Whereas: Stories from the People’s House

Wooden Sword, Spitting Lyon

Matthew Lyon was known as a firebrand, a reputation built by images like this etching of his infamous fight with Roger Griswold after the House failed to expel Lyon for spitting tobacco in the Connecticut Member's face./tiles/non-collection/1/1-18-Lyon-Griswold-fight-2004_089_000.xml Collection of the U.S. House of Representatives
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Matthew Lyon was known as a firebrand, a reputation built by images like this etching of his infamous fight with Roger Griswold after the House failed to expel Lyon for spitting tobacco in the Connecticut Member's face.
For several weeks in early 1798 legislative business in the U.S. House of Representatives slowed to a crawl as the relatively young chamber grappled with a quandary both uncharted and unpleasant: whether and how to discipline its Members for unacceptable behavior.

The problem arose on a midwinter day in late January 1798 as the House prepared for the first impeachment trial in U.S. history. Speaker Jonathan Dayton stepped away from his chair to stretch his legs as clerks tallied the vote to select the Members who would manage the upcoming trial of Tennessee Senator William Blount—who was accused of conspiring with a foreign government to seize land in Louisiana and Spanish Florida during his time as territorial governor a few years earlier. Dayton had just settled into a desk on the floor normally occupied by Connecticut’s Samuel Dana, when he heard a conversation flare up near the fireplace behind him that included “some expressions rather warmer than usual.”

Swiveling around, Dayton saw Representatives Dana and Matthew Lyon of Vermont verbally sparring.

Samuel Dana of Connecticut/tiles/non-collection/1/1-18-Dana-LOC.xml Image courtesy of Library of Congress Samuel Whittlesey Dana of Connecticut served 13 years in the House before winning election to the Senate in 1810, where he served until 1821.
“Gentlemen, keep yourselves cool,” the Speaker warned, adding an allusion to the practice of dueling often used to settle such disputes. “If you proceed much further you will want seconds.”

With that admonishment, Lyon strode to the bar of the House near where Speaker Dayton was sitting and leaned against the rail. Though the men bantered with good humor, Lyon spoke at a volume that seemed intended to reach other ears.

The Vermonter insulted the Connecticut delegation to the House, and suggested that the state’s constituents were gullible. At that point, Roger Griswold of Connecticut approached and responded to the slurs with a smile on his face. “If you go into Connecticut, you had better wear your wooden sword,” he told Lyon. The wooden sword was a biting allusion to Lyon having been cashiered from the Continental Army, allegedly for cowardice in battle during the Revolutionary War.

Lyon seemed oblivious at first. But when Griswold repeated himself, unmistakably belittling the Vermonter’s military service, Lyon reared back and spat in his face.

Bespittled and a bit shocked, Griswold did not immediately retaliate. But Lyon’s breach of decorum appalled colleagues, who wondered what type of discipline was appropriate for such a vile act.

Since no similar incident had yet occurred in the chamber’s brief existence, there was little precedent to guide them. All they had to go on was a constitutional provision that the House could expel one of its Members for “disorderly Behaviour” by a two-thirds vote.

A motion was soon introduced to expel Lyon for his “violent attack and gross indecency” against Griswold, and more generally for his “disorderly behavior.” To investigate the incident, the House created a seven-member Committee of Privileges to interview witnesses, gather evidence, and report back to the chamber.

In a letter read before the House on February 1, Lyon claimed a rather technical point: the incident occurred when the House stood in recess, with the Speaker out of the chair and proceedings halted while the ballots for impeachment managers were being counted. He would, he proclaimed, never violate the rules intentionally. And if he had inadvertently done so, “it is owing wholly to my ignorance of their extent, and that the House claimed any superintendence over its members when not formally constituted, and when they are not engaged in actual business.”

Nathaniel Macon of North Carolina/tiles/non-collection/1/1-18-Macon-2005_16_5-1.xml Collection of the U.S. House of Representatives
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Nathaniel Macon of North Carolina cautioned against a hasty punishment for Lyon. Macon went on to serve as the fifth Speaker of the House.
On Friday, February 2, Virginia’s Abraham B. Venable submitted the findings of the Committee on Privileges to the full House. After interviewing numerous witnesses, the committee determined that the actions of “Spitting Matt”—as he had come to be called—were “highly indecorous, and unworthy of a member of this House.” Therefore, it recommended that Lyon be expelled.

