Antonio López de Santa Anna
The dominant figure in Mexican politics for much of the 19th century, Antonio López de Santa Anna left a legacy of disappointment and disaster by consistently placing his own self-interest above his duty to the nation.
Born in the state of Vera Cruz in 1794, Santa Anna embarked on his long career in the army at age 16 as a cadet. He fought for a time for the Spanish against Mexican independence, but along with many other army officers switched sides in 1821 to help install Augustin de Iturbide as head of state of an independent Mexico.
Mexico was a highly fractured and chaotic nation for much of its first century of independence, in no small part due to the machinations of men such as Santa Anna. In 1828 he used his military influence to lift the losing candidate into the presidency, being rewarded in turn with appointment as the highest-ranking general in the land. His reputation and influence were further strengthened by his critical role in defeating an 1829 Spanish effort to reconquer their former colony.
In 1833 Santa Anna was overwhelmingly elected President of Mexico. Unfortunately, what began as a promise to unite the nation soon deteriorated into chaos. From 1833 to 1855 Mexico had no fewer than thirty-six changes in presidency; Santa Anna himself directly ruled eleven times. He soon became bored in his first presidency, leaving the real work to his vice-president, who soon launched an ambitious reform of church, state and army. In 1835, when the proposed reforms infuriated vested interests in the army and church, Santa Anna seized the opportunity to reassert his authority, and led a military coup against his own government.
Santa Anna's repudiation of Mexico's 1824 constitution and substitution of a much more centralized and less democratic form of government was instrumental in sparking the Texas revolution, for it ultimately convinced both Anglo colonists and many Mexicans in Texas that they had nothing to gain by remaining under the Mexican government. When the revolution came in 1835, Santa Anna personally led the Mexican counter-attack, enforcing a "take-no-prisoners" policy at the Alamo and ordering the execution of those captured at Goliad. In the end, however, his over-confidence and tactical carelessness allowed Sam Houston to win a crushing victory at the battle of San Jacinto.
Although his failure to suppress the Texas revolution enormously discredited him, Santa Anna was able to reestablish much of his authority when he defeated a French invasion force at Vera Cruz in 1838. His personal heroism in battle, which resulted in having several horses shot out from under him and the loss of half of his left leg, became the basis of his subsequent effort to secure his power by creating a cult of personality around himself. In 1842 he arranged for an elaborate ceremony to dig up the remains of his leg, parade with it through Mexico City, and place it on a prominent monument for all to see.
The United States took advantage of Mexico's continuing internal turmoil in the Mexican-American war. As the supreme commander of Mexican forces, much of the blame for their crushing defeat fell on Santa Anna's shoulders. Nevertheless, he remained the most powerful individual in Mexico until 1853, when his sale of millions of acres in what is now southern Arizona and New Mexico to the United States united liberal opposition against him. He was soon deposed, and never again returned to political office. He died in 1876.
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