by Paul R. Spitzzeri
Nicholas P. Who? Today is the 170th anniversary of the signing of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which marked the formal conclusion of the Mexican-American War, a part of which was the conquest of Alta California by the United States. The event came just nine days after James Marshall discovered gold on the American River in the Sierra Nevada Mountains east of Sacramento and the pair of major events signified an enormous transformation for California.
The American negotiator of the treaty is the subject of this “Portrait Gallery” entry, featuring a photograph from the Homestead’s collection. Nicolas Philip Trist was born at Charlottesville, Virginia in June 1800 and his grandmother was a friend of Thomas Jefferson. When he was 17, Trist and his brothers were invited for an extended visit to the former president’s estate at Monticello.
While there Trist met Jefferson’s granddaughter, Virginia Randolph, whom he later married. He also studied law with Jefferson and became his secretary and confidant, to the extent that he was at Jefferson’s deathbed the day of his death, 4 July 1826, exactly a half century after the signing of the Declaration of Independence (Jefferson’s long-time friend, John Adams, died the same day.)
Trist passed the bar in Virginia even as he served as Jefferson’s estate administrator and then was given a clerkship at the State Department, beginning a long career in government service at Washington. Being a friend of the nephew of Andrew Jackson, Trist was a frequent visitor to the White House during Jackson’s two terms as president (1829-1837.) With fluency in Spanish, he became a key figure in the State Department’s dealings with Latin American countries and was a correspondent for the department with Russia. Trist also briefly served as Jackson’s secretary.
He then spent almost a decade as United States consul in Cuba, though his tenure was marked by controversy and accusations of negligence to his duties. Although an investigation by a congressional committee cleared him, Trist was relieved of his position in 1841 and left the political scene for a few years.
When James K. Polk won the presidency in 1844, Trist wound up back in Washington, working as chief clerk for his longtime friend James Buchanan, the new secretary of state and later president from 1857-1861. A letter of recommendation from a dying Jackson helped secure the position.
So, when Polk needed an emissary to work on a treaty with Mexico, even as the unpopular war continued, he chose Trist, sending a draft document from Buchanan and the State Department and imploring Trist to keep the matter confidential, though, as today, leaks to the press were common and the news got out.
Unfortunately, Trist, who arrived at Veracruz in early May 1847, did not present himself to General Winfield Scott as ordered and the commander of American forces in Mexico immediately took a disliking to the diplomat. While Buchanan lectured Trist about his conduct, the Secretary of War (now Defense) William Marcy did the same for Scott. Eventually the general and the negotiator patched up their differences as the war turned better for the Americans.
News traveled slowly back to Washington, however, so, unaware that Mexico City was taken and the Santa Anna administration collapsed, and informed that Trist was not particularly effective in his negotiations, Buchanan wrote to the emissary that he was being recalled back home. The situation worsened when a letter from Trist arrived a couple of days later, in which it was obvious his negotiations with the Mexicans went far beyond the instructions he was given.
Polk was livid, yet no replacement arrived by the beginning of December, so he resumed negotiations on his own initiative. The president was even more worked up when a massive 65-page later from Trist arrived, explaining his reasons for continuing to work on a treaty, claiming the matter was too far advanced to wait. Polk ordered Trist to leave the army’s headquarters and was also in the process of replacing Scott with Zachary Taylor as commander.
At the end of December, formal negotiations at Guadalupe Hidalgo, now part of Mexico City, were launched and, despite not having a scribe to write down notes and handling it himself, Trist worked for the following month to complete the treaty, finishing the document by 25 January 1848. Among the provisions Trist approved was a guarantee that lands granted under Spain and Mexico would be automatically guaranteed under the new American regime.
A week or so of delays finally led to the signing on 2 February, but Trist remained in Mexico to give testimony in a hearing about Scott’s conduct and sent the treaty back to Washington with a New Orleans journalist. While Polk, who decided not to run for a second term in 1848, was still angry at Trist, he concluded the document met the conditions that were specified the previous April when the negotiator was appointed and sent the treaty to Congress.
While it generally met with the approval of the House and Senate, though not after a debate about whether it should have been pursued after Trist’s recall, one of the articles stricken from the treaty was that provision about land grants, including those in California. Yet, there are many people who still believe that, because it was included in the signed treaty from 2 February, that it remained part of the ratified document. This, however, is not the case. On 10 March, the Senate approved the treaty by a vote of 38-14 with four abstentions.
As for Trist, he was arrested for not leaving Mexico and was forced to return to the United States, arriving in Washington in May and out of a job. Not only that, he was not paid past mid-November, despite the long hours of labor after that point. Failing in a petition for his pay, Trist moved to Pennsylvania and found work as a railroad clerk, a far cry from his heights as a treaty negotiator.
He did, finally, receive his back pay in 1870, just after he lost his job and then President Ulysses S. Grant appointed him postmaster at Alexandria, Virginia, which came with a decent salary. The sinecure, however, was not enjoyed for long, as Trist died in early 1874 at the age of 73. He has been largely forgotten, mainly a consequence of Polk’s dismissive attitude towards him and because of the deeply controversial and unpopular war he worked hard to bring to a diplomatic conclusion.