The Historical Text Archive: Electronic History Resources, online since 1990 Bringing you digitized history, primary and secondary sources
HTA Home Page | E-books | Latin America | The Age of Dictators

5: The Age of Dictators

<< 4: Ploughing the Sea || 6: Peril from Abroad >>

Independence without liberty and statehood without respect for law are phrases which sum up the situation in Spanish America after the failure of Bolivar's "great design." The outcome was a collection of crude republics, racked by internal dissension and torn by mutual jealousy—patrias bobas, or "foolish fatherlands," as one of their own writers has termed them.

Now that the bond of unity once supplied by Spain had been broken, the entire region which had been its continental domain in America dissolved awhile into its elements. The Spanish language, the traditions and customs of the dominant class, and a "republican" form of government, were practically the sole ties which remained. Laws, to be sure, had been enacted, providing for the immediate or gradual abolition of negro slavery and for an improvement in the status of the Indian and half-caste; but the bulk of the inhabitants, as in colonial times, remained outside of the body politic and social. Though the so-called "constitutions" might confer upon the colored inhabitants all the privileges and immunities of citizens if they could read and write, and even a chance to hold office if they could show possession of a sufficient income or of a professional title of some sort, their usual inability to do either made their privileges illusory. Their only share in public concerns lay in performing military service at the behest of their superiors. Even where the language of the constitutions did not exclude the colored inhabitants directly or indirectly, practical authority was exercised by dictators who played the autocrat, or by "liberators" who aimed at the enjoyment of that function themselves.

Not all the dictators, however, were selfish tyrants, nor all the liberators mere pretenders. Disturbed conditions bred by twenty years of warfare, antique methods of industry, a backward commerce, inadequate means of communication, and a population ignorant, superstitious, and scant, made a strong ruler more or less indispensable. Whatever his official designation, the dictator was the logical successor of the Spanish viceroy or captain general, but without the sense of responsibility or the legal restraint of either. These circumstances account for that curious political phase in the development of the Spanish American nations—the presidential despotism.

On the other hand, the men who denounced oppression, unscrupulousness, and venality, and who in rhetorical pronunciamentos urged the "people" to overthrow the dictators, were often actuated by motives of patriotism, even though they based their declarations on assumptions and assertions, rather than on principles and facts. Not infrequently a liberator of this sort became "provisional president" until he himself, or some person of his choice, could be elected "constitutional president"—two other institutions more or less peculiar to Spanish America.

In an atmosphere of political theorizing mingled with ambition for personal advancement, both leaders and followers were professed devotees of constitutions. No people, it was thought, could maintain a real republic and be a true democracy if they did not possess a written constitution. The longer this was, the more precise its definition of powers and liberties, the more authentic the republic and the more genuine the democracy was thought to be. In some countries the notion was carried still farther by an insistence upon frequent changes in the fundamental law or in the actual form of government, not so much to meet imperative needs as to satisfy a zest for experimentation or to suit the whims of mercurial temperaments. The congresses, constituent assemblies, and the like, which drew these instruments, were supposed to be faithful reproductions of similar bodies abroad and to represent the popular will. In fact, however, they were substantially colonial cabildos, enlarged into the semblance of a legislature, intent upon local or personal concerns, and lacking any national consciousness. In any case the members were apt to be creatures of a republican despot or else delegates of politicians or petty factions.

Assuming that the leaders had a fairly clear conception of what they wanted, even if the mass of their adherents did not, it is possible to aline the factions or parties somewhat as follows: on the one hand, the unitary, the military, the clerical, the conservative, and the moderate; on the other,the federalist, the civilian, the lay, the liberal, and the radical. Interspersed among them were the advocates of a presidential or congressional system like that of the United States, the upholders of a parliamentary regime like that of European nations, and the supporters of methods of government of a more experimental kind. Broadly speaking, the line of cleavage was made by opinions, concerning the form of government and by convictions regarding the relations of Church and State. These opinions were mainly a product of revolutionary experience; these convictions, on the other hand, were a bequest from colonial times.

The Unitaries wished to have a system of government modeled upon that of France. They wanted the various provinces made into administrative districts over which the national authority should exercise full sway. Their direct opponents, the Federalists, resembled to some extent the Antifederalists rather than the party bearing the former title in the earlier history of the United States; but even here an exact analogy fails. They did not seek to have the provinces enjoy local self-government or to have perpetuated the traditions of a sort of municipal home rule handed down from the colonial cabildos, so much as to secure the recognition of a number of isolated villages or small towns as sovereign states—which meant turning them over as fiefs to their local chieftains. Federalism, therefore, was the Spanish American expression for a feudalism upheld by military lordlets and their retainers.

