‘If I have played my part well, clap your hands, and dismiss me with applause from the stage.’
Joshua Abraham Norton was born circa 1814. His birth took place in England, but afterwards Norton spent some thirty years of his life in South Africa, then a part of the British Empire. In 1849, after his parents had died, Norton left South Africa, heading towards the United States in order to try his hand at entrepreneurship in the New World. Following China’s ban on the export of rice due to an internal famine, Norton invested heavily in what he saw as a lucrative business opportunity: Peruvian rice. For a number of reasons, the endeavour proved disastrous and left Norton penniless.
Sadly, much information of Norton’s early life, including that regarding his ventures in South Africa, has been lost to time. What we do know of his life is due to the considerable media attention that followed his proclaiming himself the Emperor of the United States in 1859, mere ten years after his arrival on the continent. We cannot state with certainty why he wanted to be Emperor – your guess is as good as mine – but maybe he was simply upset; upset at being poor and powerless. Such feelings, I find, are not altogether uncommon among the race of man.
Anyhow, our Norton, who now fancied himself Norton I, Emperor of the United States, began his regal reign by writing up not only imperial orders – mostly denouncing the U.S. Congress and ordering the institution to be abolished – but also love letters to Queen Victoria of the British Empire. Although Victoria has been hailed by many as one of the greatest monarchs in British history in addition to being a fine lady, we observe an uncharacteristic lack of grace in her failure to respond to Norton.
Well, both the Congress and the Queen ignored poor Norton. But not everyone did, for the citizens of San Francisco took a curious liking to him, gladly accepting the man as their Emperor. Restaurants provided nourishment for the Emperor free of charge (although Norton always paid with mock Imperial notes issued under his name) and theatres reserved seats for him. Why is it that they went out of their way to care for Norton? It’s difficult to say, but the establishments Norton took a liking to reportedly saw an increase in both business and fame, so the arrangements could be described as being mutually beneficial.
Admittedly, the Emperor was a strange fellow. He had no job (other than being Emperor), which resulted in an abundance of spare time at his command (as well as a chronic state of poverty). Furthermore, according to contemporary reports, one of Norton’s favourite pastimes was examining the condition of public property. He’d spend hours a day just walking about the streets of San Francisco, gazing at buildings and delivering lengthy speeches on matters philosophical and practical to those subjects unwise enough to lend the man their ears. Mingling with the commoners, as one can understand, is an effective way for a sovereign to improve their reputation. However, since Norton’s influence – his power – was derived from a singular understanding with his subjects, it is perhaps best to think of Norton’s hobbies as him keeping his end of the sort-of-Faustian bargain he had stricken with the San Franciscans.
To put it bluntly, Norton came to be seen as a village fool. But since his fiercely anti-establishment Imperial Decrees that were printed in local newspapers – presumably for humorous effect – resonated with the common man, there were few who saw it necessary to put an end to his folly. And why should’ve they done so? Norton’s actions harmed no one; on the contrary, he provided the citizens with much-needed entertainment, attracted tourists, and he even broke up a racially motivated riot by placing himself between the brawlers and praying fervently. It was the people who entertained his delusions, were they now to drag him down and reduce him to nothing, after enabling him for years already? What was there to gain in doing so?
In spite of the general public’s favourable opinion of their Emperor, an officer of the San Francisco police force arrested Norton in order to confine him in a sanatorium. Following public outcry, he was released and a formal apology was issued by the police department. Perhaps owing to his good nature, the Emperor in turn granted the police officer with an Imperial pardon for his vile act of treason. However, this little mishap, I think, illustrates a fundamental problem when it comes to the legitimacy of Norton’s reign. The police force represent, of course, the already established Federal Government of the United States, which is not made non-existent even by the people’s blinding love for Norton.
The Emperor died on January the 8th, in the year 1880. He suddenly collapsed on the streets he had ruled over and perished before medical aid could be administrated. Norton’s reign lasted for twenty-one years and remains largely forgotten by the general public. From earliest infancy he experienced the hazards of fortune. He saw dawn break on multiple continents, acquired notable wealth, and ultimately lost everything through tragic trade. The impoverished Norton left no heir to succeed him, nor was his claim for emperorship ever formally recognised by those holding the reins. It was his death that was, for the streets of San Francisco were filled with 30,000 mourners; his subjects showed a golden state of morality and respect to the emperor in the forms of a lavish funeral and a final parting gift: a decorative casket.
Now, I’ve not studied enough Law or Political science to accurately comment on the details of why Norton was not really an emperor. Neither can I say why he could not become one by means of simple proclamation, as he himself had thought. Even so, it is quite evident to me that he was not the ‘Emperor of the United States’; and I doubt anyone in their right mind thinks so either. Still, the idea and some of the underlying issues that present themselves here are fascinating, and perhaps eternal, as suggested by their recurrence in art. From where does power originate? Via a mandate from the masses? Can we not simply lay claim to a position of power, like Norton had? And how legitimate are military juntas, or tyrants? Should the people fight to topple them, or should they be embraced? Who can tell if power should be hereditary, and can it be reallocated after it has been invested in a single individual?
The questions above will, for better or worse, remain forever unanswered. They’ll be subjects of discussion, debates, as well as art, surely, but it is naïve to think that humans will ever agree completely on political matters. This dissension paradoxically produces a need for the concept of ‘power’ itself, I feel, with power being the capability, the ability to exert influence upon others. Obviously, whilst the fledgling Emperor Norton possessed clout to the capacity of transgressing social codes, it does not a proper monarch make. Still, it doesn’t lessen my admiration of the man; he decided to turn his life around and managed to do so. Weird as it may sound, the ability to influence his own life to such a degree, and in such a way – and those of some others as well – is in fact a rather impressive feat. Don’t we all love a good underdog story?
The Emperor Norton was no emperor. Yet, we remember him as one. So positive was his influence on others that the title was granted to him. Norton wasn’t Emperor by his own proclamation, but by the people’s. Ultimately, his story is the same as that of any good man and reminds us of the following: it is only through exercising nobility of character that we live august lives.