This Day in History: A brawl in Congress
On this day in 1798, trouble brews in the United States Congress. Bitter feelings would ultimately lead to an open brawl on the floor of the House of Representatives.
The nation was then facing some difficult issues. The country was in a Quasi-War with France, and there was a lot of disagreement about how to proceed. But you don’t think the congressmen were brawling about those tough matters of foreign policy, do you? Well, not exactly.
The problems began on January 30. Congressmen were milling around on the House floor after a vote. One feisty Democratic-Republican from Vermont, Matthew Lyon, was talking with a group of his colleagues. Lyon was maligning Connecticut politicians. He thought they were working toward their own personal gain, rather than the best interests of their constituents. He asserted that he could march into Connecticut, make his case to the voters, and they would follow him in an instant.
A congressional committee later reported that Lyon “spoke loud enough to be heard by all those who were near him, as if he intended to be heard by them.”
Unsurprisingly, then, Roger Griswold, a Federalist from Connecticut, heard the whole thing. He remarked, “If you go into Connecticut, you had better wear your wooden sword.” This was a real insult! Lyon had been temporarily but dishonorably discharged from the military during the Revolution. The “wooden sword” remark was aimed at this incident. But when Griswold made this remark, Lyon either did not hear him—or he pretended not to hear. So Griswold marched right up to Lyon and pointedly asked the same thing. Again.
Lyon definitely heard the insult this time. He responded by spitting his tobacco juice straight into Griswold’s eye!
Federalists were outraged. Who spits in another man’s face? The House debated the matter. Should Lyon be expelled? The matter was finally settled with a vote that fell mostly along party lines. Lyon would stay.
Naturally, that wasn’t really the end of it.
On February 15, Griswold walked straight up to Lyon’s desk on the House floor—and he hit Lyon with his hickory walking stick! Lyon grabbed fireplace tongs and retaliated. The two men fought until they were pulled apart.
A representative from Massachusetts later wrote:
“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 & 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 House held a vote to expel both men from the House. That vote failed, 73-21.
Annals of Congress (February 1798)
Historical Highlights: Representative Roger Griswold of Connecticut Attacked Matthew Lyon of Vermont on the House Floor, February 15, 1798 (History, Art, & Archives: U.S. House of Representatives)
Nancy E. Marion & Willard Oliver, Killing Congress: Assassinations, Attempted Assassinations and Other Violence against Members of Congress (2014)
Roger Griswold Starts a Brawl in Congress—Today in History: February 15 (ConnecticutHistory.org)