Two years before his death in 1876, Antonio López de Santa Anna, now decrepit and neglected, was visited by an old veteran who bore a box. Proudly the soldier revealed a shrunken leg which he claimed to have rescued in 1844 from a mob of léperos which had disinterred that hallowed limb and dragged it through the streets of México. The Caudillo’s most recent biographer remarks that by his act “this loyal soldier raised Santa Anna’s spirits considerably” (p. 149).
The incident—indeed the whole leg affair—suggests that there was a sustained love-hate relationship between the Mexicans and the man who bobbed into the presidential chair eleven times in a quarter of a century. The contradictions of that relationship may have prompted W. H. Callcott thirty years ago to call Santa Anna “an enigma.” What has Major Oakah L. Jones, Jr., a historian at the U. S. Air Force Academy, done in this new biography to untangle the contradictions and to solve the enigma?
“Balanced views,” says Jones of Santa Anna, “have been very difficult to come by,” because of “most biographers’ preoccupation with the life of the person whom they have studied in detail and their corresponding neglect of the era” (pp. 155-156). In his own attempt at a balanced view, he has written a serviceable cradle-to-grave biography. The intricacies of his subject’s politico-military life are succinctly traced in clear if unexceptional prose. In 140 pages of text it is perhaps too much to expect a full treatment of the era as well as a narrative of Santa Anna’s complex itinerary.
The problem is, however, that Jones has balanced his narrative against chronology rather than against the milieu of early republican Mexico. Minor incidents in Santa Anna’s life loom as large as major developments. More space is given to Santa Anna’s unwitting introduction of chewing gum among the gringos than to the role of the agiotistas. We learn as much about the exiled president’s estate near Cartagena as we do about his association with Lucas Alamán. Although Santa Anna’s financial plight in New York City during 1866 is interesting, we read much less about the plight of Mexico after her defeat by the United States.
The notes and critical bibliography not only suggest the sources for the work, but also indicate the limitations of Jones’ research. He has mined archives in Washington and Austin, but not in Mexico; he has explored the modern polemical assessments and secondary evaluations of Santa Anna, but has left contemporary newspapers alone; diplomatic and military narratives crowd out social and economic monographs. Potash’s work on the Banco de Avío and Hale’s articles on Antuñano, Mora, and the ideological effects of the Yankee invasion are conspicuously absent. Callcott’s work on the Church and the studies by Cline, Cotner, and McLean are not listed. Nor do contemporary writers like Lorenzo de Zavala, Mariano Otero, and Guillermo Prieto find a place in the bibliography.
We are left, then, with little insight into Santa Anna’s times. References to “the uncertain nature of Mexican polities” (p. 53) and Mexico’s failure in 1847 “to present a united front” (p. 115) are not bolstered by probing analyses. We remain unable to understand why Santa Anna “got very little sympathy or aid from the local populace” in San Luis Potosí at the beginning of the Texas campaign (p. 65). To be sure there are bits of new insight into the man himself, to wit his proclamation from New Jersey in 1866 that “I am not a Conservative. I am not a Liberal; I am a Mexican” (p. 143). Unfortunately, such evidence is not exploited, for there is no effort made to define the Mexican varieties of liberalism and conservatism and little to suggest what the old general meant by “Mexican.” The dust jacket’s claim that this is a “major biography of Santa Anna” is simply not justified.