Among the measures of reform introduced by one republic or another during the revolutionary period, abolition of the Inquisition had been one of the foremost; otherwise comparatively little was done to curb the influence of the Church. Indeed the earlier constitutions regularly contained articles declaring Roman Catholicism the sole legal faith as well as the religion of the state, and safeguarding in other respects its prestige in the community. Here was an institution, wealthy, proud, and influential, which declined to yield its ancient prerogatives and privileges and to that end relied upon the support of clericals and conservatives who disliked innovations of a democratic sort and viewed askance the entry of immigrants professing an alien faith. Opposed to the Church stood governments verging on bankruptcy, desirous of exercising supreme control, and dominated by individuals eager to put theories of democracy into practice and to throw open the doors of the republic freely to newcomers from other lands. In the opinion of these radicals the Church ought to be deprived both of its property and of its monopoly of education. The one should be turned over to the nation, to which it properly belonged, and should be converted into public utilities; the other should be made absolutely secular, in order to destroy clerical influence over the youthful mind. In this program radicals and liberals concurred with varying degrees of intensity, while the moderates strove to hold the balance between them and their opponents.

Out of this complex situation civil commotions were bound to arise. Occasionally these were real wars, but as a rule only skirmishes or sporadic insurrections occurred. They were called "revolutions," not because some great principle was actually at stake but because the term had been popular ever since the struggle with Spain. As a designation for movements aimed at securing rotation in office, and hence control of the treasury, it was appropriate enough! At all events, whether serious or farcical, the commotions often involved an expenditure in life and money far beyond the value of the interests affected. Further, both the prevalent disorder and the centralization of authority impelled the educated and wellto-do classes to take up their residence at the seat of government. Not a few of the uprisings were, in fact, protests on the part of the neglected folk in the interior of the country against concentration of population, wealth, intellect, and power in the Spanish American capitals.

Among the towns of this sort was Buenos Aires. Here, in 1829, Rosas inaugurated a career of rulership over the Argentine Confederation, culminating in a despotism that made him the most extraordinary figure of his time. Originally a stockfarmer and skilled in all the exercises of the cowboy, he developed an unusual talent for administration. His keen intelligence, supple statecraft, inflexibility of purpose, and vigor of action, united to a shrewd understanding of human follies and passions, gave to his personality a dominance that awed and to his word of command a power that humbled. Over his fellow chieftains who held the provinces in terrorized subjection, he won an ascendancy that insured compliance with his will. The instincts of the multitude he flattered by his generous simplicity, while he enlisted the support of the responsible class by maintaining order in the countryside. The desire, also, of Buenos Aires to be paramount over the other provinces had no small share in strengthening his power.

Relatively honest in money matters, and a stickler for precision and uniformity, Rosas sought to govern a nation in the rough-and-ready fashion of the stock farm. A creature of his environment, no better and no worse than his associates, but only more capable than they, and absolutely convinced that pitiless autocracy was the sole means of creating a nation out of chaotic fragments, this "Robespierre of South America" carried on his despotic sway, regardless of the fury of opponents and the menace of foreign intervention.

During the first three years of his control, however, except for the rigorous suppression of unitary movements and the muzzling of the press, few signs appeared of the "black night of Argentine history "which was soon to close down on the land. Realizing that the auspicious moment had not yet arrived for him to exercise the limitless power that he thought needful, he declined an offer of reelection from the provincial legislature, in the hope that, through a policy of conciliation, his successor might fall a prey to the designs of the Unitaries. When this happened, he secretly stirred up the provinces into a renewal of the earlier disturbances, until the evidence became overwhelming that Rosas alone could bring peace and progress out of turmoil and backwardness. Reluctantly the legislature yielded him the power it knew he wanted. This he would not accept until a "popular" vote of some 9000 to 4 confirmed the choice. In 1835, accordingly, he became dictator for the first of four successive terms of five years.

