Your RDA of Irony

The Napoleon of the West

Imagine a leader with George Bush’s ability, Mitt Romney’s principles and Bill Clinton’s vices. Yes, he would be an unsurpassed disaster and, at the very least, lose two-thirds of the country. And that is the unique place of Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna (1794-1876) in Mexico’s history.

He fancied himself the Napoleon of the West, his self-proclaimed military genius based on a single victory over a diseased Spanish force in 1829. However, the real Napoleon had only one Waterloo; Santa Anna had a series of them. He lost Texas because he never thought that Sam Houston would attack the Mexican army during its siesta. Of course, after that disgrace, Santa Anna fell from power. Yet, he managed to charm and bargain himself back into office by 1847, promising to defend Mexico from the invading Americans. That is how and why Mexico lost the other half of its territory. (His defense of Mexico City was no Alamo.)

Given this record, you’d think that he would have lost face. Actually, he only lost a foot–in 1838, failing to defend Vera Cruz from a French expedition collecting debts. But for 30 years, Santa Anna was unavoidable in Mexican politics. Shifting from liberal to conservative and back again–his only consistency was vanity–Santa Anna won the Presidency 11 times, even though his administrations rarely lasted longer than six months. He must have been in one of his conservative phases during the Gadsden Purchase because it was rumored that he kept most of the money for himself.

The Napoleon of the West did have some conquests with women. (He was good-looking, if the paintings are reasonably accurate; he did live long enough to be photographed–but evidently did not age well.) Unfortunately, his amorous nature proved costly to Mexico. During that famous siesta at the Battle of San Jacinto, Santa Anna’s guard and pants were down. One of his mistresses became a legend of Texas. Her name was Emily West, a beautiful woman of mixed race or–in the colloquial phrase of the time–a “high yellow.” Some say that she was Santa Anna’s distraction at San Jacinto. Whether out of patriotic gratitude or an appreciative lust, the Texans dedicated a song to her.

Now you know the historical basis of “The Yellow Rose of Texas” and Santa Anna’s contribution to American music.

  1. Leah says:

    Here’s what I like about that song: I’ve been told that all of Emily Dickinson’s poems are written in the same meter– what is it? Iambic septameter? Anyway, I don’t know her body of work very well, but I believe it works with her greatest hits. Try singing this line to the “Yellow Rose” melody: beCAUSE i COULD not STOP for DEATH he KINDly STOPPED for MEEE

  2. Are you suggesting that Emily Dickinson and “Tony” Santa Anna….How soon will the Drudge Report pick up this rumor?


  3. Alan says:

    I am edified! Thanks, Eugene — and all this time I thought the song was about a hot Texas coed.


  4. Tom Kelso says:

    There are no hot Texas coeds; fidelty to my alma mater (now there’s an Oedipal mish-mash for you!) compels me to inform you that they all went to Texas Christian — where, thankfully, very few of them were doctrinaire….

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