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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
On January 25 he was able to inform the Secretary of State that the terms of a treaty had been agreed upon. He had obtained the boundaries called for in his original instructions with only a slight variation at the western extremity; but he believed that the new line, which included the fine port of San Diego, fulfilled his orders in principle, and it was acceptable to the Mexicans. The defeated government was to be paid an indemnity of $15,000,000 for the territory taken by the United States, and the victors were to assume claims against Mexico up to $3,250,000. On his own hook, Trist had worked out a solution to the status of Mexicans living in the ceded lands. If they elected to move out of what was now U.S. territory, they could take their belongings with them, without penalty; if they decided to remain, they could retain their Mexican citizenship provided that within a year they announced their intention to do so—otherwise they would become U.S. citizens.
On February 2, 1848, after a rash of delays caused by the Mexican commissioners, Trist wrote proudly to Buchanan informing him that the Treaty of Peace, Friendship, Limits, and Settlement had been signed that day at Guadalupe Hidalgo. Since Trist now had to remain in Mexico to testify at a court of inquiry ordered by President Polk to examine the charges brought by several members of Scott’s staff concerning the conduct of the war, he asked James L. Freaner, correspondent for the New Orleans Delta , to carry the treaty back to the United States. As Robert Arthur Brent has written, the completed treaty was the most important achievement of Trist’s life. If Trist had acted “at times negligently, at others without tact,” he had nonetheless never lost sight of his objective, which was the establishing of peace between Mexico and the United States. “His success,” Brent adds, “was the glory of the Polk administration; his disgrace was his own to bear.”
And the signs all pointed to disgrace now. When Buchanan brought the treaty to Polk at the White House on February 19, the President was still angry over Trist’s behavior, although he was forced to admit that the document met all the conditions given to Trist in April, 1847. After thinking the matter over, Polk informed his Cabinet that he would submit the treaty to the Senate. If he did not do so, he reasoned, Congress might react by refusing to appropriate money to keep the Army in Mexico, and Polk would have to withdraw the troops without a peace treaty. The Whigs who had attacked the war so bitterly would surely make political capital out of his failure to end it, especially when the treaty embodied the very terms laid down by Polk himself. And finally, Polk was keenly aware of the immense value of the lands ceded by this treaty to the United States. So on February 23—against the advice of Buchanan, who wanted to demand even more territory from the defeated Mexicans —Polk sent the treaty to the Senate, including with it a remarkable note recommending that it be debated on its own merits and without reference to the unfortunate actions of Nicholas P. Trist. The Senate responded by requesting from the President all correspondence relating to Trist’s mission, and members of the Foreign Relations Committee informed Polk that they would recommend rejection—not because of the terms of the treaty but because Trist had written it after his recall.
Polk fought back at once. The senators were usurping the powers of the Chief Executive, he stated firmly; the Senate might consider the treaty itself, but not how it had been made—that was the prerogative of the President. There was formidable opposition to the treaty: Thomas Hart Benton led a group of Democrats who opposed ratification on moral grounds—the United States, they said, had no right to any territory other than Texas south to the Nueces River; Daniel Webster, leading the Whig forces, opposed it on the basis that the United States would thereby acquire too much territory; and another group of Democrats was against it because the United States did not get enough land. But on March 10, with four senators not voting, the treaty was finally approved by a vote of thirty-eight to fourteen.
And what of the treaty’s chief advocate? Poor Trist, after wrangling with Army authorities over his right as an American citizen to remain in Mexico, was placed under arrest as the only means of getting him to leave the country where he had toiled for so long. When he rejoined his family in Washington at last, on May 17, 1848, thirteen months had elapsed since his departure, and he found himself dismissed from government service in disgrace. Buchanan, now completely out of favor with the President, could not help him. (Polk had grown increasingly suspicious of his Secretary of State because of his presidential aspirations: “No candidate for the presidency ought ever to remain in the Cabinet,” Polk noted in his diary. “He is an unsafe adviser.”) And the President, of course, wanted nothing to do with Trist. Although Trist, more than any other man, was responsible for fulfilling Polk’s ambition of rounding out the natural boundaries of the United States, the President could not bring himself to forgive his act of disobedience. Indeed, since Trist had been on a secret mission and therefore was paid out of the President’s special funds, he was even denied his full pay by the Chief Executive, who cut off his salary as of November 16, when he received his recall.