I thought I would share this tidbit of history. This is not about politics, rather it is about the love of fast horses, respect, and two veterans of the Civil War…one of which was the President of the United States.
President Ulysses Grant became President for many reasons, but one of the main reasons was to make sure that everyone’s rights were being respected; especially those of freed slaves. He and his men fought and died for their rights, and he wanted to make sure those rights were honored.
President Grant loved his horses, and he loved even more racing them down the streets of Washington, D.C. Grant had quite the reputation for his horsemanship skills, which dated back to his West Point days. “In horsemanship,” said James Longstreet(a West Point classmate and future Confederate general), “…he was noted as the most proficient in the Academy. In fact, rider and horse held together like the fabled centaur.”
Grant preferred to ride the strongest horse and the horses that people were frightened of. He relished the challenge. He got into major trouble with the press when he supposedly instigated and participated in a high speed carriage race through Central Park after a political rally in 1866. Grant denied the accusations saying the stories were “almost” without foundation. He said he did take the reins, however there were no high speeds.
After he became President, the streets of D.C. were filled with reckless carriage drivers causing accident after accident. The D.C. police stepped up their patrols of the streets flagging down all hazardous riders.
The day after a mother and child were run over and seriously hurt, President Grant took to the streets with his buggy at break neck speeds passing M and 13th streets. Immediately police officer William West pulled President Grant over. West was a former black soldier who fought in the Civil War himself, and here he was pulling over the man he fought under. Instead of being intimidated at the sight of the President, West stood his ground.
The story goes that West put up his hand to pull over President Grant. Grant was going at a good clip, but with some effort he brought his horses to a stop. Like anyone riding a fast horse, no one likes being brought to an abrupt halt, so President Grant was a little bit testy when he asked why in the world the officer stopped him.
West said, “I want to inform you, Mr. President, that you are violating the law by speeding along this street. Your fast driving, sir, has set the example for a lot of other gentlemen.”
The president promptly apologized, stated it would never happen again, and he cantered away. However, when you appreciate the speed of a good horse, it is hard to never do it again. His self control only lasted for twenty four hours.
I imagine President Grant walked out to his stables seeing that his best horses were feeling full of their oats and thought, “What could it hurt to take them out for a little spin and burn off some of their energy?”
Again, as he was racing along the streets, West stopped President Grant at M and 13 streets. This time it took President Grant an entire block before he could get his horses stopped.
In the Sept. 27, 1908, edition of the Washington Evening Star under the headline: “Only Policeman Who Ever Arrested a President,” the story of this infamous arrest is told by West himself.
The Star article states that Grant was like a “schoolboy” caught red handed by his teacher. He was a bit cocky and had a smile on his face as West approached him.
President Grant asked, “Do you think, officer, that I was violating the speed laws?”
“I do, Mr. President,” West said.
What was President Grant’s excuse? Well, it is one you may have used with the cops before; he had no idea he was going that fast.
According to the Star, West went on to say, ““I am very sorry, Mr. President, to have to do it,” he said, “for you are the chief of the nation, and I am nothing but a policeman, but duty is duty, sir, and I will have to place you under arrest.”
It is fact that President Grant and his buddies were arrested and taken down to the police station. No one knows what the President said about being arrested, however witnesses said he accepted it just fine telling everyone to go ahead and do their job. President Grant was ordered to put up twenty dollars as collateral and to appear in trial the next day. He never showed up for court.
After paying his fine, President Grant was allowed to walk back to the White House.
West and President Grant went on to become good friends as West was an excellent horseman too. They often got together when West later admitted to President Grant that before joining the police force, he was cited twenty times for being a speed demon too.