The Cop Who Gave Ulysses S. Grant a Speeding Ticket
If President Grant were alive today, he’d probably have quite a few points on his license by now.
Pennsylvania Avenue had never seen an equestrian quite like him before. At West Point, Grant’s skill in the saddle wowed his peers and instructors alike. “In horsemanship,” said James Longstreet (a 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.”
Rowdy steeds didn’t frighten the 18th president. On the contrary, Grant rather liked breaking them in. According to his son, Fredrick, he “preferred to ride the most unmanageable mount, the largest and most powerful one. Oftentimes I saw him ride a beast that none had approached.”
Yet, masterful as he was, nobody would mistake Grant for the world’s safest driver. In 1866, his reputation in this department took a serious hit. One newspaper claimed that, at a New York City political event, the General instigated—and won—a high-speed coach race through Central Park. He soon dismissed this story as being “almost without foundation.” True, the future President had been asked to take the reins. But, in Grant’s words, there was “no fast driving or talk of it.”
He couldn’t wave away another, more infamous incident, however. During his tenure in the Oval Office, a slew of accidents forced D.C. authorities to start cracking down on speeders. For policeman William West, the last straw came when a horrible accident took place on his block. “[A] woman with a 6-year-old child had been seriously injured on West’s corner by a driver of fast horses,” The Washington Post explained.
The very next day, West caught Grant’s buggy booking it at “a furious pace” past the corner of M and 13th Streets. America’s top elected official was almost immediately pulled over.
“Mister President,” said West, “I want to tell you that you were violating the law by driving at reckless speed. Your fast driving, sir, has set the example for a lot of other gentlemen. It is endangering the lives of the people who have to cross the street in this locality. Only this evening a lady was knocked down by one of the racing teams.” Duly reprimanded, Grant apologized and promised that it wouldn’t happen again.
Less than twenty-four hours later, it did.
West again caught the Commander in Chief flying at breakneck speed over the same stretch of road. “Do you think, officer, that I was violating the speed laws?” asked Grant.
“I certainly do, Mr. President,” replied West. After reminding Grant of his broken vow, he added, “I am very sorry, Mr. President, to have to do it, for you are the nation’s chief executive, but my duty is plain, sir: I shall have to place you under arrest!”
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.” West escorted him to the police station, where the leader who had helped win the Civil War was swiftly booked and fined.
Fortunately, there were no hard feelings on either man's part. A fellow horse-lover, West ultimately befriended the president. The pair would often get together and, during one of their many chats, the lawman made an awkward admission: before joining the force, he’d been a speed demon himself.