February 15, 1798, was a day of hectic drama for the U.S. Congress. Two congressmen, Matthew Lyon of Vermont and Roger Griswold of Connecticut, had a fistfight in Congress, which resulted in both men being expelled.
What Happened In 1798 In American History: Fist Fight in Congress 1798
It was a confrontation on House floor in Philadelphia’s Congress Hall. Roger Griswold attacked Matthew Lyon as he was angry that Lyon had not been expelled after spitting tobacco juice on him on January 30, 1798.
The fight (Congress brawl) started with Griswold attacking Lyon with a cane, then Lyon defending himself with a pair of fire tongs. The confrontation resulted in both men being expelled from Congress.
Fight in Congress
It seemed as though the Congress fight was a long time coming, and it didn’t surprise most when the brawl took place. Beforehand, there had been weeks of bitterness between the two Congressmen.
It started on January 30 of 1798 when the congress fist fight between Congressmen took place. Lyon was an anti-federalist, and, on this date, he accused Connecticut representatives of ignoring constituents for their own benefit. Griswold of Connecticut took this accusation personally and after dramatically questioning Lyon on his war record during the revolution, Lyon spat Tobacco juice in Griswold’s eye as retaliation.
The Federalists wanted Lyon expelled from Congress for “gross indecency”, however, after a vote, it did not reach a two-thirds majority, which was needed, allowing Lyon to remain in Congress.
These events resulted in fist fights in Congress, and this time both men were expelled.
Fight on the House Floor: Congressional Pugilists
Word soon got out about the fight on floor of Congress, and it wasn’t long until details were appearing in the press, including a satirical cartoon of the fight that took place, titled “Congressional Pugilists”.
The drawing shows a sketch of Lyon and Griswold fighting in the middle of Congress, surrounded by other Congressmen that are either laughing or have worried expressions. The main part of the cartoon shows both Lyon and Griswold looking disheveled with a cane in Griswold’s hand and fire tongs in Lyon’s, with Griswold kicking Lyon.
Underneath the cartoon, the caption reads: “He in a trice struck Lyon thrice, Upon his head, enraged sir, Who seized the tongs to ease his wrongs, And Griswold thus engaged sir.” The cartoon is poking fun at both Congressmen and their fistfight.
Not only this, but the cartoon also has a wall painting of two fighting birds above the heads of Lyon and Griswold, which had been titled “Royal Sport”. Cockfighting used to be a popular sport, and the illustrator has used it as another way to poke fun at the Congressman, fist fight was shown as fighting cocks.
Congress Brawl: Matthew Lyon
Matthew Lyon (or Mathew Lyon) (1749-1822) had a colorful background. He was born in Wicklow, Ireland, and then moved to the States in 1764, where he worked as a servant. A few years later, in 1772, Lyon had enough money saved to buy a property in Cornwall, Connecticut. During the American Revolutionary War, Lyon served as a Colonel in the Green Mountain Boys and helped with the capture of Fort Ticonderoga in 1775. Soon after the Declaration of Independence had been signed, Lyon became a Second Lieutenant under General George Washington. After Vermont declared independence from New York, Lyon became a member of the new government.
In 1796, Lyon won a seat in the House of Representatives, but he openly opposed President John Adams, and he made sure this was well known in the form of public letters that went against Adams. Lyon accused the President of being power hungry, pompous, and dismissing men from office for their independent thought. Because of this opposition, Lyon was arrested on October 6, 1798, a few months after his Congressmen fist fight.
Congressman Who Beat Another with a Cane: Roger Griswold
Roger Griswold’s (1762-1812) history is a much tamer story. He was born in Lyme, Connecticut, and became a student at Yale University at the age of 14. He graduated in 1780 and studied law, then in 1783, he was admitted to the bar and began a promising career in law. Through the years of 1795 to 1805, he was a member of the House of Representatives.
After his fight with Matthew Lyon on February 15, 1798, Griswold was still able to follow through with his successful career in both law and politics. In 1801, Griswold was offered the role of Secretary of War by the President; however, he turned down the role. From 1807 to 1809, he served the Connecticut Superior Court, and in April 1811, he was elected as Governor of Connecticut.
It’s not unknown that things can become heated in politics; however, it’s very unlikely for a physical fight to occur, which is why this particular brawl has gone down in history. With Lyon and Griswold having previous altercations, it seemed it was only a matter of time before a fight was to take place.
While it seemed Griswold could still prosper after the altercation in Congress, it seemed Lyon’s career went dramatically downhill. With Griswold going on to become Governor of Connecticut up until his death, Lyon was arrested a few months after the fight due to his open opposition to the President.
While this was one of the first and most famous fights in Congress, it didn’t stop fights from taking place in further years and not long after the 1798 brawl. In 1838, there was a duel between Jonathan Cilley, a Massachusetts Democrat, and William Graves who was a Whig from Kentucky. In 1840, there were even threats of lynching from Edward Black for slavery against John Giddings, who was antislavery. It’s no doubt that conflicts shouldn’t be part of the Congress work. However, do hook people’s attention while students tend to discuss them in the academic essays they write and seek online help from professional essay writing service. A lot of online blogging writers focus on the fights in Congress as well. Even to this day, politicians aren’t afraid to publicly lash out at one another over social media.
Cartoon Analysis: Congressional Pugilists, 1798 – Bill of Rights Institute. (n.d). Bill of Rights Institute. https://billofrightsinstitute.org/activities/cartoon-analysis-congressional-pugilists-1798
“Congressional Pugilists.” (2022, August 9). Newberry Library. https://www.newberry.org/blog/congressional-pugilists
Donovan, A. (2023, April 2021). Roger Griswald Starts a Brawl in Congress – Today in History: February 15 – Connecticut History | A CTHumanities Project. Connecticut History |
A CTHumanities Project – Stories about the people, traditions, innovations and events that make up Connecticut’s rich history. https://connecticuthistory.org/roger-griswold-starts-a-brawl-in-congress-today-in-history
Griswold – Lyon fight erupts on House floor, Feb. 15, 1798. (2011, February 15). POLITICO. https://www.politico.com/story/2011/02/griswold-lyon-fight-erupts-on-house-floor-feb-15-1798-049518
Matthew Lyon. (n.d). The First Amendment Encyclopedia. https://www.mtsu.edu/first-amendment/article/1442/matthew-lyon
National Governors Association. (2019, April 15). Roger Griswold – National Governors
Representative Roger Griswold of Connecticut Attacked Matthew Lyon of Vermont on the House Floor | U.S. House of Representatives: History, Art & Archives. (n.d). https://history.house.gov/Historical-Highlights/1700s/Representative-Roger-Griswold-of-Connecticut-attacked-Matthew-Lyon-of-Vermont-on-the-House-Floor/