George Vest and Man’s Best Friend

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George Vest (1830-1904) was a longtime Missouri politician who got his start on the wrong side of history, serving as a delegate from Missouri to the Confederate Congress during the Civil War. However, after the war he made a touching contribution to American history in a most unexpected way. In 1869, farmer Charles Burden sued sheep farmer Leonidas Hornsby, who had shot and killed his hunting dog, a foxhound named Old Drum. Hornsby had previously sworn to kill any dog found on his property after some of his sheep had been killed. Vest took Burden’s case, and in his closing argument on September 23, 1870, he delivered a speech now called “Eulogy of the Dog”:

Gentlemen of the jury. The best friend a man has in this world may turn against him and become his enemy. His son or daughter that he has reared with loving care may prove ungrateful. Those who are nearest and dearest to us, those whom we trust with our happiness and our good name, may become traitors to their faith. The money that a man has, he may lose. It flies away from him, perhaps when he needs it the most. A man’s reputation may be sacrificed in a moment of ill-considered action. The people who are prone to fall on their knees to do us honor when success is with us may be the first to throw the stone of malice when failure settles its cloud upon our heads. The one absolutely unselfish friend that a man can have in this selfish world, the one that never deserts him and the one that never proves ungrateful or treacherous is his dog.

Gentlemen of the jury, a man’s dog stands by him in prosperity and in poverty, in health and in sickness. He will sleep on the cold ground, where the wintry winds blow and the snow drives fiercely, if only he may be near his master’s side. He will kiss the hand that has no food to offer, he will lick the wounds and sores that come in encounters with the roughness of the world. He guards the sleep of his pauper master as if he were a prince. When all other friends desert, he remains. When riches take wings and reputation falls to pieces, he is as constant in his love as the sun in its journey through the heavens.

If fortune drives the master forth an outcast in the world, friendless and homeless, the faithful dog asks no higher privilege than that of accompanying him to guard against danger, to fight against his enemies, and when the last scene of all comes, and death takes the master in its embrace and his body is laid away in the cold ground, no matter if all other friends pursue their way, there by his graveside will the noble dog be found, his head between his paws, his eyes sad but open in alert watchfulness, faithful and true even to death. (Vest, 1870)

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The speech won over the jury, which awarded Burden $50. A statue of the dog was subsequently erected in front of the Warrensburg, Missouri courtroom, as was a bust of the dog in the Missouri Supreme Court building in Jefferson City. Vest himself would be elected to the Senate as a Democrat in 1879, where he would distinguish himself through his oratory, debating skills, and vigilant efforts to preserve Yellowstone National Park against development. He also may have been the first person to employ the phrase “history is written by the victors”, stating at an ex-Confederate convention, “In all revolutions the vanquished are the ones who are guilty of treason, even by historians, for history is written by the victors and framed according to the prejudices and bias existing on their side” (Abilene Weekly Reflector, 1891). Vest also opposed U.S. expansion in Puerto Rico and the Philippines, anti-polygamy laws, women’s suffrage, and big business interests. Terminally ill and physically weak by January 1903, Vest managed to stand and deliver his final speech in the Senate, railing against the coal interests who had lobbied for high coal tariffs to keep the price of coal high at the peak of winter. This speech shamed the majority Republicans into removing the tariff. He managed to live until August 9, 1904, leaving behind perhaps America’s finest recorded tribute to dogs, quite possibly the phrase “history is written by the victors”, and a preserved Yellowstone Park.

References

Classic Senate Speeches. U.S. Senate.

Retrieved from

https://www.senate.gov/artandhistory/history/common/generic/Speeches_Vest_Dog.htm

Vest, G.G. (1870, September 23). Eulogy of the Dog. U.S. Senate.

Retrieved from

https://www.senate.gov/artandhistory/history/resources/pdf/VestDog.pdf

“Vest on Secession”. (1891, August 27). Abilene Weekly Reflector.

Retrieved from

https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn84029386/1891-08-27/ed-1/seq-1/

 

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