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Lucas AlamánLucas Alamán y Escalada (1792-1853)

From Mexico and Her Chieftains by Fay Robinson, Published 1847

"About the end of eighteen hundred and thirty," says a French writer, "there occurred at Mexico a mysterious circumstance, which kept public curiosity long awake.  About daybreak the body of the Corregidor Quesada was found near one of the corners of the cathedral. He was lying in the midst of a pool of blood, with a wound in the side, evidently given with great earnestness, for the marks of the guard were deeply impressed on the edge of the wound, and many of the spectators seemed to look with jealousy at the trace of the handiwork of a person who was master of his business. No one was aware that the corregidor had any personal enemies, but all knew that he had declared himself to be an enemy of the government. For some days the body, in grand costume, was exposed, as is the custom of the country, to public view, and great exertions were made, but in vain, to discover the assassin."

"A short time afterwards, an event not less strange occurred at Jalapa. A senator generally considered hostile to the government was poisoned in a manner not less strange than Quesada had been stabbed. One day immediately after he awoke, this senator took up a cigar which lay on the table near his bed, and ringing for his valet-de-chambre, bade him bring him a light. The Mexicans smoke, much more scientifically than any other people, and never think of lighting a cigar with a blaze, but always from living coals, which are kept in a brazero, which, in this instance, was of silver. Scarcely had lit, begun to smoke when he was seized with a violent sneezing, in consequence of which, in a short time, a hemorrhage ensued, of which he died. His body was examined, and it appeared that the nasal passages and brain were violently inflamed, that the cigar must have been poisoned and killed him, as described. No one could tell what hand had placed the cigars on the senator's table, and the appearance of his servant, when he told what had happened, would have convinced the most skeptical that he was guiltless of this assassination of his master. Who, then, was guilty? People insisted on connecting together these two inexplicable murders, and fancied that the hand which drove the dagger so deep into Quesada's side, was the one which had placed the cigars on the senator's table, and belonged to Don Lucas Alaman."

"This may be, and probably is, all calumny, for the story of the poisoned cigar is too elaborate, and is evidently copied from the days of the Borgia and La Brinvilliers, but will serve to show the estimate put on the morals of Don Lucas Alaman, whom all the world confessed to be a true patriot, yet who, to secure the good of his country, would not hesitate to trample in the dust, the rights of its citizens and of itself, with a courage which is the more heroic as it neither receives the reward of public approbation nor is sustained by the inspiration of the hope of fame."

This paragraph of comment is taken from the same writer who records the anecdotes which, true or false, are characteristic of what was considered Alaman's disposition. Alaman has already been said to have governed Mexico, in fact, during the presidency of General Guerrero, but at that time had given little evidence of the energy he afterwards exhibited. The Mexican people had, however, already conceived a presentiment that ere long a firm hand would hold in check the evil passions which then under the impetus of the absence of government, incident to the revolution, had devastated their country. The appearance of Alaman certainly would not indicate him to be that person. His stature is low, his forehead broad, wide, and unwrinkled. His hair is black and silky, his eyes keen and piercing, and his complexion certainly would not betoken him to belong to the Spanish race, but to be a child of some colder climate than Mexico. One would think him feeble, irresolute, and indolent. In doing so a great error would be committed. He is possessed, in fact, of great determination, of a moral energy capable of anything, and of ceaseless perseverance. His activity of mind prompts him to undertake all conceivable schemes, even those which would be thought most incompatible with his inclinations. He is said to speak perfectly well French, Italian, and English, and what is yet more rare among his countrymen, to speak pure Spanish and to write it correctly.  Alaman is a mere man of the bureau, and therefore it is that he has never been able to participate in the realization of any of the plans he has dictated. One thing is sure, that be ever maintained, that patriotism justified any excesses, and that whosoever wills the attainment of any object, approves of the necessary means to accomplish his wishes. For this reason his political opponents have not hesitated to accuse him of the two strange assassinations referred to above while his admirers have maintained that, in pure and unshrinking patriotism, devotion to the cause of human enlightenment, and foresight into the tendency of the future, he has had an equal only in our own Jefferson.

