“If you want a friend in Washington, get a dog,” said former US President Harry Truman.
The sentiment says much about loyalty and friendship in politics. It has been borrowed and reworked in political circles the world over.
But George Vest probably said it first, exactly 144 years ago today.
Vest is remembered for his closing arguments in an 1870 trial over the shooting of a hunting dog called Old Drum. Vest’s statement was inserted in the Congressional Record as part of a speech delivered by Senator Robert Byrd on April 23, 1990.
George Graham Vest (1830-1904) was a lawyer and a politician who served as a Missouri Congressman, a Confederate Congressman during the Civil War, and finally a US Senator.
Partial transcript of the Address to the Jury by George Vest, in the Johnson County Circuit Court in Wattensburg, Missouri.
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.
Gentleman 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.
Extract from the US Senate “Classic Senate Speeches”.
The lawsuit that brought [Vest] immortality concerned the shooting of “Old Drum,” the best hunting dog of a local farmer. A neighbor who suspected that Old Drum was moonlighting by killing his sheep gave orders to shoot the dog if it appeared on the property again. When Old Drum was found dead near the neighbor’s house, the farmer filed suit, seeking damages of fifty dollars. After a jury awarded twenty-five dollars, the neighbor successfully appealed the ruling. The dog’s owner, however, succeeded in his motion for a new trial and hired two skilled lawyers, one of them George G. Vest.
Vest’s summation to the jury at that trial has become familiar to dog lovers across the country through succeeding generations. Rather than discussing the details of the case, he eloquently praised the loyalty of a dog to his owner in terms that brought tears to the eyes of the jury and of those who have read his brief remarks in the years since. As a result, the owner was awarded damages, although the amount–whether the original twenty-five dollars or much more–is unclear.
Afterward, the speech took on a life of its own, being reprinted both in this country and abroad. So famous did it become that, in 1958, the town of Warrensburg, Missouri, where the speech took place, erected a bronze statue to honor Old Drum and George G. Vest. Over the years, the brief oration has been included in a number of anthologies, often with slight variations in wording and punctuation. The version presented here was inserted in the Congressional Record as part of a speech delivered by Senator Robert C. Byrd on April 23, 1990.