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Nicholas Philip Trist

Nicholas Philip Trist (June 2, 1800 - February 11, 1874) was an American diplomat.

Trist was born in Charlottesville, Virginia. He attended West Point and studied law under Thomas Jefferson, whose granddaughter (Virginia Jefferson Randolph, 1818-1875) he married. He was also private secretary to Andrew Jackson.

Through political connections, Trist was appointed U.S. consul in Havana, Cuba. 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 R. 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 Santa Anna for $10,000,000 Mexican pesos. 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. 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 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 during his time in Texas were not paid. Trist did not recover his expenses until 1871. Despite a commitment to free trade, Trist supported Lincoln in 1860. While the Lincoln administration did not offer Trist any patronage, he did serve as postmaster of Alexandria, VA in the Grant adminisistration.

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

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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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