In The Half Has Never Been Told, Ed Baptist tells the story of Robert Potter. Born poor, in a declining section of North Carolina, Potter had few prospects. In addition to his modest birth he had the poor fortune of birth in a time when his white skin and male sex did not quite mean everything yet. The law disenfranchised most whites. The enslaver elite supported infrastructure projects designed to carry their tobacco to market, which they expected everyone to pay for. In the capital-starved antebellum South, their banks declined to extend credit to any save their own set. Their university catered only to their own sons.
With these obstacles before him, we might expect Robert Potter to vanish into the anonymous multitudes. He got lucky instead, finding a patron in the local elite who favored him with an education and arranged for him to join the Navy as a midshipman. Potter’s benefactor might have expected his man to stay bought. He might have done so, but when Potter sought office he found the old money oligarchs aligned against him. They ensured his defeat. He challenged the other man, Jesse Bynum, to a duel. Bynum refused. One dueled with peers, not inferiors. In a fit of bootstrapping straight out of American myth, “Potter ambushed Bynum and cracked his skull with a stick.”
In Potter’s and Bynum’s world, to treat a white man like an inferior came quite close to treating him like a slave:
Enslaved men were not allowed to defend their pride, their manhood, or anything else. They had to endure the penetrating of their skin, their lives, their families. Therefore the best way to insult a white man was to treat him like a black man, as if he could not strike back, and the best way to disprove that was to strike back.
Fully aware of all that, the courts indulged well-off men who felt the need to prove their manhood. They did not often extend the same tolerance to those less well off. Potter faced no legal challenge, but the threat of one joined the other indignities he suffered and put him thoroughly at odds with the oligarchy. Potter won his next election, a rematch with Bynum, and proposed a raft of measures to challenge planter dominance. His bills went nowhere, but they earned him the voters’ esteem. They sent him to Congress in 1828 and reelected him in 1832.
Between sessions of Congress, Potter came home and got the idea that his wife had cheated on him with a minister and a teenage neighbor. Polite society deemed both men his superiors. They had, at least in his mind, wronged Potter. He must avenge his honor or be degraded. Potter might have tried a duel, but he fixed on a new innovation:
On August 28, 1831, Potter kidnapped both of those men. he took them out into the woods. Then he castrated them. Then he released them.
Within a day, Potter had been captured. he was then locked in a cell at Oxford, the county seat. But from behind bars, as he awaited trial, Potter penned a defense of his actions. His “Appeal” was, he said, an effort -“as a man-as a member of society”- to explain to explain himself “to the world,” but especially “to you, my constituents.” He justified his castration of two white men, honored members of their society, as self-defense. They had tried to unman him first, “stab[bing] me most vitally-they had hurt me beyond all cure-they had polluted the very sanctuary of my soul.” Their cuckholding left him “the most degraded man” in Granville, and he now “felt that I could no longer maintain my place among men.” He had been subjected to the same humiliation that enslaved men had to endure. The only possible solution was to wipe off “the disgrace that had been put upon me, with the blood of those who had fixed it there.” Like a proper gentleman who shot someone in a duel to erase an insult, Potter believed that only an act of greater violation than what had been committed against him would erase the unmanning mark.
Potter spent two years in jail, during which time the legislature gave his wife a divorce and let her change the name of their children. He got off relatively easy because North Carolina had no law on the books to punish castration. The legislators passed one proscribing death for anybody who chose to follow Potter’s example and “Potterize” their enemies.
Potter’s sensational case speaks to the violent, honor-obsessed character of the Antebellum South. After his release, poor white men who understood Potter as one of their own put him right back into the state legislature. His plight reflected their own indignities. His solution spoke to their oft-frustrated search for redress. As white men, they deserved better; they demanded it. A cotton planter of the Tennessee elite built his political career on casting himself as their voice. When he took his oath, in front of an unprecedented crowd, Andrews Jackson bowed to the throng who had themselves bared their heads in deference.
Jackson didn’t invent popular politics. The owner of more than a hundred slaves hardly made for a common man, but he played the part. In him, poor white men saw their dreams fulfilled. In his many duels, they saw a nineteenth century superhero fighting as they did, for them. He had already “made Jefferson’s paper empire for white liberty into fact.” The genocidal Indian fighter, victor of New Orleans, epitomized their kind of America. In office, he would sweep aside Indian nations and open still more vast sections of the Southwest to slavery. Then he threw down with the crustiest of all oligarchs: South Carolina enslavers.
