Much about Matthew Lyon of Fair Haven, Vt., is unclear, but one thing is certain. He started the first congressional brawl on Jan. 30, 1798 when he spat tobacco juice into the face of Roger Griswold, a Federalist from Connecticut.
Matthew 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.’
One aristocrat said he felt, ‘ grieved that the saliva of an Irishman should be left upon the face of an American.’
Matthew Lyon was born on July 14, 1749 in County Wicklow Ireland. His father may have been executed for treason against the British. Whatever the case, he worked to support his widowed mother and started to learn printing and bookbinding.
He emigrated to Woodbury, Conn., in 1764 as an indentured servant. Ten years later he joined other white settlers and moved to Wallingford, Vt. (then the New Hampshire Grants). In Wallingford, he bought cheap land and organized a militia.
When the American Revolution broke out, Matthew Lyon joined the Green Mountain Boys and took part in the capture of Fort Ticonderoga. But then Gen. Horatio Gates court-martialed him and had him dishonorably discharged.
There are two versions of what actually happened. According to Lyon and others, he and his men were told to guard a cornfield, and he asked to leave Gates and join Seth Warner. According to others — his political enemies — he was cashiered for cowardice and forced to wear a wooden sword to show his shame.
Matthew Lyon did join Warner’s regiment and later rose to the rank of colonel in the Vermont militia. He also received an appointment as 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.
In Fair Haven he established the first store, built several mills and started a newspaper that eventually became the Rutland Herald.
Feelings ran high in 1798 between the Federalists and Democratic-Republicans.
As a Jeffersonian, Matthew Lyon viewed himself as a champion of the common man against the wealthy, well-educated Federalists.
During a ballot count on the House floor on Jan. 30, 1798, Matthew Lyon began to bait Roger Griswold. He told him the Connecticut Federalists 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 tobacco juice in his face, earning him the nickname, ‘The Spitting Lyon.’
The Federalists excoriated Lyon. One Massachusetts Federalist said Lyon, a ‘kennel of filth,’ should be expelled from Congress. Another called him a ‘nasty, brutish, spitting animal.’
Lyon retorted he had no choice because Federalist newspapers would bandy him about as a ‘mean poltroon’ if he had said nothing to Griswold.
On Feb. 15, 1798, Griswold retaliated. While Lyon retrieved his mail, Griswold jumped up and began beating him about the head with a wooden cane. Lyon grabbed a pair of tongs to defend himself. Other congressmen managed to pull them apart, grabbing Griswold by the legs to separate him from Lyon.
The House Ethics Committee later recommended censure, but the full House rejected the motion.
Jail and Revenge
Later that year, President John Adams signed the Alien and Sedition Acts into law. They criminalized criticism of the federal government, and Matthew Lyon was the first to be tried and convicted under the Acts.
Lyon spent four months in a Vergennes, Vt., jail. The Green Mountain Boys threatened to destroy it, but Lyon urged them not to. He ran for Congress from the jail and won.
Two years later, Matthew Lyon got his revenge: He cast the deciding vote in the election of Thomas Jefferson over John Adams.
Image of Matthew Lyon By Billmckern – State House Portrait, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=49864949. This story was updated in 2022.