Antonio López was born to lower-middle class parents in Jalapa, while Mexico was still known as the colony of New Spain. He joined the military, where he rose to the rank of lieutenant, at first taking part in attempts by the Spanish military to put down Mexican revolt, then switching sides and declaring loyalty to Augustin de Iturbide.
He rose to prominence by driving the Spanish forces out of the port city of Veracruz in 1821. Iturbide rewarded him with the rank of General and appointed him Governor of Veracruz. In 1823, however, Santa Anna was among the military leaders supporting the Plan of Casa Mata to overthrow Iturbide and declare Mexico a Republic.
In 1829 Spain made its final attempt to retake Mexico, landing a force of 3,000 soldiers at Tampico. Santa Anna marched against them with a smaller force and defeated the Spaniards, many of whom were suffering from yellow fever. Santa Anna was declared a hero, which he much relished, and from then on he entitled himself The Victor of Tampico and The Savior of the Fatherland.
Santa Anna declared himself retired, "unless my country needs me." He decided he was needed when Anastasio Bustamante led a coup overthrowing and killing president Vicente Guerrero.
Santa Anna seized power in the confusion and then was elected President in 1833. At first he had little interest in actually running the country, giving a free hand to his vice-president Valentin Gomez Farias, a liberal reformer.
Gomez Farias worked hard to root out corruption, which stepped on some powerful toes among the military and wealthy landowners. When these voiced their displeasure, Santa Anna dismissed Gomez Farias, declared the Constitution suspended, disbanded the Congress, and worked to concentrate power in the central government. This was applauded by some conservatives but met with considerable disapproval from other sectors.
The Mexican state of Texas declared itself independent in 1835 (see Texas Revolution); Santa Anna marched north to bring the rebellious province back under his control but was captured by separatist forces at the Battle of San Jacinto on April 22, 1836. Santa Anna was forced to allow Texan independence, on the condition that Texas would remain independent and not accede to the USA. Back in Mexico City, a new government declared that Santa Anna was no longer President.
After some time in exile in the United States, in 1837 he was allowed to return to Mexico to retire at his hacienda.
In 1838 Santa Anna saw a chance to redeem himself when French forces invaded Mexico in the Pastry War. Santa Anna succeeded in driving off the French but lost a leg to a cannon ball in the battle. Santa Anna ordered his leg buried with full military honors, and from then on at public events he would ride on horseback holding his wooden leg over his head as a symbol of his sacrifices for his country. Santa Anna held on to control of his troops after the French had left, at first in aid of Bustamante, then declaring himself once again President.
Santa Anna's second rule was even more dictatorial than the first. His demands for ever greater taxes aroused ire, and several Mexican states simply stopped dealing with the central government, Yucatan and Laredo going so far as to declare themselves independent republics. In December 1844, opposition had reached the point where Santa Anna decided it was wise to accept an offer (in the interests of avoiding a civil war) to renounce all claims to the Presidency and go into exile in exchange for a generous pension. Santa Anna then moved to Cuba.
In 1846 the United States declared war on Mexico. Santa Anna wrote to Mexico City saying he no longer had aspirations to the presidency but would eagerly use his military experience to fight off foreign invasion of Mexico as he had in the past. President Gomez Farias was desperate enough to accept the offer and allowed Santa Anna to return. Meanwhile, Santa Anna had secretly been dealing with USA representatives, pledging that if he were allowed back in Mexico through the blockades, he would work to sell all contested territory to the United States at a reasonable price. Once back in Mexico at the head of an army, Santa Anna reneged on both of these agreements. Santa Anna declared himself president again and unsuccessfully tried to fight off the United States invasion (see Mexican-American War).
Santa Anna went into exile in Venezuela. In 1853 he was invited back by rebellious conservatives, with whom he succeeded in retaking the government. This reign was no better than his earlier ones. He funneled government funds to his own pockets, sold more territory to the United States (see Gadsden Purchase), and declared himself dictator for life with the title Most Serene Highness.
Despite his generous pay-offs to the military for loyalty, by 1855 even his conservative allies had had enough of Santa Anna, and he fled back to Cuba. As the extent of his corruption became known he was tried in absentia for treason and all his estates confiscated. He then lived in exile in Cuba, the United States, Venezuela, and St. Thomas. During his time in New York City he is credited as bringing the first shipments of chicle, the base of chewing gum, to the United States, but he failed to profit from this since his plan was to use the chicle to replace rubber in carriage tires, which was tried without success.
In 1874 he took advantage of a general amnesty and returned to Mexico.
He died two years later in poverty and obscurity in Mexico City.