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The age of Santa Anna: Texas and the Mexican War


After the downfall of Iturbide, Mexican politics revolved for some time about the enigmatic personality of Antonio López de Santa Anna, a charismatic general with seemingly few fixed ideological or political beliefs. Allied with the Federalists, Santa Anna was first chosen president in 1833, but, rather than serve, he placed the liberal vice president Valentín Gómez Farías at the head of the government until Farías and his group in 1834 attacked the privileges of the clergy. Then Santa Anna assumed his presidential post and nullified the anticlerical legislation.

Santa Anna was president when difficulties over Texas first began to mount. Under favorable terms, some 30,000 U.S. immigrants had populated that previously desolate area. Fearful that their growing numbers posed a threat, the Mexican government in 1830 closed the border to further immigration and imposed on the Texans oppressive restrictions that contravened the Mexican constitution. When Santa Anna adopted a new constitution in 1836, and in the process eliminated all vestiges of states' rights, Texas declared itself an independent republic. Santa Anna quickly gathered an army to crush the revolt. He met with initial success when he trapped a small Texas garrison at the Alamo and totally eliminated it, but he was defeated and captured by Texas forces in April 1836 and subsequently freed. Though Mexico made no further efforts to re-conquer Texas, it refused to recognize its independence.

At that time a doctrine now known as Manifest Destiny was at its height in the United States. It expressed a belief that it was the destiny of the United States to occupy all the North American continent and perhaps all of Mexico. The United States annexed the Republic of Texas in 1845, a move that caused the Mexican government to break off diplomatic relations. Santa Anna was overthrown for his apparent willingness to negotiate with the United States.

Although the United States claimed that the southern boundary of Texas was the Rio Grande, the boundary had always been the Nueces River. Shortly after his election in March 1845, U.S. President James K. Polk tried to secure an agreement on the Rio Grande boundary and to purchase California, but the Mexican government refused to discuss either matter. Polk ordered U.S. troops to occupy the disputed territory between the rivers. When Mexican and U.S. patrols clashed in April 1846, Polk asserted that American blood had been shed on American soil--an outrage that required action. Less warlike politicians, such as the Illinois congressman Abraham Lincoln, to no avail submitted resolutions asking Polk to point out the precise location of this outrage. Polk's congressional majority formally declared war on Mexico in April.

Without major difficulty, U.S. troops captured New Mexico and Upper California (now the state of California). General Zachary Taylor led the main U.S. force to quick victories in northeastern Mexico. At that juncture the government of Mexican president Mariano Paredes y Arrillaga was overthrown, and Santa Anna reemerged as president in September 1846. Almost immediately, Santa Anna mobilized Mexican forces and marched northward, boasting that the superior numbers and courage of his men meant that he would sign a peace treaty in Washington. Although Taylor and Santa Anna fought a close battle at Buena Vista, Santa Anna was beaten and forced to retreat on Feb. 23, 1847. Both sides sustained heavy losses.

A change in U.S. strategy left Taylor holding ground in northern Mexico; it was decided that Mexico could be beaten only by capturing Mexico City, via Veracruz. General Winfield Scott was given command of the expedition. On April 18, 1847, he defeated Santa Anna in the critical battle at Cerro Gordo. Though Mexican resistance continued to be formidable, Scott captured Mexico City on Sept. 14, 1847. Santa Anna went into voluntary exile while a new Mexican government negotiated peace.

Dated Feb. 2, 1848, the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo terminated the war. Under its terms Mexico ceded all territory north of an irregular line of the Rio Grande and the Gila River across the Colorado to the Pacific. The United States paid Mexico $15,000,000 and assumed $3,250,000 in claims held by U.S. citizens against Mexico.

After the war Santa Anna figured in one more major episode before the political scene changed. In 1853 conservatives seized power and invited him to become dictator. Among other things, on Dec. 16, 1853, Santa Anna decreed that the dictatorship should be prolonged indefinitely and that he should be addressed as "His Most Serene Highness." To raise funds for an expanded army, he sold territory south of the Gila River to the United States for $10,000,000; this Gadsden Purchase, as it is now called, was the last significant boundary change of the Mexican Republic.