Nicholas Trist

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Nicholas Trist

Born June 2, 1800 Charlottesville, Virginia

Died February 11, 1874 Alexandria, Virginia

American diplomat and lawyer

Askilled diplomat who spoke Spanish fluently and was very familiar with the situation in Mexico, Nicholas Trist was serving as chief clerk of the State Department (the part of the government that handles relations with foreign countries) when he was chosen for an important task. Trist was to accompany the army of General Winfield Scott (1786-1866; see biographical entry), then on the move toward Mexico City, and be prepared to negotiate if a chance for peace should arise. The chance did not come until the end of 1847, after the U.S. Army had captured Mexico's capital. In a controversial action, Trist defied an order from President James K. Polk (1795-1849; see biographical entry) to return to Washington, D.C. Instead, Trist stayed in Mexico to work out the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, the agreement that finally ended the Mexican American War.

Growing up in Louisiana

Born in Charlottesville, Virginia, Nicholas Trist was one of two sons of Hore Browse Trist, a lawyer, and Mary Louisa Brown Trist. His grandmother, Elizabeth Trist, was a friend of fellow Virginian Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826), who served as president of the United States from 1801 to 1809. When Trist was a small child his father moved to the frontier town of Natchez (in what is now the state of Mississippi) to become the territory's tax collector. After he moved to the even newer territory of Louisiana, his wife and sons joined him.

The family lived a happy, prosperous life in New Orleans until the death of Trist's father in 1804. Only a month later, Trist's mother married another lawyer, Philip Livingston Jones. Attending the local school, Trist demonstrated a gift for learning foreign languages as well as beautiful penman-ship (handwriting). When Jones died in 1810, Trist's mother quickly married again, this time to St. Julien Tournillon, the wealthy owner of a plantation (large farm). At this time, Trist and his brother were enrolled in a school called Orleans College, where they received a good education in language, history, and government.

From Monticello to West Point

Leaving school in 1817, Trist was unsure what to do next. He accepted an invitation to visit Monticello, the Charlottesville, Virginia, home of the now retired Thomas Jefferson. Six feet tall and slim with dark, curly hair and dark eyes, Trist was handsome and had a charming, pleasant personality that made him a popular figure among Jefferson's extensive family. He soon fell in love with Jefferson's granddaughter, Virginia Jefferson Randolph, although it would be several years before he would declare his feelings publicly.

In 1818, Jefferson arranged for Trist to receive an appointment to the National Military Academy, which had recently been established at West Point, New York. He adapted well to the program of rigorous academics, drilling in all kinds of weather, and stiff discipline. His ability to speak French fluently allowed him to become a special assistant and translator for a French-speaking professor. Nevertheless, Trist found that he was not interested in a military career, and he left the academy after three years.

Returning to Monticello, Trist became engaged to Virginia Randolph. The prospect of having to support a family spurred him to pursue a career as a lawyer. Leaving his fiancée behind, Trist returned to Louisiana in 1821 to study law with Edward Livingston, the father of an old school friend. The next few years passed frustratingly slowly, as Livingston was often too busy to work with Trist, and as Trist became involved, after the unexpected death of his mother, in legal struggles with his stepfather. In the summer of 1824, Trist returned to Monticello to study law with Jefferson and also to serve as his part-time secretary. It was at this time that he and Virginia were married.

A job at the State Department

Jefferson died in the summer of 1826, and three months later, Trist passed the Virginia bar (the test that qualifies attorneys to practice law). He served as executor of Jefferson's will (the person who makes sure it is carried out properly) and for a brief period was a half-owner of a newspaper. Unenthusiastic about practicing law, Trist was in search of a new career. Through the help of a relative, he was offered a clerk's job at the State Department by Kentucky statesman Henry Clay (1777-1852), who was then serving as secretary of state.

The job did not pay much, but Trist accepted it and moved to Washington, D.C., in November 1828. He lived alone in a boarding house and his work, which was mostly copying letters and documents that others had produced, was boring, but he soon began making friends and developing a reputation as an intelligent man and a hard worker. Trist even met the new president, Andrew Jackson (1767-1845), through a West Point classmate who was Jackson's nephew. In 1829, Trist's family, which now included two children, joined him in Washington.

