February 15, 1798: A Brawl In the (Congressional) Hall

The more things change, the more they seem to stay the same. If you didn’t catch this story in history class, the image a powdered wigs and fisticuffs might surprise you. Here’s the video.

[A link to a printable History Quick unit study about the event is HERE.

Video Highlights

Politics.  It’s always been a topic of debate. Sometimes that debate gets pretty heated.  Which is why its one of those things many families refuse to talk about over the dinner table.  Today we are going to talk about the Brawl in the Hall that took place in Philadelphia’s Congress Hall in the House of Representatives chamber in 1798.

The focus of our story is two men who came from very different backgrounds but they share a common distinction:  In 1798, they became the first two members of Congress to be charged with “Disorderly behavior” in what we will call the Brawl in the Hall. 

First we have Matthew Lyon. Lyon was born in 1749 in Ireland. In 1764, still a teenager and against his widowed mother’s wishes,  he immigrated to Connecticut by selling himself into servitude to pay his passage.  Although he had a short time of formal education back in Ireland, he was mostly self-taught, learning what he could when he could. Through hard work, he paid back his debt and became a free man in 1768.  He moved to Vermont, farmed and formed a militia.  He was commissioned a second lieutenant with the Green Mountain Boys in 1776.  

During the Revolutionary War, Lyon served in New York and Vermont  under Horatio Gates (a familiar name to our History Quick channel subscribers) There differing accounts about what happened during that time with Gates but one version haunted Lyon for the rest of his life. In *that* story, he was labeled a coward and required to carry a wooden sword as a symbol of humiliation and shame.  Whatever happened in his time with Gates, Lyon’s military career continued elsewhere and he moved up in rank, eventually to colonel. 

[Related: Horatio Gates and William Blount VIDEO]

Lyon built and ran several businesses and in 1796, he was elected to the House of Representatives.   

Next, we have Roger Griswold. In 1762, Griswold was born into a prominent Connecticut family.  He graduated from Yale in 1780, was admitted to the bar in 1783 and continued work as a lawyer.  Griswold was first elected to Congress in 1785.  

Lyon, the self-taught Irish immigrant, and Griswold, the wealthy Yale-educated native-born American, came from very different backgrounds, indeed.

The House of Representatives was a place of heated debates between the Democratic- Republicans and the Federalists. On January 30, 1798, the topic of the day was the impeachment Tennessee Senator William Blount. There are History Quick Adventure Packs about impeachment, and William Blount.

[Related: The First-Ever Federal Impeachment, William Blount, printable unit study]

The members of the House of Representatives were in the midst of voting for the managers of the Blount impeachment case when…things went awry.

Griswold was a Federalist and Lyon was a Democratic-Republican and they had very different political positions. (And just so you know, the Democratic-Republican party was originally called the Republican party and eventually became the Democratic party.)  Back to our story. 

Lyon had declared himself willing to fight for the interest of the common man. Within earshot of the Speaker of the Senate and several other members of Congress, Griswold asked if Lyon would be using his wooden sword in that fight.  Oh, OUCH!

Lyon was furious, but pretended to not hear Griswold, and turned his head in another direction to continue his conversation with the Speaker and others.

Griswold was 15 years younger than Lyon, and he turned to someone nearby and said “he does not hear me.”  Griswold then got up from his seat and repeated his question.  Lyon stood up and spit in Griswold’s face. Some accounts say it was only spit that landed on Griswold’s face, others say it was tobacco juice. In the scheme of things, I don’t think that really matters.  

That same day, a resolution was prepared “Resolved: That Matthew Lyon, a member of the House, for a violent attack, and gross indecency committed upon the person of Roger Griswold, another member, in the presence of this House, whilst sitting, be, for this disorderly behaviour, expelled therefrom.”  

Lyon apologized to the House as a whole, saying he did not realize the House was in session at the time. He added that meant no disrespect to the body. He even wrote a letter of apology.

 A committee was formed, and debate followed with exaggerated heroics, partisan politics, and by some a hope to expel the Democatic-Republican Lyon to make an opening for another Federalist!  The debate continued until February 12.  The vote to expel Lyon was 52 EYES to 44 nays, not enough to meet the ⅔ requirement.   Lyon remained. No charges or censures were brought against Griswold.

Things were not settled between these two men. Griswold was still mad that Lyon was not expelled.   On February 15, Lyon was seated, reading the papers in front of him.  Griswold came after Lyon with a heavy cane made from hickory wood.  He hit Lyon on the head and shoulders multiple times. Lyon was injured but he got up, grabbed tongs from the fireplace to defend himself,  went after Griswold and landed a blow.  Then the stick and tongs were dropped, the men fell to the floor and continued their fight barehanded.  

Eventually, onlookers pulled Griswold off of Lyon.  Lyon said he wished they could be left alone to settle the matter in the way Griswold had proposed.

 But our story –and their fight –is not quite done yet.  

One writer said, “they went on to endanger the personal safety of members by striking at each other with sticks in the lobbies and about the house at intervals through the day.”  One of these fights took place in front of the table where water was placed for the House members, the equivalent of the modern day water cooler.

Censure of both Lyon and Griswold was considered, and a committee was formed to investigate the matter,  but the motion to expel them both was defeated by a vote of 73 to 21.

The issue was resolved when both Lyon and Griswold promised the House that they would keep the peace and remain on good behavior.

Bitter feelings along party lines was common, but this was extreme. Jefferson wrote in a letter to Edward Rutledge: “You and I have formerly seen warm debates and high political passions, but gentlemen of different politics would then speak to each other, and separate the business of the Senate from that of society. It is not so now.  Men who have been intimate all their lives, cross the streets to avoid meeting, and turn their heads another way, lest they should be obliged to touch their hats.”

The careers of Matthew Lyon and Roger Griswold continued, and both men accomplished much.  Yet their names will always be associated with the Brawl in the Hall.

2 Comments

  1. Glenn Peleti says:

    Great account; and no different in passionate discord as we hear of today. What portion of right and wrong each ends up with, bears out over Time..both lose when there is no forgiveness.

    Like

    1. Gail Masinda says:

      You speak truth! The power of forgiveness is too often ignored.

      Like

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