March 7, 2012

Matthew Lyon (1749 – 1822), Part 2: Spitting in Roger Griswold's Face

In 1798, Matthew Lyon got into an altercation with Roger Griswold on the House floor.  From the Annals of Congress for the 2nd session of the 5th Congress:

Mr. Venable, from the Committee of Privileges, made the follow report: 
The Committee of Privileges, to whom was referred a resolution on the 30th of January, charging Matthew Lyon with disorderly behaviour, with instructions to inquire into the whole matter thereof, and to report the same, with their opinions thereon, to the House, having examined several witness on oath touching the subject, report:  That, during the sitting of the House of Representatives on the 30th day of January, 1798, the tellers of the House being engaged in counting the ballots for Managers of the impeachment against William Blount, the Speaker had left his Chair, and many members their seats, as is usual on such occasions; the Speaker was sitting in one of the member's seats, next to the bar of the House, and several members near him, of whom Mr. Griswold was one. 
Mr. Lyon was standing without the bar of the House, leaning on the same, and holding a conversation with the Speaker.  He spoke loud enough to be heard by all those who were near him, as if he intended to be heard by them.  The subject of his conversation was, the conduct of the Representatives of the State of Connecticut, (of whom Mr. Griswold was one.)  Mr. Lyon declared that they acted in opposition to the interests of the people; that they were seeking offices, which they were willing to accept, whether yielding $9,000 or $1,000.  He further observed that the people of that State were blinded or deceived by those Representatives; that they were permitted to see but one side of the question in politics, being lulled asleep by the opiates which the members from that State administered to them; with other expressions equally tending to derogate from the political integrity of the Representatives of Connecticut.
On Mr. Lyon's observing, that if he should go into Connecticut, and manage a press there six months, although the people of that State were not fond of revolutionary principles, he could effect a revolution, and turn out the present Representatives--Mr. Griswold replied to these remarks, and amongst other things, said "If you go into Connecticut, you had better wear your wooden sword," or words to that effect, alluding to Mr. Lyon's having been cashiered in the army. 
Mr. Lyon did not notice the allusion at this time, but continued the conversation on the same subject.  Mr. Griswold then left his seat, and stood next to Mr. Lyon, leaning on the bar, being outside the same. 
On Mr. Lyon's saying he knew the people of Connecticut well, having lived among them many years--that he had frequent occasion to fight them in his own district, and that he never failed to convince them--Mr. Griswold asked, if he fought them with his wooden sword, on which Mr. Lyon spat in his face. 
The Committee having attentively considered the foregoing state of facts, and having heard Mr. Lyon in his defence, are of opinion that his conduct in this transaction was highly indecorous, and unworthy of a member of this House. 
They, therefore, recommend the adoption of the resolution submitted to their consideration by the House, in the words following, to wit: 
"Resolved, That Matthew Lyon, a member of this House, for a violent attack and gross indecency, committed upon the person of Roger Griswold, another member, in the presence of the House while sitting, be for this disorderly behavior expelled therefrom."

The following is an editorial piece the Federalist paper Gazette of the United States based in Philadelphia on 1st of February, 1798 about the above described incident:


