Arresting The Chief

No matter where you are, chances are there are roads. And where there are roads, there are cars. And in some cases, those cars go too fast — faster than the law provides. If you’re caught doing that, you’re going to get pulled over and the police officer is going to write you a ticket. Do it often enough, and you may be arrested.

Speeding, though, predates cars. Turn the clock back 150 years or so, and people riding horses or steering horse-drawn carriages were just as much a menace as the speeders of today. And without things like registrars of motor vehicles or drivers’ licenses, keeping tabs on those who went too fast, too often was tricky. Enforcing the rules of the road was in the jurisdiction of local law enforcement, much like it is today, but informally so — if a police officer came across a repeat offender, an arrest was the likely result. 

At some point in the late 1860s or 1870s, this created a unique problem for a Washington D.C. police officer. In an interview with NPR, historian John Marszalek sets up the story (with a few choice edits on my part):

There was a serious accident. A woman was hit with her 6-year-old child roughly at the corner of 13th and M Street. The next day, [another driver] goes riding through there. And he’s going very fast, and he’s stopped by a policeman – an African-American by the name of William West. And he stops him and says, [sir,] you’re going too fast. [The man replies with] “Oh, I know I was going too fast. I promise I’ll never do it again.”

But the next day, the driver again gets behind the wheel — or the horse-and-buggy equivalent of a steering wheel. And again, he was going too fast — and again, Officer West happened to be in the area once again, and again, Officer West pulled our speed racer over. But this time, the driver doesn’t get off with a warning. Office West placed him under arrest and brought him to the station for processing. But when there, the police weren’t sure what to do. The man Officer West arrested was Ulysses S. Grant, the sitting President of the United States. (And yes, West was fully aware of who he was admonishing the entire time.)

Grant, apparently, took the whole thing in stride. Per Mental Floss, “Grant’s exact response has been lost to history—though many claim that he reacted admirably, encouraging West to ‘Do your duty, my good man.'” And that’s what happened, basically.  According to D.C. news radio station WTOP, at first, “they were unsure if they could charge a sitting president if he had not been impeached.” But per various recollections, Grant was fingerprinted and set free, but not before getting a pair of punishments. Per WTOP,  the police “ended up letting him pay a fine [equal to about $500 today] and walk back to the White House” instead of having him face potential jail time.

Bonus fact: Today, you won’t see a President driving through the streets of D.C. — if a President needs to go somewhere, there’s a motorcade, and he’s not driving his own car. And that second part applies to former Presidents, too. As politics author William S. Bike told Reader’s Digest, “a rule created after John F. Kennedy was assassinated is that ex-presidents no longer can drive on open streets or roads—only private property.. They are required to be driven by Secret Service personnel who are trained in evasive driving maneuvers. Lyndon B. Johnson was the last who drove on the open road.”

From the Archives: General Order Number Eleven: As a Civil War general, Grant gave an order that he, hopefully, was pretty ashamed about later.