Don Lucas Alaman must now be fifty-three or four years of age. He is a native of Guanajuato, of good family, and was educated at the college of La Mineria. Those who knew him there, say, that but for the revolution, be would have been one of the most expert administradores of mines in Mexico. As it was, he only became the most skilful of her politicians. He entered the army when the war of independence broke out, but soon discovered he had no talents for such scenes. His enemies say he proved himself on all occasions to be a most arrant coward. He soon laid aside his sword to study the laws of his country, that he might participate in political affairs. His political career was curious, and an autobiography from him would be invaluable as a sketch of men and things in Mexico for the last thirty years. A circumstance especially creditable to him is, that he had nothing to do with Iturbide's plans, but immediately after his deposition became minister of foreign affairs, a post he occupied when the ex-emperor returned to Soto la Marina, in 1844. The manner of Iturbide's death has already been described. It is worth while, however, to state, that in Mexico political offences have almost always been pardoned, except when Alaman has been at the head of affairs, by whom they have been severely punished.

After he retired from the ministry, he visited Europe, and remained there for a long time. This was the most promising aspect of the star of Mexico, when the English were beginning their explorations of the mines, and when the United Mexican Mining Company originated. The early studies of Alaman, and his intimate knowledge of Mexico, procured for him the position of director, with magnificent emoluments of office. At the same time be became administrador of the Duca di Monteleone, a noble of Sicily, who, as the representative of Hernando Cortes, the conqueror, is in possession of an extensive Mexican territory and of immense wealth. While in England be became thoroughly imbued with English prejudices, and conceived an aversion to France and America, and exhibited, on all occasions when Mexico was not concerned, the greatest predilection in favor of England. To this may be attributed the fact that most of the valuable mines of Mexico are in the hands of British subjects, and the patents for the great majority will be found to date from Alaman's subsequent administration.  It is probable that when he returned to Mexico, Alaman purposed to interfere no more in political affairs; for be devoted himself exclusively to the many private trusts confided to himself. The administration of Guerrero was overthrown in December, 1829, when Bustamente insisted on his taking office under him as, minister of foreign affairs, an honor Alaman sought to decline on the plea of his many engagements. He however accepted it, and afforded to the world another example of the nolo episcopari which, though common to Mexico, is by no means peculiar to it.

When he again took charge of the administration of the government, Mexico was in a strange position. But one year previously it had been devastated by civil war, and almost become the captive of the bow and spear of the clique that sheltered themselves under the cloak of Guerrero's honesty. Public confidence was not restored; and Guerrero himself was still in arms in the south. Santa Anna was at Mango de Clavo, biding his time. Finances were exhausted, and all classes of the army were calling lustily for some years of pay, while the treasury was empty. Robbers infested the high-roads; and more than once magisterial offices were purchased by ladrones with money obtained by redhanded plunder. The custom-house officers were partners in smuggling adventures; and, repeatedly, alcaldes and magistrates were proved to be partners of robber hands. The people were taxed beyond all endurance, while it was notorious that not one-tenth of the revenue collected ever reached the public coffers.  Smuggling was carried on the broadest scale. Ships would arrive from France, England, or the United States, with the richest and most costly goods, packed in cases side by side with coarse cottons or other articles of little value, each of which was numbered in the manifest, 1, 2, 3, 4, &c. The manifests would be sent at once to the custom-house, and a single tide-waiter be placed on board. At night a launch was put off from one of the remote quays of Vera Cruz unobserved, whether the night were bright and starlit or the reverse, from the fact that no one passes through the streets of a Mexican city after the posting of the watch. The cases were opened, each one was found to contain two smaller ones: the one filled with costly silks and dutiable articles, the other with articles which were free. Morning came; the valuable articles were on shore, and the tide-waiter watched over the remains of the cargo.

A half dozen ounces to him, and a rich present to the commandante of Vera Cruz, made all right, and hushed any suspicions as to why a large ship should be sent across the Atlantic with a few hundred dollars worth of goods. Such a state of thing obviously rendered it impossible for the government to meet its obligations, and its soldiers necessarily became associates of highway robbers. In this year, 1828, a German gentleman on his way to the South Sea for the purpose of pursuing some botanical inquiries, was attacked by the dragones of his escort, and only escaped from the fact that his pistols being new, were water-tight, and did not fail, while the dilapidated fire-arms of the Mexicans could not be discharged, in a slight rain which chanced to be falling.   Every road leading to and from the capital was infested by robbers, who were strong enough to set almost any safeguard at defiance. 

