General Santa Anna: Biography & Significance

Instructor: Christopher Sailus

Chris has an M.A. in history and taught university and high school history.

In this lesson we'll explore the tumultuous career of General Santa Anna, the Mexican general who was also president of Mexico eleven times in the mid-nineteenth century.

Who Was General Santa Anna?

Political careers are often full of highs and lows. Victories contrast with defeats, and times in power are often balanced by times removed. Though most political careers exhibit a wide range of experiences, it would be hard to find someone with as many crests and troughs as the nineteenth-century Mexican president, General Santa Anna. President eleven times and exiled nearly as often, Santa Anna is one of the most important figures of nineteenth-century Mexico and the American West.

Early Career

Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna was born in Xalapa, Mexico, on February 21, 1794. His was a family of high social standing, as his parents were from Spain. Santa Anna joined the military as a cadet at only sixteen. He was a natural to military life and command, and by twenty-six he was already a colonel in the Spanish colonial army.

Santa Anna initially fought for the Spanish against the first series of Mexican rebellions in the 1810s. However, in 1821, Santa Anna astutely evaluated the situation in the latest rebellion and switched to the side that favored independence, helping to install Agustin de Iturbide as the first Emperor of Mexico.

Santa Anna took part in several coups during the formative years of the Mexican Republic in the 1820s. His most important act for his political future, however, came in 1829 when Spain attempted to retake Mexico, landing an invading force in Tampico. Santa Anna defeated the Spanish force with a far smaller Mexican force, and became a national hero in the process. He earned several laudatory epithets after the battle, but perhaps the most known is the one he gave himself: 'the Napoleon of the West.'

Presidencies

Over the ensuing twenty-two years, Santa Anna would hold the Mexican presidency eleven times. He was first elected overwhelmingly in 1833. Santa Anna quickly gave most of the ruling power to his vice president, who launched far-reaching and unpopular reforms of church and state authority. As public outcry against the reforms grew, Santa Anna led a coup against his own government and seized power (essentially from his own vice president) in 1835.

When Texas declared independence in 1836, Santa Anna personally led a detachment of Mexican soldiers to quell the rebellion. Though Santa Anna defeated the Texan rebels at the Battle of the Alamo in March, Santa Anna was captured in April and forced to negotiate for Texas' independence. At the same time, a military coup took place in Mexico City and Santa Anna was deposed from the presidency.

Though disgraced, Santa Anna had a fortuitous opportunity for redemption when the French landed an invading force in Mexico in 1838. The government recalled him and gave him full control of the army. Though he was defeated, the stories of his personal heroism during the battle, where he lost half of his left leg, redeemed Santa Anna in the eyes of the Mexican people. He again gained the presidency before unpopular reforms forced him into exile in Cuba in 1845.

When the Mexican-American War erupted in 1846, however, Santa Anna returned to Mexico originally claiming he only wanted to help in the war effort. Regardless, he declared himself president upon his return. The Mexican army under his command was subsequently defeated, and he was forced to sell all contested land to the United States, an acquisition American historians term the 'Spanish Cession.' Humiliated, Santa Anna was forced back into exile in 1848.

The Mexican-American War largely spelled the end of Santa Anna's political career, though he did have one final short-lived presidency in 1853-4 after being invited back by political conservatives. After being exiled to Cuba in 1854, Santa Anna finally returned to Mexico in 1874, forgiven but disgraced, and died in Mexico City in 1876.

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