February 15: Congressmen Who Fought with More Than Words


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 on the floor of Congress and 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 was a heated argument the two representatives had had weeks earlier over the foreign policy of President John Adams. Such rancor was indicative of the intense political polarization that characterized American politics at the turn of the 19th century. Pro-industry Federalists and pro-agriculture Democratic-Republicans passionately, and sometimes literally, fought over their different visions of where they believed the young and supposedly United States should be headed. On January 30, Lyon, a Jeffersonian Republican who had once been an indentured servant in Woodbury, Connecticut, had declared himself a champion of the common man while accusing Griswold and his fellow elite Connecticut representatives of seeking personal profit and ignoring their constituents’ needs. Griswold, an ardent and now furious Federalist, replied with a snide ad hominem attack, making a disparaging reference to Lyon’s dishonorable Revolutionary War discharge from the Continental Army. Incensed at being called a coward in all but name, Lyon spit tobacco juice in Griswold’s face.

A contemporary political cartoon of the Congressional caning shows the chaotic floor-fight. (Library of Congress.)

The Federalist members of the House of Representatives immediately moved to expel Lyon from Congress on the grounds that he had committed an act of “gross indecency” against Griswold. With political polarization at an all-time high, the House fiercely debated the issue for the next two weeks. When the question was finally called on February 14, the votes predictably fell strictly along party lines, with the Federalists failing to acquire the two-thirds majority they needed to pass the expulsion resolution. Livid at the House’s failure to remove Lyon, Griswold approached the Vermont Republican the very next day and attacked him with his walking stick in one of the first — though not the last — examples of two Congressmen coming to blows on the floor of the House. As hard as it is to believe, the American “People’s House” in 1798 was a House even more divided than now, 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