History Friday: A Man of Elastic and Convenient Virtue

(From my own website archives, a post from March, 2011, explaining a little of the background to the fight for Texian independence, and a bit of the shifty character of Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna, whom I think of as Mexico’s bad boyfriend. He brought only grief to poor Mexico, over and over again … and over and over again, Mexico forgave him and took him back.)

For the writing of Daughter of Texas – which followed the life of an Anglo-German settler’s family in Texas, beginning in the mid 1820’s – I needed to delve into the deep and murky political waters of early 19th century Mexico, as they touched on the matter of Texas. In doing this, I made the not-entirely-unexpected-discovery that  . . .  well, it was an extremely complicated situation. Byzantine, even.  A horrific situation like – say, the siege of the Alamo – did just not appear out of the clear blue, just because Davy Crockett and a couple of hundred Texians and a Mexican strong-man general and his thousands decided one spring day in 1836 to start bashing away at each other. There was about twenty years of back-story there, some of it terribly convoluted, but no less interesting for all of that, and simply crammed with dramatic potential. Curious characters, dramatic incidents, marvelous coincidences, and accounts of political dirty-dealing and quietly heroic sacrifice abound, most of which is barely hinted at, in books and movies about the Texas War for Independence.  Becoming familiar with the circumstances was absolutely necessary: in order to fill out the background, and to explain in a natural fashion how it all came to pass, through the lives and words and experiences of my characters – some of whom were historical characters.

A historical character who does not make an actual appearance, but remains a baleful off-stage motivator is the stock villain of that time and place, one Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna, political slippery operator par excellence. He was all at once and by turns a Mexican patriot, a leader in the fight for independence from Spain, a heroic and fairly able soldier, and a key leader in establishing a republic in Mexico, with a constitution modeled after the American Constitution. He also played a small part in introducing chewing gum to the American public. For a brief space of ten years – the very same decade in which American settlers were invited to come to that part of Mexico called Coahuila y Tejas to take up lands and establish settlements – Mexico had a fair old go at being a federally organized national establishment: nineteen more or less autonomous states and five territories. During this period, and boiling it down to essentials, there were two major competing tendencies among the Mexican political leaders: the vaguely liberal, or Federalists – who favored fairly autonomous states, on the American model, and the more traditionally minded Centralists – conservatives, who looked more towards a top-down authority.

Sympathies among the American settlers rather naturally tended towards the Federalists. For most of those years, Lopez de Santa Anna was actually considered by many, including Joel Poinsett, the American Minister in Mexico, to be a strong advocate of political liberty. For he was an up and coming man – and in 1833 he found himself at the top of the heap, elected president of Mexico; he appointed a liberal politician, Valintin Gomez Farias as his vice president, and left him a pretty free hand. Farias promptly put through a series of reforms, some of which directly and adversely impacted the established Catholic Church. Lopez de Santa Anna – not for the first time in his life, and most definitely not the last – turned his coat. Without missing a beat, he denounced his own vice president and his liberal allies, formed a new government on Centralist principles with himself as dictator and invalidated the 1824 Constitution. Eleven of the Mexican states promptly rebelled, fielding their own armies against the central government. Coahuila y Tejas was just one, and probably not even the best organized and equipped. Lopez de Santa Anna set about extinguishing armed resistance to his authority with brutal efficiency. Upon defeating the well-armed and well organized militia of Zacatecas, he turned his attention next to Coahuila y Tejas  . . . with pretty well-known results, even if most people are unaware of the details.

This kind of back-story makes helps to make it clear, that it just wasn’t the Texians in rebellion. As the saying goes, it wasn’t all about us; there was a lot of other stuff going on at the same time, and it makes for a more nuanced take, as well as a natural explanation of the presence of Tejanos such as Juan Seguin’s scouts, Almaron Dickenson’s gunners, and Lorenzo de Zavala (once one of Farias’ liberal allies) who managed to serve as a finance minister in one of the Mexican governments and as an interim Vice President of the Republic of Texas. In some ways, the back-story and everything else makes it more resemble a civil war, in which the American settlers in Texas became entangled in as a sort of afterthought.

14 thoughts on “History Friday: A Man of Elastic and Convenient Virtue”

  1. Ha ha! When I first read “a man of elastic and convenient virtue,” the first name that popped into my head was Juan Seguin. But most of his questionable dealings occurred well after the Texas War for Independence. As far as I know, he was indeed a consistently loyal and courageous fighter for the Texian side. And I guess a certain amount of controversy was bound to follow any one who lived such a long public life in that very turbulent time.

    I’ve always thought Seguin was the most underappreciated and interesting characters of the war period.

  2. Yes – Juan Seguin and many other prominent Tejanos, who were stalwart Federalists, and who sided with the Anglo Texians against Santa Anna, had the worst bad luck after the war for independence was won. Santa Anna continued essentially a cold border war against an independent Texas; native Tejanos came under suspicion of collaborating with Mexico, whether they had done so or not. Santa Anna’s vengefulness put them in a dreadful position.

  3. Sgt Mom – you would make a wonderful history professor. The mediocre teachers want the student to remember names and dates. Then there are a few (as yourself) who bring it alive.

    Had a Professor of Diplomatic history like that in Virginia. By the time he was though talking about a treaty, you knew why it was signed.

