Mexico, as it was and as it is/Letter 13

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Mexico, as it was and as it is  (1847)  by Brantz Mayer
LETTER XIII.

LETTER XIII.

COURT CEREMONIES. GENERAL SANTA ANNA. DIPLOMATIC DINNER.

FOR some time after the installation of General Santa Anna as Provisional President of Mexico, under the system known in the political history of that country as the "Plan of Tacubaya,"[1] a difficulty existed between the Government, and Ministers of foreign nations, as to the etiquette which was to be observed on public occasions when it became necessary for them to meet ceremoniously. To such an extent had this variance of established rules been carried, that upon the consecration of the present Archbishop, the Envoy from France deemed it proper to mark his disapprobation, by retiring with his legation from the Cathedral.

These matters, which to us republicans seemed of no very great moment except as they had been rendered so by the Mexicans themselves, were, however, at length satisfactorily arranged; and on the first of January, 1842, the members of the different missions were invited to meet the President in the morning, for the purpose of exchanging the usual courtesies of the day, and to partake of a dinner in the evening. This invitation was sent with all due form through his Excellency, Mr. De Bocanegra, the Minister of Foreign Affairs. As the system of entertainment at table is quite a novelty in Mexican diplomacy, the invitation was entirely unexpected; and it was hailed by the whole corps as indicative of an agreeable change in our future intercourse.

Accordingly at noon on the first of January, the diplomatic body, In full uniform, met at the apartments of the Minister of Foreign Relations in the Palace. Here again, some trifling question of etiquette was started relative to the precedence of the Archbishop, which being arranged, the corps, as soon as it had been joined by the Ministers of State, was ushered to the hall of audience by an aid-de-camp of the President. Passing along several balconies hung against the wall of the inner court-yard, we soon reached an antechamber filled with all the chief personages, both military and civil, of the Republic, and we were at once conducted to the reception-room. This is a large and newly furnished apartment, plainly painted in fresco; its walls are hung with ordinary oil pictures of the history of Napoleon, and the floor is covered with a rather common carpet.

At the south end of the room a Chair of State, with the flags and arms of Mexico richly embroidered in gold and colors on its velvet cushions, was placed for the President, under a canopy of crimson edged with gold. On either side of this against the wall, were chairs for the four Ministers, and, immediately in front of the President's seat, running the length of the room, beneath the great chandelier, were ranged two rows of chairs facing each other, for the diplomatic corps. Here we took our stand, according to the rank and length of residence of the respective Envoys in the country.

In a few moments, the Ministers of State (who had retired after we were placed,) entered from a room behind the audience-chamber, and were directly followed by General Santa Anna, in the full uniform of the Chief of the Army—blue and red, richly embroidered with gold. You are aware, that at the battle of Vera Cruz with the French, in the year 1838, one of his legs was shattered by a cannon-ball, as he pursued the enemy on their retreat to their boats. The limb was badly amputated, and of course he limps along on a wooden substitute, with the aid of a cane. But the defect does not take from the dignity and manliness of his air and carriage.

He advanced to his chair under the canopy; his Ministers placed themselves on either side of him, and the room, which had hitherto been only occupied by ourselves, was, at a signal to the aid-de-camp in waiting, filled with a brilliant cortège of officers in full dress uniforms.

As soon as silence and order were obtained, the President bowed gracefully to us, and received an obeisance in return. Mr. Pakenham, the British Envoy, as the oldest resident Minister, then advanced, and in the name of the diplomatic body, made an address of congratulation in Spanish.

The General listened with attention and interest, and when the Minister had concluded, replied briefly, but with considerable hesitation of manner and an awkward twisting of his cane and chapeau, showing that he was, at least on that occasion, more of the soldier than the speaker. As he seated himself after concluding his reply, he motioned us to our chairs, while the rest of the spectators still remained standing A short conversation then followed between him, Mr. Pakenham, and Mr. Olivér, the Spanish Envoy, who were immediately in front of him; and at the first pause we rose, advanced to him singly and bowed; walking slowly to the door at the north end of the apartment, we turned on its sill and bowed again, both of the salutations being gracefully returned by him: and thus ended the morning visit of ceremonious congratulation.

