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Cartoon Analysis: Congressional Pugilists, 1798

Use this primary source imagery to analyze major events in history.

 Suggested Sequencing


On March 2, 1797, the Directory of France, angered over the Jay Treaty between the United States and Great Britain, authorized French warships to seize neutral American vessels. President John Adams responded by calling for a naval buildup and the creation of a provisional army to mobilize the country for war. Congress agreed, and the undeclared Quasi-War with France had begun. Adams’s attempts at a peaceful solution resulted in the scandalous XYZ Affair. The ensuing foreign policy crisis created a highly partisan atmosphere between the Federalists and Jeffersonian-Republicans. The title of this 1798 cartoon refers to a fight in Congress between Vermont Representative Matthew Lyon, a Jeffersonian-Republican, and Roger Griswold of Connecticut, a Federalist, inside Congress Hall in Philadelphia (a pugilist is a boxer). The fight allegedly began when Griswold insulted Lyon. In this image, Griswold, armed with a cane, kicks Lyon, who grasps the former’s arm and raises a pair of fireplace tongs to strike him while other members of Congress look on. The image is dated February 15, 1798.

Sourcing Questions

  1. Summarize the context in which the event represented in the cartoon took place.
  2. Who were the main people in this cartoon, and what was their background?

A drawing shows members of Congress angry and waving objects around.

The caption beneath the image includes the following lines: “He in a trice struck Lyon thrice / Upon his head, enrag’d sir, / Who seiz’d the tongs to ease his wrongs, / And Griswold thus engag’d, sir.”

Comprehension Questions

  1. Describe the facial expressions of Lyon (with fireplace tongs) and Griswold (with the cane). What does this reveal about this event?
  2. Describe the expressions of the other members of Congress.
  3. Does anything in this image surprise you? Explain.

Historical Reasoning Questions

  1. Explain how this image depicts the highly partisan atmosphere of the Adams administration.
  2. In the summer of 1798, Matthew Lyon published a letter in a Vermont newspaper attacking President Adams. Lyons was the first person to be tried under the Sedition Act, was found guilty, and served four months in jail. Is it appropriate for the government to limit free speech in a time of war? Explain.