Opportunism: Mexico’s Post-Colonial Politics

Historians have argued that Santa Anna was loyal to himself above any political cause (10). During his lifetime, liberals sought egalitarianism (11) and recognition of Mexico’s indigenous past, while conservatives clinged to the classist legacy of Spanish rule. Yet there were more than two predominant ideologies within the chaotic first decades of Mexico’s independence. The nation faced a power vacuum once it was free of colonial leadership, and various factions emerged as Mexicans struggled to form a new governing system. Depending on which party was gaining power, Santa Anna was at different times a royalist, insurgent, monarchist, republican, federalist, centralist, liberal or conservative. He led six successful coups d'etat in the span of only 30 years, taking advantage of the reformist conflicts in his day (12).

"Interior View of the National Palace of Mexico Occupied by the Federalists", circa 1840s.

Mexico faced the challenge of developing a new order of power when it became free from Spanish colonial rule, after the War of Independence (1810-1821). Conflict over political systems would continue to present a challenge to Mexico for decades (13). This lithograph depicts one instance of domestic revolt from the year 1840. In opposition of centralism, Federalists occupied Mexico’s National Palace. Take a closer look at the groupings of soldiers and civilians in different areas of the palace. How does the scene show signs of chaos or control? What activities do you notice throughout the illustration?

Mexico’s War of Independence set the stage for Santa Anna’s “first step in his long odyssey of opportunism” (14). The war began shortly after a teenaged Santa Anna joined the royalist army in 1810. Having had little schooling and limited options, he became interested in military service and rejected the commercial career that his parents wanted for him (15). Santa Anna was a criollo (Mexican-born Spaniard) and initially fought on the side of Spain against insurgents, who advocated for the welfare of indigenous peoples, mestizos, and other lower classes in Mexico (16). Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla, the insurgency leader, met opposition from a majority of criollos who feared his movement would delegitimize their wealth and status as land-owners. But Santa Anna and several other criollos switched sides in 1821, due to how Spain reinstated an absolute (rather than constitutional) monarchy that threatened their privileges (17).

"Death of Priest Hidalgo and other Mexican Heroes in Chihuahua on July 3, 1811", Julio Michaud (lithographer) and Antoine Jean-Baptiste Thomas (lithographer), circa 1830s.

This lithograph depicts the Spanish royalist army executing Miguel Hidalgo y Castillo, priest of the small town of Dolores and instigator of the independence movement, after capturing him at the Battle of Puente Calderon (1811) (18). Several criollos served in the royalist army at the time and fought to quell the insurgents’ call for egalitarianism, in defense of their higher status and power (19).

Like other criollos who felt the Spanish cause was over, Santa Anna switched sides from the royalist army to follow the leadership of fellow turncoat Agustín de Iturbide (20). Revolutionaries, such as Vicente Guerrero, were then carrying on Hidalgo’s movement in the fight for independence. Iturbide unified insurgents and turncoats against their now shared enemy in order to gain victory. By the time Iturbide joined forces with Guerrero, the ideals that gave rise to the insurgent movement had turned more conservative and less threatening to criollos (21).

"The Guarantees", circa 1820s.

The scene on this print shows soldiers on horseback surrounded by civilians throwing flowers at them. Notice the appearance of the crowd. What details might signify their social class?

The title above the scene, “Las Garantías” (“The Guarantees”), likely refers to the Army of the Three Guarantees and the Plan of Iguala (1821). In this plan, Iturbide proclaimed three terms: independence from Spain; Roman Catholicism as the only religion of Mexico; and, unity in status between Spaniards and criollos (22). Guerrero agreed to join Iturbide because the plan endorsed independence from Spain. However, it did not offer rights to mestizos, like Guerrero (23).

An opportunist himself, Iturbide exploited Mexico’s unstable political footing at the onset of its independence and proclaimed himself emperor (24). Although Santa Anna initially offered himself as a “most faithful defender” of Iturbide’s empire, he eventually turned on it (25). The emperor antagonized Santa Anna when he impinged on his military standing in Veracruz. For example, Iturbide attempted to move Santa Anna away from his power base, fearing that his Veracruzano forces gave him too much clout (26). After his “majesty” went on to dissolve Congress, Santa Anna took advantage of the anti-Iturbide movement to lead a revolt (27).

