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Matthew Lyon

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Matthew Lyon
Matthew Lyon (Vermont Congressman) 2.jpg
Black and white close up of portrait on display at Vermont State House.
Member of the U.S. House of Representatives
from Kentucky's 1st district
In office
March 4, 1803 – March 3, 1811
Preceded by Thomas T. Davis
Succeeded by Anthony New
Member of the U.S. House of Representatives
from Vermont's 1st district
In office
March 4, 1797 – March 3, 1801
Preceded by Israel Smith
Succeeded by Israel Smith
Personal details
Born (1749-07-14)July 14, 1749
County Wicklow, Ireland
Died August 1, 1822(1822-08-01) (aged 73)
Spadra Bluff, Arkansas, U.S.
Political party Democratic-Republican
Spouse(s) Mary Horsford and Beulah M. Chittenden
Children Ann Lyon
James Lyon
Pamela Lyon
Lorraine Lyon
Minerva Lyon
Chittenden Lyon
Aurelia Lyon
Matthew Lyon Jr.
Noah Lyon (died in infancy)
Beulah Lyon
Giles Lyon
Elizabeth Lyon
Profession farmer, printer, congressman

Matthew Lyon (July 14, 1749 – August 1, 1822) was an Irish-born American printer, farmer, soldier and politician, who served as a United States Representative from both Vermont and Kentucky.

Lyon represented Vermont in Congress from 1797 to 1801, and represented Kentucky from 1803 to 1811. His tenure in Congress was tumultuous. He brawled with one Congressman, and was jailed on charges of violating the Sedition Act, winning re-election to Congress from inside his jail cell.

Lyon's trial, conviction, and incarceration boosted his status among the fledgling Democratic-Republican Party as a free-speech martyr.[1]

Early life and military career[edit]

Lyon attended school in Dublin, after having been born in nearby County Wicklow, Ireland.[2] He began to learn the printer's trade in 1763, but emigrated to Connecticut in 1764, where he worked on a farm in Woodbury and continued his education.[3] Lyon landed as a redemptioner.

In 1774, Lyon moved to Wallingford, Vermont (then known as the New Hampshire Grants), and organized a company of militia.[4] He was an adjutant in Colonel Seth Warner's regiment in Canada in 1775, and in July 1776 was commissioned a second lieutenant in the Green Mountain Boys' regiment.[5] He moved to Arlington, Vermont, in 1777.[6]

During the Revolutionary War, Lyon initially served under Horatio Gates in upstate New York. In a version of the event later circulated by his political opponents, he was cashiered for cowardice and ordered to carry a wooden sword to represent his shame.[7][8] In Lyon's version, he and his men were not being put to good use, and he asked to leave Gates' command and join the regiment commanded by Seth Warner. Lyon's conduct was vindicated by both Arthur St. Clair and James Wilkinson.[9][10]

Lyon subsequently joined Warner's regiment as a paymaster with the rank of captain, and served during the Battle of Bennington and other actions.[11] After leaving Warner's Regiment following the Battle of Saratoga, Lyon continued his revolutionary activity, serving as a member of Vermont's Council of Safety, a captain in the militia (later advancing to colonel), paymaster general of the Vermont Militia, deputy secretary to Governor Thomas Chittenden, and assistant to Vermont's treasurer.[12]

Political career in Vermont[edit]

Lyon served as a member from Arlington in the Vermont House of Representatives from 1779 to 1783. He founded Fair Haven, Vermont in 1783 and returned to the state House of Representatives from 1783 to 1796 as its member.[13][n 1]

The Fair Haven home of Matthew Lyon

Lyon also built and operated various kinds of mills, including a paper mill. In 1793, he started a printing office and published the Farmers' Library through 1794.[14][n 2] It was continued as the Fair Haven Gazette.[16]


Lyon was an unsuccessful candidate for election to both the Second and Third Congresses. He contested the election of Israel Smith, a Vermont delegate to the Fourth Congress. He won election as a Democratic-Republican to the Fifth and Sixth Congresses (March 4, 1797 – March 3, 1801); he was not a candidate for renomination in 1800.[1]

Ethics violation[edit]

Lyon had the distinction of being one of the first two members to have an alleged ethics violation investigated when he was accused of "gross indecency" for spitting in Roger Griswold's face; Griswold was investigated for attacking Lyon in retaliation.

On January 30, 1798, the House was considering whether to remove William Blount of Tennessee from office.[17] Griswold was trying to attract Lyon's attention in order to have a dialogue on the issue, but Lyon was ignoring him on purpose, since they belonged to opposing political parties (Lyon was a Democratic-Republican and Griswold a Federalist). Griswold finally lost his temper and insulted Lyon by calling him a scoundrel, which at the time was considered profanity.[17] Their clash escalated when Lyon declared himself willing to fight for the interest of the common man. Mockingly, Griswold asked if Lyon would be using his wooden sword, a reference to Lyon's supposed dismissal from Gates' command during the Revolution. Furious, Lyon spat tobacco juice on Griswold, earning himself the nickname "The Spitting Lyon".[18][19]

Political cartoon of Lyon (holding tongs) brawling with Roger Griswold.

