Biography of Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna

Inept Military Leader and 11 Times the President of Mexico

General Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna against General Isidro de Barradas' Spanish troops in 1829, Mexico
General Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna against General Isidro de Barradas' Spanish troops in 1829. DEA PICTURE LIBRARY / Getty Images

Antonio López de Santa Anna (1794-1876) was a Mexican politician and military leader who was President of Mexico 11 times from 1833 to 1855. He was a disastrous president for Mexico, losing first Texas and then much of the current American west to the United States. Still, he was a charismatic leader, and the people of Mexico loved him, begging him to return to power time and again. He was by far the most important figure of his generation in Mexican history.

Early Life and Mexican Independence

Santa Anna was born in Jalapa on February 21, 1794. He joined the army at an early age and quickly rose through the ranks, making Colonel by the age of 26. He fought on the Spanish side in the Mexican War of Independence, although he could tell a lost cause when he saw one and switched sides in 1821 with Agustín de Iturbide, who rewarded him with a promotion to General. During the turbulent 1820s, Santa Anna supported and then turned on a succession of presidents, including Iturbide and Vicente Guerrero. He gained a reputation as a valuable if treacherous ally.

First Presidency

In 1829, Spain invaded, attempting to retake Mexico. Santa Anna played a key role in defeating them—his greatest (and perhaps only) military victory. Santa Anna first rose to the presidency in an 1833 election. Ever the astute politician, he immediately turned over power to vice-president Valentín Gómez Farías and allowed him to make some reforms, including many aimed at the Catholic Church and the army. Santa Anna was waiting to see if the people would accept these reforms: when they did not, he stepped in and removed Gómez Farías from power.

Texas Independence

Texas, using the chaos in Mexico as a pretext, declared independence in 1836. Santa Anna himself marched on the rebellious state with a massive army. The invasion was conducted poorly. Santa Anna ordered crops burned, prisoners shot, and livestock killed, alienating many Texans who might have supported him.

After he defeated the rebels at the Battle of the Alamo, Santa Anna unwisely divided his forces, allowing Sam Houston to surprise him at the Battle of San Jacinto. Santa Anna was captured and forced to negotiate with the Mexican government for recognition of Texas' independence and sign papers saying he recognized the Republic of Texas.

The Pastry War and Return to Power

Santa Anna returned to Mexico in disgrace and retired to his hacienda. Soon there came another opportunity to seize the stage. In 1838 France invaded Mexico in order to make them pay some outstanding debts: this conflict is known as the Pastry War. Santa Anna rounded up some men and rushed to battle. Although he and his men were soundly defeated and he lost his leg in the fighting, Santa Anna was seen as a hero by the Mexican people. He would later order his leg buried with full military honors. The French took the port of Veracruz and negotiated a settlement with the Mexican government.

War with the USA

In the early 1840s, Santa Anna was in and out of power frequently. He was inept enough to be regularly driven out of power but charming enough to always find his way back in. In 1846, war broke out between Mexico and the USA. Santa Anna, in exile at the time, persuaded the Americans to allow him back into Mexico to negotiate a peace. Once there, he assumed command of the Mexican army and fought the invaders. American military strength (and Santa Anna's tactical incompetence) carried the day and Mexico was defeated. Mexico lost much of the American West in the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which ended the war.

Final Presidency

Santa Anna went into exile again but was invited back by conservatives in 1853. He ruled as president for two more years. He sold some lands along the border to the USA (known as the Gadsden Purchase) in 1854 to help pay some debts. This infuriated many Mexicans, who turned on him once again. Santa Anna was driven from power for good in 1855 and went once again into exile. He was tried for treason in absentia, and all of his estates and wealth were confiscated.

Schemes and Plots

For the next decade or so, Santa Anna schemed at getting back into power. He attempted to hatch an invasion with mercenaries. He negotiated with the French and Emperor Maximilian in a bid to come back and join Maximilian's court but was arrested and sent back into exile. During this time he lived in different countries, including the USA, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, and the Bahamas.


He finally was given an amnesty in 1874 and returned to Mexico. He was then about 80 and had given up any hope of returning to power. He died on June 21, 1876.

Legacy of Antonio López de Santa Anna

Santa Anna was a fascinating character, a larger-than-life inept dictator. He was president officially six times, and unofficially five more. His personal charisma was astounding, on a par with other Latin American leaders such as Fidel Castro or Juan Domingo Perón. The people of Mexico wanted to love him, but he kept letting them down, losing wars and lining his own pockets with public funds time and again.

Like all men, Santa Anna had his strengths and weaknesses. He was an able military leader in some respects. He could very quickly raise an army and have it marching, and his men seemed to never give up on him. He was a strong leader who always came when his country asked him to (and often when they didn't ask him to). He was decisive and had some good political skills, often playing liberals and conservatives off against one another to build a sort of compromise.

But his weaknesses tended to overwhelm his strengths. His legendary treacheries kept him always on the winning side but made people mistrust him. Although he could always raise an army quickly, he was a disastrous leader in battles, winning only against a Spanish force at Tampico that was ravaged by yellow fever and later at the famous Battle of the Alamo, where his casualties were three times higher than those of the outnumbered Texans. His ineptitude was a factor in the loss of vast tracts of land to the United States and many Mexicans never forgave him for it.

He had serious personal defects, including a gambling problem and a legendary ego. During his final presidency, he named himself dictator for life and made people refer to him as "most serene highness."

He defended his status as a despotic dictator. "A hundred years to come my people will not be fit for liberty," he famously said. He believed it, too. For Santa Anna, Mexico's unwashed masses could not handle self-government and needed a firm hand in control—preferably his.

Santa Anna wasn't all bad for Mexico: he provided a certain degree of stability during a chaotic time and despite his legendary corruption and incompetence, his dedication to Mexico (especially in his later years) should not be questioned. Still, many modern Mexicans revile him for the loss of so much land to the USA.