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Nicholas Trist

Nicholas Philip Trist

Nicholas Philip Trist (June 2, 1800 - February 11, 1874) was born in Charlottesville, Virginia and was the grandson of James Madison's former Philadelphia landlady.[1] He attended West Point and studied law under Thomas Jefferson, whose granddaughter (Virginia Jefferson Randolph, 1818–1875) he married.[2] He was also private secretary to Andrew Jackson, whom he greatly admired.[3] Trist served as a conduit for James Madison to President Jackson.[4]

Trist was appointed U.S. consul in Havana, Cuba by President Jackson.[5] Shortly after arriving there in 1833, Trist invested in a sugar plantation deal that went bad. He made no secret of his pro-slavery views. According to members of a British commission sent to Cuba to investigate violations of the treaty ending the African slave trade, Trist became corruptly involved in the creation of false documents designed to mask illegal sales of Africans into bondage. For a time Trist also served as the consul in Cuba for Portugal, another country whose nationals were active in the illegal slave trade. Meanwhile, Trist became very unpopular with New England ship captains who believed he was more interested in maintaining good relations with Cuban officials than in defending their interests. Captains and merchants pressed members of Congress for Trist's removal. In late 1838 or early 1839, the British commissioner Dr. Richard Robert Madden wrote U.S. abolitionists about Trist's misuse of his post to promote slaving and earn fees from the fraudulent document schemes. A pamphlet detailing Madden's charges was published shortly before the beginning of the sensational Amistad affair, when Africans just sold into slavery in Cuba managed to seize control of the schooner in which they were being transported from Havana to provincial plantations. Madden traveled to the United States where he gave expert testimony in the trial of the Amistad Africans, explaining how false documents were used to make it appear that Africans were Cuban-born slaves. This exposure of the activities of the U.S. consul general, coupled with the angry complaints of ship captains, caused a Congressional investigation and eventual recall of Trist. (Neither Trist nor Madden appear in the film Amistad directed by Steven Spielberg, although there are brief Cuba scenes that suggest how the illegal slave trade was carried on there.)

During the Mexican-American War, President James K. Polk sent Trist to negotiate with the Government of Mexico. He was ordered to arrange an armistice with Mexico for up to $30 million U.S. dollars, depending on whether he could obtain Baja California and additional southern territory along with the already planned acquisitions of Alta California, the Nueces Strip, and New Mexico. If he could not obtain Baja California and additional territory to the south, then he was instructed to offer $20 million.[6] President Polk was unhappy with his envoy's conduct and prompted him to order Trist to return to the United States. General Winfield Scott was also unhappy with Trist's presence in Mexico, although he and Scott quickly reconciled and began a lifelong friendship.

However, the wily diplomat ignored the instructions. Known to have an over-fluid pen, he wrote a 65 page letter back to Washington, D.C. explaining his reasons for staying in Mexico.[7] He capitalized on a brilliant opportunity to continue bargaining with Santa Anna. Trist successfully negotiated the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo on February 2, 1848. Trist's negotiation was controversial among expansionist Democrats since he had ignored Polk's instructions and settled on a smaller cession of Mexican territory than many expansionists wanted and felt he could have obtained. A part of this instruction was to specifically include Baja California. However, as part of the negotiations, Trist drew the line directly West from Yuma to Tijuana/San Diego instead of from Yuma south to the Gulf of California, which left all of Baja California, though almost separate from, a part of Mexico. Polk was furious. Travel time for renegotiation was a month each way. Polk had no treaty during his Presidency at the time. He reluctantly approved. Trist later commented on the treaty:

"My feeling of shame as an American was far stronger than the Mexicans' could be".

Upon return to Washington, however, Trist was immediately fired for his insubordination, and his expenses since the time of the recall order were not paid. Trist did not recover his expenses until 1871. Despite a commitment to free trade, Trist supported Republican Abraham Lincoln for President in 1860. While the Lincoln administration did not offer Trist any patronage, he did serve as postmaster of Alexandria, Virginia during the Grant administration.

Trist was also a lawyer, planter, and businessman. He died in Alexandria, Virginia on February 11, 1874, aged 73.


  1. ^ "James Madison, Richard Brookhiser, 2011, p, 241"
  2. ^ Greenberg, Amy. A Wicked War: Polk, Clay, Lincoln, and the 1846 U.S. Invasion of Mexico. Vintage Books, 2012, p. 91.
  3. ^ Greenberg, Amy. A Wicked War: Polk, Clay, Lincoln, and the 1846 U.S. Invasion of Mexico. Vintage Books, 2012, p. 92-93.
  4. ^ "James Madison, Richard Brookhiser, 2011, p, 241"
  5. ^ Greenberg, Amy. A Wicked War: Polk, Clay, Lincoln, and the 1846 U.S. Invasion of Mexico. Vintage Books, 2012, p. 93.
  6. ^ Greenberg, Amy. A Wicked War: Polk, Clay, Lincoln, and the 1846 U.S. Invasion of Mexico. Vintage Books, 2012, p. 175.
  7. ^ Potter, David. The Impending Crisis: America Before the Civil War (1848-1861). Harper Perennial, 1976, p. 3.

External links

  • Inventory of the Nicholas Philip Trist Papers, 1765-1903, in the Southern Historical Collection, UNC-Chapel Hill
  • Biography and picture
  • "The Thankless Task of Nicholas Trist"
  • "Nicholas Philip Browse Family Tree" <--Broken link May 2015
Preceded by
William S. Derrick
Chief Clerk of the United States State Department
August 28, 1845 – April 14, 1847
Succeeded by
William S. Derrick
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