12/17/10 - mexican general santa ana

In today's excerpt - in 1836, a small group of "Texans" living in northern Mexico rebelled against that country in a quest for independence, in some part because Mexico had outlawed slavery. Mexico's General Santa Anna failed to quell that small rebellion, then was captured and lost that territory. He was released and allowed to return to Mexico, where he regained the leadership of the country, rationalizing his defeat by comparing his loss to Napoleon's war against the Russians. However, the bitter humilation of defeat stayed with Santa Anna and the Mexican nation, and led directly to the Mexican America War of 1845. There Santa Anna again lost and had to cede a vast portion of the country from New Mexico to California to the United States:

"When Sam Houston and the Texans laid a trap with 800 men along the San Jacinto River, an overconfident Santa Anna dismissed the possibility of an attack. Assaulting 1,500 Mexicans in the late afternoon of April 21, the Texans defeated them in about eighteen minutes and promptly vented their anger over the Alamo and Goliad on their prisoners. Six hundred and fifty Mexicans were killed while just two Texans met the same fate. Santa Anna escaped, only to be captured the next day, disguised as a common soldier wearing diamond studs in his linen shirt. After some discussion, Santa Anna and Houston negotiated an end to the war and a promise to hear a delegation from Texas in favor of independence. Despite the agreement, which the Mexican government later repudiated because it no longer recognized Santa Anna as president, the victors imprisoned the general. For almost two months, he wore a ball and chain around his leg, later claiming that angry Texans had 'fought to get at me and discharged pistols at my prison door.'

"Santa Anna appealed to the president of the United States, Andrew Jackson, for help. Old Hickory obligingly intervened with a letter to Sam Houston urging clemency. Pragmatism dictated caution in moving ahead with the annexation of Texas. It was not a popular policy in the northeastern United States, where it intersected with growing hostility to slavery and the power of the South. The new Lone Star Republic was a huge territory with a diffuse population and extended borders. Ill and weary, Jackson had also mellowed. Summarily executing Santa Anna would simply alienate Mexicans, at least at the moment. Arguing that 'Nothing now could tarnish the character of Texas more than such an act at this late period,' Jackson counseled prudence. Houston accordingly freed Santa Anna in late 1836. ...

"The loss of Texas was a decisive moment in the development of Mexican attitudes toward the United States. ... The creation of the Republic of Texas transformed apprehension into anger. Mexicans held the United States responsible for both the rebellion and for the increasing influence of American merchants in New Mexico and California. By the late 1830s, Mexican newspapers were calling for war against the United States. The manifest design of the [United States on the northern territories of Mexico] seemed all too clear. Santa Anna's adviser, Jose Marfa Tornel, later explained that Americans had been united since 1776 in 'their desire to extend the limits of the republic to the north, to the south, and to the west,' by whatever means necessary. The American 'frenzy to usurp and gain control of that which rightfully belongs to its neighbors' resembled the 'roving spirit' of 'barbarous hordes' from a 'far remote north.' ...

"Why should a civilized people respect the Americans? 'Nowhere else on the face of the globe is the feeling of the white race stronger against those which, in its pride, it designates as colored.' Americans exploited and cheated Indians. Americans enslaved African Americans. Their pompous support for the rights of man rested on tyranny over others. How could Americans, who had 'opened a vast market of human flesh in Texas ... dare to acclaim the sacred name of liberty[?]' Americans' behavior in Texas echoed their behavior in Florida. 'Claim upon claim of exaggerated or imaginary injuries have been piled up and the opportune moment awaited to present them together.' Mexico's 'honor,' its national rights, its 'very political existence,' were 'at stake.' The loss of Texas would inevitably lead to the loss of New Mexico and California. 'Our national existence ... would end like those weak meteors which, from time to time, shine fitfully in the firmament and disappear.'

" 'Who is not familiar with that race of migratory adventurers that exist in the United States," asked Manuel Eduardo de Gorostiza in 1840, drawing on his experience as a special envoy in Washington during the second Jackson administration, 'who always live in the unpopulated regions, taking land away from the Indians and then assassinating them? Far removed from civilization, as they condescendingly call it, they are precursors of immorality and pillage.' At stake in the dispute over Texas was Mexican 'nationality,' which required a 'war of race, of religion, of language, and of customs.'

"In 1837 Santa Anna managed to restore his reputation, with his usual flair, by publishing an explanation of his behavior in Texas. ... Ever the narcissist, he admitted that some people compared his military campaigns to those of Napoleon. Was Texas then his Russia? Santa Anna insisted that the Americans were the aggressors and that he had been forced to fight them without resources or competent subordinates. Although he had behaved well, the perfidious Americans had besmirched his honor and that of the Mexican Republic. In the early 1840s he commissioned a statue of himself with a finger pointing north to Texas, as if to trump his critics by reminding the world of his unfinished business."


Fred Anderson and Andrew Cayton


The Dominion of War: Empire And Liberty in North America 1500-2000


Penguin Books


Copyright 2005 by Fred Anderson and Andrew Cayton


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