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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
As winter wore on into the spring of 1847, the hope grew in Washington that the year-old war with Mexico might be settled soon. The nation’s first major foreign conflict had been an unpopular affair from the beginning; a large number of Americans seem to have thought it would be a short skirmish, followed by a rich land-grab, and were disappointed when the Mexicans showed no immediate signs of collapsing or negotiating. When President James K. Polk learned of General Winfield Scott’s victory on March 27 at Veracruz, he concluded that the moment was auspicious for peace talks and, with the agreement of his Cabinet, looked about for a man he might send to Scott’s headquarters to be on the scene should the Mexicans decide to sue for peace.
A Democrat who had already decided not to seek re-election in 1848, the President was eager for the war to end, but he had no intention of appointing someone who would make political hay out of an important peace mission. He realized he had to select someone “who would be satisfactory to the country … [yet] such is the jealousy of the different factions of the Democratic party in reference to the next Presidential Election toward each other that it is impossible to appoint any prominent man.” And so it was that Nicholas Philip Trist was chosen for one of the strangest, most misunderstood, most productive assignments in American diplomatic history.
At the time Polk plucked him out of near-anonymity for greater things, Trist was the chief clerk in the State Department. This meant that he was second-in-command to the Secretary, lames Buchanan—a position he had attained largely through his intimate connections with some of the towering figures in United States politics. Trist had been born in i8oo in Charlottesville, Virginia, where his grandmother was a close friend of Thomas Jefferson, and as a result of that relationship Nicholas and his brothers were invited to come to Monticello for an extended visit in 1817. There Nicholas promptly fell in love with Mr. Jefferson’s granddaughter Virginia Jefferson Randolph (a tall girl of “not great personal charms,” as Trist’s outspoken mother described her) and asked permission to marry her. Virginia’s mother and Nicholas’ found this prospect chilling, since he was only eighteen and she seventeen; September and young Trist’s departure for the Military Academy at West Point came none too soon to suit either of them. At the academy the new cadet showed certain traits that remained with him all his life: he hated restrictions and discipline; he was frequently ill (with his frail constitution— he was 6 feet tall and weighed only 120 pounds—he had difficulty throwing off colds); he worried incessantly; he wrote interminable letters to his family and friends; and he persisted in a belief that Virginians were a very special people, superior to the inhabitants of other parts of the country. At West Point he became a close friend of young Andrew Jackson Donelson, nephew of the hero of New Orleans—an association that was to have an important effect on his later career.
In the summer of 1821 Trist returned to Monticello, determined to quit West Point, marry Virginia Randolph, and take up the law. This time he was granted permission to propose to his inamorata but lost his nerve at the crucial moment and instead wrote her a letter the next day: “The interview of yesterday,” he admitted, “was for the purpose of making a declaration of a passion that you must have often read in me.” But once again he was rebuffed, this time by the girl herself, who did not want to leave her family just then and suggested that Trist return to Louisiana—where he had grown up—and read law there. He followed her advice, and three years later he was back at Monticello, where they were married at last on September 11, 1824.
Trist continued his study of the law with Thomas Jefferson and became the feeble ex-President’s part-time secretary, riding and walking companion, and confidant. In long talks together Jefferson spoke to him about his views on all the events and personalities of the day, and the old man and the young one developed a truly close friendship. When the Trists’ first child was born in May, 1826, she was named for Jefferson’s wife; the baby was Jefferson’s first great-grandchild and the only one he lived to see, for by this time he was confined to bed most of the time. Trist was with him almost constantly, writing his last letters and conversing for hours with the man who had befriended him. The old statesman was determined to live until July 4, the fiftieth anniversary of the Declaration of Independence he had written, and his last weeks were a triumph of will. All through the night of July 3 Trist remained at his side; with an effort Jefferson asked if it were midnight yet, and when Trist replied that it was, the dying man smiled and murmured, “Ah, just as I wished.” A few hours later he was dead.
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.
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. …
Such a background was not one to make Scott warm to Trist, and what was to have been a co-operative mission between the two was immediately thrown into jeopardy. Still in the dark about the contents of the proposed treaty, Scott wrote an outraged answer to Trist’s first letter. It began: “I see that the secretary of War proposes to degrade me, requiring that I, as commander-inchiefof this army, shall defer to you, the chief clerk in the Dep’t of State, the question of continuing or discontinuing hostilities.” After getting that out of his system, he indicated that since there was no real Mexican government, he could not forward the dispatch anyway.
Here Nicholas Trist, had he had his wits about him, would have recognized his initial error and attempted to patch things up with the General. But no, he sent off one of his endless communications—an eighteen-page letter that Scott termed “sarcastic, burning, and impolite.” By now Folk’s peace mission was completely off the rails. Scott, assuming Trist to be an ally of Polk and Buchanan (both of whom he mistrusted because they had opposed his appointment as commanding general), now believed that the government in Washington was deliberately trying to prevent him from having a voice in a truce with the Mexicans. Trist, no less suspicious, wrote his wife that Scott was “decidedly the greatest imbecile that I have ever had anything to do with” and soon was exchanging further angry letters with him. By May 29—more than three weeks after Trist arrived to negotiate a peace with the Mexican government—he had still not even met the U.S. Commander in Chief, who wrote him a curt note referring to one of Trist’s thirty-page onslaughts as a “farrago of impudence, conceit, and arrogance.”
Fortunately for posterity, both men were now being taken to task by their chiefs: Buchanan wrote Trist telling him that this was no time for a personal vendetta— the government, he said, could not indulge its representatives in a quarrel; Marcy told off Scott in similar fashion. Despite their differences and their abraded nerve ends, both men were good Americans, and they soon realized how detrimental to the nation’s interests their conduct was. Nicholas Trist took the initial step to heal the rift: on June 25 he sent Scott a note that was for the first time free of rancor, and Scott replied at once, saying that he would be quite willing to forget the recent unpleasantness. Just then Trist fell ill, causing Scott to feel more compassionate toward him; on July 6 a box of guava marmalade was delivered to the diplomat’s sickbed from the Commander in Chief, and with this peace offering the feud ended as suddenly as it had begun. A few days later the two met for the first time and established an immediate entente cordiale ; soon contrite letters were on their way to Washington from both of them to their respective departments, requesting that the earlier, angry letters of complaint be removed from the files.
But by this time, naturally enough, the President of the United States was thoroughly disgusted with both his representatives. In addition to what he knew from other sources of the Trist-Scott feud, he had been receiving confidential dispatches from Scott’s second-incommand, General Gideon J. Pillow, Polk’s former law partner in Tennessee, who lost no opportunity to put Scott (and, after the rapprochement , Trist) in the worst possible light. Pillow was no fool; he wanted the top job himself, and thanks in part to his machinations, Polk gave renewed consideration to removing Scott from command.
Because of the horrendous delays in getting word from the battlefield to Washington—it often took three or four weeks for a message to reach the capital—there was an Alice-in-Wonderland aspect to the whole affair by this time, so that while Polk fumed at the White House over the lack of progress, events in Mexico were actually pushing matters toward a settlement. In August, Trist met for the first time with the Mexican peace commissioners, who balked at parting with Texas south of the Nueces River and a portion of Upper California. Since the Rio Grande boundary was a sine qua non of Trist’s instructions, he broke off the talks; but he agreed to submit the Mexican proposal to Washington. Meanwhile the course of the war made peace inevitable: on September 14 the Americans captured Mexico City, Santa Anna and the government fled, and Trist observed that “total dissolution” of the country was at hand. In this state of chaos Mexico would neither negotiate nor fight.
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.
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.
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.