I have been so minute in repeating to you the details of this ceremony, not because I deem any account of bows and formal speeches interesting to a reader; but because such a scene has occurred in a Republic, before the President of a Republic, and in a National Palace surrounded with soldiery, amid the beating of drums, the braying of trumpets, and all the paraphernalia of a court. Such a detail sounds oddly to one who—entering a door often opened without a porter—passing through no lines of grim guards—amid no military pomp or parade—approaches the President of our own more favored land, and finds him seated in his plain parlor, by a comfortable grate, habited in neat but homely dress; and ready, without ceremony, to grasp your hand and welcome you to his fireside.

* * * * * * *

We left the Palace at one o'clock, and entering our carriage, proceeded to pay the customary visits of form to all our friends, on the first of January. We found numbers of people at home, and left a corresponding quantity of cards for those who were engaged in the same duty as ourselves.

It was a pleasure to reach home once more, and to get rid of the stiff uniform in which my limbs had been cased for several hours. Accustomed all my life to the plain and easy coat of civil life, and donning gold lace that day for the first time, I felt, I suppose, very much the sensations of "the hog in armor;" and I was glad after that essay, to find but few occasions on which full dress was requisite.

As the bell tolled for Oracion, Mr. Ellis and myself mounted the carriage once more, and soon reached the Palace.

In the anteroom, two aids-de-camp of the President met and conducted us to the audience-room, now brilliantly lighted with lamps and chandeliers. The saloon was sprinkled over with a gay company of officers and diplomats in full dress. Santa Anna soon entered from his private apartments, and taking a seat near the upper end of the room, his friends gathered sociably around him. As soon as all were seated, Mr. Ellis presented me privately to him. He took my hand in both of his, and with an air of great cordiality and a winning smile, addressed me some complimentary words, inviting us to take seats near him.

The total repose and quietness of the company was precisely what I desired. It afforded me an opportunity to take a sort of mind portrait of the Warrior President; and seated for an hour within the sound of his voice, at the distance of a few feet, I had an excellent opportunity to do so. His demeanor in conversation is mild, earnest and gentlemanly. He uses much gentle gesture as soon as he becomes animated, and seems to speak with all his soul, without losing command over himself and his feelings.

I have since seen Santa Anna in his coach, surrounded with guards and all the pomp of the military, at the review of 8000 troops; in church at prayer; in the ball-room; in the cock-pit, betting; in the audience- room; at the banquet; and in private interviews of delicate diplomacy, when the political interests of the two nations were at stake. No one can easily forget him; and I have delayed describing him until now because I have been unwilling to deceive myself or others. According to public opinion, he is a riddle in character; he surely is not so in appearance and if his person and his manners are not, as with others, to be taken as a fair index of the man, he is either an arch-hypocrite, or a capital actor.

In person, Greneral Santa Anna is about six feet high, well made, and of graceful bearing, though he stumps along on an old-fashioned wooden peg, rejecting, as uncomfortable, all the "mock legs" with patent springs and self-moving inventions, which have been presented to him by his flatterers from all parts of the world. His dress, as I have said before, is on all public occasions that of a high officer of the army; and his breast is covered with richly-gemmed decorations.

His brow, shaded with black hair somewhat sprinkled with gray, is by no means lofty, but narrow and smooth. Although his whole head is rather small, and perhaps rather too long for its breadth, it has, however, a marked and boldly-defined outline, indicating talent and resolution. His nose is straight and well shaped, and his brows knit in a line over close and brilliant eyes, which are said to flash with fire when aroused to passion. His complexion is dark and sallow, and his temperament evidently bilious. His mouth is the most remarkable feature. Its prominent expression, when at rest, is that of mingled pain and anxiety. In perfect repose, you would think him looking on a dying friend, with whose sufferings he was deeply but helplessly sympathizing. His head and face are those of an attentive, thoughtful, melancholy but determined character. There is no ferocity, vindictiveness, or ill-temper in his expression; and when his countenance is lighted up by pleasant conversation, in which he appears to enter eagerly though with a timid and subdued voice; and when he puts on a sweetly wooing smile, which seems too tranquil ever to ripen into a laugh; you feel that you have before you a man, who would be singled from a thousand for his quiet refinement and serious temper; one who would at once command your sympathy and your respect; a well—bred gentleman, and a resolute soldier, who can win by the solicitation of an insinuating address, or rule by the authority of an imperious spirit.

