The Thankless Task Of Nicholas Trist


As winter wore on into the spring of 1847, the hope grew in Washington that the year-old war with Mexico might be settled soon. The nation’s first major foreign conflict had been an unpopular affair from the beginning; a large number of Americans seem to have thought it would be a short skirmish, followed by a rich land-grab, and were disappointed when the Mexicans showed no immediate signs of collapsing or negotiating. When President James K. Polk learned of General Winfield Scott’s victory on March 27 at Veracruz, he concluded that the moment was auspicious for peace talks and, with the agreement of his Cabinet, looked about for a man he might send to Scott’s headquarters to be on the scene should the Mexicans decide to sue for peace.

A Democrat who had already decided not to seek re-election in 1848, the President was eager for the war to end, but he had no intention of appointing someone who would make political hay out of an important peace mission. He realized he had to select someone “who would be satisfactory to the country … [yet] such is the jealousy of the different factions of the Democratic party in reference to the next Presidential Election toward each other that it is impossible to appoint any prominent man.” And so it was that Nicholas Philip Trist was chosen for one of the strangest, most misunderstood, most productive assignments in American diplomatic history.

At the time Polk plucked him out of near-anonymity for greater things, Trist was the chief clerk in the State Department. This meant that he was second-in-command to the Secretary, lames Buchanan—a position he had attained largely through his intimate connections with some of the towering figures in United States politics. Trist had been born in i8oo in Charlottesville, Virginia, where his grandmother was a close friend of Thomas Jefferson, and as a result of that relationship Nicholas and his brothers were invited to come to Monticello for an extended visit in 1817. There Nicholas promptly fell in love with Mr. Jefferson’s granddaughter Virginia Jefferson Randolph (a tall girl of “not great personal charms,” as Trist’s outspoken mother described her) and asked permission to marry her. Virginia’s mother and Nicholas’ found this prospect chilling, since he was only eighteen and she seventeen; September and young Trist’s departure for the Military Academy at West Point came none too soon to suit either of them. At the academy the new cadet showed certain traits that remained with him all his life: he hated restrictions and discipline; he was frequently ill (with his frail constitution— he was 6 feet tall and weighed only 120 pounds—he had difficulty throwing off colds); he worried incessantly; he wrote interminable letters to his family and friends; and he persisted in a belief that Virginians were a very special people, superior to the inhabitants of other parts of the country. At West Point he became a close friend of young Andrew Jackson Donelson, nephew of the hero of New Orleans—an association that was to have an important effect on his later career.

In the summer of 1821 Trist returned to Monticello, determined to quit West Point, marry Virginia Randolph, and take up the law. This time he was granted permission to propose to his inamorata but lost his nerve at the crucial moment and instead wrote her a letter the next day: “The interview of yesterday,” he admitted, “was for the purpose of making a declaration of a passion that you must have often read in me.” But once again he was rebuffed, this time by the girl herself, who did not want to leave her family just then and suggested that Trist return to Louisiana—where he had grown up—and read law there. He followed her advice, and three years later he was back at Monticello, where they were married at last on September 11, 1824.

Trist continued his study of the law with Thomas Jefferson and became the feeble ex-President’s part-time secretary, riding and walking companion, and confidant. In long talks together Jefferson spoke to him about his views on all the events and personalities of the day, and the old man and the young one developed a truly close friendship. When the Trists’ first child was born in May, 1826, she was named for Jefferson’s wife; the baby was Jefferson’s first great-grandchild and the only one he lived to see, for by this time he was confined to bed most of the time. Trist was with him almost constantly, writing his last letters and conversing for hours with the man who had befriended him. The old statesman was determined to live until July 4, the fiftieth anniversary of the Declaration of Independence he had written, and his last weeks were a triumph of will. All through the night of July 3 Trist remained at his side; with an effort Jefferson asked if it were midnight yet, and when Trist replied that it was, the dying man smiled and murmured, “Ah, just as I wished.” A few hours later he was dead.