"Such bands," says a writer who seems to understand Alaman thoroughly, "may almost every day be met with in the arid plains of Tepeyahualco, so aptly named mal pais, in the fearful gorges of Pinal, or the icy woods of the Rio Frio. They are all admirably mounted, and seem the best horsemen in the world. With their faces shaded by their large hats and covered with handkerchiefs which permit nothing to be seen but their sparkling eyes, they hold in one hand the deadly lazo, while with the other they restrain their fiery steeds, husbanding their energies until the time shall come when they must either leap a precipice to escape, or dash forward at speed to strike their prey. The lonely traveler, who has no baggage but his poncho and lance, may pass quietly among them, exchanging the am cable buenas dias, as if he were under the protection of a fortress wall, unless he should look so closely at them as to indicate any recognition."

He is safe, for they are on the alert for a richer prey, and have not come out to rob a beggar of his cloak. When they find their prey, if resistance is made, they become pitiless murderers. If not, they suffer the traveler who surrenders to pass on with the courteous adios caballero, or Dios guarda vmd. (Good day, sir; God watch over your worship); and return to their ranchos to play with their children, and it may be to give the alcalde a portion of their plunder. Such people are not to be judged by the rules of every-day life, having been corrupted by a bad government, which defiles all things, and super-induces a forgetfulness as well of the laws of man as of God; and a German traveler, referred to above, who is familiar with the people, states, that the only wonder to him is, that they have not long ago dissolved all the bonds of society, and become mere savages; and attributes their existence as a nation to the influence of the younger clergy, who, grown up since the revolution, see that the high position of the church can only be enjoyed while the body politic is at least entire.  Alaman was the very person to put down such disorders; and when he found the power to do so in his possession, he would not pause for the many obstacles which would have terrified a man of less moral courage. When once enlisted in such a cause, he was not a man to draw back. Alaman, when he assumed the direction of foreign affairs, resolved to make financial and political reform march pari passu, and to make the second contribute to the first. The most obvious means to be adopted was the employment of honest men, with ample salaries. Such was the apparent corruption of the community, that it was by no means easy to find such in sufficient number, and he had to limit his endeavors in a great degree to repressing the peculation of such as he was forced to keep. By this means smuggling was prevented, the treasury became replenished by a stream of wealth which previously had been exhausted by tide-waiters and collectors, and the soldiers, well paid and equipped, were really what they were intended to be, the defenders of the nation. The disbursements did not exceed the receipts, and the treasury, under the able Mangino, was able to meet all demands on it. For the first time since the revolution, Mexico had a government.

The highway robbers shared the fate of the peculators in public office, many having been taken by patrols of cavalry, and either summarily shot, or garroteado, to encourage the others, who proceeded to hang up their bruised armor and seek subsistence by honest industry. The red crosses which marked the place where murders had been committed, one after the other decayed, and no newer ones replaced them, so that the roads around Mexico were as safe as in any other part of the world. Alaman said that he would not stop in this career until he could lay his serape on the plaza in Mexico, and on his return in the morning find it untouched; and but for interruptions in his course he could not foresee, he would have accomplished it. There yet remained to be chastised the disturbers of public peace, and for them the punishment was death. Unfortunately, however, for the prosperity of Mexico, a civilian had to deal with men of the sword, and though he had the sinews of war at his command, the polished steel often more than balanced gold and the interests of Mexico. Santa Anna was probably in his eye constantly, but that general was as wily as Alaman, and preferred that he should waste himself in efforts against other eminent men, and thus prepare an open field for him, than to measure himself against an adversary dangerous as he was. The man who had murdered a senator, would no doubt strike at a general, and therefore with his political prudence Santa Anna remained at Mango de Clavo in perfect quiet, aware that the long arm of Alaman would reach him even amid his Jarochos, Guerrero was still in arms in the south, surrounded by his faithful Pintos, and defied all efforts against hini and his authority, which after all was constitutional. Fever and the climate protected the latter against any army which could be marched against him, and recourse was had to treason to obtain possession of him.

