Zavala: The Yucatecan Vice President of Texas Part 2 — To Mexico, New York, Paris, and Tejas

Lorenzo de Zavala (artist unknown, Archives Division, Texas State Library)

[“Surprising History in Yucatán” — Introduction to the Series]

Continued from last month:  Returning from Spain to independent Mexico…

[Link to Zavala Part 1, published February 2, 2015]


Lorenzo de Zavala returned to Yucatán, now part of the independent Mexican Empire, in early 1822.  Elected as deputy to represent Yucatán in the first Congress, he soon departed for Mexico City.  Few in Congress wanted Mexico to be a republic — the French example had turned out badly, and developments in the United States were not widely known.  So it was an empire, and Zavala accepted Agustín Iturbide as emperor without actively supporting him.  Soon disappointed with an ineffective Congress and arbitrary actions by Iturbide, Zavala became a leader of a radical republican faction.  A revolt sent Iturbide into exile, and the Mexican republic was born.

A new Congress convened in November 1823 and chose Zavala as its vice president, then president.  He was a principal author of the Constitution of 1824, which reflected the liberal ideals of the Federalist majority.  The opposing and more conservative Centralists wanted strong control by the president and central government.  The Federalists favored more autonomy for the states, less influence by the church and military, and expanded civil liberties.  The new republic elected Guadalupe Victoria, a Federalist, as the first president and Nicolás Bravo, a Centralist, vice president.  Yucatán elected Zavala a senator.

Conflict between the Federalists and Centralists increased, and the Masonic lodges evolved into powerful political parties representing the two factions.  The older Scottish Rite lodges identified with the Centralist cause and essentially became the Conservative Party.  Zavala, with the help of Joel Poinsett, the first United States minister to Mexico, founded competing York Rite lodges, which were in effect the Federalist Liberal Party.  The Yorquinos became dominant, but fighting between Federalist and Centralist factions continued to shape the chaotic history of Mexico for thirty years.

Events following the violent and slanderous presidential election of 1828 left a black mark on Zavala’s otherwise admirable record.  The Constitution prescribed indirect voting, with one vote for each state.  The Scottish Rite’s candidate, Manuel Gómez Pedraza, won with eleven electoral votes to nine for the Federalists’ Vicente Guerrero.  Zavala believed the system was undemocratic and that a majority of the people preferred Guerrero.  He must have been torn between following the Constitution and supporting the man he thought to be the authentic winner.  Federalist General Antonio López de Santa Anna raised an army to overturn the election.  Zavala initially tried to negotiate a compromise but had to flee to the mountains to avoid arrest.  As the situation deteriorated, Zavala became a leader of the rebellion and directed violent physical attacks on Centralist opponents.  This seriously damaged his reputation as a liberal reformer.  Gómez Pedraza went into exile and Guerrero became president.  Sadly, the episode established a precedent for the military coups that gave Mexico fifty governments in the next thirty years.

Zavala’s offices and services to the nation during the turbulent years that followed independence are too numerous and complex to detail here.  In barest outline, in addition to legislator, he was governor of the State of Mexico, Secretary of the Treasury under President Guerrero, and ambassador to France under President Santa Anna.  He acted on his liberal values by promoting reforms in land distribution, education, agriculture, public works, and financial policies.  He imposed limitations on the clergy, militias, and wealthy landowners.  His pragmatic actions won enemies on all sides.  As the political winds shifted to different points of the compass, he was repeatedly removed from office, arrested, forced to flee the country for his life, and re-instated.

Because Zavala spoke English, he was assigned to meet with Stephen F. Austin, who was seeking ratification of his government contract to colonize the northern state of Coahuila y Tejas with Anglo immigrants.  This contact made Zavala aware of the economic potential in that sparsely populated region.  Always alert to his own financial needs, and with new interest in the land that was to become Texas, he obtained an empresario grant for himself.  During the rest of his life, he leveraged that grant into complex land deals from which he made considerable money.

In what was to be his last visit to Yucatán, Zavala went at the request of President Guerrero to mediate an uprising in 1829.  A coup by the militia garrisons in Campeche and Mérida had brought in a Centralist regime.  He was not welcomed.  When he attempted to land at Sisal on December 5, he was arrested and warned he would be shot if came back.  He was even denied permission to visit his family, now estranged, whom he had not seen for at least seven years.

During a period of exile in 1830-31, Zavala traveled widely in the United States, seeking to understand how participatory democracy and free-wheeling capitalism were working.  Bearing letters of introduction from Joel Poinsett, who had become a close friend, he met influential people, including President Andrew Jackson.  He wrote of his experiences in a landmark book of political history and culture, Viage a los Estados-Unidos del Norte de América, which preceded the better-known account by Alexis de Tocqueville.  He became an admirer of the United States and its system of democratic government, although he resented what he saw as emerging imperialism and an attitude of the colonial master, typified by the Monroe Doctrine.

In 1831, while he was in the United States, his estranged wife died back in Yucatán.  He remarried a widow half his age, Miranda West Cresswell (later called Emily), in New York.

Lorenzo de Zavala (artist unknown, Archives Division, Texas State Library)
Lorenzo de Zavala (artist unknown, Archives Division, Texas State Library)

He returned to Mexico with the election of Santa Anna — with whom he had enjoyed a varying but mostly positive relationship — to the presidency in 1833, and accepted an appointment as Ambassador to France.  It was a well deserved honor, and his ability to speak French made him a good fit for the job, but it was engineered by his anti-reform enemies to get him out of the way.  He reached Paris, by way of New York, in March 1834.  He was never to return to Mexico City.

