His Serene Highness and the Absentee President

Reflecting the caudillo politics of nineteenth century Latin America, Mexico called on Santa Anna to lead as president time and again (67). “The Hero of Tampico” was overwhelmingly elected for the first time in 1833, and at different times he was popular over the next two decades (68). Santa Anna was president a total of eleven times, but held the office so intermittently that his terms altogether lasted about six years. His last term (1853-1855) was a repressive dictatorship that became a conspicuous part of his legacy. But it was markedly different from his other presidencies, in which he had a major reputation of being absent from office (69).

This infographic highlights the instances in which Santa Anna served as president, and interims in which he entrusted the country to acting presidents. For example, Mexicans first elected him as president on April 1, 1833, but he immediately handed his presidential responsibilities to his Vice President, Valentín Gómez Farías (70).

At the top left of the infographic, an icon with the label of “Gómez Farías” represents this first instance in which Santa Anna chose to leave the capital rather than serve in his elected role. The icons with Santa Anna’s portrait represent when he actually served as president at the capital. In addition to Gómez Farías, he handed the office to Miguel Barragán, his Minister of War, and José Justo Corro, his Minister of Justice and Ecclesiastical Affairs (71).

Historians have argued that Santa Anna disliked governing, and that he was more ambitious for glory than for political power (72). In his memoirs, he wrote, “I preferred the hazards of war to the seductive and sought after life of the palace” (73). In the 1830s he handed over the country to acting presidents on five different occasions, which allowed him to personally lead troops into battle rather than rule at the capital (74). He also excused himself from governing for several reasons outside of battle, most often claiming the need to “recuperate” at his haciendas (75).

Letter to Sebastián Camacho, page 1, Antonio López de Santa Anna (author), 1830-06-17.

In this letter, Santa Anna writes from Manga de Clavo, one of the four haciendas he purchased throughout his lifetime (76). He spent long periods of time retreating here during his presidencies, enjoying a simple rural life and practicing a “health regime” (77).

Santa Anna purchased Manga de Clavo in 1825. In this letter, which dates to 1830, he describes the recuperation of his health thanks to the quantity of milk he drinks, and how he is enjoying "extraordinary tranquility." He also states that he would not exchange this kind of life "for any title in the world." The absentee president often expressed this sentiment after he took office, particularly during his terms of the 1830s (78).

Although he was more popularly known for his absenteeism, reformist conflicts of the time also characterized Santa Anna’s presidencies (79). By withdrawing to rural life and leaving governing to others, such as his Vice President or Minister of War, he allowed “interest groups to reveal their hand [and] overreach themselves” under their rule (80). He would then return to office as “an arbitrator of conflicts...with greater leverage than before”(81). Every time Mexicans called him back to rule, Santa Anna eagerly returned to build his reputation as a national savior (82).

Edict establishing a triduum of gratitude to Santa Anna, José Nicolás Maniau y Torquemada, Juan Bautista de Arechederreta y Escalada, José María Bucheli, Manuel Mendiola (authors), and Juan Manuel Irisarri y Peralta (contributor), 1834-06-28.

This edict, from the Chapter of the Metropolitan Cathedral of Mexico City, describes Santa Anna as a “brilliant star” that delivered them from politico-religious turmoil. It dates to the year that he became a dictator for the first time. Following a decree called “The Plan of Cuernavaca,” he took on dictatorship to reverse liberal reforms that threatened fueros (privileges) of the Church and military (83).

Historians have stated that Santa Anna did not intend a tyrannical or perpetual dictatorship in this instance, unlike in his last term. In his first two dictatorships he temporarily filled a gap in leadership while Congress drafted a new constitution (84). What intentions might Santa Anna have had when he became dictator for the first time? What groups or individuals could have benefited from his rule?

In between his presidencies, Santa Anna dramatically rose and fell from power (85). Before his final and long-lasting dictatorship, he went into exile twice and was a dictator at brief intervals. Congress first sent him into exile in 1844 “on the grounds that he had attempted to subvert the constitution” (86). In 1848 he went into exile again after the shameful defeat of the Mexican-American War (87). Despite his record of despotism and disgrace, many Mexicans believed that “the absence of Santa Anna deprived them of their only protector” when they invited him back to rule for the last time (88).

"Memories of December 6, 1844", Ortega (artist) and José Severo Rocha (lithographer), circa 1845.

In 1841, “The Bases de Tacubaya” decree awarded Santa Anna “almost absolute power” after the centralist government toppled and Mexico needed new rule. At this time Santa Anna had several interest groups and sycophantic followers called santanistas (89).

This lithograph states that Santa Anna engaged in “scandalous tyranny” during the 1841-1844 regime, his second to last term as Mexico’s ruler. The scene depicts “The Revolution of Three Hours” of 1844, in which the public massively rebelled against Santa Anna. During this memorable revolt, an angry mob disinterred his leg from its funerary monument and carried it on the streets to the cry of “Long live Congress!” (90).