  4. The more one reads history the more one realizes what a uniquely miraculous man George Washington was.

    His decision to serve as President for two terms and then retire is the most momentous act of the last few centuries. Who else in history has ever done anything similar? Without that America is not America, and probably would have quickly devolved into numerous separate states. Just imagine what Europe would have done to itself in the 20th century without America to step in and save it…

  5. GW was quite the thing, Brian – and we were so lucky to have had him at the time and place that we did. He was not without faults, of course, but he had a stern sense of duty and personal honor. I ought to delve more into this, as I put together the outlines for an American Revolution story…

    Bill, I could have never endured jumping through the hoops that I would have had to jump to be a professor of history. Just as I could never have done the same to teach English. (Especially given the current academic atmosphere.) My life-mission, as I see it, is to teach by making it real, by making it accessible, by making it (above all) interesting, relatable! By making a ripping good yarn of it all. I’ll bet that more people have been initially drawn into an interest in history by a novel that they read about it, than have ever been intrigued by lectures in a classroom. As I keep saying to those who have read my books … good historical fiction is a gateway drug …
    (Yeah – the first hit is free…)

  6. I could have never endured jumping through the hoops that I would have had to jump to be a professor of history. Just as I could never have done the same to teach English.
    Which illustrates part of what is wrong with the “educational system”.

  7. “He built and launched our ship of state,
    And brought it safe to harbor.
    He wore no beard upon his chin
    Thanks to his faithful barber.

    And so, my dears, his grateful land
    In robes of glory clad him.
    George Washington was a gentleman;
    I’m glad his parents had him.”

    — Ogden Nash, “Washington’s Birthday Eve”

  8. Google has done us all a huge favor by making thousands of books from the pre-PC era available online. I hope management never catches on. Apropos Santa Anna, one of the best was written by a young British adventurer by the name of George Ruxton. Ruxton landed at Vera Cruz in 1846 and traveled all the way through Mexico to Sante Fe, and then north to become a mountain man in the Rockies. His book, “Adventures in Mexico and the Rocky Mountains,” is very entertaining, and a wonderful PC-antidote, and can be found at:


    It turns out that none other than Santa Anna reentered Mexico via Vera Cruz shortly after Ruxton landed there, and he had a chance to see the man close up. Here is his impression:

    “Don Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna is a hale looking man between fifty and sixty with an Old Bailey countenance and a very well built wooden leg. The Señora, a pretty girl of seventeen, pouted at the cool reception, for not one viva was heard and her mother, a fat vulgar old dame, was rather unceremoniously congéed from the procession, which she took in high dudgeon. The General was dressed in full uniform, and looked anything but pleased at the absence of everything like applause, which he doubtless expected would have greeted him. His countenance completely betrays his character: indeed I never saw a physiognomy in which the evil passions which he notoriously possesses were more strongly marked. Oily duplicity, treachery, avarice, and sensuality are depicted in every feature, and his well known character bears out the truth of the impress his vices have stamped upon his face. In person he is portly and not devoid of a certain well bred bearing which wins for him golden opinions from the surface seeing fair sex, to whom he ever pays the most courtly attention.”

    There are some more choice bits about Santa Anna in the book, starting with Chapter 4. Later in the book Ruxton gives a not unflattering description of the Missouri troopers of Col. Alexander William Doniphan, perhaps the greatest American hero most Americans have never heard of. He led his 900 tough Missourians on a march through enemy territory that rivals that of Xenophon, defeating the Mexicans in several engagements, including a pitched battle against four times their number just north of Chihuahua. A bit later one of his lieutenants led a party of men to rescue 18 Mexicans who had just been captured by the Comanches, returning with two arrow wounds for his trouble. The local Mexican leader wrote him a letter of thanks.

  9. Good stuff! I’ll check it out. Here’s an account of Doniphan’s march by Isaac George, one of his soldiers:


    I love reading things like that, from a time when people actually honored and respected their country and what it stood for. There’s a chapter towards the end of the book that takes up the question of the Mexican War and slavery. Some people in the North whose vision didn’t extend beyond the end of their noses imagined the war was being fought merely to add slave territory to the South. In the event, the territories added to the Union were free and remained free. President Lincoln personally thanked Doniphan and his men, noting that without the gold and silver from California, it would have been far more difficult to finance the Civil War and end slavery for good. He also told Doniphan than he was the one military man he had ever seen whose appearance matched his expectations.

  10. I know the feeling, Helian! Enjoy!
    Seriously, I guess it’s just another aspect of the war against us ordinary flyover citizens on the part of our so-called elite, especially those producing our media … books, TV, movies and all that. Trash the country, trash our past experience, gaslight us about what we think to be good and true, and of honest value.

    And then they wonder why people are turning away from going to current movies, leaving so-called best-sellers to sit on the remainders table for a dollar or two, why the cable cutting? Get woke, go broke must be some kind of koolaid they are all drinking

  11. Apologies for this late comment: Washington will forever marred by his participation in the Whiskey Rebellion. Sucked up to the Banker’s Club. Reminds me of the great Ivan the Bridge Builder story…..

  12. Indeed, Harry Turtledove’s Greek seafaring tales, his 4-book Hellenic Traders series, starting with Over the Wine Dark Sea https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Over_the_Wine_Dark_Sea is a great look into post-Alexandrian pre-Roman Greece. Likewise, Household Gods is a good view of 2nd C AD Rome. And Justinian is a good look at 8th C Byzantine politics.

    And although it’s purest fiction, two of his sub-series of the 11 book Videssos Cycle tell the tales of two major Byzantine Events, the Krispos trilogy is a fictional story mirroring the rise of Byzantine emperor Basil and his Time of Troubles quadrilogy shows events from both sides as the Western Roman Empire turned into Byzantium under stress from the Sasanid Persians.

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