Mr. Griswold,--Lyon,--and a hint to Mr. Baldwin. 
It seems as if the Editors of some Newspapers cannot tread the path of truth even on the most recent occurrence.  A truth lodged in their minds immediately undergoes some horrid distortion, and is cast forth the vile abortion of falsehood and malice.  Such is Bachs’s account of the affair between Mr. Griswold and Lyon, the one a man as respectable, so honorable, and useful to his country, as the other is the reverse.  In your Gazette of this evening, you have given a correct statement of the facts relative to this business, as I learn from several sources of authentic testimony.  A most unmanner’d ruffian has offered Mr. Griswold an insult never to be endured.  With a presence of mind not to have been expected from his strength and spirit, but highly honorable, he refrained from striking him to his feet, even to the destruction of that respect and order which should ever be observed to the Representatives of America.  The House have taken, as they ought, the affront upon themselves; but as they have not done it upon Mr. Griswold’s application, it cannot be supposed he has relinquished his right to redress himself, if they shall fall short of doing him justice.  If the House then, shall be so lost or indifferent to their own dignity; if they shall be so tame or so timid, under the most gross and unprecedented outrage that has ever been offered to a public body; or if they shall be so sunk in the filth of party and dishonour, as still to suffer this so base an example to influence him, or restrain his resentment.  As Lyon has received every species of insult, and been used to nothing else all his life, from the days of his servitude to his highest exaltation; as dishonor and contempt have been heaped upon him for years without effect, or any excitement of feeling; it must be taken for granted that he has no feeling for such punishment.  His vile and worthless carcase is all that knows sensibility about him; and an appeal must be made to that.  I therefore am of opinion that Mr. Griswold should most inflexibly resolve to beat this fellow daily and every day, until one or the other of them shall be compelled to leave that house; for surely Mr. Griswold should never sit again with him as an equal and a gentlemen.  If Lyon is to be protected and justified, and He is to be expelled for [r?]isking a just vengeance on his brutality, he will have little cause of regret at having a body so insensible to its own dignity, and so unjust to his injuries. 
How happens it that Mr. Baldwin, who, some time since, made such a piteous petition to the House, to protect him from a fair meeting with Gen. Gunn has so changed his opinion about privilege, and that sanctity of the persons of the members, as, throughout, to vote in favor of this brutal assault upon Mr. Griswold, and to protect the offender from punishment.  I wish some member would call on Mr. Baldwin for his opinion on this subject.

From the Massachusetts Independent Chronicle on 1798-02-12 is Matthew Lyon's side of the story:

In addition to what is given under our Congress head, upon the late disagreeable occurrence in our national legislature, we extract the following from the narrative given by Col. Lyon in the course of his defence before the Committee of Privileges: 
Gentlemen of the Committee, 
"I shall conclude with making some observations on the testimony; all of which corroborates, that I was standing without the bar conversing with the speaker who sat on an outside chair, the subject I believe it is apparent was Mr. Nicholas motion, I did not like the opposition given to it by the Connecticut members.  I insisted they did not act according to the [?] understanding of the people of that state.--This led to saying many other things, though my discourse was directed to the speaker, it appears I had the wit and raillery of five or six gentlemen from New York and Connecticut to withstand and reply to, it appears that I supported this with good humor. 
"It appears also by the testimony, that Mr. Griswold, in Mr. Harper's seat, gave me a must cutting insult.  The speaker who I was in conversation with, heard it as well as some others; they testify that I did not appear to hear it.  Why not hear it as well as they?  for no other reason than to keep up the good humour.  But Mr. Griswold not satisfied with the insult already given, says to one of the witnesse's "He does not hear me," and removes and intrudes himself to my side, pulls me by the arm to call my attention, and their more particularly and more deliberately repeats the insult; knowing it to be the most provoking abuse that one gentlemen could possibly offer another. 
"Under all these circumstances, I cannot but entertain the fullest assurance that I stand justified for the repulse of that deliberate insult offered me by Mr. Griswold, int he view of the committee of the house of Representatives and of every man of honor or feeling who shall ever hear the story."

From Volume 52 (Dec 1875) of Harper's Magazine:

The two members were standing near one another outside the bar, when Griswold made taunting allusion to an old "campaign story" of Matthew Lyon's having been sentenced to wear a wooden sword for cowardice in the field.  Lyon, in a fury, spat in Griswold's face.  Instantly the House was in an uproar; and although the impetuous Lyon apologized to the House, he only escaped expulsion, after eleven days' debate, through the constitutional requirement of a two-thirds vote.  This affair called forth a caricature in which the Irish member was depicted as a lion standing on his hind-legs wearing a wooden sword, while Griswold, handkerchief in hand, exclaims, "What a beastly action!"

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