The emperor’s new cause

In September of 1859 a bankrupt businessman, around 40 years of age, named Joshua Abraham Norton, reappeared in his adopted home city of San Francisco.

He’d vanished from there a couple of years previously, after losing a lengthy series of legal battles and, with them, his modest fortune – perhaps $7- or $8-million in today’s money, and the property which had helped him build that fortune. He’d lived hand-to-mouth for two years and owned nothing more than the clothes he stood in.

Naturally, he declared himself to be the rightful Emperor of America.

For the next 21 years, the remainder of his life, he lived as Emperor Norton I. He walked the streets of San Francisco, wearing a military uniform provided by the city, talking to his subjects. He issued his own bonds – each one numbered and signed by hand – for values of 50¢ to $10. He wrote to heads of state, offering them counsel and, in the case of Queen Victoria, proposing marriage. He issued proclamations, via letters to local newspapers, starting with the declaration of his emperorship (At the peremptory request and desire of a large majority of the citizens) and continuing on to dissolve congress and, when he grew sick of his edicts being ignored, ordering the soldiers of the United States army to arrest its elected representatives.

Norton died 140 years ago, but his final resting place (inside a suitably grand coffin, paid for by a local business association) still recognises the life he chose to lead.

I think about Norton a lot in these days of identity politics.

First off, I think we can agree that ’emperor’ is the mother of all social concepts. You could grind an emperor to dust and not find a single atom of physical evidence of their status (please check with your local constitution or law-enforcement before grinding).

Were you of such a mind, we could fill an evening and empty a few bottles arguing over the definition of emperor. I might smugly suggest that it was cut and dried, that you can’t be an emperor without ruling an empire, and you’d shoot back with emperors who lived in exile, commanding nothing more than some windswept rock in the sea or 100m2 of hotel room in a country foreign to them. There are those born into the title, those who seized it, and those who had it thrust upon them. Some emperors rules over millions, some, doubtless, over fewer than the 10,000 who took to the streets to watch Norton’s funeral procession.

With sufficient bottles – providing sufficient excuses to visit the bathroom and do a spot of Googling – I doubt I could come up with an argument for Norton’s role being illegitimate that couldn’t be disproved with some outlier who history regards as a rightful emperor.

“Must an emperor not,” I may argue, “Be recognised officially by others? Heads of state, and so forth?”

“One second, nature calls…Ah, that’s better. Did you know that, towards the end of his life, King Kamehameha V of Hawaii (1830-1872) refused to recognise the democratically elected government of the US, and would only deal with Emperor Norton? Plus, of course, the 1870 census records his occupation as ‘Emperor’. How’s that for official?”

Norton proposed a bridge from San Francisco to Oakland and, only 56 years after his death, one was built. Now that’s Emperor-power!

Rationally, of course, we both know that whatever may bestow upon a man the role of emperor it’s not a 40-year-old man with problems (financial ones, at the very least) unilaterally deciding one morning that the title applies to him. What it would be easy to miss in this wine-driven battle of wits is that while the history of emperors will, by the very chaotic nature of humanity, contain many oddities, edge-cases and curios, Norton will be the only “emperor” who must be adjacent to them all in order to be considered legitimate.

If we were to meet again, absent alcohol and richer in time to consider this, and you were to continue to insist that Norton was a “real” emperor then I would be forced to conclude that either you were a liar, or that you were in thrall to one.

If you then tried to shore up your position with talk of lived experience or claimed that Norton’s personal understanding of what he was outweighs any objective evidence then I’d merely take comfort in you being as willing to lie to yourself as you are to lie to me.

Thankfully, ‘you’ here are an imaginary opponent I’ve created, and the real you, the one reading this piece, isn’t so entwined in some clearly ludicrous argument that you have to constantly lie in the face of empirical (cough) evidence contrary to your position, nor go searching the Fortean Times for vanishingly rare counterexamples to reasonable and rational points.

This means that we can both enjoy that Norton was an interesting character, and we can both be happy that many around him – without any obligation to do so on their part – chose to validate him; tourists flocked to see him, police officers saluted him when they passed in the street, his friends forged replies from the heads of state that he corresponded with, so that he wouldn’t feel ignored. We can delight that, when he was arrested for lunacy, the Alta California rallied to his defence, saying that, he had shed no blood; robbed no one; and despoiled no country; which is more than can be said of his fellows in that line.

We can, perhaps, even chuckle that a 1923 history of Norton complained that some of the printed proclamations from Norton were jokes, which originated with the graceless wags and inspired idiots of the day, and agree that even something as new as Twitter isn’t really that new at all.

Emperor Norton, pictured yesterday in Victorian-era America

Because we’re not interested in lying to each other, or suggesting that basic facts are wrong, we don’t need to worry about why Norton did it. Was he insane? The census that records him as Emperor also records him as such. Was it all a grift? He died with less than $10 to his name but he had lodgings, restaurants accepted his home-made currency and he definitely enjoyed a better standard of living than most of those destitute in late 19th century America. He was a wealthy landlord, he spent his fortune trying to wiggle out of a contact that was signed in good faith, and the purpose of that deal was to make him richer, by screwing over the poor on the price of rice, so we’ve no reason to suppose he was fundamentally a nice person.

We don’t even need concern ourselves with the problems that would arise if we generalised from Norton and suggested that the trappings of office, he was afforded freely by those who chose to do so, were to be legally mandated to anyone who claimed the title of emperor for themselves.

A Norton $10 bond. Beautiful if your restaurant decided to accept them, economic ruin if it was forced to

Whatever the financial cost of providing a uniform and food to everyone who wanted to bash our their own currency, it would be nothing compared to the cost to freedom of forcing everyone to pretend that something everyone knows is not true is fact.

So it’s a good thing, then, that you’re not the kind of person who is so dishonest that they’d build up a Jenga tower of lies to stand atop while they battled for rights for marginalised emperors.

Norton is a century-and-a-half dead, the emperor does not need a new cause.

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