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A president has faced arrest before Trump — for carriage speeding, 150 years ago

A small group of protesters gathers outside of a Manhattan courthouse after news broke that former President Donald Trump has been indicted by a grand jury on Thursday in New York City, with one pictured carrying a sign that says "arrest Trump." While the nature of the indictment is unprecedented, Trump isn't the first president — current or former — to face arrest.
Spencer Platt/Getty Images
A small group of protesters gathers outside of a Manhattan courthouse after news broke that former President Donald Trump has been indicted by a grand jury on Thursday in New York City, with one pictured carrying a sign that says "arrest Trump." While the nature of the indictment is unprecedented, Trump isn't the first president — current or former — to face arrest.

Former President Donald Trump was indicted Thursday on charges related to hush money payments to cover up affairs. While the nature of Trump's indictment is unprecedented, he's actually the second to face arrest.

The first was President Ulysses S. Grant, just after the Civil War.

William West, a former enslaved person, joined the Metropolitan Police in the nation's capital after fighting in the Civil War, according to the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund. In 1872, West was on the lookout for speeding horse-drawn carriages near Washington's 13th and M streets when he jumped in front of a carriage racing towards him.

West quickly realized he had pulled over President Grant, and issued a warning. But the very next day, West caught the president speeding again and brought him in.

"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," West said in 1872.

That made West the first, and only, law enforcement officer to arrest a sitting president.

Grant was released on a $20 bond, which equates to just under $500 in 2023. He didn't contest the fine or arrest and expressed respect for West's decision to arrest him. The Memorial Fund reported that former MPD Chief Cathy Lanier said Grant had been issued three citations for speeding in his carriage during his time as president.

Of course, these two cases are different in a lot of ways. For starters, Trump's charges are far more serious than a routine traffic violation. And Trump isn't exactly following in Grant's footsteps when it comes to respecting the legal process — where Grant respected West's decision to arrest him, Trump has called investigations into his conduct "witch hunts."

It's not clear what this indictment will do to Trump's chances of winning a 2024 election bid — but maybe Trump can take solace in the fact that the same year Grant was arrested for speeding, he was also elected to his second term as president.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Dustin Jones
Dustin Jones is a reporter for NPR's digital news desk. He mainly covers breaking news, but enjoys working on long-form narrative pieces.
Kaitlyn Radde
Kaitlyn Radde is an intern for the Graphics and Digital News desks, where she has covered everything from the midterm elections to child labor. Before coming to NPR, she covered education data at Chalkbeat and contributed data analysis to USA TODAY coverage of Black political representation and NCAA finances. She is a graduate of Indiana University.