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👮🏽♂️ The Man Who Arrested The President
Not that man. And not that president.
The media may be acting like Donald Trump’s arrest is unprecedented, but in some ways it isn’t, and the story of why holds lessons for how we ought to approach this moment in history.
Let’s travel back in time to 1872
The Civil War was over. The U.S. was working through the implications of the emancipation of slaves and the pseudo-end of the Southern plantation model of human exploitation. Nonetheless, back in victorious Washington D.C., the White House still had the feel of a rural home set amongst fallow fields.
The White House of the late 1800’s wasn’t the White House of today, with its innumerable fences and barricades, Secret Service patrols and surreptitious surveillance (and a bowling lane, which I frequented in my previous job). Instead, back then the President’s home was a simpler, but also more welcoming and open place, with members of the public coming and going as they pleased.
“A crush of visitors besieged the White House stairways and corridors, climbed through windows at levees, and camped outside the President’s office door on all conceivable errands, for all imaginable purposes.”
In this atmosphere of change and openness, in an era where the victorious federal government was on the rise in both power and stature, something very similar to what is happening today occurred: a Black man arrested the then-sitting President of the United States.
Ulysses S. Grant, a victorious Union general and the first president elected after the abolishment of slavery (and who’s OG house I lived next to for decades) was one of the youngest men to hold the office at the time. His tastes, like riding racehorses down DC’s muddy streets, were still similarly tinged with the dying wisps of youth: raw and amateurish.
Throughout his career Grant bought, cared for and raced horses - even as he served as the commanding general of the Union armies during the Civil War. So great was Grant’s love of horses and his skill in riding them that it is unlikely he would have been anything but a jockey had he lived in the 20th century instead of the 19th (when he graduated from West Point in 1843, Grant only weighed around 120 pounds, which is close to what most jockeys weigh today).
This passion didn’t subside when he became president. Even though he often caused a ruckus speeding down the streets of D.C., no one was going to call out the President of the United States for speeding … except William West.
West was a Black man who had served in the Union army during the Civil War, but his life began as a slave. Born to unnamed parents, he signed up for the opportunity to fight on behalf of the Union for the chance to earn his freedom. After the war he married and started a family. His courage and exemplary service during the War earned him recognition and renown, and he was hired as the first Black policeman in Washington D.C.
In 1872, a year into his appointment, West was on duty on the streecorner where I lived for over a decade (13th and N NW). He had been tasked with patrolling the streets in response to a series of accidents involving speeding carriages and pedestrians. On the lookout for speeders, West noticed the President’s carriage hurtling towards him. Concerned for the safety of pedestrians, he dashed into oncoming traffic and brought the carriage to a stop.
Here’s where our lessons on justice and fairness begin:
Lesson #1: Courage is doing the right thing, despite the potential consequences
Put yourself in West’s position. By 1872 he was one of only two Black men in the D.C. police department. Though he was a free man, he still lived in an era of abject racism where Black people and other minorities remained second-class citizens; many were subject to verbal abuse, physical assault and denied the benefits of the justice system. His options for gainful employment were severely limited, and as the “first” Black police officer in D.C., he knew his actions on the job would speak volumes for his community.
The amount of pressure he must have been under was intense.
Nonetheless, despite all of these pressures, West didn't hesitate to pull over the President of the United States for speeding. He did this knowing that the President could have fired him on a whim, punished him for his audacity, or simply ignored him.
He even issued the President a written warning for speeding and sent him on his way. What a boss.
But Grant didn’t learn his lesson.
The next day he come barreling down the same street, even faster than before. Having given the president a warning just a day earlier, this time West carried out his legal duty and arrested the President of the United States for speeding, the first person ever to do so. He took the president to the nearby police station where Grant reached out to friends to post bail.
Lesson #2: Good character, despite stature, is leadership
You may think you know how Grant reacted after being arrested, especially if you consider how leaders behave today to be any kind of model for presidential behavior. Grant must have yelled about the unfairness of it all. About how he, the President of the United States, was beyond the petty infraction of speeding. About how he could change the speed limit in the city tomorrow if he wished. Or fire West with a snap of his fingers.
Instead, Grant offered to drive West to the police station in order to process his own arrest, promising not to speed this time. On the way he apologized profusely to the officer for not heeding his earlier warning and for placing pedestrians in danger due to his speeding. Grant also assured West that he had done the right thing, and also that he would not get in any trouble for arresting the president. Once at the station, Grant had “the look of a schoolboy who had been caught in a guilty act by his teacher.”
“I cautioned you yesterday, Mr. President, about fast driving, and you said, sir, that it would not occur again. I am very sorry, Mr. President, to have to do it, even though you are the chief executive, but the duty is clear, sir: I will have to place you under arrest.”
And though Grant avoided jail time (he posted bail, even though the judge was unsure if he could charge a sitting president who had not been impeached), some of the president’s friends and colleagues who had been traveling with him and similarly arrested for speeding by West, were unable to come up with the necessary funds. At their arraignment, they angrily complained to the judge that they were the President’s friends and this was a petty infraction undeserving of sanction. Grant did not pardon them, nor void their fines.
Lesson #3: Reward the perfect behavior of imperfect people
In later years, Grant and West became friends, bonding over their memories of the war and their mutual respect for each other.
From the arrest until the end of his life, not once did Grant cast aspersions towards West for doing his duty or malign him because of the color of his skin. Neither man was perfect - Grant’s administration would be plagued by scandal and West was himself arrested for speeding and neglecting his duties due to drunkenness. But in this small moment in time, they both demonstrated the kind of exemplary behavior we seek out in our leaders.
I believe that a community on the rise rewards people for behaving with the courage of true convictions, for their humility and consistency. A community on the decline, looks upon this behavior with cynicism and doubt.
It is very easy to focus on the imperfection of those who fight for the right things. It is much harder to focus on the things they actually get right. I want to live in a society with more Grants and Wests, one that doesn’t spend time tearing people down when they inevitably mess up, but instead encourages imperfect people to continually do the right thing for the right reasons.
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📅 Reading & Watching
Inglorious Empire: What the British Did to India, by Shahshi Tharoor
(thanks for the rec Morty)
Groundbreaking from start to finish. This is how you lead a country. And how you leave it.
I am not superstitious, but I am a little stitious.