Lyon later apologized to the House as a whole, claiming he had not known it was in session when he confronted Griswold, and meant no breach of decorum or disrespect to the House as a whole. Not satisfied with the apology, on February 15, 1798, Griswold retaliated by attacking Lyon with a wooden cane, beating him about the head and shoulders in the view of other representatives on the House floor.[17][18] Lyon retreated to a fire pit and defended himself with the tongs until other Congressmen broke up the fight, with several pulling Griswold by his legs to get him to let go of Lyon.[17][18] Although the committee appointed to investigate recommended censure of both Lyon and Griswold, the House as a whole rejected the motion.[20]

Imprisonment for sedition[edit]

Lyon also has the distinction of being the only person to be elected to Congress while in jail. On October 10, 1798, he was found guilty of sedition in violation of the Alien and Sedition Acts,[21] which prohibited malicious writing of the American government as a whole, or of the houses of Congress, or of the president. While during the Quasi War with France,[22] Lyon was the first person to be put to trial for violating the acts on charges of criticizing Federalist President John Adams.[23]

Criticism of John Adams (pictured) landed Lyon in prison.
Criticism of John Adams (pictured) landed Lyon in prison.

Lyon had launched his own newspaper, The Scourge Of Aristocracy and Repository of Important Political Truth,[24] when the Rutland Herald refused to publish his perceived radical work. On October 1, Lyon printed this paper speaking of the "unbounded thirst for ridiculous pomp, foolish adulation, and selfish avarice," as well as Adams' corruption of religion to further his war aims.[25] At the time, it was quite common for Federalists to cite religious reasons for going to war against France, as well as for silencing the opposition.[26] Before the Alien and Sedition Acts had been passed, Lyon had also written a letter to one Alden Spooner, the publisher of the Vermont Journal. In this letter, which was written in response to perceived personal attacks from the Journal, Lyon called the president "bullying," and the Senate's responses "stupid."[25]

Judge William Paterson (pictured) lamented being unable to give a harsher punishment.

Once the Alien and Sedition Acts were passed, the Federalists pushed for this letter to be printed in the Vermont Journal, adding charges against Lyon by subterfuge.[25] One other charge included publishing letters written by the poet Joel Barlow, which Lyon had read at political rallies.[27] These also were published prior to the Acts.[25][28] Lyon's defense was to be the unconstitutionality of the Acts, as Jeffersonians saw them as violating the First Amendment to the Constitution. In Lyon's particular case, there was the aforementioned letter to Alden Spooner as well as that of Barlow, which meant Lyon felt entitled to bring up the Constitution's safeguards against ex post facto laws.[29][30] This defense was not allowed.[30][31]

Lyon was sentenced to four months in a 16 ft X 12 ft jail cell used for felons, counterfeiters, thieves, and runaway slaves in Vergennes, and ordered to pay a $1,000 fine and court costs; Judge William Paterson lamented being unable to give a harsher punishment.[31] A bit of a resistance movement was created; the Green Mountain Boys even threatened to destroy the jail and might have done so if not for Lyon urging peaceful resistance.[32] While in jail, Lyon won election to the Sixth Congress by nearly doubling the votes of his closest adversary, 4,576 to 2,444.[32] Upon his release, Lyon exclaimed: "I am on my way to Philadelphia!"[33]

In the election of 1800 Matthew Lyon cast the deciding vote for Jefferson after the election went to the House of Representatives because of an electoral tie.[34]

Political career away from Vermont[edit]


Lyon moved to Kentucky by 1801, settling in Eddyville in Livingston County, Kentucky (later Caldwell County and now Lyon County).[35][36] He established a paper mill propelled by oxen and a distillery, and subsequently engaged in boat building.[35] The U. S. war department employed him to build gun-boats for the War of 1812,[37] but he became bankrupt from speculation.[38]


He became a member of the Kentucky House of Representatives in 1802 and was elected to the Eighth and to the three succeeding Congresses (March 4, 1803 – March 3, 1811).[34][39] He sought reelection in 1810 to the Twelfth Congress, but was unsuccessful.


