February 15: A Political Fight Turns Violent in Congress

 

On February 15, 1798, a weeks-long spat between two fiery politicians turned violent when Connecticut Representative Roger Griswold walked up to Matthew Lyon of Vermont and, on the floor of Congress, began viciously attacking him with his walking stick.  Without a moment’s hesitation, Lyon grabbed a nearby pair of iron fireplace tongs and began defending himself.  Once the two adversaries dropped their impromptu weapons and started throwing punches at each other, several of their fellow congressmen finally stepped in to pull the two pugilists apart.

The immediate cause of the fight on February 15 was a heated argument the two representatives had weeks earlier regarding the foreign policy of President John Adams.  The bad blood between Griswold and Lyon stemmed from the intense political polarization that characterized turn-of-the-century American politics, as pro-industry Federalists and pro-agriculture Democratic-Republicans passionately advocated for different visions of where they believed the young country should be headed.  On January 30, Lyon, a Republican, declared himself a champion of the common man while accusing Griswold and his fellow Connecticut representatives of seeking profit at the expense of ignoring their constituents’ needs.  Griswold, an ardent Federalist, replied with a snide reference to Lyon’s dishonorable discharge from the Continental Army during the Revolutionary War, calling him a coward in all but name.  In response, an incensed Lyon spit tobacco juice in Griswold’s face.

This colorized version of a political cartoon published in Philadelphia in 1798 depicts the fight between Matthew Lyon and Roger Griswold on the floor of Congress. (Library of Congress)

The Federalist members of the House of Representatives immediately moved to expel Lyon from Congress on the grounds that he committed an act of “gross indecency” against Griswold.  With political polarization at an all-time high, it took the House two weeks to debate the issue, and when the question was finally called on February 14, the votes fell strictly along party lines, with the Federalists failing to acquire the 2/3 majority they needed to pass their resolution.  Furious with the House’s failure to expel Lyon, Griswold approached him the very next day and attacked him with his walking stick in one of the first — though certainly not the last — examples of two Congressmen coming to blows.  A House divided, today in Connecticut history.

Further Reading:

Kim Sheridan, “Roger Griswold Starts a Brawl in Congress,” connecticuthistory.org

Andrew Glass, “Griswold-Lyon fight erupts on House floor, Feb. 15, 1798,Politico