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Ulysses S. Grant: The quintessential ‘American’ president?

United States fifty-dollar bill of United States currency with President Ulysses S. Grant.
United States fifty-dollar bill of United States currency with President Ulysses S. Grant. | Getty Images

As anyone who has not been on a wilderness retreat for the last two weeks will know, former President Trump has become the first former President to be arrested and accused of a crime.

In the reporting of this historic event, it has come to light that Trump, however, is not the first president, former or otherwise, to be arrested. In 1872, President Ulysses S. Grant, a war hero and president of the United States from 1869-1877, was arrested for “fast driving” his two-horse carriage on the streets of Washington, D.C.

President Grant had an enviable reputation as a horseman and as an aficionado of prime horseflesh from his days at West Point onward. As president, he was tempted to race his two-horse carriage at reckless and illegal speeds through Washington's increasingly urbanized streets.

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According to a 1908 article in the Sunday Star of Washington, it was reported that a long-time black veteran of the D.C. Police Force had arrested President Grant and accompanied him to the police station for Grant to be charged with the crime.

Police Officer William West, a Civil War veteran, informed President Grant, “I am very sorry, Mr. President, to have to do it, 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.”

Grant replied, “All right, where do you wish me to go with you?”

West told him the “station house.” At President Grant’s invitation, West rode to the station house in the President’s carriage, where the President asked about West’s experiences during the war. Grant informed West that he admired a man who “did his duty” and he assured him he would not get into trouble for arresting the president.

At the station, Grant paid $20 ($500 today) and stayed long enough to be amazed at the irate protests of some of his prominent speeding companions upon their arraignments. Days later, hearing that some of Grant’s fellow racers were threatening West’s job, Grant made good on his promise to West by writing the chief of police and commending West for his fearlessness and integrity.

What a great story. What a truly American story. I don’t think any American can read or hear about this incident and not smile. It has it all. Respect for the rule of law. No one is above the law. A mighty hero who is a decent guy. A black policeman who was a Civil War veteran and former slave who believed in the promises of America’s founding documents and did his duty.

Two newspapers put me on to this story. First, The New York Times' William K. Rashbaum and Kate Christobek, who co-wrote a news story about the event, titled “The Only Other Arrest of a U.S. President Involved a Speeding Horse,” and then Wall Street Journal columnist Peggy Noonan penned a commentary, “A Great Man Got Arrested as President” about the episode.

I decided to write about it because I thought many Americans would find the story as affirming of everything we, as Americans, like to think we are as I did. Second, I wanted to share the story because it illustrates vividly what could have been had the country not abandoned Reconstruction so prematurely after the Civil War.

In D.C. police officer William West, we have a model of what could have been had Reconstruction not been so prematurely cut short by the “Grand Compromise of 1877.”

Just five years after the encounter between President Grant and Officer West, the country executed the “Compromise of 1877” which allowed Republican Rutherford B. Hayes, who had 47.9% of the popular vote, to become President over Democrat Samuel J. Tilden, who received 50.9% of the popular vote. By the way, the 1876 election had a higher percentage of eligible voters who actually voted than any presidential election in American history.

The “Grand Compromise” involved the Democrats shifting enough electoral votes to Hayes to elect Hayes President in exchange for removing the remaining federal troops from the South and ending Reconstruction.

This paved the way for the founding of the Jim Crow segregation system and ended for at least four generations the proliferation and flourishing of great Americans like Michael West, at least in the South and Washington, D.C., was in the South.

I also wanted to do my small part in helping to rehabilitate the reputation of a great American, Ulysses S. Grant. Most Americans alive today are not aware that in the last half of the 19th century, Grant was probably the most admired man in America with the exception of President Abraham Lincoln.

Having served as by far the most effective Union General in the Civil War, he became a popular president who supported Reconstruction and fought the Klan. Grant has been noted both by contemporary and modern historians as a “strong advocate for civil rights during his presidency who sought to deal fairly with Native Americans as well as the former slaves. As president, Grant founded the Justice Department to further Civil Rights for all Americans.

Three recent masterful biographies of Ulysses S. Grant have done much to place Grant back in the first rank of American presidents (H.W. Brands, The Man Who Saved the Union (2012); Ronald C. White, American Ulysses (2016); and Ron Chernow, Grant (2017).

I have heard several people who were thinking of writing their memoirs being told, “Before you start, read The Personal Memoirs of U.S. Grant (1885),” the autobiography that Grant struggled painfully to write to provide for his wife’s support as he was dying of throat cancer in 1885. He died at the age of 62, three days after finishing the manuscript.

I decided to find out why that advice was given so often. I read the Memoirs. Now I know. If you read the Memoirs, you will understand as well.

Let us hope and pray there is another Grant out there, willing to serve, and that we will recognize and elect him.

Dr. Richard Land, BA (Princeton, magna cum laude); D.Phil. (Oxford); Th.M (New Orleans Seminary). Dr. Land served as President of Southern Evangelical Seminary from July 2013 until July 2021. Upon his retirement, he was honored as President Emeritus and he continues to serve as an Adjunct Professor of Theology & Ethics. Dr. Land previously served as President of the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission (1988-2013) where he was also honored as President Emeritus upon his retirement. Dr. Land has also served as an Executive Editor and columnist for The Christian Post since 2011.

Dr. Land explores many timely and critical topics in his daily radio feature, “Bringing Every Thought Captive,” and in his weekly column for CP.

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