Santa Anna, Antonio López de (1794–1876)

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Santa Anna, Antonio López de (1794–1876)

Antonio López de Santa Anna (b. 21 February 1794; d. 21 June 1876), president of Mexico (nine times, 1833–1855). Santa Anna was the most important political figure in Mexico between 1821 and 1855. He was in many ways a quintessential caudillo, one of the regional military leaders who played such important roles in nineteenth-century Latin America. With a strong base in the Veracruz region in eastern Mexico, Santa Anna was consistently able to recruit and finance an army, which brought him to national power nine times. He never remained in the capital long, however, and often abdicated his authority soon after gaining executive office, only to return. Over the course of his career, Santa Anna became increasingly conservative. His first ascension to the presidency was as an ostensible federalist, his last as an ostentatious dictator. He was known as an untrustworthy but sometimes necessary political ally and a military tactician with an uncanny knack for survival.

Santa Anna was born in Jalapa, Veracruz, and began his military career in 1810 with the Fixed Infantry Regiment of Veracruz. During most of the War of Independence, he was involved in royalist counterinsurgency. However, in March 1821, the young lieutenant colonel switched sides in support of Agustín de Iturbide's plan to achieve independence. Upon Iturbide's victory, Santa Anna was awarded a political-military position in his native region.

Santa Anna, whose relationship with Iturbide quickly soured, was instrumental in overthrowing the infant monarchy in 1823. For the rest of the decade, he played an intermittent role in national politics from his Veracruz stronghold, but it was not until the very end of the decade that the first of several military engagements with foreign troops greatly elevated his national stature.

In 1829 Spanish troops made an ill-fated attempt to reconquer Mexico. Santa Anna's victory against the invasion force at Tampico earned him popular approval and a certain cachet as a nationalist and military strategist. He would capitalize on this reputation often in the following twenty-five years.

Santa Anna gained the presidency for the first time on 1 April 1833, in a coalition with federalists who needed his military support to oust a conservative regime. However, he quickly turned the government over to his vice president, the ardent reformer Valentin Gómez Farías. At this point in his career, Santa Anna's political affiliations turned away from the federalist-liberal camp. Conservative leaders convinced him to oust Gómez Farías, whose proposed reforms were deemed a threat to both the Catholic Church and the military. Santa Anna thus began his next presidential term in April 1834 on the opposite end of the political spectrum from his first.

In the last half of the 1830s, Santa Anna's career was almost ended, and then resurrected, by international conflicts. He chose to lead the Mexican army sent to squelch the Texas Revolution. In 1836, after a number of early victories, including the infamous battle at the Alamo, Santa Anna was captured. He conceded Texas independence and then retired in defeat from public life. However, in 1838, French troops invaded Mexico to collect indemnities from the government. Santa Anna lost a leg in battle against the French and was once again proclaimed a hero. His role in national politics resumed when he was declared president in March 1839, and in the early 1840s his now familiar oscillation between power (1841, 1843, 1844) and exile was repeated.

Santa Anna's conduct during the Mexican-American War formed another controversial episode in the general's life. Although in exile when the war broke out in 1846, he managed to slip through a U.S. naval blockade, an act that spurred accusations he had secretly agreed to peace terms with the United States. Once back in Mexico, however, Santa Anna took up arms, was appointed president by the congress in December 1846, and for a time bravely led his troops before experiencing defeat and exile once again.

The war with the United States brought Mexico to the brink of disintegration. The political situation in the late 1840s and early 1850s was more chaotic than ever. Santa Anna was in and out of office in 1847. Finally, in 1853 a fragile conservative coalition formed to bring him back to Mexico, and he was granted extraordinary powers in the hope that he might somehow hold the nation together. From 1853 to 1855, as a military dictator he ruled imperiously, the coalition that had brought him to power disintegrated, and he was forced yet again into exile by the liberal leaders of the Revolution of Ayutla. From 1855 until his death in 1876, Santa Anna played only a marginal role in Mexican politics.

What are we to make of the "age of Santa Anna's revolutions"? The traditional view of Mexican history portrays his greed and fickleness as one of the main causes of the nation's instability. However, Santa Anna's role must be placed within the broader context of Mexican society during this era. He was an important military leader at a time when military power was the key to political control in Mexico. His unique asset was his ability to present himself as a necessary ally to extraordinarily different political factions. Ultimately, though, his career was more a symptom of Mexico's deeper political, social, and economic problems than the cause of them.

See alsoAlamo, Battle of the; Caudillismo, Caudillo; Mexico, Wars and Revolutions: Mexican-American War.


A truly satisfying biography of Santa Anna remains to be written, though several have been attempted in English. Two dramatic portraits were produced in the 1930s: Wilfrid Hardy Callcott, Santa Anna: The Story of an Enigma Who Once Was Mexico (1936), and Frank C. Hanighen, Santa Anna: The Napoleon of the West (1934). A third biography is Oakah L. Jones, Santa Anna (1968). Santa Anna's autobiography is an interesting attempt by the general himself to justify his checkered career and answer his critics: Antonio López De Santa Anna, The Eagle: The Autobiography of Santa Anna, translated and edited by Ann Fears Crawford (1988). An influential study of caudillismo that compares Santa Anna and Juan Álvarez is Fernando Díaz Díaz, Caudillos y caciques: Antonio López de Santa Anna y Juan Álvarez (1972). Two recent attempts to reevaluate Santa Anna are Christon I. Archer, "The Young Antonio López de Santa Anna: Veracruz Counterinsurgent and Incipient Caudillo," in The Human Tradition in Latin America: Nineteenth Century, edited by William Beezley and Judith Ewell (1989), which examines Santa Anna's emergence as a political actor during the Independence wars.

Carmen Vázquez Mantecón, Santa Anna y la encrucijada del estado: La dictadura (1853–55) (1986), a fine analysis of Santa Anna's last years as ruler of Mexico.

Additional Bibliography

Blanco Moheno, Roberto. Iturbide y Santa Anna: Los años terribles de la infancia nacional. Mexico City: Editorial Diana, 1991.

Costeloe, Michael P. La República central en México, 1835–1846: "Hombres de bien" en la época de Santa Anna. Mexico City: Fondo de Cultura Económica, 2000.

Díaz Zermeño, Héctor. La culminación de las traiciones de Santa Anna. Mexico City: Nueva Imagen, 2000.

González Pedrero, Enrique. País de un solo hombre: El México de Santa Anna. Mexico City: Fondo de Cultura Económica, 1993.

Veraza Urtuzuástegui, Jorge. Santa Anna en la historiografía y el en sentido común. Mexico City: Editorial Itaca, 2000.

Yáñez, Agustín. Santa Anna, espectro de una sociedad. Mexico City: Fondo de Cultura Económica, 1993.

                                           Richard Warren

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Santa Anna, Antonio López de (1794–1876)

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