An Italian named Picaluga, a native of Genoa, at that time was in the port of Acapulco, the head-quarters of the general. This man, with the tact peculiar to his countrymen, contrived to insinuate himself in the confidence of' Guerrero, who was frank and soldier-like in his bearing. One day Guerrero, who detested the faste and parade of which most Mexicans seem so fond, went without any suite to breakfast with Picaluga, who received him with the greatest apparent cordiality. The general was a little fond of good wine, and after a hearty meal went on deck and discovered that the black-hearted villain had weighed his anchor and was then entering a neighboring port, which was in the possession of' the enemy. He was at once overpowered and surrendered to the officers of' the government.  A form of trial was soon gone through with, and on the 14th of February, 1831, near the city of Oaxaca, the general was shot. It is said that at the place of execution he wept bitterly. He had in defence of his country fought so bravely, that on such an occasion be might give vent to his feelings, and weep at her ingratitude. Public opinion attributes this act to Alaman exclusively, and he is also suspected of having, by means of others, induced the gallant Iturbide to return to Mexico to meet a similar fate. Picaluga, it is said, received for this foul treason $50,000, and the order for that sum is now preserved in the treasury---an authentic autograph of Alaman. The vessel of Picaluga, commanded by another, returned to Genoa, when the story was told, and such was the universal disgust at it, that his name was blotted from the roll of Genoese citizens, and became In Spanish a term to express one dyed in the deepest villainy. Picaluga afterwards, it is said, apostatized from Christianity, and in 1840 was in the service of a Mahometan prince. Two other chieftains were subsequently taken in other parts of the country and mercilessly shot, in spite of the influence of their friends; the brother of one of them, Codallos, was governor of Mexico, and the other, Victoria, was the only brother of Guadalupe Victoria, first president of Mexico. This much good and evil was effected by Alaman during 1830 and 1831. 

Then commenced for Mexico a new era, that of' manufacturing industry, its resources having been previously merely agricultural and pastoral. Alaman wished to place the people he governed on a level with those of Europe, and this was his great motive in the establishment of peace. Nature has conferred on Mexico three different climates, the tropical, temperate, and cold, (comparatively speaking.) It has also given to these three latitudes inexhaustible fertility, a cloudless sky, and mountain ridges from the summits of which the rains bring down sands of gold, where silver is found everywhere, and, as if to force it to rely on its own industry, has refused to it only navigable rivers and good ports. Its topographical peculiarities are such, that it must ever be almost impossible to contrive any system of railroads through it; in a word, Mexico is deprived of that facility of communication with which nature recompenses less favored regions for the curse of sterility. The question of industry is then more vital to it than to any other in the world, since it cannot transport its raw material to the shore of either sea.  At the instance of Alaman, who was the president of the council, as an encouragement to industrial undertakings, a large portion of the customs collected was appropriated, under the name of banco de avio, bank of succor, to be loaned to persons employed in manufacturing enterprises of certain kinds as, cotton, iron, silk, wool, and paper. Another portion was expended in machinery purchased in Europe, and loaned gratis to manufacturers. This was an admirable scheme, worthy of imitation in other countries boasting of a more extended civilization; and the consequence was, that industry received a new impulse, there seemed less desire for revolution, and the roads and public buildings began to exhibit strong evidence of the fostering care of a government. Amid all this prosperity, however, one man contrived to disturb this promise, at the very time that measures were being taken to call him to account for his past misconduct. Santa Anna bad remained quiet as long as Alaman would not interfere personally with him, but having learned from some of the numerous agents his private fortune enabled him always to maintain that he would soon be arraigned, he pronounced against Bustamente, and destroyed the influence of Alaman, which certainly was working wonders for Mexico in one point of view, while it is equally sure that he was not to be considered a model either of honor, honesty, or obedience to the behest of religion.

On this occasion Santa Anna acted with his peculiar decision and promptness.  He called around him his Jarochos, induced the garrison of Vera Cruz to revolt, and seized on the sum of five hundred thousand dollars, which had been collected by Alaman, and which served to ruin him. It was in vain, during this contest, that Alaman gave his generals the most exact orders, money, and disciplined troops; they were unable to realize the plans he had conceived in his bureau. The secretary at war took the command of the army, but had no better success; and Alaman being unable to place himself at the bead of troops to repair their errors, Bustamente capitulated. The man who had caused Iturbide, Guerrero, Codallos, and Victoria to be shot, had reason to fear a similar fate for himself, for a similar offence, the failure of his plans; and disappeared not only from the political but the social world, and none knew where he sheltered himself.   Fifteen months afterwards, during, the presidency of Santa Anna, who was aware of all the details of Alaman's plans against him, the ex-minister made his appearance in the capital as mysteriously as he had left it. All that ever transpired was, that becoming frightened about his safety, whether reason or not, Santa Anna best knew, Alaman had sheltered himself amid the inviolable seclusion of a convent. In this retreat be learned to restrain his political enmities and ambition, and his secret was so well kept, that even now, when all motive for it is lost, the seal of secrecy has never been broken is to what altar concealed him. He was completely isolated from public affairs until 1837, when, on the return of Bustamente to power, he began gradually to exert his power and influence again. At the election, which resulted in favor of Bustamente, Alaman obtained the next largest number of votes, and so high was his reputation for capacity, that Bustamente forgot all feeling of jealousy, and confided to him almost all the functions of government.

