The Spitting Matthew Lyon - From Congress to Jail and Back
Matthew Lyon is the only man who was elected to Congress while in prison.
Actually, he was already a Congressman when he went to prison and was re-elected.
Lyon was arrested under the Sedition Act because he was printing inflammatory articles against President John Adams.
Matthew Lyon came to British North America as a 15-year-old boy.
To fund his trip, he signed himself over as an indentured servant and worked extra jobs to purchase his freedom within five years.
Eventually, Matthew left his adopted home of Connecticut to settle in Vermont.
Green Mountain Boy
Lyon joined the Green Mountain Boys, a militia which protected the people of Vermont from encroachment by citizens of New York.
When the American Revolution broke out, Matthew served with the Boys in several important battles across the northeast.
Afterward, Lyon build several mills and a printhouse, becoming extremely successful and starting his own newspaper.
The Spitting Lyon
By 1797, the now-48-year-old Lyon was elected to represent Vermont in the House of Representatives.
During this time, the House was debating on whether or not to eject William Blount from the chamber.
Lyon was approached by Roger Griswold who attempted to discuss the issue. Lyon ignored him until, eventually, Griswold called him scoundrel.
Scoundrel was a serious accusation at the time (these men were concerned about honor above all else) and Matthew would have none of it. He stood up and spit in Griswold’s face.
This move earned him the nickname ‘The Spitting Lyon.’
Fighting on the Floor
Incensed at the slight, Griswold returned the following day and began attacking Lyon with his cane, beating him ‘about the head and shoulders.’
Lyon grabbed the tongs from the fireplace and fought back. It took several other Representatives to separate the two.
Lyon gave a written and spoken apology to the House (not Griswold) claiming that he did not realize Congress was in session (though this is seemingly hard to believe).
Congress to Prison to Congress
Several months later, Lyon found himself in trouble again.
He had been printing in his newspaper severe criticisms of President John Adams.
Unfortunately, the Alien and Sedition Acts had just been passed and Adams had Lyon arrested.
He spent four months in prison, during which time he was reelected to the House...making him the only person to go from Congress to jail and back to Congress.
When his term in office was complete, Matthew Lyon decided to move to Kentucky.
Just two years later he was sent back to the House as a Representative from his new State.
Lyon would go on to establish a new paper mill as well as receive a contract from the United States to build gunboats for the War of 1812.
Unfortunately, the government never paid him for his work and he fell into bankruptcy, though he was able to make himself solvent again in just a few years.
Lyon decided to move again, this time to Arkansas. He was appointed Factor to the Cherokee Nation (a position that acts as an official trader on behalf of the government). He served in the capacity until he passed away at the age of 73.
There were many important Founders who ran print shops during the Revolution.
Here are a few you might like:
Matthew Lyon has such an interesting place in the Revolution it is curious that we don’t hear about him more often.
‘Resisting Tyranny’ is a full length biography of this Founder.
If you’d like a copy you can pick one up through the Amazon affiliate link below (you’ll support this site, but don’t worry, Amazon pays me while your price stays the same).