Nicholas Philip Trist

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Nicholas Philip Trist

Nicholas Philip Trist (1800-1874), an American lawyer and diplomat, was best known as the negotiator of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which ended the war with Mexico in 1848.

Nicholas Trist was born in Charlottesville, Va., on June 2, 1800. He attended the U.S. Military Academy at West Point but did not graduate, turning instead to the law, which he studied in Thomas Jefferson's law office. He was Jefferson's private secretary (1825-1826) and married his granddaughter Virginia Jefferson Randolph. In 1829 Trist received appointment as a clerk in the Department of State, where he remained until 1833. He then went to Havana as consul, staying in that post for 8 years.

When James K. Polk became president in 1845, Trist became chief clerk of the Department of State. Two years later Polk selected him for a most delicate mission—as agent to conclude peace with Mexico, with which the United States had been at war since 1846. Trist spoke Spanish fluently, was able and intelligent, and had experience in dealing with Latin American affairs. He was to attach himself to Gen. Winfield Scott's army and begin negotiations when the military situation seemed opportune.

Trist joined Scott in May 1847. Two months later Scott began his advance on Mexico. In two smashing battles he reached the gates of the capital, forcing the Mexicans to call for an armistice, which he granted. Trist's preliminary negotiations for a peace were rejected, causing Scott to move on Mexico City that September.

Meanwhile, Polk decided to recall Trist lest his presence lead the Mexicans to think that the United States was so eager for peace that it would accept unsatisfactory terms. The letter of recall reached Trist on Nov. 16, 1847, but he decided to ignore it. Knowing the political situation in Mexico, he believed that if he were to go home the opportunity to make peace might be lost. On December 3 he informed the Mexican leaders of his readiness to negotiate. He sat down at once with their emissaries, and on Feb. 2, 1848, the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo was signed.

Polk had no choice but to accept the treaty. It was a good treaty and did, indeed, incorporate his minimum demands as set forth in Trist's instructions of April 15, 1847. But Polk was furious with Trist for disobeying the order to return home and punished him by dismissing him from government service. Trist returned to practicing law. In 1870 he was appointed postmaster at Alexandria, Va., a post he held until his death on Feb. 11, 1874.

Further Reading

Trist's career is recounted in Jesse S. Reeves, American Diplomacy under Tyler and Polk (1907); Robert Selph Henry, The Story of the Mexican War (1950); and Charles L. Dufour, The Mexican War: A Compact History, 1846-1848 (1968).

Additional Sources

Drexler, Robert W., Guilty of making peace: a biography of Nicholas P. Trist, Lanham: University Press of America, 1991. □

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Nicholas Philip Trist, 1800–1874, American diplomat, b. Charlottesville, Va. He attended West Point, studied law under Thomas Jefferson, whose granddaughter he married, and was private secretary to Andrew Jackson. He served as U.S. consul (1833–41) in Havana, Cuba, and was chief clerk of the Dept. of State when he was sent (1847) to Mexico as a special agent to conduct negotiations to end the Mexican War. A short armistice was reached after the battles of Contreras and Churubusco (Aug., 1847), but negotiations were unsuccessful and war was resumed. President Polk had Trist recalled. Trist had reopened negotiations before his recall arrived and decided to ignore the order. He succeeded in negotiating the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. Polk supported the treaty but declared Trist in disgrace. Trist did not recover his unpaid salary and expenses until 1871.