The central constitution, called the plan of Tagle from the name of the person by whom it was proposed, had created a third power of the government, called consejo del gobierno, or council of government, and had assigned singular powers to it. This body was empowered to review all laws passed by the chambers, to originate decrees itself, and its consent was necessary before any act could be submitted to the president ; it was an institution like the English star-chamber, and the Venetian council of ten, which deliberated in secret, and changed a democracy into an oligarchy. The presidency of this body was offered to Alaman, who, however, objected to the conspicuous nature of the appointment though he had no objection to the power. The post was therefore conferred on General Moran, an invalid in whose frequent absence, and by the influence he had over him, Alaman was the president de facto. Alaman contrasted in his mind his present position, in which be was totally irresponsible and sheltered by the secret discussions, with the state of affairs when he was a Minister---he could but congratulate himself on the change which permitted him to do so much for his country with such safety to himself.  This state of things did not last long, for in 1840 Alaman was again living in a private station, having been driven from power by the dissolution of the plan of Tagle on the deposition of Bustamente. When Santa Anna a second time regained supreme authority, the great men of the country fled from it. Farias came to the United States, and Bustamente sought to forget his adversity in Genoa and Rome. Alaman, aware that he was now for a long time destined to be excluded from public affairs, resolved to realize for his own advantage some of the benefits he sought to confer on his countrymen by the banco de avio. He therefore established a vast cotton manufactory at Orizaba, in the state of Vera Cruz. The scheme, however, was scarcely promising; the competition of England and the United States being sure to repress such enterprises in Mexico, where labor is difficult to be had, and cotton by no means plenty---where broken machinery must either be repaired by foreign artisans, or sent from the country-and last of all, where any day may witness the transformation of the peaceful warehouse into a barrack. Smuggling enterprises also could be undertaken under the administration of Santa Anna, encouraged by countless harbors unwatched, the absence of any marine force, and the vicinity of New Orleans with its boundless supplies; so that it has become almost to be confessed, in spite of the success of a few factories at Jalapa, that no similar enterprise can prosper near the coast of the Gulf of Mexico.

The administration of Santa Anna was spendthrift as that of Alaman had been careful; and consequently the manufacturers everywhere became involved, and Alaman was forced to suspend payment. It is said that lie failed for the sum of $1,200,000, an event which created consternation throughout Mexico. His painful situation he bore with sang froid ; and it was natural that a man who had ordered the execution of an emperor, a president, and countless generals, should not shrink from having caused the ruin of a few hundred operatives.  Alaman then was merely the administrador of the Duke of Monteleone, and though Santa Anna was aware if be had fallen into his hands in the days of his power, he would have been shot summarily, be rather protected him; and not infrequently, it is said, consulted him in his fiscal difficulties when he first succeeded to power. In 1842 he became again minister of foreign affairs; and, strangely enough, men who but a few years before would have shot each other without compunction, used to embrace most cordially when they met. Alaman was not, however, so attached to Santa Anna, as to be unable to console himself for his exile; and, since the latter's return, has again occupied a prominent position. There is, it is said, however, but little doubt that Alaman on the first opportunity would shoot the dictator with as little compunction now as be would have done during the administration of Bustamente, when Guerrero, Codallos and Victoria fell.

Don Lucas Alaman was a member of the general cortes of the Spanish empire in 1820; and has never been in favor of the restoration of the Spanish system. He has, however, always been opposed to democratic tendencies; and has been one of the bitterest enemies of the United States in Mexico.

© 1997-2001, Wallace L. McKeehan, All Rights Reserved