But some Members, like Nathaniel Macon of North Carolina, objected to what they felt was a hasty indictment, and proposed to give the full House an opportunity to consider the evidence. Several others seconded Macon’s request; and more time was allotted to study the issue. “The punishment that the report proposed was equal to death itself,” Macon said.

Debate consumed the chamber for much of the next six legislative days, filling some 75 pages of the otherwise spare Annals of Congress with floor debate and witness testimony.

On Monday, February 12, as the House approached a vote on the motion to expel Lyon, Representative Macon decried the tenor of the proceedings, noting that “there had been as many illiberal expressions in the course of this debate as he had ever heard.” He also lamented that his colleagues, by rehashing the episode in open session with journalists present, had failed to keep “these things out of the sight of the world.”

While Macon thought the Vermonter’s actions merited serious disapproval, he preferred a lesser punishment of reprimand (similar to what we would call a censure today). But a few minutes later, his motion failed 52 to 44. An expulsion motion followed immediately afterward, and while it received a majority, it fell short of the necessary two-thirds required by the Constitution to take effect.

For the time being, Lyon’s career had survived.

Matthew Lyon of Vermont/tiles/non-collection/1/1-18-Lyon_VTCurator.xml Image courtesy of the Vermont State Curator's Office Matthew Lyon served six nonconsecutive terms in the House, two from Vermont and then four from Kentucky. His portrait hangs in the Vermont state capitol today.

An “affray . . . with difficulty stopped”

Privately, Griswold seethed at the result. Three days later, bent on avenging his honor, the Connecticut blueblood decided to mete out his own brand of justice against the uncouth Irish immigrant who represented nearby Vermont.

On the morning of February 15, after the House had opened with a prayer but before it had been called to order, Griswold walked up to Lyon carrying a stout yellow cane made from hickory, a remarkably dense and hard wood. Seated at his desk writing, Lyon seemed unaware of the approaching danger.

Standing above Lyon, Griswold swung his cane freely. Wedged between his chair and desk the Vermonter absorbed some 20 of Griswold’s heavy blows, before finally extricating himself. The pair tussled directly in front of the Speaker’s chair, then around to the side and behind it, into a narrow passage along an exterior wall. Along the way Lyon grabbed tongs from the fireplace and the men began to joust.

The Speaker’s dais momentarily obscured the combatants from view, so witnesses disagreed about how the pair eventually ended up on the floor—either Griswold threw Lyon down and flopped on top of him, or perhaps the hapless Lyon tripped over his own feet. But once they were again in plain sight and wrestling on the floor, Members tried to pry them apart. As the account in Hinds Precedents notes with dry understatement, the “affray . . . was with difficulty stopped.”

Those who intervened not only had trouble untangling the gladiators but soon discovered that some House colleagues so enjoyed the spectacle that they were purposefully slow to react. Some hoped that the fight might last a bit longer.

Apparently, Speaker Dayton was one such spectator, and he made no effort at all to stop the ruckus. When New York Representatives Lucas Elmendorf and Jonathan Havens each grabbed one of Griswold’s legs to pull him off of Lyon, Dayton chided them, “That is not a proper way to take hold of him.”

Jonathan Dayton of New Jersey/tiles/non-collection/1/1-18-Speaker-Dayton-2005_16_3-1.xml Collection of the U.S. House of Representatives
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Jonathan Dayton of New Jersey served as the third Speaker of the House in the 4th and 5th Congresses (1795–1799).
Why not? Havens asked, glancing back at Dayton.

“You ought to take hold of him by the shoulders,” the Speaker instructed. Annoyed, Havens testily replied, “It would not hurt him to pull him a foot or two on the carpet.”

Lyon and Griswold tussled some more and were separated. But just minutes later they again grabbed improvised arms to continue their jousting before finally being subdued.

The following morning, Friday, February 16, Kentucky’s Thomas Terry Davis introduced a resolution to expel both Lyon and Griswold on the spot. Davis a former prosecuting attorney laid his case before the House, insisting that “neither the dignity, the honor, or peace of the House could be preserved whilst these members remained in it, [and] he hoped the House would be unanimous in voting their expulsion.” Josiah Parker of Virginia seconded the motion. “If these members were not expelled, no member could consider himself as safe in his seat,” he anticipated.

