Matthew Lyon of Fair Haven, Vt., started the first congressional brawl on Jan. 30, 1798 by spitting in the face of Roger Griswold, a Federalist from Connecticut.
Lyon, a Jeffersonian Republican-Democrat, had arrived in Philadelphia half a year earlier ‘full of himself and seething with aggression.’ He had finally been elected to the U.S. House of Representatives after several tries, and he was there to ‘take the side of the democrats against the aristocrats.’
Lyon was born on July 14, 1749 in County Wicklow Ireland, where he started to learn the printer’s trade. He emigrated to Woodbury, Conn., in 1764 as an indentured servant. Ten years later he moved to Wallingford, Vt. (then the New Hampshire Grants), where he organized a militia. He joined the Green Mountain Boys, took part in the capture of Fort Ticonderoga and then was court-martialed by Gen. Horatio Gates and dishonorably discharged.
There are two versions of what actually happened. According to Lyon and others, he and his men were not being put to good use, and he asked to leave Gates and join Seth Warner. According to others, he was cashiered for cowardice and forced to wear a wooden sword.
He did join Warner’s regiment and rose to the rank of colonel. He was also appointed deputy secretary to Governor Thomas Chittenden, whose daughter he married. He parlayed that connection into a seat in the Vermont House of Representatives. In 1779, he founded Fair Haven, Vt., and finally won election to Congress on his fourth try.
The incident with Griswold started during a ballot count. Lyon loudly said the representatives from Connecticut didn’t represent nine-tenths of their constituents. If he ran a printing press in Connecticut, he said, he would start a revolution there in six months.
Griswold leaned over and asked if he would fight with a wooden sword. Lyon spat in his face, earning him the nickname, ‘The Spitting Lyon.’
On Feb. 15, 1798, Griswold retaliated. While Lyon was retrieving his mail, Griswold jumped up and began beating him about the head with a wooden. Lyon grabbed a pair of tongs to defend himself. Other congressmen managed to pull them apart, pulling Griswold by the legs to separate him from Lyon.
The House Ethics Committee later recommended censure, but the full House rejected the motion for censure.
Two years later, Lyon would play a key role in a ‘democratic’ triumph over aristocrats by casting the deciding vote in the election of Thomas Jefferson over John Adams.