Representing the United States in Cuba

In early 1830, Trist began serving as a kind of unofficial secretary for Jackson, a position that brought him very close to the president but left him less time for his State Department duties. Three years later, as a reward for his dedication, Jackson appointed Trist to the post of U.S. Consul (the official representative of the U.S. government) in Havana, Cuba. In this position he was to promote the interests of U.S. citizens who were living and working in and around the Caribbean nation. Trist arrived in Cuba in March 1834. For the first two years, he stayed there without his family, but in November 1836, his wife and three children joined him in Havana.

Trist's tenure as U.S. Consul was somewhat marred when a group of sea captains charged him with neglecting their interests. As a result of the accusations, he had to return to Washington to answer the charges, but he was able to defend himself successfully. With the election of a new president (William Henry Harrison; 1773-1841) in 1840, Trist had to leave his position as U.S. Consul, but he decided to remain in Cuba to farm and perhaps write political articles. Neither of these pursuits proved profitable, however, and the family became so strapped for cash that they had to rent out rooms in their house.

In August 1845, Trist returned to Washington to take up a prestigious new job as deputy, or chief clerk, to the new secretary of state, James Buchanan (1791-1868). The next few years would prove especially challenging ones for those involved in U.S. foreign affairs, for war with Mexico was now looming on the horizon. Ten years earlier, Texas had declared its independence from Mexico, although Mexico never officially recognized this independence. At the same time, there was a strong movement to make Texas part of the United States. In addition, expansionists (those who sought more land for U.S. citizens to settle in) had their eyes on the Mexican territories of California and New Mexico.

The Mexican American War begins

The March 1845, annexation of Texas resulted in the cutting off of diplomatic ties between the United States and Mexico. By the time Trist began his new job, President James Polk had sent troops to the border between the two nations. Following an attack by Mexican troops on a small unit of U.S. soldiers, the United States declared war on May 13, 1846. General Zachary Taylor (1784-1850; see biographical entry) soon had the Mexican army on the run as the U.S. Army won several important battles in northeastern Mexico, while General Stephen W. Kearny (1794-1848; see biographical entry) led the Army of the West in successful conquests of California and Santa Fe, New Mexico.

In April 1847, when it became clear that the United States would have to take Mexico City (the nation's capital) to win the war, General Winfield Scott launched an invasion from the coastal city of Vera Cruz and begun the long march westward. By now this war that many had assumed would be over quickly and easily was in its second year. There had been some major victories, but many U.S. soldiers had died to secure those victories, and it appeared that many more might have to perish before Mexico would surrender. Polk and Buchanan preferred to seek a peaceful resolution. Thus they began to look around for a diplomat they could send south, someone who could travel with Scott's army and be on hand whenever and wherever an opportunity to negotiate with the Mexicans should arise.

A challenging new assignment

Buchanan soon suggested his able, intelligent deputy, the Spanish-speaking, calm-mannered Trist, who knew both State Department protocol (official rules and standards) and Mexican politics well and who was, like Polk and Buchanan, a member of the Democratic Party. Historians have since debated whether Trist was really qualified for this important job. Some have seen him as naïve and unrealistic, while others have called him conceited and self-important; still others claim he was chosen because he was conscientious and hardworking. In any case, Polk accepted Buchanan's advice and sent Trist to Mexico.

Meeting with Trist, Polk told him that he must not bother Scott with the details of his mission, advice that would result in a lot of hard feelings between Scott (whom Polk detested) and Trist. Polk authorized Trist to offer Mexico $20 million to $25 million in exchange for Texas, California, and New Mexico. In addition, Mexico would have to recognize the Rio Grande river as the border between Texas and Mexico, and not the Nueces River, which was located farther north and had previously been the border.

An exchange of nasty notes

Although he was not particularly happy about leaving his family for the unknown dangers and difficulties of war-torn Mexico, Trist accepted the assignment and headed south. He arrived on May 6, after Scott's army had won the battles of Vera Cruz and Cerro Gordo and was now resting at the town of Jalapa. Trist sent a brief note to Scott, instructing him to send a copy of the peace proposal to the Mexican authorities. Scott was enraged to be receiving orders from a civilian (and one who had only just arrived on the scene), and deeply insulted that Polk had over-ridden his own role as general in charge of military operations. Thus, Scott sent Trist a sarcastic, scornful response, making it clear that no mere clerk was going to order him around.

Trist, too, was outraged, for he felt that he was only following orders from the president. He wrote Scott an eighteen-page letter defending himself. On May 14, Trist joined the army in Jalapa, and soon sent Scott another note in which he warned the general not to interfere with Trist's mission. Scott responded with another insulting letter to Trist. This nasty exchange was getting out of hand, and finally both Trist and Scott, who had not yet met in person, were told by their superiors to stop quarreling. They both began to cool off, and a real reconciliation occurred when Scott, hearing that Trist had become sick, sent him a gift of guava marmalade. This had been one of Trist's favorite treats when he lived in Cuba, and it helped him to think much more favorably of Scott.

