October 25th, 2016

Senate Report – Matthew Lyon: Colorful Vermont Congressman

By Sen. Bill Doyle
The story of Matthew Lyon focused national political attention on the new-born state of Vermont and offers a good illustration of the intensity of political strife in the 1790s.

Lyon came to this country from Ireland as a “redemptioner,” meaning the cost of passage was paid by some potential American employer in return for a contracted period of work, usually seven years. He settled in Litchfield, Connecticut, home of many early Vermont settlers. He eventually married a cousin of Ethan Allen. Litchfield County would eventually give Vermont four governors, seven Supreme Court justices, and three U. S. senators.

Like many of his friends, Lyon began to buy land at bargain prices in the north. He chose a tract in Wallingford, which at the time consisted of only “a few rough log huts scattered in the surrounding woods.” During the Revolution, Lyon joined the Green Mountain Boys, participating in the capture of Fort Ticonderoga in 1775 and the Battle of Hubbardton in 1777.

Lyon’s first wife died shortly after the war, and he married one of Governor Chittenden’s daughters. Shortly thereafter Lyon founded the town of Fair Haven, establishing the first store, the first hotel, a paper mill, gristmill, sawmill, two forges, an iron furnace and a newspaper. He twice represented Fair Haven in the General Assembly.

Lyon saw himself as a self-made, self-educated leader of Vermont democracy fighting against the well-educated Federalist lawyers who he claimed represented an aristocracy. It was with such a Federalist that Lyon had his first public tussle. Legislator Nathaniel Chipman defended Tory claims to land seized by the colonists during the American Revolution. Lyon, who had become the clerk of the Board of Confiscation, favored those who had bought and lived on the confiscated land. One day Chipman and Lyon met fact to face. Lyon charged that “no man with a spark of honesty,” could have supported the Tory position. Chipman replied by calling Lyon “an ignorant Irish puppy.” Lyon seized Chipman by the hair, and Chipman responded by picking up a pen and attempting to stab Lyon. Although obviously neither of the men had the longest of tempers, it was the politics of the time that led to the fight.

One year later, Lyon issued a call for the formation of Democratic Societies in Vermont. Lyon asked, “That the great body of people themselves undertake to watch over the government.” In time there were more Democratic Societies in Vermont than in any state except Pennsylvania. Societies were formed in the counties of Chittenden, Addison and Rutland. Lyon’s newspaper reported that from July 8, 1794 to Sept. 30, 1794, many new members were admitted to Rutland Societies from Fair Haven, Poultney, Wells, Orwell and Middletown. In that year the Rutland Society expressed its disapproval “of the evasive conduct of some people in power who have suffered themselves to be cajoled into a state of stupor and inactivity against British abuses.”

In May of 1797, after several unsuccessful attempts, Lyon was elected to Congress. He had been in the office only three weeks when he objected to the Congressional custom of walking to the executive mansion to deliver a reply to the President’s inaugural address. Lyon was upset because President Adams had called a special session to place the nation in a state of military preparedness. The French had refused to receive our new United States minister. Lyon moved “that such members as do not choose to attend upon the President to present the Answer to his Speech, shall be excused.”

In January, 1798, with congressional feelings running high over a possible war with France, Lyon was talking to several fellow congressman. Roger Griswold, a federalist from Connecticut, joined the group. Lyon immediately began baiting Griswold, who, in turn, accused Lyon of being a deserter during the Revolution. Tempers flared and harsh words were exchanged. Lyon ended up spitting in Griswold’s face. The Federalists tried to have Lyon expelled from the House, but the Jeffersonians had enough votes to forestall the action.

Federalists in Congress referred to Lyon as a “nasty, brutish, spitting animal.” One Federalist from Massachusetts declared that this “kennel of filth” should be expelled from Congress “as citizens removed impurities and filth from their docks and wharfs.” A Bostonian said, “I feel grieved that the saliva of an Irishman should be left upon the face of an American and he, a New England man.”

Lyon defended his actions, saying:

“Perhaps some will say I did not take the right method with him. We do not always possess the power of judging calmly what is the best mode of resenting an unpardonable insult. Had I borne it patiently, I should have been bandied about in all the newspapers on the continent, which are supported by British money and federal patronage, as a mean poltroon.”

Griswold was not satisfied with matters and decided to take them into his own hands. One day in Congress, he walked up to Lyon as he sat at his desk and began to beat him with a heavy cudgel.

Lyon survived the physical attack, perhaps even gaining additional political energy from the incident. He continued to express his Jeffersonian views in his newly-established Vermont newspaper.

Senator Bill Doyle serves on the Senate Education Committee and Senate Economic Affairs Committee. He teaches government history at Johnson State College. He can be reached at 186 Murray Road, Montpelier, VT 05602; e-mail wdoyle@leg.state.vt.us; or call 223-2851.

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