Jump to content

05 Feb, A brawl in Congress



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.



Support the Writer:

Tara Ross


  • Like 1
  • Winner 1

1 Comment

Recommended Comments

Kevin P


Here's an interesting piece of history. It's the day something I call "Poli-Speak" became the standard for politicians. 


In 1952, Armon M. Sweat, Jr., a member of the Texas House of Representatives, was asked about his position on whiskey.

What follows is his exact answer
(taken from the Political Archives of Texas)

"If you mean whiskey, the devil's brew, the poison scourge, the bloody monster that defiles innocence, dethrones reason, destroys the home, creates misery and poverty, yea, literally takes the bread from the mouths of little children; if you mean that evil drink that topples Christian men and women from the pinnacles of righteous and gracious living into the bottomless pit of degradation, shame, despair, helplessness, and hopelessness, then, my friend, I am opposed to it with every fiber of my being.

However, if by whiskey you mean the lubricant of conversation, the philosophic juice, the elixir of life, the liquid that is consumed when good fellows get together, that puts a song in their hearts and the warm glow of contentment in their eyes; if you mean Christmas cheer, the stimulating sip that puts a little spring in the step of an elderly gentleman on a frosty morning; if you mean that drink that enables man to magnify his joy, and to forget life's great tragedies and heartbreaks and sorrow; if you mean that drink the sale of which pours into Texas treasuries untold millions of dollars each year, that provides tender care for our little crippled children, our blind, our deaf, our dumb, our pitifully aged and infirm, to build the finest highways, hospitals, universities, and community colleges in this nation, then my friend, I am absolutely, unequivocally in favor of it.

This is my position and, as always, I refuse to compromise on matters of principle"

  • Like 1
Link to comment
Add a comment...

×   Pasted as rich text.   Paste as plain text instead

  Only 75 emoji are allowed.

×   Your link has been automatically embedded.   Display as a link instead

×   Your previous content has been restored.   Clear editor

×   You cannot paste images directly. Upload or insert images from URL.

  • Create New...

Important Information

Use of this site is confirmation and acceptance of your understanding of our Terms of Use , Privacy Policy and site Guidelines . We have placed cookies on your device to help make this website better. You can adjust your cookie settings, otherwise we'll assume you're okay to continue.