Historiographical Debate Into the Effects of Santa Anna's Reign in Mexico Term Paper

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Santa Anna Dictatorship

In his self-described revisionist biography Santa Anna of Mexico (2007), Will Fowler has courageously taken up the defense of the Mexico caudillo, fully aware that he is all but universally reviled in the historiography of the United States and Mexico. From the beginning, he made his intention clear to vindicate the reputation of a dictator whose "vilification has been so thorough and effective that the process of deconstructing the numerous lies that have been told and retold" is almost impossible.[footnoteRef:1] Timothy J. Henderson asserted that he had a great talent for exploiting and manipulating political divisions but none for governing a country. In U.S. history and popular culture, he has always been portrayed as a corrupt megalomaniac, the 'Napoleon of the West', responsible for the massacres at the Alamo and Goliad. As John Chasteen and James Wood put it, even his autobiography was an "extraordinary work of self-dramatization" by a dictator who put on a show of being a "vulnerable, introspective protagonist" but was in reality a power-hungry tyrant with "unmitigated vanity" and "obvious self-absorption."[footnoteRef:2] Fowler is not completely successful in redeeming his subject from all the negative historiography surrounding him, especially given Santa Anna's well-deserved reputation for corruption, nepotism and brutality, but he may well be correct that no one else could have done any better in Mexico under the circumstances. Fowler uses primary sources to disprove some of the most serious charges that Mexican historians have made against Santa Anna, such as that he was bribed to agree to the independence of Texas in 1836, and that even though he was also bribed by President James K. Polk when he was in exile in Havana in 1846, he nevertheless fought the Mexican War to win as soon as he returned, rather than as a gringo puppet and stooge.[footnoteRef:3] Given the very unfavorable political and economic situation in Mexico in the 1840s, Santa Anna also everything humanly possible to recover Texas and defend the country from a North American invasion. Fowler contends that he was not personally responsible for all the disasters that befell Mexico in this period, but rather the whole system was a failure. In trying to maintain order and hold the country together against all the centrifugal forces from within and within, he had no other option except to take authoritarian measures that went against his earlier liberal beliefs, but in this he was no different from other Latin American dictators then and later, including Simon Bolivar.[footnoteRef:4] [1: Will Fowler, Santa Anna of Mexico (University of Nebraska Press, 2007), p. x.] [2: "Protagonist on a National Stage" in John Charles Chasteen and James A. Wood (eds), Problems in Modern Latin American History: Sources and Interpretations (Scholarly Resources, Inc., 2005), p. 99.] [3: Fowler, p. xi.] [4: Fowler, p. 347.]

By the time Santa Anna died in Mexico City in 1876, disgraced and impoverished, the nation had had four constitutions in 1824, 1836, 1843 and 1857, was well as two empires in 1822-23 and 1863-67 and a number of dictatorial periods in which Santa Anna figured prominently. Very soon after his death, another caudillo, Porfirio Diaz, would take over the country in the name of Order and Progress and rule until he was overthrown in 1910. That event would be followed by ten years of revolutions, coups and civil wars that left millions dead and the country destroyed.[footnoteRef:5] During Santa Anna's lifetime, Mexico was involved in four major wars, losing half of its national territory in 1848, and Santa Anna was there fighting in every battle. Like most Santa Anna biographers and historians, Fowler points out that Vera Cruz was his powerbase and that he was dictator of that strategic province before taking over the rest of the country, as well as its "main provider of employment, produce, and patronage."[footnoteRef:6] He always packed the army with his Vera Cruz clients and allies, as well as the civil administration whenever he was in power. His strongest natural affinity was not for politics, however, but the army, which he first joined at the age of fourteen, fighting against revolutionaries demanding independence from Spain. Santa Anna was always the type of officer who marched towards the sound of the guns, as Napoleon advised. Although he lost some major battles like San Jacinto in 1836 and Cerro Gordo in 1847, he also defeated a Spanish invasion in 1829 and a French one in 1838.[footnoteRef:7] Richard Bruce Winders finds that he dominated the years 1821-54 so completely that it could well be "called the Era of Santa Anna," at least before he was completely discredited and removed from power because of the Gadsden Purchase. Like most members of the Mexican elite, he was reluctant to admit that Texas had been lost forever in 1836 and was still prepared to go to war with President James K. Polk ten years later in opposition to his aggressive expansionist policies.[footnoteRef:8] [5: Fowler, p. 340.] [6: Fowler, p. 350.] [7: Fowler, p. 353.] [8: Richard Bruce Winders, Crisis in the Southwest: The United States, Mexico, and the Struggle over Texas (Scholarly Resources, Inc., 2002), p. xxxviii.]