Then ensued, notably in Buenos Aires itself, a state of affairs at once grotesque and frightful. Not content with hunting down and inflicting every possible, outrage upon those suspected of sympathy with the Unitaries, Rosas forbade them to display the light blue and white colors of their party device and directed that red, the sign of Federalism, should be displayed on all occasions. Pink he would not tolerate as being too attenuated a shade and altogether too suggestive of political trimming! A band of his followers, made up of ruffians, and called the Mazorca, or "Ear of Corn," because of the resemblance of their close fellowship to its adhering grains, broke into private houses, destroyed everything light blue within reach, and maltreated the unfortunate occupants at will. No man was safe also who did not give his face a leonine aspect by wearing a mustache and sidewhiskers—emblems, the one of "federalism," and the other of "independence." To possess a visage bare of these hirsute adornments or a countenance too efflorescent in that respect was, under a regime of tonsorial politics, to invite personal disaster! Nothing apparently was too cringing or servile to show how submissive the people were to the mastery of Rosas. Private vengeance and defamation of the innocent did their sinister work unchecked. Even when his arbitrary treatment of foreigners had compelled France for a while to institute a blockade of Buenos Aires, the wily dictator utilized the incident to turn patriotic resentment to his own advantage.

Meanwhile matters in Uruguay had come to such a pass that Rosas saw an opportunity to extend his control in that direction also. Placed between Brazil and the Argentine Confederation and so often a bone of contention, the little country was hardly free from the rule of the former state when it came near falling under the domination of the latter. Only a few years of relative tranquillity had elapsed when two parties sprang up in Uruguay: the "Reds" (Colorados) and the "Whites" (Blancos). Of these, the one was supposed to represent the liberal and the other the conservative element. In fact, they were the followings of partisan chieftains, whose struggles for the presidency during many years to come retarded the advancement of a country to which nature had been generous.

When Fructuoso Rivera, the President up to 1835, thought of choosing some one to be elected in constitutional fashion as his successor, he unwisely singled out Manuel Oribe, one of the famous "Thirty-three" who had raised the cry of independence a decade before. But instead of a henchman he found a rival. Both of them straightway adopted the colors and bid for the support of one of the local factions; and both appealed to the factions of the Argentine Confederation for aid, Rivera to the Unitaries and Oribe to the Federalists. In 1843, Oribe, at the head of an army of Blancos and Federalists and with the moral support of Rosas, laid siege to Montevideo. Defended by Colorados, Unitaries, and numerous foreigners, including Giuseppe Garibaldi, the town held out valiantly for eight years—a feat that earned for it the title of the "New Troy." Anxious to stop the slaughter and destruction that were injuring their nationals, France, Great Britain, and Brazil offered their mediation; but Rosas would have none of it. What the antagonists did he cared little, so long as they enfeebled the country and increased his chances of dominating it. At length, in 1845, the two European powers established a blockade of Argentine ports, which was not lifted until the dictator grudgingly agreed to withdraw his troops from the neighboring republic.

More than any other single factor, this intervention of France and Great Britain administered a blow to Rosas from which he could not recover. The operations of their fleets and the resistance of Montevideo had lowered the prestige of the dictator and had raised the hopes of the Unitaries that a last desperate effort might shake off his hated control. In May, 1851, Justo Jose de Urquiza, one of his most trusted lieutenants, declared the independence of his own province and called upon the others to rise against the tyrant. Enlisting the support of Brazil, Uruguay, and Paraguay, he assembled a "great army of liberation," composed of about twenty-five thousand men, at whose head he marched to meet the redoubtable Rosas. On February 3,1852, at a spot near Buenos Aires, the man of might who, like his contemporary Francía in Paraguay, had held the Argentine Confederation in thralldom for so many years, went down to final defeat. Embarking on a British warship he sailed for England, there to become a quiet country gentleman in a land where gauchos and dictators were unhonored.

In the meantime Paraguay, spared from such convulsion as racked its neighbor on the east, dragged on its secluded existence of backwardness and stagnation. Indians and half-castes vegetated in ignorance and docility, and the handful of whites quaked in terror, while the inexorable Francía tightened the reins of commercial and industrial restriction and erected forts along the frontiers to keep out the pernicious foreigner. At his death, in 1840, men and women wept at his funeral in fear perchance, as one historian remarks, lest he come back to life; and the priest who officiated at the service likened the departed dictator to Caesar and Augustus!

Paraguay was destined, however, to fall under a despot far worse than Francía when in 1862 Francisco Solano Lopez became President. The new ruler was a man of considerable intelligence and education. While a traveler in Europe he had seen much of its military organizations, and he had also gained no slight acquaintance with the vices of its capital cities. This acquired knowledge he joined to evil propensities until he became a veritable monster of wickedness. Vain, arrogant, reckless, absolutely devoid of scruple, swaggering in victory, dogged in defeat, ferociously cruel at all times, he murdered his brothers and his best friends; he executed, imprisoned, or banished any one whom he thought too influential; he tortured his mother and sisters; and, like the French Terrorists, he impaled his officers upon the unpleasant dilemma of winning victories or losing their lives. Even members of the American legation suffered torment at his hands, and the minister himself barely escaped death.

