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Friday, December 06, 2013

THE REAL POLITICAL POOP

I can prove the regularity of William Blount's intestinal functions, because his enemies in the U.S. Senate depended on them. Their trap was sprung on a Tuesday morning, while Blount was visiting “The Necessity” behind Philadelphia's “Congress Hall”. The conspirators gained time because Blount had to go all the way downstairs and out to the little shed, to do his business. But they need not have rushed because he took his time – such things should never be hurried – and by the time he returned the letter had been read and William Blount's political career was toast. It was Monday, 3 July, 1797, and if he were not so arrogant (and regular) Senator Blount (below) might gone on to great things. I'll bet even the “Spitting Beast of Vermont” wished he had.
“Dear Cary”, the letter began, “I wished to have seen you before I returned to Philadelphia,...I believe the plan...will be attempted this fall...(and) in a much larger way then we talked about....I shall probably be at the head of the business on the part of the British...You must take care...not to let the plan be discovered by...any other person in the interest of the United States or Spain...I am, and etcettera, William Blount.”
The plan was the invention of John Chisholm, who owned a tavern (above) across the street from Senator Blount's Knoxville, Tennessee mansion. Chisholm figured it was only a matter of time before Spain would be forced to sell their American colonies to France. And if France controlled Louisiana and Florida, they might deny American ships access to New Orleans. That would bankrupt all the western farmers. So Chisholm planned was to use local militia and Creek Indians to capture Pensacola and New Orleans, in the name of the British Empire - who would then promise to allow Americans to use New Orleans as if they owned it.
It was a fantasy of course, but the more Senator Blount thought about this idea, the more he thought it was his idea - particularly after he had improved it by creating a well paid job for himself as a British agent. So Blount wrote the letter to James Cary, who was a translator with the Creek Indian nation in eastern Tennessee. Blount expected Cary to convince the Creeks to join the conspiracy. Instead Cary shared the letter with his bosses in the War Department, who immediately shared it with President John Adams. Adams was a Federalist and he saw a chance to embarrass his own Vice President, Thomas Jefferson, who presided over the Senate (above) and was also the leader of the opposition party, the Democrat-Republicans - of whom Senator William Blount was an important member. So Adams sent a copy of the letter to Congress, but insisted it be kept secret until Senator Blount could do nothing to stop the public reading of the “Dear Cary” letter. Blount's toilet trip provided that opportunity.
By noon half of Philadelphia (above) wanted to hang Blount as a traitor, and the other half was trying to deny they had ever met him . The President's wife even said it was too bad America did not have the guillotine. Blount was arrested trying to slip out of town. Dragged in front of the Senate he denied writing the letter, then posted bail and hightailed it back to Knoxville – where the anti-government conspiracy had made him something of a hero. A week later the Senate voted 25 to 1 to expel him. For the next six months both parties downstairs in the House of Representatives, Federalists and Democrat-Republicans, tried to make the impeachment of William Blount work for them in the upcoming 1798 Congressional elections. And that is how our story came to involve an expectorant infused Congressman from the Green Mountain State.
His name was Matthew Lyon, and he had been a Second Lieutenant in the Green Mountain Boys when they captured Fort Ticonderoga in 1776. The next year General Horatio Gates ordered Captain Lyon to take 60 men north to the Onion River, near the village of Jericho in what was to become Vermont. Why they were being sent so far beyond support was unclear, but the men went. Then, just as they arrived, word came of a party of 500 Indians ready to attack them. Lyon said later, “The soldiers considered themselves sacrificed”, so they decided to retreat. Lyon tried to talk them out of it, but Gates still ordered Lyon courtmartialed when the soldiers returned . He lost his command, but he was not reduced in rank. Captain Lyon later fought bravely in the battles of Bennington and at Saratoga, rising to the rank of colonel. After the war he twice ran for election to Congress from Vermont, and failed. Third time was the charm, and in 1796 he won, running as a radical Democrat-Republican. Two years later he was even re-elected.
And that was how Lyon ended up delivering a speech from the well of the House chamber on Tuesday, 30 January, 1798, chastising Connecticut Federalists for not defending the honor of their citizens by impeaching William Blount. That suggestion brought Federalist Connecticut Congressman Roger Griswald to his feet. As Lyon stepped away from the podium, Griswald, in his best snarky voice, asked if Lyon would be defending the people of Connecticut with his wooden sword.
