J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Wednesday, August 08, 2012

“No man…was so hated and despised as Matthew Lyon”

Federalist journalist William Cobbett’s 1798 poem “The Pig and the Lion,” quoted yesterday, didn’t compare William Frederick Pinchbeck’s trained pig to an actual lion. After all, wearing a wooden sword, spitting in people’s faces, and carrying a candle in one’s buttocks isn’t typical leonine behavior.

Rather, Cobbett was comparing the beast to Rep. Matthew Lyon (1749-1822, shown here) of Vermont, a radical Democratic-Republican who became the Federalists’ biggest rhetorical target that year.

Lyon was born in Ireland and came to Connecticut in 1764 as a teen-aged “redemptioner”—meaning he worked as an indentured servant on a farm for a while to pay for his passage. Lyon moved north to the “New Hampshire Grants” in 1774 and was an adjutant and a lieutenant under Col. Seth Warner.

In 1776 Gen. Horatio Gates ordered Lyon to be cashiered. Lyon later claimed that this was because he had failed, despite his best efforts, to prevent his men from mutinying, and that he retained respect locally, which appears to be true. Lyon’s political enemies said he had been condemned to wear a wooden sword as a sign of cowardice, but there doesn’t seem to be evidence for that.

In independent Vermont, Lyon founded the town of Fair Haven, built mills, and started a newspaper. He served in the legislature and in 1796 was elected to represent Vermont in the U.S. Congress. At that time American politicians were openly forming two parties, each blaming the other for factionalism, and the bounds of accepted political behavior were being worked out.

Lyon was from the radical wing of the Democratic-Republican Party. On 30 Jan 1798, he claimed on the House floor that Connecticut Federalists weren’t representing the interests or desires of their constituents. One of those Federalists, Rep. Roger Griswold (1762-1812), replied by asking Lyon if he’d fight for them with his wooden sword. Lyon spat in Griswold’s face. Hence Cobbett’s poetic allusions to a wooden sword and spitting in Christians’ faces.

On 15 February, Griswold ran up to Lyon’s desk and started beating him with a cane. Lyon stumbled to a fireplace and grabbed the tongs to defend himself. The two men grappled before other members pulled them apart. Eventually the House decided not to take action against either Lyon or Griswold since both had behaved badly and both claimed to have won. That episode might have something to do with Cobbett’s candle allusion, though that would be more of a stretch.

In his History of the People of the United States (1914), John Bach McMaster wrote: “No man in the whole Republican party, not Benjamin Franklin Bache, nor Albert Gallatin, nor Thomas Jefferson, nor James Thomas Callender, was so hated and despised as Matthew Lyon.” In October 1798 Lyon was convicted and jailed under the Sedition Act for lambasting President John Adams’s policies toward France, but his constituents overwhelmingly reelected him anyway. He got to cast a decisive vote for Thomas Jefferson during the disputed election of 1800.

The next year, Lyon moved to Kentucky, which he and later his son also represented in Congress. J. Fairfax McLaughlin’s 1900 biography of Lyon is available on Google Books, and there have been more recent studies as well.

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