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1798 The Rough and Tumble of Debate

In a democracy, disagreement doesn’t mean disloyalty. But political parties were new in the United States, and it took time to accept the idea that opposition can strengthen a democratic society. As Congress divided into opposing political parties (Federalists, often viewed as aristocratic, versus the sometimes rambunctious Jeffersonian Republicans), debates frequently led to strong words—and, on rare occasions, more.

During a 1798 debate, Representative Matthew Lyon of Vermont, a Jeffersonian Republican, responded to taunts about his military record by spitting tobacco juice in the face of Roger Griswold, a Connecticut Federalist. Outraged that the House didn’t punish “the spitting Lyon,” Griswold took matters into his own hands. He attacked Lyon with a cane. Lyon then grabbed a pair of fire tongs. The two ended up wrestling on the floor of the House.