Matthew Lyon, the Fighting Irishman of Capitol Hill
John William Tuohy
One of the worst cases of bad behavior in political life happened in 1798 and involved an Irishman Republican Representative Matthew Lyon against a Connecticut Federalist Roger Griswold, after Lyons spat in the Griswold’s face. All this had been preceded by a round of insults with the entire ugly episode having started over Griswold’s assault on Lyons voting record from the house floor. Griswold responded to the spitting and insults by striking Lyons about twenty times with a hickory cane, which prompted Griswold to respond with a pair of fire tons. All this happened while other members of the house gathered round in a circle in watched the two men beat each other up.
Roger Griswold (May 21, 1762 – October 25, 1812) was governor of Connecticut and a member of the US House of Representatives, serving as a Federalist. Born in Lyme, Connecticut, he was the son of Matthew Griswold and Ursula Wolcott Griswold. His maternal grandfather, Roger Wolcott, his uncle, Oliver Wolcott, and his cousin Oliver Wolcott, Jr., had each served as Governors of Connecticut
A student of the classics, Griswold graduated from Yale College in 1780; studied law; was admitted to the bar in 1783 and opened a law practice in Norwich, Connecticut. Eleven years later, he returned to Lyme and was elected as a Federalist to the US House of Representatives. He served from March 4, 1795, until his resignation in 1805. In 1801, he declined an offer to become Secretary of War (Defense) under President John Adams. His grandson, Matthew Griswold, would also serve Connecticut in the House.
In the last years of his term in office, 1803, Griswold and several other New England Federalist politicians, proposed secession from the union due to the growing influence of Jeffersonian Democrats and the Louisiana Purchase which they felt would dilute Northern influence.
Matthew Lyon (July 14, 1749 - August 1, 1822) was born near Dublin, Ireland. He learned his trade as a printer and in 1765, at age 15, immigrated to Connecticut. Arriving to the state as a redemptioner (An emigrant who paid for the voyage by serving for a specified period as a bondservant) Lyons worked on a farm in Woodbury, while continuing his education.
In 1774, the ambitious Irishman moved to Wallingford, Vermont and eventually organized a company of militia and served as its adjutant and was later commissioned as a Second Lieutenant in the regiment known as the Green Mountain Boys in July 1776.
He resigned from the Army in 1778 and became a member of the Vermont House of Representatives from 1779-1783, founded the town of Fair Haven, Vermont in 1779, operated various kinds of mills, owned a paper factory and a printing office and published the Farmers' Library, which would become the Fair Haven Gazette. He also returned to the state House of Representatives for ten years. (1783-1796.) In 1797, after several defeats for office, he was elected to the US House of Representatives.
Lyon problems with Griswold started after an exchange of insults which lead to the spitting incident on January 30, 1798. A group of members were chatting informally by the fireplace during a pause to count votes. Lyon, who was a rabid anti-Federalist, accused Griswold of opposing the interests of their constituents in order to enrich himself and noted that he owned a large printing company and might go after Griswold and the other federalists that way. Griswold, who was across the room heard the remark and shouted at Lyon “If you go into Connecticut,” you had better bring your wooden sword.” an allusion to Lyon’s Revolutionary War record.
The insult sprang from a rumor that Lyon had been forced to wear a wooden sword as a symbol of cowardice in 1776 after men under Lyon’s command had mutinied during an isolated and unpopular mission near the Canadian border. A military court investigated the matter and cashiered Lyon and his fellow officers, out of the service. It was a purely political decision made to restore discipline among the raw and undisciplined Continental troops. Lyon, for the benefit of the new Republic, accepted the court’s decision and was later readmitted into the Army at a higher rank. Lyon responded by spitting in Griswold's face. A Federalist member of the House immediately moved to expel Lyon and the House spent two weeks debating the momentous question. On February 14 the House voted in favor of expulsion by a party line vote of 52 to 44, short of the necessary two-thirds majority. For his part, Lyon issued an apology for his action.
Griswold decided to defend his honor on the morning of February 15, when, without any warning, Griswold rushed across the House floor to Lyon who was sitting at his desk writing a letter. He was armed with a thick hickory stick that he had purchased the day before with the single intention of beating Lyon senseless
In a letter, Griswold later described what happened “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.”
Representative George Thacher of Massachusetts recalled “I was suddenly, and unsuspectedly interrupted by the sound of a violent blow I raised my head, & directly before me stood Mr. Griswald [sic] laying on blows with all his might upon Mr. Lyon, who seemed to be in the act of rising out of his seat Lyon made an attempt to catch his cane, but failed--he pressed towards Griswald and endeavoured to close with him, but Griswald fell back and continued his blows on the head, shoulder, & arms of Lyon[who] protecting his head & face as well as he could then turned & made for the fire place& took up the [fire] tongs. Griswald drop[p]ed his stick & seized the tongs with one hand, & the collar of Lyon by the other, in which pos[i]tion they struggled for an instant when Griswald trip[p]ed Lyon & threw him on the floor & gave him one or two blows in the face”
The combatants were separated and Lyon walked over to the House water table, loudly making the statement “I wish I had been left alone awhile.” Griswold then re-approached him and Lyon came at him with a set of fire tongs, setting off a second brawl. Jonathan Mason commented that the incident caused the central legislative body of the United States of America had been reduced to "an assembly of Gladiators."
The ever arrogant Griswold later said “I might perhaps have given him a second beating but the House was called to order.” Griswold, who was born to rank and privilege, ascribed Lyon's temperament to his working class Irish roots. In 1798, he wrote to a friend "The stories of his being sold for his passage from Ireland are likewise true--in short he is literally one of the most ignorant contemptible and brutal fellows in Congress--and that is saying a great deal." As a result of the incident, Lyon had the distinction of being the first member of the House to have an ethics violation charge filed against him for "gross indecency" for spitting on Griswold, although the Ethics Committee recommended censure, the House as a whole rejected the motion to censure him while the blue blooded Griswold will forever be the first congressman to engage in a physical altercation with another congressman.
Lyon was reelected to Congress while in jail in 1798, after he was found guilty of violating the Alien and Sedition Acts, which prohibited malicious writing of the American government or its officials.
Lyon was the first person to be put to trial for violating the acts and charged with criticizing Federalist president John Adams and disagreeing with Adams' decision to go to war against France. He was found guilty and sentenced to four months in jail and ordered to pay a $1,000 fine and court costs. While in jail, Lyon won election to the Sixth Congress. In the election of 1800, it was Lyon cast the deciding vote for Jefferson after the election went to the House of Representatives because of an electoral tie.
Lyon left the Congress in 1801 and moved to Kentucky where he settled in Caldwell County (now Lyon County) and became a member of the Kentucky House of Representatives in 1802. He was reelected to Congresses in 1803 and was appointed United States factor to the Cherokee Nation in Arkansas Territory in 1820. he died Spadra Bluff, Arkansas, August 1, 1822.
Griswold served as a judge of the Supreme Court of Connecticut in 1807, Lieutenant Governor from 1809 to 1811 and Governor from 1811 until his death in Norwich. He is buried Old Lyme, Connecticut.