Vagneur: Nicholas Philip Trist’s unsung role in American history
We always thought there was a link missing, a beer from the six-pack or a card from the deck, if you will, of some who came here and found limited or even exceptional success. We always figured it was a fluke they could succeed here because it was fairly clear they likely couldn’t function anywhere else on the planet.
If you believe those old ski bum stories about Ph.Ds washing dishes in restaurants, trustfunders sleeping in their cars all winter, or ne’er-do-wells suddenly becoming the proprietors of ski lodges or successful local politicians, you might identify with the hero in this week’s story, a man who figures large in American history but whom you likely never heard of.
Nicholas Philip Trist (1800-1874), was born of humble beginnings, but the fact that his grandmother had provided room and board in Philadelphia for Thomas Jefferson and his daughter Martha after the death of Jefferson’s wife gave Trist entry into a world unavailable to most.
Jefferson’s granddaughter, Virginia, became Trist’s wife, and Jefferson his mentor. Trist was a frequent guest at Monticello, a brilliant mind who studied law with Jefferson and through this association became a confidant not only of Jefferson but of James Madison, Alexis de Tocqueville and Andrew Jackson.
But strangely, Trist shied away from the stellar law practice that was almost guaranteed him, simply because he had an inordinate fear of talking in front of people. In fact, he had proposed to Virginia by letter, even though they both were living under the same roof at Monticello.
Neither was he cut out to be a politician, for in his own words, he was taken aback by the “pettiness, greed and dishonesty” he found to exist in Washington, D.C. He could have been talking about last year or last week.
Andrew Jackson appointed Trist to the consulship in Havana, Cuba, an elevated position, but Trist, on his own without his mentor and confidants to guide him, became a certified failure. When shifting political winds ended his job, he stayed on in Havana, buying a 37-acre farm in the hopes of selling vegetables in town. His wife was forced to take on boarders to make ends meet.
Ten years later, Andrew Jackson, who never forgot a protege, got him appointed as chief clerk of the State Department (it’s all about who you know) where he became fast friends with Secretary of State James Buchanan. Buchanan and President James K. Polk had, through misconception and political ambition, started the 1846 war with Mexico.
Worried that Gen. Winfield Scott, a potential presidential candidate, might become an American hero by invading Mexico City and winning the war (making him a viable presidential candidate, ending Buchanan’s presidential ambitions), Polk and Buchanan sent Trist to Mexico to arrange a treaty with the Mexicans. Fully expecting dismal failure on Trist’s part, such fiasco was expected to cast a chill over Scott’s reputation as a war hero.
Uncharacteristically, Trist became good friends with Gen. Scott, opened a line of communication with Mexican warrior Santa Anna, and as negotiations moved forward, impressed President Manual de la Pena y Pena with his honesty, and many in the Mexican government looked on Trist with respect and trust.
News of this rankled the manipulative Polk, who immediately recalled Trist from his post in Mexico. In a flash of brilliant courage, and in consultation with Scott, Trist ignored Polk’s abjuration of his duties and continued negotiations with Mexico, strictly with no more authority than any other American citizen. The Treaty of Peace, Friendship, Limits and Settlement, ending the war with Mexico, was signed Feb. 2, 1848, by Nicholas Trist and the government of Mexico.
The treaty was favorable to the United States, included all the terms that Democrat James Polk had originally insisted on and Polk was forced to send it to the Senate for ratification. And the war with Mexico was over: The Rio Grande became the boundary between Mexico and Texas and Upper California above Baja was ceded to the U.S., along with New Mexico and a sliver of western Colorado.
This should have been Trist’s crowning glory, but the chagrined Polk took all the credit for himself, leaving Trist to hang and twist in the wind. Polk’s government refused even to repay Trist for his two year’s expenses. Twenty-three years later, Trist, a frail old man, finally received his money.
Trist, realizing he had been played, and played hard, refused to return to Washington to explain the whole story or himself, and of his own volition, became an obscure clerk and paymaster for a Pennsylvania railroad.
Nicholas P. Trist should have been given credit for ending the war with Mexico, rather than James Polk, and declared an American hero. But that’s politics. And like those wunderkinds who slither through Aspen from time to time, he is all but forgotten to history.
Tony Vagneur writes here on Saturdays and welcomes your comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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