The Thankless Task Of Nicholas Trist


And so it came about, early in 1847, that President Polk decided to send Nicholas P. Trist as his emissary to Mexico, there to await the proper moment to enter into negotiations with a shaky Mexican government. Despite his disappointing performance in Cuba, Trist seemed a natural for the post: in addition to his fluency in Spanish he was thoroughly knowledgeable about the workings of the State Department; as a loyal Democrat he was known to Polk and to members of the Cabinet, yet he had never been active in politics and appeared to have no ambitions in that direction. His assignment, quite simply, was to make his way as inconspicuously as possible to General Winfield Scott’s headquarters in Mexico and to forward to the enemy government, via the American commanding general, a proposed treaty of peace drafted by the Secretary of State and approved by administration leaders in Washington. If, by the time he arrived there, the Mexicans had already designated a plenipotentiary empowered to conclude a treaty, Trist was to begin negotiations with him on the basis of the American draft. Its terms were quite definite and had been drawn by Folk and Buchanan in the uneasy awareness that the congressional opposition was ready to pounce on the slightest misstep as a means of repudiating the administration on “the Mexican question.” This draft treaty had been submitted to the Cabinet on April 13; revised and approved by both President and Cabinet, it was delivered on April 15, 1847, to Nicholas F. Trist, who was designated a “commissioner plenipotentiary” and bidden Godspeed.

Secrecy, of course, was absolutely vital to the mission, and Polk had every confidence in the discretion of his emissary; but Trist had been gone less than a week when reports of his assignment appeared in the New York Herald , the National Intelligencer, Niles’ Weekly Register , and other newspapers. Folk was understandably furious and alternated between blaming Trist and the State Department for the unpardonable leak (finally he settled on the latter as the most likely source and took a dislike to Buchanan that hardened as time wore on). From New Orleans the unsuspecting Trist wrote one of his wearisome letters to his chief; in thirty verbose pages the only real news he gave Buchanan was that he had arrived in Louisiana after travelling overland via Charleston, Augusta, and Mobile, whence he had taken a steamer to New Orleans. Travelling incognito as “Doctor Tarreau,” a French merchant, he had stayed at a “French auberge, of the economical order,” rather than at one of the better hotels where someone might recognize him and become suspicious.

For all his precautions Trist managed to call a good deal of attention to himself by his painstaking selection of a vessel to carry him quickly toward his destination; from New Orleans he sailed across the Gulf of Mexico in eight days, arriving on May 6 at Veracruz, where he learned that a supply train would leave on the eighth for Scott’s headquarters. And here Trist made a monumental error.

He bore with him a letter of appointment from Buchanan, giving him “full diplomatic powers” to sign a treaty in the name of the United States. He also had two copies of the treaty projet , or draft—one of them sealed, for the Mexicans—and his instructions were to place the sealed copy in the hands of General Scott for forwarding to the Mexican authorities. But unfortunately, instead of delivering this document to Scott personally and informing him of its contents, Trist chose to remain at Veracruz and to write a letter to the General in which he requested that the sealed dispatch be delivered to the Mexican minister of foreign affairs. With this communication he enclosed one from William L. Marcy, the Secretary of War, which ordered Scott to transmit the sealed letter to the Mexicans and informed him that “Mr. Trist, ,an officer from our department of foreign affairs, next in rank to its chief,” was now at Army headquarters.

Scott exploded. Under the best of circumstances he was a proud man, excruciatingly sensitive of his reputation and quick to detect a slight whether or not one was intended. Temperament aside, there was also the fact that he was a prominent Whig—a political foe of the administration in Washington—and had long since fallen out with President Polk. In fact, at the time Polk gave Scott command of the Army in May, 1846, the tactless General had written the President an offensive letter complaining about Democratic place-seekers and then had confided to Secretary of War Marcy that he had no stomach for placing himself “in the most perilous of all positions:—a fire upon my rear, from Washington, and the fire in the front, from the Mexicans.” Folk’s furious reaction had been to excuse Scott from field command in Mexico, leaving him to stew in the capital while Zachary Taylor won the victories and the glory. Finally, in November, 1846, Scott was sent to command the movement on Veracruz and Mexico City, but Polk neither forgave nor forgot. He wrote in his diary: General Scott has acted with so little discretion since he assumed the command that the confidential plans of the Government which were confided only to himself have been made so public that every Mexican may know them. … His vanity is such that he could not keep the most important secrets of the Government which were given to him. He is … making such a parade before the public in all he does that there is danger that the objects of the campaign may be entirely defeated. …