"Congressional Pugilists"

In the last few years I have taught several Newberry Teachers’ Consortium (NTC) seminars. These half- and full-day classes engage area teachers in a wide range of intriguing topics; NTC+ (“plus”) seminars include a session featuring items right from the Newberry’s collection.

During a recent NTC+ seminar on “American War Cartoons,” our class became intrigued by a crudely rendered, anonymous 1798 etching entitled Congressional Pugilists. It depicts the first physical fight on the floor of the United States Congress, between Federalist Roger Griswold (1762-1812) and Democrat-Republican Matthew Lyon (1749-1822).

The altercation erupted after Lyon spat on Griswold, who had first insulted Lyon by impugning his war-time record. The next day, Griswold attacked Lyon with a cane; Lyon defended himself with a pair of fire tongs hastily provided to him by a friend.

In the image, fellow congressmen look on with varied reactions of amusement, horror, and consternation. A bit of verse appears below in addition to the date, the address of Congress Hall and, around the border, names identifying some of the figures.

A small framed picture entitled “Royal Sport” appears on the wall behind and shows two fighting birds. Cockfighting was long referred to in this way because even monarchs enjoyed it. But its appearance here suggests that Congress itself, because of this notorious scrap, has descended into low (British) spectacle.

Conspicuously, a great deal of dip-pen handwriting appears under the image. Much of it provides biographical information about Lyon and Griswold. But one line is very specific and telling:

“The cane [Griswold is seen holding aloft] was purchased at McAllister’s shop….”

Indeed, John McCalister, Sr. (1753-1830), a Scottish immigrant, had a popular store just a few blocks from Congress Hall. It sold canes and whips, and, in later years, became renowned for selling eyeglasses—the first such shop in America. McCallister is thus famous as an early American optometrist; John Adams and Thomas Jefferson are known to have purchased eyewear from him.

McAllister’s son, John, Jr. (1786-1877) was a historian of early Philadelphia, amassing an enormous collection of items from the city’s Civil War period. In fact, it was he who reproduced a version of the Congressional Pugilists print in 1860, and the Newberry’s print is one of these. It may also be his handwriting we see underneath the image, including the note about the cane purchased at his family’s shop.

The original Congressional Pugilists print pre-dates by a half century the most infamous image of a congressional fight: Southern Chivalry, depicting the beating of Senator Charles Sumner (Massachusetts) by Representative Preston Brooks (South Carolina) on May 21, 1856. Sumner had railed against the sacking of Lawrence, Kansas—then embroiled in a battle over whether Kansas would become a free or slave state—while repeatedly insulting a distant relative of Brooks's. It took years for Sumner to recover from the caning, and the incident terrifyingly foreshadowed the Civil War.

Congressional Pugilists was a fitting document for the “American War Cartoons” NTC+, and highly topical given the turmoil of today’s political climate. All of us—myself included—came away with a more nuanced understanding of it as a result of seeing it first hand, and in the inspiring space created by the Newberry’s rewarding NTC program.

Mark B. Pohlad, PhD, is an Associate Professor of Art History at DePaul University, in Chicago.