We’ve noted in previous Questions & Answers that President William McKinley was the first sitting president to briefly ride in a motor carriage. On July 13, 1901 McKinley took a brief ride in a Stanley Motor Carriage Company steam car. In 1907 the Secret Service having been formed a year earlier, purchased a 1907 White Motor Company steam car to follow President Theodore Roosevelt’s carriage. Roosevelt refused to ride in any motorized vehicle as he believed it detracted in his image of being a horseman. President William Howard Taft modernized the White House transportation fleet with the addition of all three forms of transportation available. He ordered two Pierce-Arrow internal combustion vehicles, a Baker Motor Vehicle Company electric vehicle, and a White Motor Company steam car. Taft is said to have disliked the gaseous ‘exhaust’ from the White House horses as well as the Pierce-Arrows and to have loved it when his driver ‘fogged’ the press corps with a carefully timed burst of hot steam! As Presidents were now relegated to the back seat of a chauffeured automobile, it eliminated an issue earlier Presidents faced.
There is a saying that “history doesn’t repeat itself but it often rhymes,” generally attributed to Samuel Langhorne Clemens, a.k.a Mark Twain. While our 45th President was recently arrested and arraigned, he is not the first U.S. President to face such treatment in a parallel to Clemen’s comment. Another President was arrested, multiple times for the same transportation related infraction, while serving as President of the United States. Which President was arrested and paid fines for his multiple infraction(s)? What was this President arrested for? Hint: it was not Nixon or Clinton who were never actually arrested!
In April 1866 the Metropolitan Police Department of the District of Columbia stopped commanding general Ulysses S. Grant for speeding on horseback on 14th Street. While Grant stopped for the officer, he soon drove off on horseback thinking that his stature as an Army general meant that he was above being arrested for such a minor infraction.
A warrant was issued forcing Grant to quickly make his way to the local Justice of the Peace to pay his now multiple fines. As telling of such events relied on newspaper reporters being informed, the event did not attract much attention at the time as there were few witnesses and little documented paperwork.
As if Grant’s April event was not a sufficient warning, Grant was arrested a second time, three months later, by the same officer for speeding on the same street on the Fourth of July! This time Grant quickly paid his fine to the officer.
In 1872, the same year as the iron horses of the Wilmington & Western Rail Road began pulling wooden coaches to the recently completed Yorklyn Station, the now President Grant was again arrested for speeding. Racing his horse and buggy on 12th Street against other government employees, Grant was stopped by a young police officer named William H. West. Grant was issued a strong verbal warning by West and Grant apologized while promising such an infraction shall not happen again.
The next evening Grant is again racing on 12th Street against fellow government employees when West first stops the group and then arrests everyone in the group including Grant. This time Grant is fined $20 (equivalent to a $500 fine today). Since this is a repeat offence, Grant’s horses and carriage are impounded by the Metropolitan Police Department, and Grant is forced to walk back to the White House (the secret service did not start protecting presidents until 1906 following President William McKinley’s assassination in 1901)!
Of related interest is that the Metropolitan Police officer involved was William Henry West (1842-1915), an African American born enslaved, who had been granted the right to vote under the 15th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution in 1870 which was during the term of President Ulysses S. Grant (1869-1877). West joined the Union Army in 1863 fighting in the American Civil War. West was assigned to Company K, 30th United States Colored Infantry, a unit composed of African American soldiers created by the U.S. War Department 1863.
Only two other U.S. presidents have come close to being investigated and potentially arrested. President Richard Milhous Nixon was investigated for potentially breaking numerous laws associated with his re-election while William Jefferson Clinton was investigated for sexual harassment claims and questionable business dealings.