In 1820, Lyon was appointed United States factor to the Cherokee Nation in the Arkansas Territory[40] He again attempted to serve in Washington, D.C. but was unsuccessful. In 1821, Lyon contested the election of James W. Bates (a delegate from the Territory), to the Seventeenth Congress.[41] Lyon died in Spadra Bluff, Arkansas (near Clarksville) on August 1, 1822.[42] He was initially interred in Spadra Bluff Cemetery, and in 1833 he was reinterred in Eddyville Cemetery.[43]

Personal life[edit]

Lyon was married twice. His first wife was Mary Horsford whom he married in 1772. She was the daughter of Samuel Horsford and Mary Grant and had been married previously to Daniel Allen, the uncle of Ethan Allen, until his death in 1772. She died in 1782.[44] Lyon's second marriage was to Beulah M. Chittenden, the daughter of Thomas Chittenden, in 1784.[45]

His son James (1776–1824) may also have been indicted by the federal government for violating the Sedition Act, since he was connected with his father and with James Thomson Callender.[46] It is believed he might have fled to evade capture.[47] His son Chittenden Lyon (1787–1842) was also a member of the U.S. House of Representatives (1827–1835) from Kentucky.[35]

Matthew Lyon's son Matthew (1792–1839) was the father of Confederate General Hylan B. Lyon of Lyon County, Kentucky.[48]

His daughters Anne and Pamelia married John Messinger and George Cadwell, respectively, pioneers and politicians of Illinois.[49]

He was also the great-grandfather of William Peters Hepburn.[50] One of Lyon's descendants is the American operatic baritone Sherrill Milnes.[51]


  1. ^ At the time, Vermont apportioned the House by town, with each town having one representative.
  2. ^ It was officially listed as being operated by his son, James Lyon.[15]


  1. ^ a b Miller 1951, p. 109
  2. ^ McLaughlin 1900, p. 28
  3. ^ McLaughlin 1900, pp. 41–48
  4. ^ Austin 1981, p. 13
  5. ^ Austin 1981, pp. 15–17
  6. ^ McLaughlin 1900, p. 59
  7. ^ McLaughlin 1900, p. 225
  8. ^ Montagno 1954, p. 96
  9. ^ Eliakim Persons Walton, Records of the Governor and Council of the State of Vermont, Volume 8, 1880, page 469
  10. ^ J. Fairfax McLaughlin, A Picturesque Politician of Jefferson's Time, The Century Illustrated Magazine, Volume 65, page 932
  11. ^ Austin 1981, p. 18
  12. ^ Rossiter Johnson, John Howard Brown, The Twentieth Century Biographical Dictionary of Notable Americans, 1904, entry for Matthew Lyon
  13. ^ Hemenway 1877, p. 721
  14. ^ The Farmers' Library, or, Vermont Political & Historical Register. Rutland, Vt: J. Lyon, 1793–1794. OCLC 14152194 WorldCat
  15. ^ Goldsmith 1962, p. 183
  16. ^ The Fair Haven Gazette and Poultney Journal. Fair Haven, Vt. OCLC 37328623 WorldCat
  17. ^ a b c d Miller 1963, p. 208
  18. ^ a b c "Representative Roger Griswold of Connecticut attacked Matthew Lyon of Vermont on the House Floor". Archived from the original on December 26, 2016. Retrieved December 21, 2016. 
  19. ^ Hakim 2003, p. 45
  20. ^ McLaughlin 1900, pp. 276–300
  21. ^ McLaughlin 1900, p. 374
  22. ^ McLaughlin 1900, p. 331
  23. ^ McLaughlin 1900, p. 338
  24. ^ McLaughlin 1900, p. 199
  25. ^ a b c d Bowers 1925, p. 386
  26. ^ e. g. "Thou Shalt Not Bear False Witness Against Thy Neighbor" Vergennes Gazette 14 March 1799
  27. ^ "The Sedition Act Trials – Historical Background and Documents". 
  28. ^ Miller 1951, p. 107
  29. ^ McLaughlin 1900, p. 207
  30. ^ a b "Trial of Matthew Lyon for Sedition" Vergennes Gazette 11 October 1798
  31. ^ a b Miller 1951, p. 108
  32. ^ a b Bowers 1925, p. 387
  33. ^ Bowers 1925, p. 388
  34. ^ a b Collins 1877, p. 491
  35. ^ a b c Collins 1877, p. 489
  36. ^ Battle 1885, p. 290
  37. ^ Hagan 1992, p. 72
  38. ^ Collins 1877, p. 492
  39. ^ Montagno 1954, p. 347
  40. ^ McLaughlin 1900, p. 472
  41. ^ United States. Congress. House. Committee on Elections 1834, p. 372
  42. ^ McLaughlin 1900, p. 474
  43. ^ McLaughlin 1900, p. 475
  44. ^ Austin 1981, pp. 11–13
  45. ^ Austin 1981, pp. 31–32
  46. ^ Blumberg 2010, p. 141
  47. ^ Windham Herald 26 October 1799
  48. ^ Battle 1885, p. 585
  49. ^ McLaughlin 1900, p. 428
  50. ^ Gates 1906, p. 44
  51. ^ Sherrill Milnes. American Aria. p. xiv. 


External links[edit]

United States House of Representatives
Preceded by
Israel Smith
Member of the U.S. House of Representatives
from Vermont's 1st congressional district

Succeeded by
Israel Smith
Preceded by
Thomas T. Davis
Member of the U.S. House of Representatives
from Kentucky's 1st congressional district

Succeeded by
Anthony New