Did you ever wonder where the old saying, “A man’s best friend is his dog,” came from? Well, if you guessed Warrensburg, Missouri, you were right!
Attorney George Graham Vest, who was later elected to the United States Senate from Missouri, won a court battle and the hearts of dog lovers everywhere when he paid his famous tribute to the dog during the 1870 Burden vs. Hornsby court case in Warrensburg. The speech included the line, “The one absolutely unselfish friend that a man can have in this selfish world, the one that never deserts him, the one that never proves ungrateful or treacherous, is his dog.”
The “eulogy to the dog” won the case for Charles Burden whose favorite hound, Old Drum, was shot by a neighbor, Leonidas Hornsby, who had sworn to kill the first dog that came onto his land. Although Hornsby had hunted with Drum and acknowledged him to be one of the best hunting dogs he had ever seen, he carried out his threat when one night a dog was found prowling in his yard. That dog was Old Drum.
Burden immediately sued Hornsby for damages, and the trial quickly became one of the strangest in the history of this area of the country. Each man was determined to win the case. After several appeals, the case finally reached the Supreme Court of Missouri. Burden was awarded $50 in damages for the loss of his favorite hunting dog. Vest’s eulogy to the dog, which he made in his final appeal to the jury, won the case and became a classic speech.
Through the direction of the Warrensburg Chamber of Commerce and coordinated efforts by many dog lovers across the country, Old Drum was immortalized in a statue on the Johnson County Courthouse lawn in Warrensburg on September 23, 1958.
While no record was kept of the last half of Vest’s tribute to a dog, the first portion has fortunately been preserved. It was this speech that originated the saying, “A man’s best friend is his dog.” George Graham Vest speaking:
“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 whom 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 good name — may become traitors in their faith. The money that a man has he may lose. It flies away from him, perhaps when he needs it 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 absolute, unselfish friend that man can have in this selfish world — 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 poverty, in health and sickness. He will sleep on the cold ground, where the wintry winds blow, and the snow drives fiercely, if only he can 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 encounter 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 in death.”
YouTube: Ronald Reagan – Tribute to the Dog