Over his people, Lopez wielded a marvelous power, compounded of persuasive eloquence and brute force. If the Paraguayans had obeyed their earlier masters blindly, they were dumb before this new despot and deaf to other than his word of command. To them he was the "Great Father," who talked to them in their own tongue of Guarani, who was the personification of the nation, the greatest ruler in the world, the invincible champion who inspired them with a loathing and contempt for their enemies. Such were the traits of a man and such the traits of a people who waged for six years a warfare among the most extraordinary in human annals.

What prompted Lopez to embark on his career of international madness and prosecute it with the rage of a demon is not entirely clear. A vision of himself as the Napoleon of southern South America, who might cause Brazil, Argentina, and Uruguay to cringe before his footstool, while he disposed at will of their territory and fortunes, doubtless stirred his imagination. So, too, the thought of his country, wedged in between two huge neighbors and threatened with suffocation between their overlapping folds, may well have suggested the wisdom of conquering overland a highway to the sea. At all events, he assembled an army of upwards of ninety thousand men, the greatest military array that Hispanic America had ever seen. Though admirably drilled and disciplined, they were poorly armed, mostly with flintlock muskets, and they were also deficient in artillery except that of antiquated pattern. With this mighty force at his back, yet knowing that the neighboring countries could eventually call into the field armies much larger in size equipped with repeating rifles and supplied with modern artillery, the "Jupiter of Paraguay" nevertheless made ready to launch his thunderbolt.

The primary object at which he aimed was Uruguay. In this little state the Colorados, upheld openly or secretly by Brazil and Argentina, were conducting a "crusade of liberty" against the Blanco government at Montevideo, which was favored by Paraguay. Neither of the two great powers wished to see an alliance formed between Uruguay and Paraguay, lest when united in this manner the smaller nations might become too strong to tolerate further intervention in their affairs. For her part, Brazil had motives for resentment arising out of boundary disputes with Paraguay and Uruguay, as well as out of the inevitable injury to its nationals inflicted by the commotions in the latter country; whereas Argentina cherished grievances against Lopez for the audacity with which his troops roamed through her provinces and the impudence with which his vessels, plying on the lower Parana, ignored the customs regulations. Thus it happened that obscure civil discords in one little republic exploded into a terrific international struggle which shook South America to its foundations.

In 1864, scorning the arts of diplomacy which he did not apparently understand, Lopez sent down an order for the two big states to leave the matter of Uruguayan politics to his impartial adjustment. At both Rio de Janeiro and Buenos Aires a roar of laughter went up from the press at this notion of an obscure chieftain of a band of Indians in the tropical backwoods daring to poise the equilibrium of much more than half a continent on his insolent hand. But the merriment soon subsided, as Brazilians and Argentinos came to realize what their peril might be from a huge army of skilled and valiant soldiers, a veritable horde of fighting fanatics, drawn up in a compact little land, centrally located and affording in other respects every kind of strategic advantage.

When Brazil invaded Uruguay and restored the Colorados to power, Lopez demanded permission from Argentina to cross its frontier, for the purpose of assailing his enemy from another quarter. When the permission was denied, Lopez declared war on Argentina also. It was in every respect a daring step, but Lopez knew that Argentina was not so well prepared as his own state for a war of endurance. Uruguay then entered into an alliance in 1865 with its two big "protectors." In accordance with its terms, the allies agreed not to conclude peace until Lopez had been overthrown, heavy indemnities had been exacted of Paraguay, its fortifications demolished, its army disbanded, and the country forced to accept any boundaries that the victors might see fit to impose.

Into the details of the campaigns in the frightful conflict that ensued it is not necessary to enter. Although, in 1866, the allies had assembled an army of some fifty thousand men, Lopez continued taking the offensive until, as the number and determination of his adversaries increased, he was compelled to retreat into his own country. Here he and his Indian legions levied terrific toll upon the lives of their enemies who pressed onward, up or down the rivers and through tropical swamps and forests. Inch by inch he contested their entry upon Paraguayan soil. When the able-bodied men gave out, old men, boys, women, and girls fought on with stubborn fury, and died before they would surrender. The wounded escaped if they could, or, cursing their captors, tore off their bandages and bled to death. Disease wrought awful havoc in all the armies engaged; yet the struggle continued until flesh and blood could endure no more. Flying before his pursuers into the wilds of the north and frantically dragging along with him masses of fugitive men, women, and children, whom he remorselessly shot, or starved to death, or left to perish of exhaustion, Lopez turned finally at bay, and, on March 1, 1870, was felled by the lance of a cavalryman. He had sworn to die for his country and he did, though his country might perish with him.