Such is a portrait of the man who, since the outbreak of the Mexican Revolution, has played a chief part in the drama of the time, and has fought and forced his way to eminence from the humblest rank. The destroyer and builder up of many systems and men, he has not always been on the side of republicanism, according to the liberal and enlightened notions of the North; but it is sincerely to be hoped, that he is too deeply pledged as an old soldier and brave fighter in the cause of liberty, now to shrink back into the folly of despotism.

While the hour passed in which I sat looking at and listening to this remarkable person, the company in the saloon gradually thickened. Here a newly made Colonel, the child of the new revolution, in as new and bright a uniform; there a veteran General, in the time-stained dress, tarnished trappings, and old cut coat of the ancient régime. Here a knot of European diplomatists, blazing with their stars; and there the old Archbishop, with his venerable gray locks falling on his violet robes, while another dignitary of the church stood by him in velvet and lace, with a cross of large diamonds and topazes hung round his priestly throat by a collar of gems, and "ever and anon" taking snuff, in a manner that displayed a finger which almost blinded by the flash of its diamonds. The dress of every person in the room, in fact, was rich and tasteful, except that of one distinguished citizen of Mexico, and a priest in attendance on the Archbishop—who adhered, amid all the show, to humble and respectable black.

After an hour's delay, which added to the sharpness of our poorly stayed appetites, dinner was announced. Santa Anna led the way, and in the dining-room we found our places indicated by cards on the soup-plates.

The table-service was tolerably good, although there was no such display either of silver, porcelain, or cut-glass, as we see on hundreds of less courtly tables in the North; nor were there any "gold spoons" for Congressmen to cavil with. The cookery (French and English,) was capital, and the courses innumerable.[2] The wines and the conversation went off with spirit; and, indeed, the whole entertainment was most agreeable, except, that during the repast six of the Presidents aids-de-camp stood behind his chair. Their position was, I feel confident, most painful, (at least to all the foreigners;) and although they performed no menial offices, yet the act was inelegant, unrepublican, unnecessary, and in excessively bad taste. I hope never again to be forced to witness such a scene, nor to sit at table while such men stand.

Thus passed two hours and a half, enlivened by the military bands of the Palace, playing gay airs with remarkable taste and skill in the pauses. Near ten we all retired (without the universal cigar) to the reception-room, where tea and coffee were handed before we departed.

As we passed the windows of the dining-room, we saw the aids-de-camp at dinner in our lately deserted places; and I sincerely trust as they had so long but feasted on the fumes of our earlier dinner, that they had something more substantial than the cold and broken remains of our splendid repast.

In the palace yard below, hundreds of soldiers were lolling drowsily on the stone seats, or bundled up in their blankets stretched on the pavement within the gateways; and as we left the portal, the band in the balconies above sent over the still square the parting strains of its beautiful music.

I made several efforts while in Mexico, to procure a portrait of General Santa Anna for the purpose of presenting it to you; but I could find no engraving or lithograph, and the oil pictures were most wretchedly executed, without doing justice to his very characteristic face. In this age of autographs, however, when all persons collect, and some few even under, take to read a man's mind in his signature; I have thought that those of the President and of the late Emperor Iturbide, might not be uninteresting, and I therefore subjoin them. That of Santa Anna is a firm, clear, and distinct one; while Iturbide's, though strong and decided enough in its lines, has still a straggling manner, which indicates perhaps too much the weakness of many parts of that hero's character.


click on image to enlarge.


  1. The revolution of 1841 after several fruitless battles, in which victory seems to have crowned neither side, and several as fruitless interviews of the Chiefs and messengers of the different parties, was at length terminated by a meeting of commanding officers at Tacubaya on the 26th of September, when a plan was agreed upon and signed by 191 persons, by means of which the existing Constitution of Mexico was superseded. By this system or "Plan de Tacubaya." consisting of 13 articles, a general amnesty was proclaimed—a call for a new Congress to form a Constitution agreed upon—and a Junta created, to be named by the General in Chief of the army. The Junta was to elect the Provisional President who, by the 7th article, was clothed "with all the powers necessary to reorganize the Nation and all the branches of administration;" or, in other words, with supreme power. That General was Santa Anna. He selected the Junta, and the Junta returned the compliment by selecting him!
  2. This entertainment was prepared by a celebrated French cook in Mexico, who charged the moderate sum of $65 a head for forty persons, exclusive of wines.