Fowler defends Santa Anna from the frequent charge that he was a complete opportunist, narcissist and amoral sociopath, who betrayed every friend and ally he ever had, and would expediently adjust his political views to suit the needs of the moment. He argues that of course "Santa Anna changed sides, but then so did everyone else," and he moved away from his early liberal republicanism and federalism because they had totally failed to bring order and stability to Mexico.[footnoteRef:9] In 1836, he concluded that excessive liberalism and federalism had led to the secession of Texas, and then lost half of the country in 1847-48.[footnoteRef:10] Perhaps these liberal and radical ideas sounded impressive in theory, but in reality he had come to doubt that the Mexican people would have the education and intelligence to organize a liberal or democratic society for at least one hundred years: they were simply not prepared for it and therefore required a strong, paternal hand to guide them. His career followed a downward trajectory from hope as a young man to despair by the 1850s and 1860s, to the point where he finally supported the French occupation and the Emperor Maximilian as the only hope for saving the country from collapse and a complete takeover by the United States. He was living in exile by that time, but what he learned about the French occupation turned him back to the liberal camp, although Benito Juarez regarded him as a traitor and his rejected his support and advice.[footnoteRef:11] [9: Fowler, p. 357.] [10: Fowler, p. 358.] [11: Fowler, p. 358.]

Lee Stacy describes Santa Anna as an opportunist even in his early career when he forced the Emperor Augustin Iturbide to abdicate in 1823, after initially supporting him. He supported the conservative government led by Anastasio Bustamonte in 1832, but then backed a liberal coup against him in 1835 when he thought he was too rigidly ideological in his authoritarianism and centralization.[footnoteRef:12] Mark Wasserman argues that Santa Anna was a brilliant politician and the only Mexican leader before Benito Juarez with the skill and determination to hold Mexico together at all. Like most of Latin America, the nation was badly divided by regionalism, ethnicity and class, and had a tendency to turn toward military strongmen to prevent collapse and disintegration.[footnoteRef:13] By his final term as dictator in 1853-55, Santa Anna had gone so far in the direction of centralization as to take on the trappings of a monarch and insisted on being addressed as Your Serene Highness. Wasserman also supports the almost universal conclusion among historians that he was as corrupt as the country he ruled, and this has never changed.[footnoteRef:14] [12: Lee Stacy. Mexico and the United States (Marshall Cavendish, 2003), p. 733.] [13: Mark Wasserman, Everyday Life and Politics in Nineteenth Century Mexico: Men, Women, and War (University of New Mexico Press, 2000), p. 20.] [14: Wasserman, p. 14.]

Extremely arrogant and vain, Santa Anna had the leg he lost while fighting the French in 1838 buried with full military honors in Mexico City, and was highly offended when a mob dug it up during the 1845 coup and paraded it through the streets. In his autobiography he protested he would "always be on hand when my country needed me" no matter that he preferred a "life of solitude" but he could not stand how the mob made a spectacle of carrying his led through the streets.[footnoteRef:15] Timothy Henderson found him to be completely amoral and a betrayer of everyone who had ever supported him, but also courageous, charismatic and ruthless when the action started.[footnoteRef:16] His earlier biographer Wilfred Callicott thought that the true key to his character was the training he received as an officer in the Spanish colonial army, "a ruthless and brutal school where fear was the chief taskmaster, where morality and ethics were unknown, and where the end…[continue]

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