In the lithograph, a character in the foreground has broken chains at her feet, and stands at the edge of a demon-filled hole. Notice that three other characters hold her back. What people, ideals, or concepts might these four characters represent?

As historian William Fowler has noted, “It is [Santa Anna’s] last dictatorship, characterized by its extravagance and brutal repression, that most people remember” (91). Two months into the term, Santa Anna's long-time advisor Lucas Aláman died, and without his guidance, the president began to abuse power (92). Santa Anna had himself called “His Serene Highness” and set out to be a perpetual dictator (93). He censored newspapers that opposed him and burned down villages of Indigenous people that rebelled against him (94). The tyrant alienated practically all Mexicans when he sold the nation’s territory to finance his dictatorship, and an increasingly strong liberal rebellion drove him out into a final exile (95).

Portrait of Juan Álvarez, circa 1855.

This portrait depicts Juan Alvarez, a caudillo who launched a revolt against His Serene Highness in 1854 (96). Alvarez was a politician of Spanish Galician and Afro-Mexican heritage, and had support from a mix of criollo, mestizo, and indigenous communities from Guerrero (97). He, Ignacio Comonfort, and other southern caudillos put together “The Plan of Ayutla” for driving out Santa Anna and preparing a new congress (98).

Santa Anna never ruled Mexico again. Alvarez and Comonfort, both liberals, served presidential terms in the late 1850s, the onset of a historical period now known as Mexico’s “mid-century reform” (99). Imagine that you lived in Mexico at this time. How might you expect your country’s political landscape to evolve after the “era of Santa Anna’s revolutions”? What circumstances would you predict to change or stay the same?

(67) Lynch, Caudillos in Spanish America, 236. Dawson, Latin America Since Independence, 46.

(68) Fowler, “Santa Anna and His Legacy,” 5.

(69) Ibid 1, 5 -6. Dawson, Latin America Since Independence, 46.

(70) Fowler, Santa Anna of Mexico, 377.

(71) Ibid 157-58, 377-78.

(72) Fowler, “Santa Anna and His Legacy,” 6. Fowler, Santa Anna of Mexico, xii, 163.

(73) Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna, Mis memorias: escritas de mi puño y letra sin ayuda de nadie en mi último destierro, manuscript, OCLC 29948821, The Nettie Lee Benson Latin American Collection, Antonio López de Santa Anna Collection, 1821-1878, 19. Quoted in Fowler, Santa Anna of Mexico, 163.

(74) Fowler, Santa Anna of Mexico, 369-389.

(75)Fowler, “Santa Anna and His Legacy,” 6, 15. Lynch, Caudillos in Spanish America, 328.

(76) Santa Anna had three haciendas in Veracruz (Manga de Clavo, El Encero, and Paso de Varas) and one in Turbaco, Colombia. Lynch, Caudillos in Spanish America, 327-8.

(77) Ibid 327-8.

(78) Ibid.

(79) Fowler, “Santa Anna and His Legacy,” 6.

(80) Lynch, Caudillos in Spanish America, 364.

(81) Ibid.

(82) Dawson, Latin America Since Independence, 46.

(83) Anne Staples, “Clerics as Politicians,” in Mexico in the age of democratic revolutions : 1750-1850, ed. Jamie E. Rodríguez, (Boulder: Lynne Rienner, 1994), 239.

(84) Fowler, Santa Anna of Mexico, xx. See also Manickam, “‘El Seductor De La Patria’,” 18.

(85) Dawson, Latin America Since Independence, 46. Lynch, Caudillos in Spanish America, 345.

(86) Lynch, Caudillos in Spanish America, 345, 831. In June of 1845 he was at exile in Cuba.

(87) Fowler, “Santa Anna and His Legacy,” 1, 12. In 1848-1850 he was at exile in Jamaica, and in 1850-1853 he was at exile in Turbaco, Colombia.

(88) Lynch, Caudillos in Spanish America, 234.

(89) John Lynch, Caudillos in Spanish America, 341-45. Fowler, Santa Anna of Mexico, 380.

(90) Fowler, Santa Anna of Mexico, 239.

(91) Ibid xxi.

(92) Ibid. Olivera and Crété, Life in Mexico Under Santa Anna, 15-16.

(93) Fowler, Santa Anna of Mexico, xxi, 300.

(94) Olivera and Crété, Life in Mexico Under Santa Anna, 15-16.

(95) Ibid. Fowler, “Santa Anna and His Legacy,” 14. Lynch 358-61.

(96) Olivera and Crété, Life in Mexico Under Santa Anna, 16.

(97) Lynch, Caudillos in Spanish America, 81, 128, 332.

(98) Ibid 358-61.

(99) Fowler, “Santa Anna of Mexico,” 317.