Opinion | Campaign

Marjorie Taylor Greene may be 'dangerous,' but she's not the first

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Last Wednesday, Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) accosted her colleague Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) in the halls of the U.S. Capitol. Greene followed Ocasio-Cortez for several minutes, allegedly shouting challenges as the Democratic congresswoman ignored her. 

Rep. Tim Ryan, (D-Ohio) called Greene's actions "dangerous," while House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) hinted that an ethics investigation may be forthcoming. (For her part, Greene denies yelling at AOC.)

This hostile interaction was not the first in Greene's short career in Congress, nor is Greene the first political actor to make a name for herself by harassing other public officials. If anything, Greene is the latest in a long tradition of political gnats that range from annoying to dangerous and violent.

The history of intentional political irritants began almost in tandem with the nation's founding. George Washington loved newspapers and subscribed to several publications for his entire adult life, including while serving as president. When new publications opened shop, he regularly subscribed and requested daily deliveries to the President's House in Philadelphia. Although an early subscriber to Philip Freneau's The National Gazette, Washington canceled his subscription in 1792 once he discovered that most of Freneau's editorials were critical of the administration. Undeterred, Freneau continued to deliver three copies of his paper to Washington's house every morning, often filled with critiques, outlandish claims and even outright lies. These provocations did not go unnoticed. Washington didn't reply publicly, but he complained in a Cabinet meeting that the "rascal Freneau sent him 3 of his papers every day...he could see in this nothing but an impudent design to insult him." 

Washington wasn't the only president to be hounded by a newspaper editor. In 1826, Duff Green founded the United States Telegraph in Washington, D.C., as the pro-Jacksonian newspaper. In return for his ardent support of Jackson in the 1828 election, Green received the valuable commission of printer for Congress. But by 1831, he had broken with Jackson and supported Vice President John C. Calhoun instead. Prior to the 1832 election, Green published an editorial proclaiming: "Jackson came into power...opposed to abuses, and as an advocate of reform. He has violated all of [his] principles...He has broken every one of his promises."

Political gnats have long tormented Congress as well. In 1798, Roger Griswold attempted to engage his fellow congressman Matthew Lyon in debate. The tensions escalated until Griswold called Lyon a scoundrel, the eighteenth-century equivalent to profanity, and Lyon spat tobacco juice in Griswold's face. A few weeks later, they came to blows on the House floor, with Griswold wielding a cane and Lyon a pair of fireplace tongs. Relishing his role as political firebrand, Lyon then started his own newspaper, The Scourge of Aristocracy and Repository of Important Political Truth, to publish critiques of the Adams administration.

After accusing the president of harboring, "unbounded thirst for ridiculous pomp, foolish adulation, and selfish avarice," Lyon was arrested under the Alien and Sedition Acts. His arrest only increased his popularity among his constituents, as he intended, and he won reelection by overwhelming numbers in 1800 while serving his four-month jail sentence.

Five decades later, Rep. Preston Brooks (D-S.C.) cemented his place in the history books as one of the most violent political antagonists in U.S. history. After Sen. Charles Sumner (R-Mass.) delivered a fiery antislavery speech, Brooks confronted him at his desk. Brooks beat Sumner with a cane, only ceasing once the cane broke and Sumner was rendered unconscious.

Northerners were outraged by the attack on Sumner, but many southerners were delighted that their representative was willing to resort to violence to protect their interests and rewarded Brooks by sending him canes in the mail. The violence was the point. As Joanne Freeman has written, southerners felt their way of life - namely their reliance on slavery - was under attack by northern abolitionists. When under attack, they responded by electing congressmen with reputations as fighting-men and bullies. Gradually, northerners followed suit and selected representatives equally as willing to resort to blows. Unsurprisingly, the escalation of physical altercations and violent rhetoric led to the increasing divide that culminated in the Civil War.

Philip Freneau, Duff Green, Mathew Lyon and Preston Brooks weren't spouting QANON theories or seeking to overturn election results. But their methods are on full display in Marjorie Taylor Greene's public persona. Her popularity with her constituents and her fame requires the sort of intentional aggravation and attacks on her political rivals perfected by the gnats that came before her. But while there are historical parallels to Greene's behavior, it should be comforting to no one that the closest parallels almost always led to violence.

Lindsay M. Chervinsky, Ph.D. is a presidential historian and scholar in residence at the Institute for Thomas Paine Studies at Iona College. She is also the author of "The Cabinet: George Washington and the Creation of an American Institution" and can be followed on Twitter @lmchervinsky.