related in George Lockhart Rives, The United States and Mexico, 1821-1848 (2 vols., 1913; repr. 1969), and Justin H. Smith, The War with Mexico (2 vols., 1919). For life in Mexico during the war see José Fernando Ramírez, Mexico during the War with the United States, edited by Walter V. Scholes (trans. 1950).