On February 15, 1798, Roger Griswold, a US House Representative from Connecticut, attacked Matthew Lyon on the floor of the House of Representatives. Griswold, a Federalist, walked up to Lyon’s desk hitting him about the head and shoulders with his hickory walking stick. Lyon, a Republican from Vermont, responded by grabbing a pair of fireplace tongs and beating Griswold back. A brawl ensued and the men threw fists before Congressional members pulled apart the two.
Griswold’s attack was not a surprise. It followed weeks of bitter turmoil on the floor of Congress over an earlier confrontation between the two men. On January 30, Lyon, a staunch anti-federalist, accused the Connecticut representatives of ignoring the interests of their constituents for their own profit. Griswold took this as a personal insult on his character and retaliated by questioning Lyon’s war record during the Revolution, calling him a coward (Lyon had been temporarily dishonorably discharged from the Continental Army). Lyon’s response was to spit tobacco juice in Griswold’s eye. The Federalists moved to expel Lyon from the House for “gross indecency” spending two weeks debating the issue. When the votes came back along party lines on February 14, the Federalists hadn’t received the necessary two-thirds majority. The following day Griswold defended his honor with his stick. While the brawl resulted from personal attacks of character, the underlying cause of the conflict was Griswold’s support of President John Adams’ military preparations in the event of hostilities with France: Adams hard line policy over the losses of American ships to the French navy had galvanized the newly formed parties.
The conflict became quickly satirized in the press and cartoons of the brawl brought to national attention the division of Congress along partisan lines.
Kim Sheridan is a researcher and digital curator who holds a Master’s Degree in Library Science from Southern Connecticut State University.