No land in modern times has ever reached a point so near annihilation as Paraguay. Added to the utter ruin of its industries and the devastation of its fields, dwellings, and towns, hundreds of thousands of men, women, and children had perished. Indeed, the horrors that had befallen it might well have led the allies to ask themselves whether it was worth while to destroy a country in order to change its rulers. Five years before Lopez came into power the population of Paraguay had been reckoned at something between 800,000 and 1,400,000—so unreliable were census returns in those days. In 1878 it was estimated at about 230,000, of whom women over fifteen years of age outnumbered the men nearly four to one. Loose polygamy was the inevitable consequence, and women became the breadwinners. Even today in this country the excess of females over males is very great. All in all, it is not strange that Paraguay should be called the "Niobe among nations."

Unlike many nations of Spanish America in which a more or less anticlerical regime was in the ascendant, Ecuador fell under a sort of theocracy. Here appeared one of the strangest characters in a story already full of extraordinary personages—Gabriel García Moreno, who became President of that republic in 1861. In some respects the counterpart of Francía of Paraguay, in others both a medieval mystic and an enlightened ruler of modern type, he was a man of remarkable intellect, constructive ability, earnest patriotism, and disinterested zeal for orderliness and progress. On his presidential sash were inscribed the words: "My Power in the Constitution"; but is real power lay in himself and in the system which he implanted.

García Moreno had a varied career. He had been a student of chemistry and other natural sciences. He had spent his youth in exile in Europe, where he prepared himself for his subsequent career as a journalist and a university professor. Through it all he had been an active participant in public affairs. Grim of countenance, austere in bearing, violent of temper, relentless in severity, he was a devoted believer in the Roman Catholic faith and in this Church as the sole effective basis upon which a state could be founded or social and political regeneration could be assured. In order to render effective his concept of what a nation ought to be, García Moreno introduced and upheld in all rigidity an administration the like of which had been known hardly anywhere since the Middle Ages. He recalled the Jesuits, established schools of the "Brothers of the Christian Doctrine," and made education a matter wholly under ecclesiastical control. He forbade heretical worship, called the country the "Republic of the Sacred Heart," and entered into a concordat with the Pope under which the Church in Ecuador became more subject to the will of the supreme pontiff than western Europe had been in the days of Innocent III.

Liberals in and outside of Ecuador tried feebly to shake off this masterful theocracy, for the friendship which García Moreno displayed toward the diplomatic representatives of the Catholic powers of Europe, notably those of Spain and France, excited the neighboring republics. Colombia, indeed, sent an army to liberate the "brother democrats of Ecuador from the rule of Professor García Moreno," but the mass of the people stood loyally by their President. For this astounding obedience to an administration apparently so unrelated to modern ideas, the ecclesiastical domination was not solely or even chiefly responsible. In more ways than one García Moreno, the professor President, was a statesman of vision and deed. He put down brigandage and lawlessness; reformed the finances; erected hospitals; promoted education; and encouraged the study of natural science. Even his salary he gave over to public improvements. His successors in the presidential office found it impossible to govern the country without García Moreno. Elected for a third term to carry on his curious policy of conservatism and reaction blended with modern advancement, he fell by the hand of an assassin in 1875. But the system which he had done so much to establish in Ecuador survived him for many years.

Although Brazil did not escape the evils of insurrection which retarded the growth of nearly all of its neighbors, none of its numerous commotions shook the stability of the nation to a perilous degree. By 1850 all danger of revolution had vanished. The country began to enter upon a career of peace and progress under a regime which combined broadly the federal organization of the United States with the form of a constitutional monarchy. Brazil enjoyed one of the few enlightened despotisms in South America. Adopting at the outset the parliamentary system, the Emperor Pedro II chose his ministers from among the liberals or conservatives, as one party or the other might possess a majority in the lower house of the Congress. Though the legislative power of the nation was enjoyed almost entirely by the planters and their associates who formed the dominant social class, individual liberty was fully guaranteed, and even freedom of conscience and of the press was allowed. Negro slavery, though tolerated, was not expressly recognized.