Once again, the House instructed the Committee on Privileges to compile evidence and report back on whether to expel Lyon, or Griswold, or both. Now penitent, the belligerents stood passively at their desks. Per the requirements of a resolution that had passed by a wide majority—and under the threat of otherwise being put under the custody of the Sergeant at Arms—they pledged before Speaker Dayton to remain peaceable.

On February 20, the Committee on Privileges reported to the full House, having taken the sworn testimony of 10 witnesses. Based on the available evidence, it recommended that neither man be expelled.

After the House postponed floor consideration of the report for another few days, it met on February 23 to weigh the committee’s findings. One Member made a motion to further postpone debate until March 4, 1799—the final day of the Fifth Congress (1797–1799)—but the measure failed. Members were tired of the spectacle and seemed ready to move on. Following debate about whether a single resolution could legally expel two Members, the full House, in an overwhelming vote of 73 to 21, accepted the committee’s recommendation not to expel either. The House then narrowly rejected a motion to consider censuring the combatants.

In spite of the spittle and the caning, the mayhem, the investigations, and the motions to expel, Matthew Lyon and Roger Griswold kept their seats in the House.

“As retold in caricature and doggerel”

Newspapers up and down the eastern seaboard reprinted official accounts of the Lyon–Griswold melee. For cartoonists the episode offered some fertile material. One widely circulated etching, titled “Congressional Pugilists,” used verse to describe the scene including the detail that Lyon “seized the tongs to ease his wrongs.” The grotesque, laughing faces (including that of Speaker Dayton), and the awkward, exaggerated poses of the combatants reinforced the absurdity of the situation and the dishonor done to both men and to the House’s reputation.

A Frederick, Maryland, magazine—The Key—published a long satirical poem titled, “The Battle of the Wooden Sword! Or, the Modern Pugilists.” The editors set the lengthy ditty to the tune of Yankee Doodle.

Remarkably, the 18th-century lyrics have the ring of a modern rhyme from the Broadway show Hamilton:

It was, they say, a silly fray,
Caused by some silly word, sir,
That chanc’d to slip from Griswold’s lip,
About a wooden sword, sir.

At which [Lyon] roar’d and damn’d the sword,
And did not storm a little,
His feelings hurt, which made him squirt
In Roger’s face his spittle.

Like with a blast, they stood aghast,
The men of this great forum,
Who did loud prate, and execrate
This breach of their decorum . . . .

Then much did they [Lyon’s] vice portray,
By many days’ debating,
And strange to tell, did not expel
The man we are narrating.

And not unlike the story of Alexander Hamilton—killed in his prime during a duel with Aaron Burr over a longstanding personal feud—this one too involved a violation of the prevailing code of honor. To a degree, the House’s inaction—in the first instance against Lyon and later against Griswold—can be ascribed to the mindset shared by so many in the founding generation. The expectation was that the institution was not the primary determinant of proper behavior but rather the individuals themselves who adhered to largely unspoken but intricate and widely understood rituals of gentlemanly honor, particularly in the public arena.

Unveiled in 2003, Bradley Stevens’ portrait of James Madison replaced the House’s Gilbert Stuart portrait of the Founding Father and important early Representative that was destroyed in an 1851 fire./tiles/non-collection/1/1-18-Madison-2002_48.xml Collection of the U.S. House of Representatives
About this object
Unveiled in 2003, Bradley Stevens’ portrait of James Madison replaced the House’s Gilbert Stuart portrait of the Founding Father and important early Representative that was destroyed in an 1851 fire.
The diminutive James Madison, perhaps the last individual one could envision ever pining for a duel, struck a downright belligerent note in evaluating the episode from afar. He judged the entire affair a disgrace but reserved his harshest criticism for Griswold. Madison, who had left the House a year earlier, and within several years would become Secretary of State and later the fourth U.S. President, believed that the Connecticut Representative had debased himself by allowing the House to investigate the matter. Griswold should have either beaten Lyon on the spot on January 30, or challenged him to a duel with pistols. “If Griswold be a man of the sword, he shd. not have permitted the step [of a congressional investigation] to be taken; if not he does not deserve to be avenged by the House,” Madison fumed. “No man ought to reproach another with cowardice, who is not ready to give proof of his own courage.”

