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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
In a memorial to Congress, Trist pleaded his cause: he had not sought the appointment as peace commissioner; he had been asked to render a great service to his country; in doing so, he had saved thousands of lives and millions of dollars; he had acquired a vast territory for the United States, extending our western boundary to the Pacific and fixing firm boundaries between Mexico and the United States where none had existed. Surely a man who had achieved that deserved recognition? But the Congress was not in a forgiving mood either.
Virtually destitute, Trist and his wife moved to West Chester, Pennsylvania, in July of 1848. Fortunately, a few friends—Winfield Scott among them—offered him help. During his stay there several writers came to him in search of information about the great men he had known: Henry S. Randall, for his biography of Jefferson; James Parton, for his biography of Jackson; Thomas Hart Benton, for assistance on his Thirty Years’ View . By 1855, with his wife running a school for young ladies, Nicholas Trist was reduced to taking a job as a clerk for the Wilmington and Baltimore Railroad Company, where he eventually worked up to paymaster at a salary of $112.50 a month. It was a bitter lot for a man who had been so close to the nation’s great and had done so much for his country.
As the Civil War approached, Trist was drawn again to politics—for the New York World he wrote an article quoting Jefferson’s and Madison’s views on secession. To General Scott, a Virginian who was now commanding general of the Union Army, he wrote that he was also a southerner by birth and a Yankee by adoption, but that his sympathies and those of his wife lay with the North and with preservation of the Union. Now and again Trist’s friends tried to help him obtain a government job. In 1861 Scott wrote to the Secretary of the Treasury, Salmon P. Chase, stating that Trist had been wronged by Polk and neglected by Taylor, Fillmore, Pierce, and Buchanan; the nation owed Nicholas Trist a great debt, the old soldier added. But Chase did nothing. Finally, in 1870, Senator Charles Sumner made an eloquent speech in Trist’s behalf, reminding the Senate of his signal contributions, and a year later Trist received the sum of $14,559.90—money that was owed him for his salary and expenses in Mexico twenty-three years earlier. It came none too soon, for he had had to give up his railway job a year earlier, and the Trists were poverty-stricken. In the summer of 1870 President Grant appointed him postmaster in Alexandria, Virginia. He was paid $2,900 a year, which was more money than he had earned at any time since 1841, but he had less than four years to enjoy this munificence. On February 11,1874, after suffering a stroke, Trist died.
Anyone wishing to contemplate the part chance plays in human destiny might give some thought to the career of Nicholas P. Trist. His act of rare courage and principle for a cause he believed to be right cost him the support of the President and brought him dismissal, disgrace, poverty, and the total disregard of posterity. Most historians have neglected him entirely or dismissed him as a man of no ability, overlooking the fact that Trist was a victim of an unpopular war and an administration that neither understood nor sympathized with his difficulties or his aspirations. Immovable on matters of principle, Trist determined to do what he considered right. And for this, as well as for the tangible effects of his deed, he deserves better of his country.
What the nation obtained as a result of the treaty he executed singlehandedly was the boundary of the Rio Grande and the cession of territory between that river and the Pacific Ocean—which includes the present states of California, Nevada, Utah, New Mexico, Arizona, a corner of Wyoming, and the western slope of Colorado. Because of the efforts of Nicholas P. Trist, James K. Polk is remembered as the President who, except for Jefferson, added more territory to the nation that any other. When Polk left office the United States was half again as large as when he took the oath. As a final irony, while Nicholas P. Trist and the Mexicans were reaching final agreement in Guadalupe Hidalgo, gold was discovered at Suiter’s Mill in California, with consequences beyond all imagining.