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The Thankless Task Of Nicholas Trist
You are conducting secret peace talks with the enemy in the midst of an unpopular and interminable foreign war. The American field commander is throwing every obstacle in your path. Then, just as the talks are getting somewhere, the President orders you home. What do you do now?
August 1970 | Volume 21, Issue 5
To Trist, as an administrator of Jefferson’s estate, fell the chief burden of settling the former President’s chaotic financial affairs (less than five thousand dollars remained in his bank account when he died, and the estate was sorely pressed for funds to run Monticello and support the large family that continued to live there). But despite the demands made upon him, Trist completed his law studies and in November, 1826, was admitted to the Virginia bar. Then followed a brief and unsuccessful ownership of a newspaper, until Trist received an offer of a clerkship in the Department of State from the Secretary, Henry Clay. The job paid fourteen hundred dollars a year, and he accepted with pleasure. Luckily, when Andrew Jackson became President in 1829, Trist’s friendship with Jefferson, Madison, and Jackson’s nephew Donelson was remembered; unlike so many victims of the spoils system, he was allowed to stay on in his job. Soon Trist and his wife became regulars at White House dinners; Jackson was especially interested in hearing from them about Jefferson’s political beliefs, his views on emancipation of the slaves, and his ideas concerning religious freedom.
At the Jefferson memorial birthday dinner in 1830 Trist gave what was technically the chief toast—to the memory of the late President—but his remarks were considerably overshadowed by those of Andrew Jackson: this was the famous occasion on which Jackson rose to his feet, fixed would-be secessionist John C. Calhoun with a steely eye, and stated unequivocally, “Our Union: It must be preserved.”
At this time Trist’s fluent knowledge of Spanish made him one of the principal State Department informants on Latin-American countries; he was also beginning to handle most of the correspondence between the United States and Russia while James Buchanan was minister there. And opportunity knocked, oddly enough, as a result of a grand social brouhaha at the White House. By spring of 1830 the members of Jackson’s Cabinet had taken sides over Peggy O’Neale Eaton, a former barmaid who had become the second wife of John Eaton, the Secretary of War, and while the President stubbornly supported her, the Cabinet officers (except Secretary of State Martin Van Buren) and their wives would have nothing to do with her. Mrs. Andrew Jackson Donelson withdrew as the President’s hostess rather than call on her, and suddenly Trist was asked to assume Donelson’s place as Jackson’s private secretary.
Diplomats, congressmen, and Cabinet officers transacted business through him; it was a demanding, timeconsuming position of great responsibility and long hours, from which Trist—fortunately for his relations with his family—was relieved in 1831 by Donelson’s reconciliation with his uncle. Then, after two more years in the State Department, Trist received a presidential appointment that promised an opportunity to do something on his own. By now a man of polished manners, impeccable connections, keen insight, and with a broad grounding in foreign affairs, he became consul at the Cuban port of Havana.
He had not been in Havana long before he realized that it had been a mistake to come; it was not a good post for anyone with ambition. The tedious tropical hours found Trist writing incredibly long letters and reports to Washington—reports so full of trivia one wonders if the recipients ever finished reading them (one communication to the Senate Committee on Finance contained fifty-two closely written pages). This was, however, one of the few times in his life that Trist made anything like enough money; he seems to have picked up substantial sums outside his job through notary fees and by investing funds that were deposited with him. But in 1839 some ugly charges were made against Trist—accusations of inefficiency, failure to support American interests, and abetting the slave trade—and his conduct was reviewed by a congressional committee. Although the congressmen gave him a clean bill of health, Trist seems to have been negligent, at the very least, and perhaps even guilty of some of the charges made against him. Certainly many U.S. captains who touched at Havana were highly critical of the consul and his activities. In any case, merit—or the lack of it—sometimes counted for less than the spoils system, and in 1841 Trist received word from the new Whig Secretary of State, Daniel Webster, that he was relieved of his consular duties. Four years later the political tides changed once more, James K. Polk became President, Trist’s old friend James Buchanan was appointed Secretary of State, and Trist was named chief clerk of the department. The dying Andrew Jackson, ever a man to support a friend, wrote to Polk endorsing Trist for the job, which paid two thousand dollars a year.