Many in the chamber shared that view. Both men had dishonored themselves and the institution—Lyon by his foul act and Griswold by contemptible inaction.

Personal Honor versus Institutional Integrity

The House committee investigation into the Lyon–Griswold fight, and the reports and resolutions that resulted were but a preliminary step in a long, halting process that played out over many years. In some respects, the development of an institutionalized code of conduct awaited the passing of the founding generation that had been raised on an abiding faith in avenging personal honor.

In the 1790s, without a coherent national or even regional party structure and with the institutions of the early republic still in ferment, the personal reputations of public servants meant everything. As the historian Joanne Freeman observed, “Early national politicians lived for their reputations; their sense of self, their sense of accomplishment, the essence of their manhood depended on it. . . . For men of honor, political losses or public humiliations were no temporary setbacks; they struck at a man’s core and threatened to rob him of his self-respect as a man and his identity as a leader, a threat profound enough to drive him” to the dueling field.

The code of honor among gentlemen proved durable—and, in part, its existence probably discouraged a more formal system of discipline in the House from taking shape for several decades. It would be more than 30 years after the Lyon–Griswold fight before the House undertook its first formal disciplinary action, censuring William Stanbery of Ohio in 1832 for using unparliamentary language to insult Speaker Andrew Stevenson. By that point, as the founding generation and its culture had largely passed from the scene—and as institutionalized political parties came to dominate national politics—the informal code of honor that had once helped to regulate behavior within the chamber was supplanted by something new.

Jonathan Cilley of Maine/tiles/non-collection/1/1-18-Cilley-LOC.xml Image courtesy of Library of Congress Maine Representative Jonathan Cilley's death in 1838 prompted a series of investigations and legislation to define appropriate behavior for a Member of the House.
Just as the defense of personal codes of honor once framed the 18th-century House’s disciplinary guidelines (or lack thereof), an explosion of new reform movements in the 1830s made a lasting imprint on Capitol Hill. Broad social crusades like temperance, abolitionism, and even vegetarianism sought to reimagine how Americans lived, worked, and worshiped. Overlaying these varied waves of reform, Americans strove to meet a widespread yearning for refinement in their daily lives and shared institutions—in dress, speech, manners, education, home and hearth.

And in the House, this reform ferment gave sufficient momentum to implement a long-postponed overhaul of the rules of decorum and to create a rudimentary disciplinary process to address reprehensible behavior. Institutional reformers in 1837 banned a number of longstanding traditions that many Members and constituents no longer tolerated, from wearing hats on the floor to free-flowing liquor sales in the Capitol.

Not coincidentally, that same Congress also grappled with another anachronistic practice: dueling. On February 24, 1838—nearly 40 years to the day after the House chose not to discipline the cane- and tong-wielding Griswold and Lyon—a fatal shot from a rifle in a duel between House Members claimed the life of Maine’s Jonathan Cilley.

That bloodshed, in a field along Marlboro Pike a few miles north of the Capitol, unleashed a flood of criticism about how congressmen conducted themselves in the antebellum era. The investigation and legislation that followed Cilley’s death suggested that the House stood at the cusp of a transitional moment: when the need to protect its reputation and proceedings eclipsed indulging any one Member’s desire to avenge his honor.

Sources: Breach of Privileges, Committee on Privileges, U.S. House of Representatives, H. Rept. 103, 5th Cong., 2nd sess. (2 February 1798); Breach of Privileges, Committee on Privileges, U.S. House of Representatives, H. Rept. 104, 5th Cong., 2nd sess. (20 February 1798); 2, 12, 16, 23 February, Annals of Congress, 5th Cong., 2nd sess.; Joanne Freeman, Affairs of Honor: National Politics in the New Republic (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2001); Robert Abzug, Cosmos Crumbling: American Reform and the Religious Imagination (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992); Richard L. Bushman, The Refinement of America: Persons, Houses, Cities (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1992); Samuel Whitaker Pennypacker, Pennsylvania in American History (Philadelphia, PA: William J. Campbell, 1910): 96–101.