Circular on the "Criminal Character" of Santa Anna, page 1, Guadalupe Victoria (author), Imprenta del Águila (publisher), 1828-09-17.

After Iturbide’s abdication, Guadalupe Victoria became the first elected president of Mexico. In this letter, he warns the citizens of the threat Santa Anna represents for the Republic. He states, "It is sufficient just to mention the circumstances of [Santa Anna's] activities to form a very positive idea of his criminal character."

Santa Anna’s “activities” that year included a secret pact he made with Vicente Guerrero. Santa Anna promised to lead a revolt against president-elect Gomez Pedraza. In exchange for securing Guerrero's presidency, he asked for a promotion to Minister of War (28).

Santa Anna’s anti-Iturbide revolt successfully overthrew a corrupt empire, and he gained credentials when his Plan of Casa Mata (1823) established Mexico’s republic (29). However, he soon earned a reputation of practicing quid pro quo politics for personal gain. Over the next thirty years, he became increasingly notorious for his acts of embezzlement, insubordination, and vanity (30). While always justifying his actions as an effort to correct political wrongdoings, he held “flexible political convictions” throughout what historians call the “era of Santa Anna's revolutions” (31).

(10) Lynch, Caudillos in Spanish America, 334. Manickam, “‘El Seductor De La Patria’,” 18. Joshua Simon, The Ideology of Creole Revolution: Imperialism and Independence in American and Latin American Political Thought, (Cambridge University Press, 2017), 148.

(11) Egalitarianism “favors equality of some sort: People should get the same, or be treated the same, or be treated as equals, in some respect.” “Egalitarianism,” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, last modified Aprirl 24, 2013, https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/egalitarianism/ https://www.google.com/policies/privacy/.

(12) Will Fowler, “Dreams of Stability: Mexican Political Thought During the ‘Forgotten Years’. An Analysis of the Beliefs of the Creole Intelligentsia (1821-1853),” Bulletin of Latin American Research 14, no. 3 (September 1, 1995): 289-92. Simon, The Ideology of Creole Revolution, 148.

(13) Ibid.

(14) Lynch, Caudillos in Spanish America, 123.

(15) Ibid 316.

(16) Fowler, Santa Anna of Mexico, 20-21.

(17) Ibid 372. See also Simon, The Ideology of Creole Revolution, 129, 137.

(18) Fowler, Santa Anna of Mexico, 370.

(19) Simon, The Ideology of Creole Revolution, 26, 129.

(20) Lynch, Caudillos in Spanish America, 122-3.

(21) Fowler, Santa Anna of Mexico, 371-2. Fowler, “Dreams of Stability,” 288. See also Simon, The Ideology of Creole Revolution ,141-2.

(22) Simon, The Ideology of Creole Revolution, 137. Fowler, Santa Anna of Mexico, 43.

(23) Fowler, Santa Anna of Mexico, 42-3. David M. Quinlan, “The Constituent Congress,” in Mexico in the age of democratic revolutions: 1750-1850, ed. Jamie E. Rodríguez, (Boulder: Lynne Rienner, 1994), 178.

(24) Quinlan, “The Constituent Congress,” 178.

(25) Letter to Iturbide from Santa Anna, quoted in Lynch, Caudillos in Spanish America, 316.

(26) Ibid. Will Fowler, “Santa Anna and His Legacy,” 3.

(27) Lynch, Caudillos in Spanish America, 316-317. Letter to Iturbide from Santa Anna quoted on p. 316.

(28) Fowler, Santa Anna of Mexico, 110-111.

(29) Ibid 66, 110-11. The Plan of Casa Mata was a decree with federalist connotations as it addressed the sovereignty of provinces under a national government; it “specifically recognized the political power of the provinces by creating a Junta of Provinces.” Quinlan, “The Constituent Congress,”179.

(30) Simon, The Ideology of Creole Revolution, 148, 151. Fowler, Santa Anna of Mexico, 359.

(31) Lucas Alamán, Historia de Méjico, 5th edition, Vol.5 (Mexico City : Editorial Jus , 1968), 434. Quoted in Simon, The Ideology of Creole Revolution, 148.