Meanwhile, Trist had managed to get a British diplomat to deliver his peace proposal to the Mexicans. On this diplomat's suggestion, Trist now gave an unknown Mexican official $10,000 to help push the peace process forward. This action, which was really a bribe, produced no results, however, and the U.S. Army continued to move toward Mexico City, which they reached in early August. On August 20, the United States won the battles of Contreras and Churubusco, and the Mexicans requested that peace negotiations be opened. So Scott called an armistice (halt in the fighting) and Trist prepared to negotiate.

The war comes to an end

During the thirty years that had passed since Mexico had, gained independence from Spain in 1821, Mexico had suffered from a weak and unstable government, with the country's leadership changing fifty times. The current head of the government, General Antonio López de Santa Anna (1794-1876; see biographical entry), was also its top military leader. A dynamic figure who could rally thousands of Mexicans to follow him, Santa Anna did not always do what was best for his country. And now he directed his peace negotiators to make demands that the United States considered unreasonable. Finally, both nations began to accuse the other of stalling, and the armistice was called off on September 6.

A week later, Scott's army invaded Mexico City and the Mexicans were forced to surrender. Santa Anna fled, leaving his government shattered. After a few days, Scott had gotten the chaotic situation in the city under control, but a strong mood of instability still prevailed. No Mexican leaders authorized to undertake peace talks were emerging. Meanwhile, across the border, members of the All-Mexico Movement called for the United States to take control of all of Mexico. Like many other U.S. citizens, however, Trist believed that such an action would be morally wrong, racially distasteful (racist beliefs held that the "pure blood of white Americans would be tainted through contact with Mexicans' mixed racial heritage), and disastrous in practical terms.

A controversial decision

Faced with the monumental task of rebuilding their government, the Mexicans finally managed to form a congress. They elected Manuel de la Pena y Pena (1789-1850), who was known to have moderate political views and who was on good terms with Trist, as interim (temporary) president. Both he and Trist were feeling optimistic about the possibility of peace talks beginning soon when, on November 16, Trist received an order from Polk, who demanded that Trist return to Washington immediately. Worried over the unexpected length of the war and its cost in both money and lives, Polk wanted it to end quickly, and he blamed both his long-time enemy Scott, and now Trist, for what he saw as an unreasonable delay in getting the Mexicans to negotiate. However, because of the delay in communications at the time, Polk was unaware that the peace talks were very close to beginning.

Even though Trist had been longing to return to his own country and family, he was dismayed by Polk's order. Nevertheless, he started to make preparations for his departure, which was delayed while he waited for an escort to take him across the dangerous territory between Mexico City and Vera Cruz. Meanwhile, Mexico had appointed its three peace commissioners. Pena and his fellow moderates were shocked to hear that Trist was leaving, and they predicted that Mexico would soon collapse into chaos.

Gradually, encouraged by several associates, including Scott, who was indirect about it, and journalist James Freaner of the New Orleans Delta newspaper, who was not, Trist began to change his mind about leaving. In a letter to his wife, as quoted in Wallace Ohrt's Defiant Peacemaker: Nicholas Trist in the Mexican War, Trist wrote that "Knowing it to be the very last chance, and impressed with the dreadful consequences to our country which cannot fail to attend the loss of that chance," he was going to ignore Polk's order.

Trist sent a sixty-one-page letter to Buchanan explaining in great detail the reasons for his actions. On January 2, 1848, in the nearby town of Guadalupe Hidalgo, Trist went into secret negotiations with Mexico's three peace commissioners. Thirteen days later, Polk received the news of Trist's defiance and was enraged. As quoted in Ohrt's book, Polk wrote in his diary that this proved "that [Trist] is destitute of honor or principle and that he has proved himself to be a very base man." Polk immediately cut off Trist's pay from November 16, 1847 (the day the recall order had arrived). At the same time, he relieved Scott of his command, replacing him with General William O. Butler.

Trist may or may not have been aware that his career in government service was now over. In any case, he continued with the difficult task of forging peace with Mexico. As the sole U.S. representative, he had to do all of the work himself, performing the jobs of secretary, lawyer, file clerk, and negotiator simultaneously. He worked straight through the month of January with hardly a break, emerging on February 2, with a signed peace agreement.

