Biography of Antonio López de Santa Anna, President of Mexico 11 Times

General Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna against General Isidro de Barradas' Spanish troops in 1829, Mexico
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Antonio López de Santa Anna (February 21, 1794–June 21, 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, in general, the people of Mexico supported him, begging him to return to power time and again. He was by far the most important figure of his generation in Mexican history.

Fast Facts: Antonio López de Santa Anna


  • Known For: President of Mexico 11 times, defeated U.S. troops at the Alamo, lost much Mexican territory to the U.S.
  • Also Known As: Antonio de Padua María Severino López de Santa Anna y Pérez de Lebrón, Santa Anna, The man who was Mexico, Napoleon of the West
  • Born: February 21, 1794 in Xalapa, Veracruz 
  • Parents: Antonio Lafey de Santa Anna and Manuela Perez de Labron
  • Died: June 21, 1876 in Mexico City, Mexico
  • Published Works: "The Eagle: The Autobiography of Santa Anna"
  • Awards and Honors: Order of Charles III,  Order of Guadalupe
  • Spouses: María Inés de la Paz García, María de los Dolores de Tosta
  • Children:  María de Guadalupe, María del Carmen, Manuel, and Antonio López de Santa Anna y García. Recognized illegitimate children: Paula, María de la Merced, Petra, and José López de Santa Anna
  • Notable Quote: "As general-in-chief I fulfilled my duty by issuing the necessary orders for the vigilance of our camp, as a man I succumbed to an imperious necessity of nature for which I do not believe that a charge can be justly brought against any general, much less if such a rest is taken at the middle of the day, under a tree, and in the very camp itself."

Early Life

Santa Anna was born in Xalapa on February 21, 1794. His parents were Antonio Lafey de Santa Anna and Manuela Perez de Labron and he had a comfortable middle-class childhood. After some limited formal education, he worked for a short time as a merchant. He longed for a military career and his father procured an appointment for him at an early age in the Army of New Spain. 

Early Military Career

Santa Anna quickly rose through the ranks, making colonel by the age of 26. He fought on the Spanish side in the Mexican War of Independence. When he recognized that it was a lost cause, he 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 to 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 United States

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 United States. 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 United States (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 United States, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, and the Bahamas.

Death

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

Legacy

Santa Anna was a larger-than-life character and 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 supported him multiple times, but he kept letting them down, losing wars and lining his own pockets with public funds time and again.

Like all people, 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 sometimes when they didn't ask him to). He was decisive and had some crafty political skills, often playing liberals and conservatives off against one another to build a compromise.

But Santa Anna's weaknesses tended to overwhelm his strengths. His legendary treacheries kept him always on the winning side but caused people to 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. To Santa Anna, Mexico's unwashed masses could not handle self-government and needed a firm hand in control—preferably his.

Santa Anna left a mixed legacy to 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) is rarely questioned. Still, many modern Mexicans revile him for the loss of so much territory to the United States.

Sources

Brands, H.W. "Lone Star Nation: The Epic Story of the Battle for Texas Independence." Anchor Books, 2004.

Eisenhower, John S.D. "So Far from God: The U.S. War with Mexico, 1846-1848." University of Oklahoma Press, 1989.

Henderson, Timothy J. A Glorious Defeat: Mexico and its War with the United States. Hill and Wang, 2007.

Herring, Hubert. A History of Latin America From the Beginnings to the Present. Alfred A. Knopf, 1962

Wheelan, Joseph. Invading Mexico: America's Continental Dream and the Mexican War, 1846-1848. Carroll and Graf, 2007.