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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
But as far as Washington knew, the unpopular war was merely dragging on, and President Polk could take no comfort from the fact that his Democrats were outnumbered in the House 117 to 110. Having heard further from Pillow that Trist was “acting unwisely,” he concluded that no good could possibly come of the peace mission and told the Secretary of State to order his “commissioner plenipotentiary” to return home. So on October 6 Buchanan, unaware that Mexico City had fallen, wrote Trist telling him how conditions had changed since the previous April, reminding him of the American lives and treasure that had been squandered since then, and informing him, finally, that he was recalled. If Trist had written a treaty by the time he received these instructions, the Secretary added, he should of course bring it home with him; but if not, he should not delay his departure even though he might be in the midst of negotiations with the Mexicans. The next day, probably out of friendship and to soften the blow of Trist’s recall, Buchanan followed up his official letter with a chatty personal note telling his friend how much he looked forward to having him back in the department again.
Two weeks later—on October 21—letters Trist had written on September 28 were received in Washington, making it clear that he had discussed terms with the Mexicans that exceeded his carefully drafted instructions. That was too much for Polk: his commissioner had “embarrassed future negotiations,” the President spluttered. His conduct was “much to be regretted,” since he had evidently encouraged the Mexicans to hope for better conditions than he had any right to promise them.
In November, when Trist finally received his letter of recall, along with other letters criticizing his actions, he characteristically sat down and wrote a lengthy justification of his conduct during the negotiations. Time and events certainly seemed to support Trist’s hopes that a settlement would be reached before long. He was convinced that the Mexican peace party would form a government; Santa Anna, the defeated leader, had resigned the presidency, and the army had not rallied to him when he fled the Mexican capital. He had been succeeded by Manuel de la Pena y Pena, the president of the supreme court, who appointed a peace advocate as his minister of relations. But just at that moment, with the Mexicans on the verge of peace talks, Trist’s recall had arrived. To his wife he wrote of his bitter disappointment; he intended to resign from the State Department, he told her, and “bid adieu forever to official life.” Over and above his personal chagrin he could not understand why his government—if it sincerely desired peace, as he assumed—did not replace him with another peace commissioner. On December 1, when no word of a replacement had reached him, Trist decided to ignore his recall and stay in Mexico to write a treaty. He had concluded that he could not permit the present opportunity to slip by, and on December 6 he wrote to inform Buchanan of his decision. Even if new commissioners were appointed now, he argued, they could not arrive in time to salvage the situation, and if the opportunity were lost now, it might be gone forever. As for the boundaries, he realized that those limits included in his original instructions were the maximum to which the Mexicans could agree. With great sensitivity Trist wrote, “however helpless a nation may feel, there is necessarily a point beyond which she cannot be expected to go under any circumstances, in surrendering her territory as the price of peace.”
One hopes that President Polk was spared the full catalogue of Trist’s arguments, since his letter ran to sixty-five pages, but in any event Polk reacted predictably. He ordered Trist out of Army headquarters at once and instructed the United States military commander to inform the Mexicans that Nicholas P. Trist was no longer acting for the United States government. Separately, the President had also decided to replace Scott, having heard from Pillow and other subordinate officers that Scott was taking all the credit for victory over the Mexicans. (Robert E. Lee, a young colonel who had participated in that victory, wrote sadly to a friend concerning the dissensions in the Army. “No one can regret them more than I do. They have clouded a bright campaign. … The affair I suppose will soon be before the court … but I suspect that if one party [Scott] has been guilty of harshness … the other [Pillow and other dissident officers] has been guilty of insubordination.”)
Trist responded to adversity by writing still more letters, assuring Buchanan that it was not personal vanity but devotion to duty that prompted him to remain in Mexico. Since he had not been replaced, he repeated, he would stay and achieve a peaceful settlement out of regard for both nations. At long last, on December 30, 1847, peace negotiations began in the town of Guadalupe Hidalgo, outside Mexico City. Trist was handicapped by having not even a secretary to assist him, so he was obliged to keep minutes while listening to the Mexican proposals. Each night he retired to write voluminous letters to Buchanan and to his wife.