The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo

Trist may have been working in defiance of Polk's orders, but he carried out his original assignment faithfully, achieving a peace treaty that benefited the United States. Under the treaty's terms, the Mexicans recognized the Rio Grande as the border between Texas and Mexico. (In addition, Trist managed to establish a point several miles south of the important port city of San Diego as the border between California and Mexico.) Mexico agreed to cede (give up) the territories of California and New Mexico to the United States, in exchange for $15 million (much less than the higher figure originally discussed by Polk and Trist) and the cancellation of debts owed to the United States. Mexicans who were living in the affected territories could choose either to become U.S. citizens or to return to Mexico; if they had not chosen after one year, they would automatically become U.S. citizens.

The Mexican representatives emerged from the peace talks in shock at the loss of so much land (more than 500,000 square miles, or about two-fifths of Mexico's total territory) and, as one of them told Trist, with a deep sense of shame that the war had ended this way. Upon hearing about the treaty, many people in the United States, especially those who had opposed the war from the start, would also feel ashamed, for the United States had crossed the border of another nation, killed many of its citizens, destroyed much of its property, and taken its land by force. According to Ohrt, even Trist would later comment that "my feeling of shame as an American was far stronger than [the Mexicans'] could be."

Having taken this bold step, Trist was anxious to bring the peace process to a speedy conclusion. His journalist friend James Freaner agreed to deliver the document to Washington, D.C., and made the trip in a near-record seventeen days. When he received the treaty, Polk felt so angry at Trist that he wanted to tear it up, but when he looked it over he saw that it had been faithfully and well executed, he changed his mind. On February 23, he sent the treaty on to Congress. After a certain amount of debate between those who wanted the United States to claim even more Mexican territory and those who were eager to get the whole affair over and done with, the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo was ratified (officially approved by both houses) on March 10.

A forgotten public servant

Trist had long been relieved of his official duties, but he stayed on for several months in Mexico. Finally, he was forced either to leave or face arrest by a U.S. military officer, so he returned to the United States. His diplomatic career now over, he had to find another way to make a living. The next years were hard ones for him and his family. They moved to Pennsylvania, where Trist's wife opened a boarding school. The family then moved to New York, where Trist briefly practiced law. After moving back to Philadelphia, Trist got a job as a clerk with a railroad company. He remained there for the next twenty years, eventually working his way up to the position of paymaster.

Trist was horrified by the outbreak of the Civil War (1861-65) but, despite his southern background, remained a staunch supporter of the Union. Although it seemed that he had been forgotten, there were in fact a few people who remembered his contribution to U.S. history. One of these was Massachusetts senator Charles Sumner, who made a speech to the senate in which he said that it was wrong that Trist had never been paid for his work on the treaty. Thus the Senate voted to pay Trist the $14,500 (plus interest) that they believed he was still owed. In addition, he was offered the job of postmaster of Alexandria, Virginia. He was serving in this position when, following a stroke, he died at the age of seventy-three.

Since Trist's death, scholars and diplomats have pondered his role in the Mexican American War. It is unclear whether he overstepped his bounds, or whether he was justified in defying a direct order of the president of the United States. Some scholars believe that Trist acted in the best interest of his country, based on his own knowledge of the situation—knowl-edge that the president and others in Washington could not have had, given the difficulties of communication of that period. In any case, Trist's actions did succeed in bringing to a timely end a bloody conflict that had damaged, in ways both physical and psychological, both Mexico and the United States.

For More Information


Drexler, Robert W. Guilty of Making Peace: A Biography of Nicholas P. Trist. Lanham: University Press of American, 1991.

Ohrt, Wallace. Defiant Peacemaker: Nicholas Trist in the Mexican War. College Station: Texas A & M Press, 1997.


Farnham, Thomas J. "Nicholas Trist and James Freaner and the Mission to Mexico." Arizona and the West 11, No. 3 (Autumn 1969): 247-60.

Nortrup, Jack. "Nicholas Trist's Mission to Mexico: A Reinterpretation." Southwestern Historical Quarterly 71, No. 3 (1968): 921-46.

Sears, Louis M. "Nicholas Trist: A Diplomat with Ideals." Mississippi Valley Historical Review 11 (1924): 85-98.

Web Sites

Landeros, David. "The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, and the American Gain." Mexican American War. [Online] Available (accessed on January 31, 2003).

"The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo." Our Documents. [Online] Available (accessed on January 31, 2003).

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