The US House of Representatives, known for its deliberative diligence, good comradeship, and decorous behavior, was not always thus. Take for instance the morning of January 30, 1798. Members had just concluded a vote on the impeachment of Tennessee Senator William Blount, and the House had recessed to tally the ballots. Members stood about chatting informally, waiting for the results. One member, Representative Matthew Lyon of Vermont was waxing passionate about another bill before the House. His discussion grew into a bit of a rant about the “malign influence of Connecticut politicians, whom he accused – rather loudly – of hypocrisy and corruption, claiming they “acted in opposition to the interests and opinions of nine-tenths of their constituents.” Nor did the gentleman from Vermont stop there. He charged them with seeking office out of greed for their own power and title, and stifling the opposition through a monopoly of the press. On a roll, he accused the Connecticut Federalists of brainwashing their constituents with opiates, finally punctuating his speech with the boast that were he to go into Connecticut and manage a newspaper there for six months, he could bring about a revolution, and turn the lot of them out of office.
Not surprisingly, given the volume of his oratory, he was heard by one of the very men he disparaged, one Representative Roger Griswold of Connecticut. Griswold fumed, then shouted back, asking Lyon if he would march into Connecticut wearing his wooden sword, a reference to Lyon’s temporary dishonorable discharge from the Continental Army. Lyon either did not hear Griswold’s comment or chose to ignore it. Griswold naturally felt duty-bound to repeat the question at closer range; he approached Lyon, placed his hand on his arm, and repeated the question. Lyon, insulted and embarrassed before his peers, responded as any gentleman would – he spit in Griswold’s face. Without a word, Griswold wiped away the spit and exited the chambers. The Committee of Privileges immediately drew up a formal resolution calling for the expulsion of Matthew Lyon for “a violent attack and gross indecency.”
Will Lyon be expelled? Will Griswold be avenged? Stay tuned.