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1798 Two Hundred Years Ago

June 2024
2min read

A Congressional Fistfight


On February 15 the U.S. Congress reached its lowest point yet when Rep. Matthew Lyon of Vermont and Rep. Roger Griswold of Connecticut engaged in a schoolyard brawl on the floor of the House of Representatives. The trouble had begun on January 30, when a group of members were chatting informally by the fireplace during a pause to count votes. Lyon, a rabid anti-Federalist, accused Connecticut’s Federalist representatives of opposing the interests of their constituents in order to enrich themselves. With a printing press and six months in the state, he said, he could easily set things right. Griswold, sitting nearby, jumped at the opportunity to take a dig at Lyon. “If you go into Connecticut,” he said, “you had better bring your wooden sword.”

The gibe was an allusion to Lyon’s Revolutionary War record. On an isolated and unpopular mission near the Canadian border in 1776, men under Lyon’s command had mutinied. A court-martial had responded by cashiering him, along with some other officers. The action was taken to restore discipline among the raw Continental troops and was not a slap at Lyon, who later rejoined the Army and served with distinction in the Saratoga campaign. Nonetheless, a canard sprang up that Lyon had been made to wear a wooden sword as a symbol of cowardice.

Lyon countered Griswold’s volley of wit with a volley of saliva. A Federalist immediately moved to expel the Vermonter, and the House spent two weeks debating the momentous question. The feisty Lyon uncharacteristically issued an apology for his action, which the Federalists ignored. On February 14 the House voted in favor of expulsion by a partyline vote of 52 to 44, well short of the necessary two-thirds majority.

Griswold had prepared for this outcome by purchasing a stout hickory walking stick. The next day, before the start of business, he crept over to the unsuspecting Lyon, who was examining some papers. In a letter, Griswold describes what ensued: “I gave him the first blow—I call’d him a scoundrel & struck him with my cane, and pursued him with more than twenty blows on his head and back until he got possession of a pair of tongues [i.e., tongs], when I threw him down and after giving him several blows with my fist, I was taken off by his friends.”

After the honorable members had been separated, Lyon made the customary display of empty bravado, saying, “I wish I had been left alone awhile.” Refreshed with drinks of water, the combatants made angry noises and threatened to renew hostilities, but as Griswold explained with evident disappointment (after describing the damage he had already inflicted), “I might perhaps have given him a second beating but the House was called to order.”

The incident inspired scores of cartoons and newspaper jests. In keeping with the era’s labored style of humor—as incomprehensible to us as “Beavis & Butt-Head” will seem two centuries hence—it also inspired mock epic poetry. One bard contemptuously contrasted Griswold’s sneak attack on Lyon with Hercules’ brave slaying of the Nemean lion. Another no less hilariously likened Lyon’s spitting on Griswold to Socrates’ wife’s dumping a chamber pot over her husband’s head. Echoing Cervantes, Griswold was also dubbed “Knight of the Rheum-full Countenance.” Alluding to Lyon’s Irish birth, the works glittered with couplets like “A Yankee young dog! to strike a bold paddy / A man old enough to be his grand daddy” and “When, lo! the fierce Yankee flew into a passion / And gave the bog-trotter a notable thrashing.” Meanwhile, in the battle’s aftermath, motions to expel or censure both members were defeated following due deliberation, and after spending most of a month refereeing this squabble, the House took up a few less significant matters, such as the impending war with France.

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