The Fastest President

By John Vogel

The speed limit for Washington, D.C. in 1872 was 8mph.

When the call came in to local police that a woman and child had been struck by a runaway carriage, officers were dispatched to find and stop the carriage at all costs. But considering the speed of the average carriage, and the max speed of an average beat cop, catching and stopping the carriage would be a challenge.

Officer William West was first on the scene.

As Officer West collected reports about the erratic carriage driver from eye witnesses, a rare yet very well-received gift to law enforcement appeared. An army of carriages, including the carriage in question, came barreling down the street, with all horses at full gallop.

Officer West blew his whistle as loud as his lungs would allow and only managed to convince the lead driver to comply with his orders by grabbing the reins and being dragged until they came to a complete stop.

As he approached the carriage, Officer West quickly registered the driver as the most recognizable person in the United States. It occurred to West that his traffic stop came with a few challenges, mostly because a sitting president had never been pulled over for breaking the speed limit, reckless driving and injuring pedestrians.

The driver was Gen. Ulysses S Grant, then president of the United States.

West was a civil war veteran, enlisting and serving in Company K, 30th United States Colored Infantry. Officer West definitely knew the full history of the commander-in-chief’s service, but his oath to duty and oath to the Constitution came first.

General Grant was considered an expert horseman, an incredibly experienced carriage driver and a downright competitive speed demon. Add in his penchant for alcohol, firearms and his 20-cigar-a-day average, and General Grant was a hell of a man to contend with—not to mention  the fact that he was president. But in the two years following his inauguration, the reports of reckless carriage racing that disturbed the peace had only increased.

Officer West believed he now knew why.

Grant questioned the reason he was pulled over—probably annoyed due to the fact that he was winning at the time—to which West informed him of the speed limit and the injured pedestrians. Grant immediately expressed remorse and promised to follow the speed limit, which West accepted as sufficient and released the president with a warning.

The next day however, while posted at the same corner of 13th and M, West found himself experiencing déjà vu.

A band of carriages, one with President Grant in the lead, came speeding down the street, far in excess of the speed limit.

Officer West, considering his oath, blew the whistle and halted the carriages.

This time, citing that “duty was duty,” he placed the president under arrest.

Grant invited the beat cop to join him in his carriage and they rode off to the station together with the other offenders tagging along in the procession. As they rode, Grant inquired into the background of Officer West. The two discussed the war, Reconstruction, and of course, horses.

Once at the station, each of the men, including the president, paid the $20 bond (roughly $500 today) and were expected to show up in court the next day. Grant assured Officer West that no retribution would come from the arrest.

The next day, Grant didn’t show up to court and forfeited the $20. His companions on the other hand, most likely cabinet members, argued with the judge that the charges were unfair. The judge sided with Officer West and the charges stuck.

William West eventually received a promotion to Mounted Patrol, a police unit that President Grant actually rode with often. When a pair of prized Arabian stallions were stolen from Grant, West served as lead detective and solved the case. The two men remained friends until the president’s death.  

From the FE Films Archive

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