Lyon never had a wooden sword. Occasionally, an officer convicted of cowardice would be required to wear a wooden sword, as a way of embarrassing him before the army. That had not happened in Lyon's case, because he was not even accused of running from the enemy, but was tried on orders from General Gates, and convicted, of not controlling his men. General Gates' later career provided ample evidence of his cowardice and incompetence, as Lyon's later career provided evidence of the reverse. But that was reality, and politics is about image - just ask John Kerry who was Swift Boat'ed over 200 years later.
Well, Lyon had been hearing this Federalist smear since the war. It had been used to defeat him twice in his congressional campaigns. And hit in the face with it the Irish hot head reacted instinctively. He spun on his accuser Roger Griswald, and spit in his face. We can assume it was pretty disgusting logy. The forty year old Lyon was a tobacco user, and mouth wash and dentistry were still in their infancy. And then, having expectorated his peace, Lyon turned his back on Griswald. In the words of an historian, from that moment “No man in the whole Republican party...(not even) Thomas Jefferson...was so hated and despised (by Federalists) as Matthew Lyon.”  Griswald went ape and charged at Lyon.
Cooler heads from both sides rushed to separate the two. And then, this being Congress, the argument about the traitor Blount became about the “spitting Lyon” and the hot head Griswald. Federalists wanted Lyon censured for “gross indecency” - for spitting on a college - making him the first Congressman honored with an ethics violation.  Democrat-Republicans wanted Griswald censured for the charge,  making him the second Congressman so honored. In the end, both charges were dropped. So two weeks later, it got worse.
On Thursday 15 February, Roger Griswold entered the house chamber carrying a cane he had been loaned by a friend. He walked directly to Matthew Lyon's desk, and began beating the Democrat-Republican with the stick. Covering his head, Lyon struggled to his feet, and retreated toward the fire pit, meant to take the morning chill off the chamber. He grabbed a pair of tongs from the wood pile, and began an insane fencing duel with his attacker (above). Again, cooler heads separated the two
The spitting only made the attacks on Matthew Lyon's honor louder. One bad Federalist poet even manged to include the insult into an ode to a theatrical Boston pig. “You boast your little pig can spell the hardest word; But did your little pig ever wear a wooden sword?....Though your piggy screws his snout in such learned grimaces, I defy the squeaking lout to spit in Christians’ faces...,Then tell us no more of your little grunting creature, But confess that the LION is the GREATEST BEAST in nature.”  As I said, he was a bad poet.
The Spitting Lyon so alienated the Federalists members of Congress,  it made it easier for them to pass both the Alien and the Sedition Acts, the second of which was signed on 14 July, 1798, six months after the assault by and on the “Spitting Lyon.” . It's actual title was “An Act for the Punishment of Certain Crimes” (above), the crimes being writing or publishing anything false or malicious against members of the government.  It also forbid the defendant from pleading the truth of their writing. Three months later, on 10 October, Matthew Lyons was convicted under the Sedition Act, and sentenced to four months in jail.
But Lyons had the last laugh.  Twice.  First he was re-elected from his cell, with 55% of the vote. Roger Griswald was also re-elected, but Lyon won the final revenge. The Presidential election of 1800 was a tie, and thrown into the House of Representatives. The contest became a 35 ballot knock down drag out between Democratic Republicans Jefferson and Aron Burr, engineered by the lame duck Federalist majority. The issue was finally settled on the 36th ballot, when the Federalist Representative from Vermont withdrew his vote from Burr. This allowed Matthew Lyon, the Democrat-Republican from Vermont, the cast the deciding ballot making Thomas Jefferson President of the United States.
So it turned out, William Blount's act of arrogance and bad manners did not end up preventing Jefferson from winning the White House. Unfortunately Blount did not witness the victory, having died in his home (above) during an epidemic in March of 1800. And Matthew Lyon moved to Kentucky in 1801, and won election to Congress from that new state six times, finally retiring in 1811, and dying in 1822. The Spitting Lyon, the Mountain Beast, was finally buried in the Blue Grass state. And what a shame we have allowed his memory to fade, in part because we insist upon neutering our "founding fathers" - denying them and us both our shared humanity.
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