Thanks to the political discretion and unusual personal qualities of "Dom Pedro," his popularity became more and more marked as the years went on. A patron of science and literature, a scholar rather than a ruler, a placid and somewhat eccentric philosopher, careless of the trappings of state, he devoted himself without stint to the public welfare. Shrewdly divining that the monarchical system might not survive much longer, he kept his realm pacified by a policy of conciliation. Pedro II even went so far as to call himself the best republican in the Empire. He might have said, with justice perhaps, that he was the best republican in the whole of Hispanic America. What he really accomplished was the successful exercise of a paternal autocracy of kindness and liberality over his subjects.

If more or less permanent dictators and occasional liberators were the order of the day in most of the Spanish American republics, intermittent dictators and liberators dashed across the stage in Mexico from 1829 well beyond the middle of the century. The other countries could show numerous instances in which the occupant of the chief magistracy held office to the close of his constitutional term; but Mexico could not show a single one! What Mexico furnished, instead, was a kaleidoscopic spectacle of successive presidents or dictators, an unstable array of self-styled "generals" without a presidential succession. There were no fewer than fifty such transient rulers in thirty-two years, with anywhere from one to six a year, with even the same incumbent twice in one year, or, in the case of the repetitious Santa Anna, nine times in twenty years--in spite of the fact that the constitutional term of office was four years. This was a record that made the most turbulent South American states seem, by comparison, lands of methodical regularity in the choice of their national executive. And as if this instability in the chief magistracy were not enough, the form of government in Mexico shifted violently from federal to centralized, and back again to federal. Mad struggles raged between partisan chieftains and their bands of Escoceses and Yorkinos, crying out upon the "President" in power because of his undue influence upon the choice of a successor, backing their respective candidates if they lost, and waiting for a chance to oust them if they won.

This tumultuous epoch had scarcely begun when Spain in 1829 made a final attempt to recover her lost dominion in Mexico. Local quarrels were straightway dropped for two months until the invaders had surrendered. Thereupon the great landholders, who disliked the prevailing Yorkino regime for its democratic policies and for favoring the abolition of slavery, rallied to the aid of a "general" who issued a manifesto demanding an observance of the constitution and the laws! After Santa Anna, who was playing the role of a Mexican Warwick, had disposed of this aspirant, he switched blithely over to the Escoceses, reduced the federal system almost to a nullity, and in 1836 marched away to conquer the revolting Texans. But, instead, they conquered him and gained their independence, so that his reward was exile.

Now the Escoceses were free to promulgate a new constitution, to abolish the federal arrangement altogether, and to replace it by a strongly centralized government under which the individual States became mere administrative districts. Hardly had this radical change been effected when in 1838 war broke out with France on account of the injuries which its nationals, among whom were certain pastry cooks, had suffered during the interminable commotions. Mexico was forced to pay a heavy indemnity; and Santa Anna, who had returned to fight the invader, was unfortunate enough to lose a leg in the struggle. This physical deprivation, however, did not interfere with that doughty hero's zest for tilting with other unquiet spirits who yearned to assure national regeneration by continuing to elevate and depose "presidents."

Another swing of the political pendulum had restored the federal system when again everything was overturned by the disastrous war with the United States. Once more Santa Anna returned, this time, however, to joust in vain with the "Yankee despoilers" who were destined to dismember Mexico and to annex two-thirds of its territory. Again Santa Anna was banished--to dream of a more favorable opportunity when he might become the savior of a country which had fallen into bankruptcy and impotence.

His opportunity came in 1853, when conservatives and clericals indulged the fatuous hope that he would both sustain their privileges and lift Mexico out of its sore distress. Either their memories were short or else distance had cast a halo about his figure. At all events, he returned from exile and assumed, for the ninth and last time, a presidency which he intended to be something more than a mere dictatorship. Scorning the formality of a Congress, he had himself entitled "Most Serene Highness," as indicative of his ambition to become a monarch in name as well as in fact.

Royal or imperial designs had long since brought one military upstart to grief. They were now to cut Santa Anna's residence in Mexico similarly short. Eruptions of discontent broke out all over the country. Unable to make them subside, Santa Anna fell back upon an expedient which recalls practices elsewhere in Spanish America. He opened registries in which all citizens might record "freely" their approval or disapproval of his continuance in power. Though he obtained the huge majority of affirmative votes to be expected in such cases, he found that these pen-and-ink signatures were no more serviceable than his soldiers. Accordingly the dictator of many a day, fallen from his former estate of highness, decided to abandon his serenity also, and in 1854 fled the country--for its good and his own.

<< 4: Ploughing the Sea || 6: Peril from Abroad >>