While Zavala was in France, his literary career expanded.  He had previously written a two-volume history of Mexico and now published his Viage about the United States.  He had been interested in the ruins of Uxmal since an early age, and now spoke and wrote about the site.  He delivered a talk before the French Royal Academy, which made him a member.  His report, published in Antiquités Mexicaines, was available as source of information for explorer John Lloyd Stephens, whose visits to Uxmal in 1840 and 1841 led to its rediscovery by the world.

A few months after Zavala began his service as ambassador, President Santa Anna made an abrupt shift in policy.  Elected as a Federalist reformer, Santa Anna now switched sides and aligned with the wealthy and powerful Centralists.  He dismantled Federalist reforms and began replacing Federalist state governments.  Zavala decided he could no longer represent the regime, wrote a virulent attack on Santa Anna, and took his family into exile in the United States.  As a refugee and in financial straits, his political career seemed over.

Leaving his family in New York, Zavala went to Texas.  Although he had never been there before, he controlled large tracts of undeveloped land on the Sabine River and Galveston Bay, from which he hoped to extract some money.  Mexican authorities learned of his arrival and sought to arrest him — the state of Coahuila y Tejas, of course, was still part of Mexico — but friends sheltered him.

By early 1836, Zavala was politically and economically tied to Texas.  He built a house on Buffalo Bayou, just above its junction with the San Jacinto River and entry into Galveston Bay, and his family joined him.  Among the Texians, Zavala argued that Santa Anna had abrogated the 1824 Constitution, their basic compact with the government, so they had no obligation to him.  The message was well received.  Texians had been rebellious since Mexico abolished slavery in 1829 and increasingly saw independence as their only viable course.  Zavala hoped to find a way to oust Santa Anna and remain in Mexico, but ever the pragmatist, decided he could accept independence.

In February 1836, Zavala was elected as delegate to an organizing convention.  His election was remarkable because a majority of both English-speaking Texians and Spanish-speaking Tejanos in his area voted for him.  Intermittently suffering from malaria, Zavala rode a mule for three days to reach the meeting place, the tiny, raw village of Washington-on-the Brazos.  The convention came to order on March 1 in a cold, unfinished tavern.  The next day, Zavala, along with fifty-four others, signed a declaration of Texas independence.  By that act he established himself for Mexican historians as a traitor.

First Flag of the Republic of Texas designed by Lorenzo de Zavala
First Flag of the Republic of Texas designed by Lorenzo de Zavala

Named to the committee to draft a constitution, Zavala was the only delegate who had experience with such things or had served in a republican government.  His legislative, executive, and diplomatic experience, as well as his language skills and education, uniquely qualified him for the task.  In the early hours of March 17, panic-stricken delegates, who had received word of the fall of the Alamo and an advancing Mexican army, elected him provisional vice president.  Zavala accepted reluctantly because he had little confidence in the president, David G. Burnet.  Burnet and Zavala took the oaths of office at 4:00 a.m.  Delegates signed the constitution later that morning and departed in haste.  Zavala prepared a Spanish translation for circulation among Tejanos.

Zavala retreated with his family and what passed for a government to barren Galveston Island.  He would surely have been executed if captured by Santa Anna.  But the Texas army decisively defeated the Mexicans and captured Santa Anna at the Battle of San Jacinto, within sight of Zavala’s house, on April 22.  Zavala served as translator in negotiating treaties with the captured president, and one can only speculate about feelings between the two former allies.

The provisional government fell into disarray.  Burnet was ineffective, doing little but write bombastic speeches, and no one paid much attention to Zavala.  He wrote his resignation, but there was no congress to accept it and no way to replace him.  Finally, on October 17, newly elected President Sam Houston and Vice President Mirabeau B. Lamar took office.

In a letter to Joel Poinsett, Zavala remarked that he was discouraged about the future of both Mexico and Texas.  He felt he was not respected because of racial prejudice among Texians.  He was troubled by poor health, developed pneumonia after a boating accident, and died on November 15, 1836 at age 48 years.

Upon his death, even his enemies honored Zavala as an honest and enlightened patriot.  He was never a traitor to his ideals of liberty and democracy.  His idealism often had to yield to reality, and financial need sometimes drove him to opportunism, but he consistently worked to improve conditions for people from Yucatán to Texas.  His ideas nourished the Reform Laws, the liberal Constitution of 1857, and the presidency of Benito Juárez.  But Zavala’s role in Texas has kept him out of the pantheon of Mexican national heroes.

In his home state of Yucatán, however, a campaign in the 1870s led by the writer Justo Sierra O’Reilly restored Zavala’s reputation.  The state legislature declared him a Benemérito del Estado and on October 1, 1878 attached his name to that of the state.  Although the name seems to have fallen out of use, and few may know of it today, the official name of the state is still Yucatán de Zavala.


By Robert D. Temple



Zavala’s sculptured image appears, along with many other figures from Mexican history, on the massive Monumento a la Patria — often called the “Flag Monument” — in the glorieta at the north end of Mérida’s Paseo de Montejo.  Zavala is on the right side of the main south-facing façade, 19th from the left, ironically depicted standing next to Santa Anna.


In Texas, Zavala is lavishly remembered in the names of a county, two towns, the state archives, and numerous schools and streets.




The author is pleased to thank Jorge Rosado Baeza for several useful conversations about Zavala and his times.



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