Jackson took the nullifiers’ action as a direct challenge to the power of a national majority. So did a Tennessee constituent, who said, delighting in Old Hickory’s humiliation of the South Carolina planter elite, “The old chief could rally force enough…to stand on Saluda Mountain [in northwestern South Carolina] and piss enough to float the whole nullifying crew into the Atlantic Ocean.” The way he saw it, Carolina’s planters blustered about mobilizing the militia and blocking federal tariff enforcement until the collected penises of Jackson’s supporters, like himself, cowed them, and they backed down.
You could drown in the testosterone, among other substances. A certain kind of man found in Andrew Jackson the apotheosis of America: bloody, bold, resolute, ready to kick every Indian ass, whip every enslaved back, kill all the Britishers, and then come home to passionately mourn his sainted wife. He might as well have hailed from Krypton as upcountry South Carolina. The white man’s white man might have hated banks and paper money. He might have broken the law to break the Bank of the United States, among his lesser sins, but we put people on money to celebrate them. As the hallowed founder of a Democratic party deeply wedded to white supremacy and singularly powerful in the South, where it rarely had more than notional competition, it comes as no surprise that when the Democracy instituted the Federal Reserve they put Jackson’s picture on its ten dollar note. He moved to the twenty, replacing Grover Cleveland, in 1928.
We put Jackson on our money because we admired him, the same reason Washington, Jefferson, and Lincoln appear in our wallets. Everyone understands that, for all we might sometimes pretend otherwise; no American currency has ever depicted Benedict Arnold. We kept him there because we kept on admiring him. Now we have tentatively decided to do otherwise, pushing Jackson to the back of the bill and putting Harriet Tubman on the front. Jackson might very well have fought a duel with someone who told him his face would go on paper money, but he surely would have if told that an enslaved woman would replace him. Displacement itself would have bruised his always-tender pride. Displacement by a woman? A black woman? A slave? Old Hickory could hardly imagine a greater indignity. If the dead could truly rise from their graves in outrage, Jackson’s rattling skeleton would have put on an appearance by now. We will Potterize him.
That in itself deserves some celebration. After so many decades, we have come kicking and screaming to a point where this may actually happen in a decade and a half. General Jackson will have his demotion, but Tubman’s promotion deserves its own consideration. If we wish to replace Jackson with an American similarly endowed with what the more sophisticated members of the historical academy call badassery, she makes for a great choice. Tubman didn’t just steal herself to freedom, itself a harrowing, dangerous act. She went back and rescued others, freeing scores in an eleven year career. She went back armed, for her own defense but also to straighten out fugitives who had second thoughts. A single enslaved person with cold feet might expose the whole operation and put everyone back in bondage, or a shallow grave. Thus, Tubman reasoned, “Dead niggers tell no tales.” Not content with such exploits in peacetime, during the Civil War Tubman graduated from nurse and cook to army scout. One of her expeditions freed north of seven hundred enslaved people.
We have in Tubman’s life daring exploits in freedom’s name much as we might imagine in Jackson’s. If he deserves recognition for such a record, then she does as well. The question we face in these matters, whether or not we care to admit it, is not which historical figure makes for a better superhero. Rather we must ask ourselves which vision of Truth, Justice, and the American we prefer. Past generations have come down firmly on Jackson’s side, nailing their colors to the fruits of genocide and an empire for slavery.
I don’t think we’ve quit all that, or even come near to it, just yet; a new face on money will not change minds. It can only, at best, tell us that minds have already changed. Just as many of us have not found Jackson’s portrait an eloquent testimony to his character, others will find nothing to admire in Tubman’s. But it takes more than a few disaffected people to make such a change. If we have not gone so far as we would like, and will inevitably declare final victory again as we always do, then we have at least dragged ourselves some small step forward. In 2016, many Americans still find Andrew Jackson’s vision of freedom praiseworthy and want to hide Harriet Tubman’s on a new denomination that we will never print or on an obscure one used only as a novelty, but not so many as once did. We have come this far.