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Vest, George Grahamfree

(06 December 1830–09 August 1904)
  • William E. Parrish

Vest, George Graham (06 December 1830–09 August 1904), Confederate representative, Confederate senator, and U.S. senator, was born at Frankfort, Kentucky, the son of John Jay Vest, a carpenter and builder, and Harriet Graham. He was educated in a local academy and graduated from Centre College in 1848. He studied law under Kentucky’s attorney general, James Harlan (1800–1863), and took a law degree at Transylvania University in 1851. He operated a newspaper in Owensboro, Kentucky, for two years and then headed west for California.

Vest got no farther than western Missouri before he decided to settle and establish a law practice in Georgetown in the fall of 1853. In 1856, however, he moved to Boonville. He married Sallie Sneed of Danville, Kentucky, in 1854; they had three children. He served as a Stephen Douglas presidential elector in 1860 and made strong appeals for the preservation of the Union. That same year he was elected to the legislature where he served as chair of the Committee on Federal Relations.

In the aftermath of Nathaniel Lyon’s capture of Camp Jackson in May 1861, Vest denounced the coercion of the South and played a leading role in the movement by the state government, headed by Claiborne Fox Jackson, to take Missouri from the Union. The rump legislature met at Neosho in October 1861 and passed an ordinance of secession that was introduced by Vest; he was also appointed as one of the state’s representatives to the Confederate Provisional Congress. Vest served in the Confederate House until January 1865 when he was elevated to the Confederate Senate. He generally supported the Jefferson Davis administration. In January 1863, angered by a considerable number of Marylanders who had taken refuge in Richmond but refused to fight, he secured through Congress a bill to draft all persons in the Confederacy who would be subject to United States conscription were they living there, only to have it pocket vetoed by Davis.

At war’s end, Vest resided in Louisiana but returned to Missouri in 1867 and established a law practice at Sedalia. He was particularly noted for his courtroom oratory; he “bore an irresistible lance in a jury case.” No case seemed too small to merit his concern. In one of his most notable courtroom moments in the early 1870s, Vest represented a local man whose hunting dog Drum had been shot by a neighbor. Vest successfully sued for damages, and his oration on the value of a dog to his master became a classic in local lore.

Vest worked diligently to restore the prominence of the Missouri Democratic party and to remove the suffrage restrictions imposed by the Radical Republicans on former Confederates and southern sympathizers. He supported the coalition with the Liberal Republicans that resulted in the overthrow of Radical rule in 1870, and he served as a delegate to the national Democratic convention in 1872 where he supported a similar coalition. Vest moved to Kansas City in 1877 and a year later was elected as a Democrat to the U.S. Senate, where he served until 1903. There he worked to remove the remaining Reconstruction restrictions on the South. He gained a reputation as a moderate protectionist by guiding the Wilson tariff bill of 1893 through the Senate with minimum amendments. In the congressional struggle of the 1880s to end polygamy and curtail the power of the Mormon church in Utah, Vest in vain supported the Mormons’ right to their beliefs and practices.

One of his notable achievements was legislation that helped preserve Yellowstone National Park when it was threatened by private interests. A strong anti-imperialist, he opposed the acquisition of the Philippines and Puerto Rico in the wake of the Spanish-American War as being unconstitutional because they would be held as permanent colonies. When the movement for the popular election of U.S. senators began to gather momentum, he denounced it as a threat to the federal character of the government. His health failed him toward the end of his Senate career. Physically weak and nearly blind, he had to be helped to and from his seat. He declined reelection in 1903 and died at Sweet Springs, Missouri, the following year.


There is no body of Vest papers nor any full-length biography. Two master’s theses are Virginia M. Botts, “George Graham Vest, United States Senator from Missouri” (Univ. of Kansas, 1931), and Marian Elaine Dawes, “The Senatorial Career of George Graham Vest” (Univ. of Missouri, 1933). Edwin M. C. French, Senator Vest: Champion of the Dog (1930), is a brief, laudatory overview. One of the strongest biographical sketches, emphasizing Vest’s legal career, is the printed eulogy delivered by Henry Lamm at the annual meeting of the Missouri Bar Association in 1904, taken from the proceedings of that meeting. Another good, brief sketch is “Missouri Miniatures: George Graham Vest,” Missouri Historical Review 37 (Oct. 1942): 75–80. The best description of the celebrated Drum case is found in Walter L. Chaney, “The True Story of ‘Old Drum,’ ” Missouri Historical Review 19 (Jan. 1925): 313–34. Vest’s fight against the anti-Mormon crusade is detailed in M. Paul Holsinger, “Senator George Graham Vest and the ‘Menace’ of Mormonism, 1882–1887,” Missouri Historical Review 65 (Oct. 1970): 23–36.